The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope

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What does "The Rape of the Lock" reveal about the 17th century?

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"The Rape of the Lock" reveals about the 17th century that even in a world of luxury and extravagance, there is still something to be said about the importance of material goods, especially amongst those who are constantly surrounded by them.

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"The Rape of the Lock" was actually written in the 18th century (in March of 1714, to be more specific) by Alexander Pope . In the form of a mock heroic epic, this poem dramatizes a minor theft within an aristocratic family: the Baron, who lusts after Belinda...

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cuts off a lock of the woman's hair without her consent, creating an enormousmelodrama. This crime gets escalated to the status of the gods, with comparisons of the theft being made to the kidnapping of Helen of Troy and the other silly events of the day (a card game, Belinda waking up in the morning, coffee drinking) all being described in theatrically and mythologically large ways. 

So while Pope riffed off of 17th century literature (namely, taking his parodied "sylphs" from Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars' novel Comte de Gabalis), he was actually providing commentary about the 18th century and the shallowness and wastefulness of the newly formed English aristocratic class. By depicting the protagonists' vanity with such grossly overblown attention to detail, Pope makes it clear that he is criticizing the rich, their obsession with triviality, and their ignorance of the world outside their carefully curated and sheltered lives.

Pope points out that many of the relationships and interactions that occur within this realm of wealth are merely formalities or matters of convenience--the result of superficiality. The events of the poem were actually based on a real-life incident in which a certain Lord Petre, an acquaintance of Pope, cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair, creating a huge rift between their respective families. The penning of the poem was meant to create a sense of reconciliation between the two, but ending up becoming one of the best known examples of satirical verse from this time period. 

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What does Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" reveal about 17th century England?

First of all, it is important to acknowledge that "The Rape of the Lock" was actually written in the early eighteenth century. Secondly, we need to remember that the poem was written for a specific audience. Pope intended his mock heroic epic to be read by the wealthy upper classes, the creme de la creme of English society. He wanted his target audience to read the poem and recognize themselves and the people they knew.

Pope holds up a mirror to the English aristocracy and lets them take a good, hard look at themselves and how they behave. What they should see in the reflection is far from flattering, to say the least. The upper classes in "The Rape of the Lock" are presented as shallow, vain, idle, and obsessed with trivia. In the character of Belinda—based on a real lady of quality by the name of Arabella Fermor—we have an unforgettable portrait of vanity and superficiality. Belinda's Bible, sitting uncomfortably on her crowded dressing table, along with all her potions, powders, and beauty creams, is a striking symbol of a society in which religion is all just for show; what really matters is personal appearance and what other people think about you.

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What does Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" reveal about 17th century England?

First, we should note that Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" doesn't tell us about life for most people in England of the period, but only about the lives of the very wealthy and fashionable. It doesn't describe working conditions for peasants or craftspeople or even the lives of the servants who keep the court functioning. In a sense, though, this absence itself is informative in that it gives us a sense of the distance between the lives of the wealthy elites and most of the population.

Next, we get a sense that this is a very status conscious society, in which maintaining "face" or appearances is very important. 

The society has a strong element of gender inequality and double standards concerning sexual conduct. Men gain status by promiscuity or sexual conquest and women lose status by it. 

As a satire, it comments on what Pope exposes as the vanity and worldliness of the upper classes. 

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