“Strange Motives” and “Stranger Causes”:
The Power of Beauty in the Rape of the Lock
By using the mock-epic genre for his poem The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope creates a story in which he has real power. Pope, as the creator of the poem, distorts the epic genre in order to exaggerate woman’s insignificant, superficial role in society and the way society sways it. Characters in the poem are mocked profusely by Pope for their narcissism, frivolity and obsession with beauty. He ridicules them by comparing them to the epic heroes of Homer and Virgil, but instead of being significantly powerful they are seemingly petty characters. Belinda, for example, may intimate having power in the poem, but Pope merely supplies her with control over trivial things like her own appearance. Pope is in fact declaring Belinda’s lack of power by mocking the way in which she does not concern herself over anything but her own vanities. Furthermore, beauty is represented and embodied by the lock and it is that which Pope makes hold power over the story and characters throughout the poem. Therefore, by manipulating epic conventions and exaggerating the “rape” of Belinda’s lock, Pope is not only mocking Belinda’s lack of power but is also creating a world in which beauty has complete authority over the people within it.
In The Rape of the Lock Pope satirizes elite society in the mock-epic style by using epic conventions to exaggerate their trifling interests. When he invokes the muse at the beginning of the poem, Pope states “What dire offense from amorous causes springs, What mighty contests rise from trivial things” (Pope I. 1-2). Just like Pope is using an epic style to describe something fairly insignificant, here he is suggesting that this society has aggrandized a meagre incident to be monumental. In particular, Pope seeks to emphasize society’s obsession with appearances and frivolous vanities. Pope asks, “Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel A well-bred lord t’ assault a gentle belle? O say what stranger cause, yet unexplor’d, Could make a gentle belle reject a lord?” (I. 7-10). These questions are the first examples of Pope’s emphasis on the obsession with beauty. The “strange motive” and “stranger cause” he is referring to are the appearances and vanities of his characters. Pope’s questions are alluding to the story he is about to tell where the conceited Baron assaults Belinda because of her beauty and in turn Belinda rejects him because of her own narcissistic behaviour. Belinda’s character illustrates vanity throughout the poem, for her main concern is the honour of her own beauty and has power over only that.
Belinda is a simple-minded woman whose only importance seems to be her appearance and her lock. Through the character of Belinda, Pope is making an allusion to the Homeric character Helen of Troy of The Iliad. Like Belinda, she was a beautiful woman who had influence over many men because of her appearance. It is their beauty that gives their characters power but the characters themselves do not have much control over what occurs to them because both women are dominated by men. The “rape”, or acquisition, of Belinda’s lock is a parallel to Helen’s abduction by Paris which instigated the Trojan War. Similarly, Eve from the epic Paradise Lost is described as being overwhelmingly beautiful, and is quite narcissistic, just like Belinda is. Both these epic, extremely significant, characters are known for their beauty but not much else. In The Rape of the Lock Ariel describes this as the “first elements” (I. 58) of which Belinda, and women, are made of. He says they are her “vanities”, “joy in gilded chariots” and “love of ombre” (I. 53-56) which illustrates the way in which Belinda is not a complex-minded character. Furthermore, Pope goes on to describe the fragility of a woman’s mind, saying “Then gay ideas crowd the vacant brain…” (I. 83) and he goes into detail of the way women can be easily impressed by fancy things: “garters, stars and coronets appear, and in soft sounds, ‘your Grace’ salutes their ear. ‘Tis these that early taint the female soul, instruct the eyes of young coquettes to roll, Teach infant cheeks a bidden blush to know, and little hearts to flutter at a beau” (I. 85-90). Pope is mocking women’s interests in showy, material things and how they cannot resist being tempted by handsome beau’s. He is emphasizing the way women, especially Belinda, become obsessed with appearances and have little control over anything but that in their lives.
Belinda, although she is the protagonist and seemingly the main character of the poem, has no control over what happens throughout the story. Her power lies entirely in her ability to be beautiful and dress herself beautifully. Thus Pope is mocking the fact that she really has power over nothing at all, but mere trivial things. At the end of Canto I, Pope illustrates Belinda’s narcissism in the way she bows to her reflection, “a heavenly image in the glass appears; to that she bends, to that her eyes she rears” (I. 125-126). He then uses the epic conventions found in the arming scenes of Homer to exaggerate her frivolousness with descriptions of her toilette. Belinda then is the hero or goddess in this scene but instead of Achilles’ sword and shield, for example, it is her “cosmetic powers” (I. 124). Pope uses grand language to describe boxes and combs, “This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks and all Arabia breathes from yonder box. The tortoise here and elephant unite, transformed to combs, the speckled and the white”. Pope also creates a heroic catalogue, listing “puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux” (138). Evidently, Belinda is paralleled with a hero but has power over and is associated with only her material objects. Also, her beauty presented here, “Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms; The fair each moment rises in her charms” (139-140) is describing her as arming herself. This becomes a paradox later on in the story because it is all these beauties that provoke the Baron to want her. Pope is illustrating the way in which the one thing Belinda has power over, her being beautiful, is what provokes the incident to take place. Her power, therefore, leads to the trouble she gets into rather than prevents it.
The Baron is an example of another conceited character who is obsessed with beauty. His goal is to steal the “lock” and acquire the beauty of Belinda. “The adventurous Baron the bright locks admired, He saw, he wished, and to the prize aspired” (II. 29-30). Beauty is what has complete power and control over the Baron’s actions and is what he strives for. The way men and the Baron specifically are overtaken by Belinda’s beauty shows how powerful it really is. “If to her share some female errors fall, Look on her face, and you’ll forget ‘em all”. (II. 17-18) The Baron even creates an alter to ask for help from the Gods on his quest to acquire the lock. “With tender billet-doux he lights the pyre, and breathes three amorous sighs to raise the fire. Then prostrate falls, and begs with ardent eyes soon to obtain, and long possess the prize” (II. 41-44). Pope is alluding to the way epic heroes request help from the gods before a difficult battle. Therefore, the lock, Belinda’s beauty, is the battle that the Baron metaphorically wants to fight, defeat and acquire. The lock is what has power over him. Similarly, the army of sylphs are very much caught up in Belinda’s beauty as well, as they “tend the Fair” (II. 91) and try to protect her material objects. “The drops to thee, Brillante, we consign; And Momentilla, let the watch be thine; Do thou, Crispissa, tend her favourite Lock” (II. 113-115). Through the Baron and the sylphs Pope is showing how obsessed everyone is with Belinda’s beauty and her material objects. Beauty is the centre focus of both the Baron as well as all the sylphs.
Lastly, Clarissa’s speech in Canto 5 embodies what Pope is attempting to make clear about beauty being the most powerful and important thing in this story, although it shouldn’t be. Clarissa questions why “beauties are praised and honoured most” (V. 9) and states “How vain are all these glories, all our pains, unless good sense preserve what beauty gains” (V. 15-16) Through Clarissa, Pope is questioning why beauty holds so much power in society instead of rationality or sense. Pope is making clear that by mocking this incident and these characters’ obsession with beauty he is questioning the way in which society views material objects, treasures beauty above all else, and exaggerates petty, vain incidents. There is a fragility and weakness about giving appearances so much power, as Clarrissa says, “Alas! Frail beauty must decay, curled or uncurled, since locks will turn to gray; Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade, And she who scorns a man must die a maid; What then remains but well our power to use, And keep good humor still whate’er we lose” (V. 25-29). However, the other characters do not comprehend this and decide to battle the Baron anyways. Their obsession with beauty, personified by the lock, overcomes their sense and again has complete power over them.
Evidently, Pope has created a story in which beauty, appearances and materialistic objects prevail above all else. It is that which has power in the story, and that which controls, persuades and influences the characters. Pope has power to create a mock-heroic tale in which he can mock the trivial things people fight over and their narcissistic obsessions. Pope uses an epic writing style to write about something insignificant and exalt the way society treasures such insignificant things. He gives Belinda power only to show how she has no control over anything of significance. Similarly, she allows the Baron to succeed in his quest merely to mock the way he has power over nothing but acquiring a mere lock. Ultimately, The Rape of the Lock illustrates and mocks the powerlessness of a world ruled by something as superficial and trivial as beauty and the way in which vanities have significant influence over society.