The Rape of The Lock – Analysis : Theme & Form

The Rape of the Lock is a satirical criticism of 18th-century high society’s vanity and sloth. Pope wanted his verses to soothe frayed tempers and to encourage his companions to chuckle at their own folly by basing them on a true incidence among families of his acquaintance.

The poem is possibly the finest example of the mock-epic genre in the English language. The epic had long been regarded as one of the most serious literary forms; it had been applied to high subjects such as love and war in the classical period, and, more recently, by Milton, to the intricacies of Christian faith. Pope’s mock-goal epic’s is not to attack the form, but to mock his society’s failure to live up to epic norms, revealing its pettiness in comparison to the grandeur of conventional epic themes and the valour and fortitude of epic heroes. Pope’s mock-heroic portrayal in The Rape of the Lock exemplifies the absurdity of a society in which values have devolved out of proportion and the trivial is treated with the gravity and solemnity that truly significant concerns deserve. The civilization depicted in this poem is one that is incapable of distinguishing between what matters and what does not. The poem mocks the characters it depicts by portraying them as undeserving of a more noble culture’s shape. Thus, while the mock-epic is similar to the epic in that its fundamental concerns are serious and frequently moral, the fact that the approach must now be sarcastic rather than genuine reflects the depths to which the culture has descended.

Pope’s treatment of the mock-epic genre is deft and thorough. The Rape of the Lock is a poem in which every element of the modern situation evokes an image from epic tradition or the classical worldview, and the elements are woven together with a deftness and expertise that makes the poem startling and wonderful. Pope’s alterations are numerous, startling, and morally consequential. The epic’s major conflicts devolve into gambling matches and flirty spats. The powerful, though capricious, Greek and Roman gods are reduced to a reasonably homogeneous army of fundamentally ineffective sprites.

Cosmetics, clothing, and jewellery are used in place of armour and weaponry, while religious sacrificial rituals are transferred to the dressing room and altar of love. The heroic couplet is the poetic form used in The Rape of the Lock; Pope remains the undisputed master of the form. The heroic couplet is made up of rhymed pairs of lines in iambic pentameter (lines of ten syllables each, alternating stressed and unstressed syllables). Pope’s couplets, on the other hand, do not conform to rigid iambs, but instead bloom with a rich rhythmic diversity that prevents the highly regular metre from becoming heavy or tiresome. Thus, it is ideal for the poem’s evaluative, moralising premise, especially in the hands of this excellent poet.


Note: For the detailed summary and notes of the poem, Check out this link here: Detailed Summary of The Rape of The Lock.

Important characters

Belinda – Belinda is based on the historical Arabella Fermor, a member of Pope’s circle of prominent Roman Catholics. Robert, Lord Petre (the Baron in the poem) had precipitated a rift between their two families by snipping off a lock of her hair.

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The Baron  – This is the pseudonym for the historical Robert, Lord Petre, the young gentleman in Pope’s social circle who offended Arabella Fermor and her family by cutting off a lock of her hair. In the poem’s version of events, Arabella is known as Belinda.

Caryl – The historical basis for the Caryl character is John Caryll, a friend of Pope and of the two families that had become estranged over the incident the poem relates. It was Caryll who suggested that Pope encourage a reconciliation by writing a humorous poem.

Goddess – The muse who, according to classical convention, inspires poets to write their verses

Shock – Belinda’s lapdog

Ariel – Belinda’s guardian sylph, who oversees an army of invisible protective deities

Umbriel – The chief gnome, who travels to the Cave of Spleen and returns with bundles of sighs and tears to aggravate Belinda’s vexation

Brillante – The sylph who is assigned to guard Belinda’s earrings

Momentilla – The sylph who is assigned to guard Belinda’s watch

Crispissa – The sylph who is assigned to guard Belinda’s “fav’rite Lock”

Clarissa – A woman in attendance at the Hampton Court party. She lends the Baron the pair of scissors with which he cuts Belinda’s hair, and later delivers a moralizing lecture.

Thalestris – Belinda’s friend, named for the Queen of the Amazons and representing the historical Gertrude Morley, a friend of Pope’s and the wife of Sir George Browne (rendered as her “beau,” Sir Plume, in the poem). She eggs Belinda on in her anger and demands that the lock be returned.

Sir Plume – Thalestris’s “beau,” who makes an ineffectual challenge to the Baron. He represents the historical Sir George Browne, a member of Pope’s social circle.

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