Satire on Society in The Rape of The Lock

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      Mild Satire. The Rape of the Lock is a masterpiece of satire, though the satire is mild and the mockery gentle. A satiric work exposes human folly, absurdity or weakness and its weapons are wits, irony; mockery, ridicule, and humor; without humor, indeed, satire may easily degenerate to mere invective.

      Subject of Satire. In The Rape of the Lock, the satire is directed towards the "little" men and the gentle ladies who are capable of such "mighty rage." The habits and artificial modes of the aristocratic society of eighteenth-century England are the targets of Pope's satire. The vanities of women are also ridiculed. Through the minute description of Belinda's toilet. Pope ridicules women's excessive concern with self-embellishment. But the most important subject of satire here is the utter moral confusion of that society.

      Methods of Satire. In The Rape of the Lock, Pope brings in a wide variety of satiric weapons. Wit, of course, is a predominant feature. In the very title, ironic wit is evident - with a word of such serious connotation as "rape" is used a triviality such as "lock." The confusion of moral values infesting that society is well brought out through witty and ironic juxtaposition, and in the process the satire becomes poignant. Bible and billet-doux are carelessly thrown together, toiletry assumes a religious importance, a masked ball is as important as a prayer, and a stain on the honour is on an equal plane with a stain on a brocade dress. The paired contrasts (in Lines 253-258) are very important from the satiric point of view, for they most effectively show the moral bankruptcy of that society in that age. A heart or necklace being lost, a lap-dog and husband have the same status. The social disorder—the ethos of that age—is well reflected in this confusion of values.

      The lords are as bad as the ladies; they equally lack moral sense and trivialise the serious and vital aspects of life, as they give importance to the trivial. Full of self-aggrandizement, they plan and pray at he altar of love made of love letters, three garters and a glove. Their great accomplishment is the cutting off of a lock of hair. One cannot easily forget the satire in the portraits of Sir Plume with his snuff box, special cane and vacuous vocabulary, and Dapperwit with his sentimental song. A wider satiric field is introduced with the ridicule of judges and jury who care more for their belly than for judging. The topics of conversation among this "high" society were empty of substance. Parties, court visits and scandal are the main interests—"At every word a reputation dies." Ombre and coffee drinking are given exaggerated importance in this scheme of affairs - indeed, coffee is considered to make politicians wise and "see through all things with half-shut eyes."

      Exaggeration is another effective device of satire in Pope's hand. There is more than a touch of it in the passage in which Pope speaks of the souls of ladies continuing the same life of fashion in the form of spirits. It is evident also in the description of how the sylphs protect the young ladies from seduction. Ironically, the sylphs protect them by making them more flirtatious with a wider range of men.

      Satiric catalogues are used to convey the confusion of values prevalent in that society. The shallow ignorance and hypocrisy of the fashionable world is exposed as it tries to maintain its veneer of fineness.

      Moral Purpose of the Satire. Satire, it has been stipulated, must have a moral purpose. The Rape of the Lock, according to Pope, was - "formed to delight at once and lash the age." There is moral intent in the poem, and it is expressively pointed out in Clarissa's speech evocating "good sense" and moderation. However, the moral lesson is present by implication all through the poem. He speaks against the disintegration of values and the hypocrisy.

      Conclusion. The Satire in The Rape of the Lock is not malicious; indeed the malice is controlled. The picture of the trivial occupations of the society could have been much more bitter. But Pope is genial in his satire in this poem. The satire on the hypocrisy and the superficiality of the aristocratic society, especially the fashionable women, exposes the confusion of values and moral disintegration of that society. The Rave of the Lock exposes the ethos of a section of the eighteenth-century society. The fundamental character of that society is brought out to be a moral confusion and a preoccupation with trivialities; its customs are shallow, beliefs almost non-existent, practices are ridiculous.

University Questions

How do you identify the ethos of the eighteenth century society in England that has been satirized in The Rape of the Lock?
Critically assess whether The Rape of the Lock succeeds or fails as a satire on the contemporary society. Illustrate your answer.
"In The Rape of the Lock, Pope's satire on women and society is a deeply moral one." Discuss and refer briefly to those values upheld by Pope.
The most excellent feature of Pope's satire is that in it he controls his malice more than he expresses it. Consider The Rape of the Lock as a social satire in the light of this statement.

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