The Moral of The Rape of the Lock

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      Introduction. Some of Pope’s contemporaries, like John Dennis found The Rape, of the Lock immoral and distasteful. According to them it lacked true wit and judgment. Dennis's remarks on Mr. Pope's The of the Lock (1728) severely criticized the poem for deviating from the rules of the epics. His charge was that Pope dealt in trifles, without moral, in his mock epic. However, most critics feel that Clarissa's speech at the opening of Canto V sets the moral tone. As Warburton put it, Pope introduced Clarissa's speech "to open more clearly the moral of the poem." Pope knew that a moral was thought by critics to be important to an epic. From the very beginning, The Rape of the Lock had a moral motive. His aim was to teach the lesson of "concord" and good humor between two quarreling families. But satire in Pope is so finely chiseled by wit, that it is rarefied into pure humor. Thus, in such a scheme of poetry, there is not much scope for serious moral lessons. Even the moral lesson that is there in Clarissa's speech is one more facet of Pope's consummate wit and humor. Even so what can we call these lines of Clarissa as setting a strict moral standard for the 18th century ladies:

But since, alas! frail beauty must decay, Curl'd or uncurl'd, since Locks will turn to grey; Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a Man, Must die a Maid;' What then remains but well our Pow'r to use,
And keep good Humour still, whatev'r we lose?
(L. 669-674)

      It would not be wrong then to say that Pope did have a moral pre-occupation, even if it is covered in a veneer of wit and humor.

      Satirical Tone Implies Moral Tone. A true satire is purposive and instructive. In fact, the real end of satire is 'the amendment of vices by correction.' The Rape of the Lock is a perfect specimen of satiric literature, and its moral tone is quite patent. Here comes the element of the criticism of life in Pope's mock-heroic satire. The Rape of the Lock contains a good deal of the poet's critical evaluation of the English social life of the eighteenth century. Pope's subject of study here is the showy, artificial and frivolous life of the aristocratic, fashionable society of his own time. He ruthlessly exposes here the gay and thoughtless belles and the idle and vain beaux of the time. He misses no chance to hit hard at all that characterizes that shallow, artificial age - its affectation and vanity, its coquetry and frivolity; its gay foppery and spineless morality.

      A particular incident in the battle scene of Canto V shows Pope's mystery in reducing to size the pompous men and women of his age. It is the scene where Belinda vanquishes the Baron with a pinch of snuff:

Just where the Breath of Life his Nostrils drew,
A Charge of Snuff the wily virgin threw;
(L. 725-726)

Sudden, with starting Tears each Eye O'erflows,
And the high Dome re-echoes to his Nose.
(L. 729-730)

      What a sorry figure the Baron cuts! And what scandalous behavior on the part of an aristocratic lady! In one stroke Pope has demolished the pompousness of his vainglorious characters.

      Pope's Moralising Tone on Belinda's Toilet and the Baron. Pope's pointed and critical survey of his age is amply evident in his descriptions of the toilet of Belinda, the strange alter raised by the proud Baron and the 'nice conduct' of Sir Plume and his 'clouded cane.' Belinda's long and laborious toilet clearly demonstrates her vanity and pride which are certainly unfortunate sins. Pope brings out forcefully the obdurate female pride as well as vanity of his age through his portrait of Belinda and her conduct.

And now, unveil'd the Toilet stands display'd,
Each Silver Vase in mystic Order laid.
First, rob'd in White, the Nymph intent adores
With Head uncover'd the Cosmetic pow'rs.
A heav'nly Image in the Glass appears,
To that she bends, to that her Eyes she rears;
Th' inferior Priestess, at her Altar's side
Trembling, begins the sacred Rites of Pride.
(L. 121-128)

      And how ridiculous, the Baron looks when he,

But chiefly Love-to-Love an altar built,
Of twelve vast French romances neatly gilt.
They lay three garters, half a pair of gloves;
And all the Trophies to his former Loves.
With tender Billet-doux he lights the Pyre,
And breathes three am'rous Sighs to raise the Fire.
Then prostrate falls and begs with ardent Eyes
Soon to obtain, and long possess the Prize:
(L. 185-192)

      The Baron's conduct too is, indicative of the moral depravity of the age. Sir Plume stands for the shallow lazy punctilio of the age that has no strength of character or force of morality.

      Moralizing Tone of Clarissa. But Pope's criticism is not negative. He strikes mightily with his sweeping banter. But he instructs and advises, too, for the cure of the moral degeneration of his age. The poem has a moral purpose, and this constitutes the constructive aspect of Pope's criticism of life. The long speech, given to Clarissa, at the beginning of Canto V chiefly contains his unambiguous instruction to his age, particularly to the ladies of fashion and rank of his time. Through this lecture, Pope tries to enlighten and rectify the frivolous society of his time. He gives his wise counsel here to the gay and silly pursuers of pleasures and vanities, about the transience of all fashions and show, and the triumph of the quality of character. After all, beauty, with all its charms and allurements, must pass away ere long, and can gain nothing, in the ultimate analysis without the virtue of heart. All the female charms of a lovely belle would seem meaningless, unless a good and loving husband brings out the best in her:

And trust me, Dear! good Humour can prevail,
When Airs, and Flights, and Screams, and Scolding fail.
Beauties in vain their pretty Eyes may roll;
Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the Soul.
(L. 675-678)

      It's this "merit' - the 'good humor' which wins the soul; that Pope wants his ladies to imbibe and not merely the 'charms' that only 'strike the sight.' And all through this mock-epic poem, Pope sets himself to poke fun at this terrible and excessive obsession with one's beauty. The women spend most of their time with their 'toilet' and in reading letters and the men with writing these obnoxious love-letters replete with conventional romantic phraseology.

      But Clarissa is not at all a prude as the lines quoted above might convey. Hers is the one sane voice advocating a sense of good humor so as to preserve all the achievement of the beauty and charm of her sex. Even in her view beautification is not undesirable.

Say, why are Beauties prais'd and honour'd most,
The wise Man's Passion, and the vain Man's Toast?
Why deck'd with all that Land and Sea afford.
Why Angels call'd, and Angel-like ador'd?
(L. 655-656)

      To her even the amorous supplication of the fashionable youth is highly desirable:

Why round our Coaches crowd the white-glov'd Beaus,
Why bows the Side box from its inmost Rows?
(L. 657-658)

      But she cannot resist from giving a warning and stating the disadvantages of shunning morality:

How vain are all these Glories, all our Pains,
Unless good Sense preserve what Beauty gains:
That Men may say, when we the Front-box grace,
Behold the first in Virtue as in Face!
(L. 659-662)

      In fact, Pope cannot resist revealing Clarissa's hypocrisy either. Even Clarissa forgets her sense of morality and perhaps out of envy towards Belinda or simply out of goodwill towards the Baron aids him in his heinous crime of "raping' the lock of Belinda.

But when to Mischief Mortals bend their Will,
How soon they find fit Instruments of Ill!
(L. 415-416)

      Even Clarissa is tempted towards evil and she aids the Baron in his evil designs:

Just then, Clarissa drew with tempting Grace,
A two-edg'd Weapon from her shining Case:
So Ladies in Romance assist their Knight,
Present the Spear, and arm him for the Fight.
(L. 417-420)

      Pope's Attitude is Impersonal in "The Rape of the Lock." The Rape of the Lock is a triumph of English satire, although it is not a personal satire, like The Dunciad or Mac Flecknoe. Its moral purpose is directed not to any individual in particular, but to society, specially the polished society of Pope's age. In his Dedicatory Epistle to Miss Fermor, Pope writes of the purpose of his poem: "It was intended only to divert a few young ladies who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh not only at their sex's little unguarded follies but at their own." The poem, indeed, is a refined, playful satire on the universal follies and foibles of the fashionable people of all ages, particularly those of England of the eighteenth century. The superiority of the poem as a satire is patent, in no less measure, in the moral aspect.

      Conclusion. Actually, Pope's satire is a double-edged sword; it cuts both way. At the very moment when he is using Clarissa, a sort of mouthpiece of his, to lay down the moral tenets for his age (itself of a flimsy nature as is the subject of his mock-epic) he is making fun of her and revealing her weakness and hypocrisy He leaves none unscathed. So strong is the vanity and the deep-rooted rottenness of their nature that their shortcomings stick with them even after their death:

Think not, when Women's transient Breath is fled,
That all her Vanities at once are dead:
Succeeding Vanities she still regards,
And tho' she plays no more, o'erlooks the Cards,
Her Joy in gilded Chariots, when alive,
And Love of Ombre after Death survive.
For when the Fair in all their Pride expire,
To their first Elements their Souls retire.
(L. 51-58)

      Even the men turn to gnomes after death, with all their vices. But of course, Pope does all this 'beating’ in good humor and tries to laugh off the vices in men.

      In the opinion of Matthew Arnold, poetry is at bottom a criticism of life. This criticism, however, should not be merely critical. It must be constructive and instructive too. It must imply a contrast between what life is and what life ought to have been. Judged from this criterion The Rape of the Lock is a satisfactory work by Pope. It is not merely a scathing satire but a criticism of life in the true sense of the term and it is in a style which is witty and humorous.


      Ian Jack. It would be a great mistake to ignore the moral of the poem, which is explicitly stated in Clarissa's speech in the last Canto, and which holds the component parts in a close-knit unity; yet seldom has a moral been enforced with more delicacy and tact. Lytton Strachey wrote of Pope as if he were above all things the poet of hatred; but it is partly because there is no hatred in this poem that it is so assured a masterpiece.

      Ian Jack. The epic has given in a single the maximum expression to the social and moral characteristics. The manners and literary taste, of an epoch, is a feat that few have been able to perform.

      Pope. In his Dedicatory Epistle to Miss Fermor, Pope writes of the purpose of his poem: "It was intended only to divert a few young ladies who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh not only at their sex's little unguarded follies, but at their own."


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 which Pope upholds.
In The Rape of the Lock Pope establishes, and maintains with wonderful steadiness, a world in which all the values are transposed. Illustrate this from the study of The Rape of the Lock.
In The Rape of the Lock Pope mirrors the disarray of values in the society he describes. Bring out the implications of this observation with illustrations from the poem.
You can take the poem as simply as you like; but, if you like, you can find it full of complexities and of values which go far outside its ostensible meaning. How far do you agree with this opinion about The Rape of the Lock.

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