Alexander Pope published The Rape of the Lock in May of 1712. During this time, women were seen as mere objects and entertainment for men. They were treated as such, as well. The objectification of women can be seen early on in Popes work. It can even be spotted in the dedication portion of this poem. The Rape of the Lock portrays women in society as frivolous, simple, and incapable of serious thought. How women are depicted in this poem is a reflection of British society at the time of its release.
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Pope and Sexism
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Pope implies women are incapable of understanding difficult concepts or ?hard words. He makes a remark of this before the poem starts in his dedication. In paragraph three, he states, quite directly, to his friend Mrs. Arabella Fermor, how disagreeable it is to make use of hard words before a ladyparticularly by your sex, that you must give me leave to explain two or three difficult terms (Pope 1227). Clearly, he does not believe Mrs Fermor is capable of understanding him, even though he thinks of her as much more sophisticated than the women about whom he is writing. He mentions in the last sentence of the dedications paragraph five that Belinda resembles you in nothing but beauty (Pope 1227). He implies she is smarter than Belinda, yet still not capable of understanding his brilliant work.
In Canto One, Belinda is given a warning. This warning is given to her by Sylphs. The poem tells that her guardian Sylph is a male. It is written, Her guardian Sylph prolonged the balmy rest. / ?Twas he had summoned to her silent bed (Pope 1228). It can be implied that the Sylph is a male to take care of Belinda because she is incapable of caring for herself. In Canto Two, Pope describes Belinda only in terms of her appearance. He compliments her beauty as if it is all she has to offer. Nothing is written of her intellect or her abilities to comprehend life situations. This suggests that she is only useful for her appearance. She is an object for suitors to look at. The poem describes, Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike, / And, like the sun, they shine on all alike (Pope 1231). Pope further portrays women as being without understanding. Clarissa hands over her scissors to The Baron without asking why he would need them. Later, Clarissa chastises the women by saying, Charms strike the Sight, but Merit wins the soul (Pope 1242). It is hard to tell if she is being hypocritical or simply incapable of seeing the inconsistency of her actions.
Canto Four represents more metaphorical examples of how womens emotions and despair are depicted as overblown or nonsensical. In this canto, the sylphs leave and Belinda is left with only an earthy gnome named Umbriel. Umbriel takes a journey through Belindas Cave of Spleen. The use of the spleen is interesting in that it refers to an organ that filters poisons from the blood. Hypothetically, he is traveling through her filterand in a sense is trying to understand what is causing her so much discomfort. After the completion of Umbriels journey, he returns with a bag of awful gifts that hes brought back from the Cave of Spleen. sighs, sobs, and passions and the war of tongues. A Vial next she fills with fainting fears, Soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears (Pope 1239). The earthly gnome brought these gifts back only to make Belinda more angry and hysterical. This once again demonstrates Popes portrayal of women as hysterical and of having intense emotion without reasonable cause. Pope writes, Belinda burns with more than mortal ire, And fierce Thalestris fans the rising fire (Pope 1240). This quote solidifies Popes belief of uncalled for emotions in women.
While its easy to dismiss Popes depiction of Belinda and the Belles as frivolous, Canto Five illustrates that their behavior is forced upon them by the expectation of 18th century high-society. As Pope tells us through Belindas friend Clarissa, She who scorns a man, must die a maid (Pope 1242). Society would not take a kind view of a Belle behaving in any other fashion. Young, high-class women slept until noon because that was the cultural expectation.
Throughout The Rape of the Lock, Popes ideology of women shines through. His word choice in the dedication of the work clearly shows how much he thinks Mrs. Fermor can understand him and his education. Even though he regards her much higher than other women, he still belittles her lack of knowledge. Canto One opens with Belinda having somewhat of a babysitter. Of course this Sylph is a male, as women cannot take care of themselves. In Canto Two, Pope only describes Belinda in terms of beauty. It can be inferred that this is how he would judge any woman. Canto Three tells how chaotic it is for a woman to lose her hair and Pope tells of Belindas overreaction. This is carried on into Canto Four when Umbriel explores the Cave of Spleen to try and understand why it is such a big deal. Canto Five explains that Belles in this time shall behave this way because men expect it. With this information, it can be concluded that The Rape of the Lock depicts women in society as flippant, unadorned, and incapable of significant thought. How women are shown in this poem is a direct reflection of how British society treated and thought of women in the 18th century.
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