The Restoration period of British literature was one of the most influential and impressive periods in the history of world, not just British, literature. During this time England was undergoing a great deal of change. King Charles the II had returned from France and taken the crown in 1660. As a result of having spent a great deal of time in France before taking the crown, King Charles II was much more worldly than previous Kings and because of that was destined to make England the greatest country in the world once more.
Out of the Restoration period came the concept of the novel, which was groundbreaking as it forever changed literature, as we know it. Along with the concept of the novel being born the use of the mock-epic became much more popular, during this time, as Alexander Pope published his timeless mock-epic The Rape of the Lock. This mock-epic follows a wealthy English woman, named Belinda, as she dresses and attends a dinner party. At the party she enters into what seems as a world shattering situation when a lock of her hair is stolen from her head. Alexander Pope, using the genre of the mock-epic, and the real life experience of his peer, Lord Petre, cutting off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair. Pope, to deride the British society, was able to tackle important issues such as colonization and self image in his piece The Rape of the Lock.
As Pope’s piece begins Belinda, the protagonist of the mock-epic, is getting dressed to attend a dinner party. In order to show off her social status and look the most attractive of the women at the party, Belinda adjourns herself with jewelry and linens from every corner of the world. “Unnumber’d Treasures ope at once, and here The various Off’rings of the World appear.” Before Pope truly dives into the scene we are greeted with the idea that the many pieces of jewelry that Belinda is about to decorate her body with are offerings and unnumbered treasures from around the world. “This casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks, And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box. The Tortoise here and Elephant unite, Transform’d to Combs, the speckled and the white.” If we take a closer look at the words offerings and unnumbered treasures something very interesting is brought to light. Pope, in this particular scene, is showing how England is working towards colonizing the entire world. Belinda is using ivory from elephant tusks in Africa, Tortoise shells from somewhere tropical, gems from India, and perfumes from the Middle East. To Belinda, these items are simply a part of her everyday life as she is not concerned at all with the “rape of the world” that her beloved country is creating. The word offerings tells us that what she is using are seen as no more than simply gifts from those foreign lands acquired through trade when in reality we, as the reader and knowing what we do about England’s relationship to the rest of the world during the Restoration period, know and understand that they are not offerings at all and they most certainly were not acquired peacefully.
What England was doing was duping her citizens into thinking that they were expanding and spreading their way of life to other parts of the world that needed to resemble England greater rather than the reality which was England entering into foreign lands, killing or enslaving the people who lived there, and then completely exploiting every resource that that nation had until there was nothing more to take and then they moved on. But to a character such as Belinda who cares more about the “unnumbered treasures” than she does about the well-being of the rest of the world, this “rape of the world” was welcomed and cherished.
As the mock-epic continues Belinda arrives at the dinner party and enters into a card game called Ombre. It is during this scene where we, as the audience, see the traditional characteristics of the epic broken down into a smaller scale. The card game scene is symbolizing a battle scene from traditional epics. This scene is then followed by the climax of the story. As the card game comes to a close, the Baron, another member of the dinner party tries three times to cut a lock of hair from Belinda’s head.
On his third attempt the Baron is successful in his endeavor and the lock of hair falls from Belinda’s head. The screams from Belinda echo throughout the dinning room as she realizes what has happened. To the audience member, this simple act of cutting a lock of hair from Belinda’s head is perceived as such; simple. It is through this scene where Pope shows the hyperbolic feature of his mock-epic as he takes something mundane and irrelevant and blows it completely out of proportion. This scene especially seems elaborate and unrealistic coming from our 21st century point of view.
If we examine the scene of the “rape of Belinda’s lock” closer we see a new idea being presented. Belinda reacts very differently than we would expect as an audience member. She is sent into a world of self-pity and sadness about the loss of her lock of hair. Because she no longer has that particular part of her hair she no longer sees herself as beautiful or desirable due to the fact that she is more concerned about her self image than she is her self worth.
As the scene develops further we see just how damaging the act of cutting off her lock of hair truly was to her. She appears to feel as though she would have rather been sexually assaulted and raped by the Baron than have her hair cut from her head. By his doing so, she no longer can go in public without the other women recognizing the fact that she does not have that lock of hair. “Gods! shall the Ravisher display your Hair,… Methinks already I your Tears survey, Already hear the horrid Things they say, Already see you a degraded Toast, And all your Honour in a Whisper lost!” Had the Baron sexually assaulted her instead her honor would not have “been lost” and she would still be able to appear as though she had no hardships on the surface. She would still have her exterior pride and would be able to go out in public without her contemporaries knowing anything of the deed and therefore would have been able to “save face.”
Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock successfully navigates the tumultuous world of Restoration period British literature through his use of the mock-epic. The Rape of the Lock examines the perception of colonization and self image in British society during the time through a hyperbolic and fantastical mock-epic.
Parlett, David. “OMBRE.” Ombre: Historic Card Game Described by David Parlett. N.p., Jan. 2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.
Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” Currents in British Literature II Course Packet. Comp. Ann McClellan. Plymouth, NH: 2014.
“The Rape of the Lock.” Wikipedia. N.p., 22 Jan. 2017. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.
“The Restoration and 18th Century.” Volume C: The Restoration and 18th Century | The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ninth Edition: W. W. Norton StudySpace. N.p., 2011. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.