Study Guide

The Rape of the Lock The Lock: Materialism and Consumer Culture

By Alexander Pope

The Lock: Materialism and Consumer Culture

An important aspect of living in Belinda and the Baron's society appears to be living with—and maybe even living through—a lot of stuff. By "stuff," we mean things, goods, items: jewelry, clothes, china pots, teacups, coffee grinders, coffeepots, canes, snuffboxes, fancy serving tables, mirrors, fans, gloves… Come to think of it, the prevalence of stuff in their lives doesn't seem all that different from the importance stuff has in our lives, does it?

But as with the double-entendres we discussed above, Pope again seems to be making a comment about the displaced priorities of his world, where (again, as with us) the material things people surround themselves with come to define them. Think about the lock itself—an obsessed-over piece of stuff if ever there was one. By the end of the poem it has come to define not only Belinda's self and her personal attraction, and the Baron's self and his masculinity, but also the very power of poetry itself.

Canto I, Lines 15-20

Even before she wakes up, Belinda's world is defined by her things: a lapdog, a slipper, a fancy watch, a pillow. Notice how each of these items contains and constrains her: the dog as a location for affection, the slipper as a means of communication with her servants, the watch dictating her schedule, the pillow dictating her sleep.

Canto I, Lines 129-138

On Belinda's dressing table, things—her makeup, perfume, accessories, hairstyling tools, knick-knacks—substitute for places in the growing British Empire: India, Arabia, China, Africa.

They also stand in for emotions and beliefs, as in line I.138, which describes "Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux" as all jumbled together without any distinction. Faith and love (the "Bibles, Billet-doux") are no different from the "Puffs, Powders, Patches."

Canto II, Lines 19-28

In these lines we meet Belinda's locks for the first time, and the poem's speaker describes them first as weapons (they exist for "the Destruction of Mankind"), as chains for enslavement, as snares and lines for hunting and fishing, and finally as traps for men.

The overall meaning the locks seem to have here is of power—Belinda's personal power over the male members of her society. Does it strike you as kind of warped that her power comes from these hairs? (Ok, it did work with Samson in the Bible. At least until he met Delilah.)

Canto III, Lines 13-18

The obsession with things, which we first saw on Belinda's dressing table and through Pope's depiction of her hair, gets extended in these lines to her society as a whole.

Just like Belinda's dressing table, important concepts and ideas (like "the Glory of the British Queen" in line III.13) get mixed up with stuff (the "charming Indian Screen," line III.14). Or perhaps, Pope seems to be saying, there isn't a mix-up after all? If the British Queen weren't so glorious, there wouldn't be any Indian screens to talk about, would there?

Canto III, Lines 105-112

Stuff stands in for power and empire once again, after the card game ends, and the party adjourns for coffee and tea service. The countries of "China" and "Japan" here get symbolized by the beverage they represent (tea, of course), something these privileged folk can consume and show off with.

Canto IV, Lines 121-130

Did anyone ever feed you that line about women caring more about stuff than men? You do realize that's a crock, right? If not, meet Sir Plume, who adores his amber snuff-box and his fancy cane so much, that he can barely communicate without waving either of them about.

Canto V, Lines 87-96

Belinda's "bodkin" or fancy hairpin is more than just a hair toy. Here it represents her entire family history, from her great-grandfather, who wore it in another form as a set of seal rings and then melted it into a belt-buckle for her great-grandmother, who then melted it into a baby whistle for her grandmother, and on down to her mother, who gave her the bodkin.

Do you have an item that you cherish in your own family, something passed down from generation to generation? Do you think it's fair that Pope make fun of something like this? Or does it fit into the whole idea of stuff being way too important to Belinda and her set?

Canto V, Lines 115-128

The lock comes back again, although this time it seems to have risen above (literally and figuratively) all of the trivial "stuff" that we've seen cluttering up the entire rest of the poem. That stuff is here represented by the celestial recycling bin full of "Heroes' wits" in Vases, "Beaus'" wits in snuff-boxes and tweezer-cases, etc.

The lock, however, has now become celestial, like a shooting star that only the poet's eye can see, heading up to the sky and becoming a constellation. Here at the end, it has escaped being just a thing, and become instead the subject of an immortal poem. Is the speaker telling us that, finally, the poem itself has its priorities straight?