Study Guide

The Rape of the Lock Themes

  • Men and Masculinity

    What makes a man a man, anyway? If you were raised on reading classical Greek and Roman literature, like Pope and so many of his upper-class, educated male peers, but you lived in a more modern age, you might find this a hard question to answer. Those Greek and Roman guys—Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Aeneas, and all of their ilk—were heroes. Armor-wearin', battle-tested, butt-kickin', honorable heroes (they probably had six-pack abs, too… although maybe that's just in the movies).

    So many of the hip men of the upper classes in Pope's day seemed to have fallen woefully short of that heroic, manly ideal. They drank tea. They took snuff. They wore silk and satin. (Sometimes pastel silk and satin—have you seen Wolfgang Mozart's ensembles in the movie Amadeus? Check it out.) They wore wigs.

    And as for honor—they seemed to care more about gossip, backstabbing, and personal gain than the good of society, or of their country. It's not surprising that when, in The Rape of the Lock, Pope juxtaposes the heroic classical ideal of manhood from the ancient epics, with the reality of the beaus who moved through his own society, that he found the latter sadly lacking.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Why do you think the Baron is so obsessed with dishonorably getting his hands on a lock of Belinda's hair, rather than gaining the girl, honorably, herself? Do any of the other characters seem to demonstrate the same kind of desire for things instead of persons? Who? What? And how do you know?
    2. What sort of a role does Sir Plume play in the poem? Why does Thalestris go to him to ask for help in recovering the lock? What is the Baron's response to his request to return it, and what might that response tell you about Sir Plume's own masculinity?
    3. How would you characterize the other men at the party (Dapperwit, for instance, or Fopling)? Why? What does their conduct in the middle of the battle tell you about them?

    Chew on This

    Pope portrays the men in his poem as just as caught up in the world of superficial appearances and material objects as the women.

    The Baron is really in love with Belinda, but has to express his love through a warped desire for a lock of her hair, because their society squelches any expressions of true feeling.

  • Women and Femininity

    Women. They couldn't live with 'em, they couldn't live without 'em. As you might have guessed from this poem, women were a problem in the 18th century. We are way, way before the era of feminism and equal rights, but by the early 1700s many women were insisting that they at least deserved a decent education.

    Plenty of men (and women, too) felt that women were vastly inferior to the male sex, however, and those feelings are fairly obvious here in Pope's poem: think of the double-edged compliments our speaker pays to Belinda, or the negative portrayal of "female problems" in the Cave of Spleen.

    On the other hand, The Rape of the Lock also lets us know that women don't have a fair shake because they are even more constrained and limited by society's rules and regulations than men are. Clarissa's speech is a fine example of this attitude, although it does advise its hearers to simply suck up and deal with the situation—ideally with a smile—rather than do anything to change it.

    Are truly feminine women the ones who, like the Queen of Spleen, sigh and fade away with affected headaches and imaginary ailments? Are they like Belinda, sweet and pretty but totally superficial? Are they like Thalestris, tough girls quick to anger? Or are they like Clarissa, keeping good humor whatever happens? We're given a lot of models here. And little guidance.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Do you think that the speaker of the poem likes and admires Belinda? Why or why not?
    2. Who is more heroic in the poem, the women or the men?
    3. Why are women more susceptible to disorders of the spleen than men are?

    Chew on This

    The Rape of the Lock is full of antifeminist misogyny and should not even be read by 21st-century women.

    Women in the poem are depicted as being more in control of society than men.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    It's fairly obvious to us that if you put a bunch of attractive, well-off, and bored young men and women together, sparks are bound to fly in one way or another. They'll get attracted to one another, feel desire for one another, have dreams about one another, maybe even fall in love. That's the trouble with the society Pope depicts in The Rape of the Lock: there's absolutely no way for anyone in it to safely express or act on his or her sexuality, desire, lust, or love. The rules forbid it. And so, instead, sexuality gets warped and twisted into materiality and narcissism: Belinda's love of her own face; the Baron's desire for her locks; Sir Plume's love of his cane and snuffbox. Even when Ariel finds "an Earthly Lover" in Belinda's heart, that fact only serves to put her more in danger of losing her hair to the Baron.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. If you could trace the lines of desire of characters for one another in the poem, how would you do it? 
    2. Why do you think Ariel must withdraw and stop protecting Belinda when he finds "an Earthly Lover" in her heart?
    3. In what ways does society say it is okay for these men and women to express their feelings for each other? Why or how?

    Chew on This

    The Sylphs can only protect young women who are superficial, immature, and without desire for the male sex.

    The entire society in The Rape of the Lock seems constructed to deny people their real feelings for one another.

  • The Supernatural

    Time to talk seriously about those Sylphs. Did we just say that? Yes, we did. As silly and frivolous as the Sylphs and Gnomes are in The Rape of the Lock, they still perform some very important functions for Pope. They raise the whole question of agency: i.e., to what degree are the people in the poem responsible for their actions, and to what degree can we point to the Sylphs or the Gnomes and say, "look, it's not Belinda's fault—it's the Gnomes who did that."

    By putting mock-epic "machinery" (remember Pope's dedicatory letter?) into the poem, he not only glams up the whole thing by giving it a huge powdering of fairy dust (another nice thing about those Sylphs), but he also entertains the question of responsibility.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. In what ways does the presence of the Sylphs lend importance and even glamor or glory to the relatively mundane things that happen in the poem (like putting on makeup, or playing cards, or simply changing one's mind)?
    2. Are Belinda and the Baron to be held responsible for their actions? Why or why not?
    3. How much power do the Sylphs and Gnomes actually have over the situation of the poem? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    Pope's Sylphs and Gnomes add to the overall meaninglessness of the poem, as they have no real power over anything in it.

    Women are the only ones who are susceptible to the manipulations of the Sylphs and the Gnomes; men are impervious to them.