In Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope uses the epic form to satirize 18th century English society. The mock epic’s protagonist, Belinda, portrays a duality of women as both materialistic and chaste beings. This duality, dictated by society, shows contradictory values. Belinda’s duality illustrates itself best in the toilette scene at the end of Canto I. In this scene, she functions as an epic hero readying for battle, yet she merely gets ready for the day. Her toilette displays both cosmetic goods and religious symbols, showing equal importance to both her beauty and her religion. What does Belinda’s duality in the toilette scene symbolize about the function of women in both The Rape of the Lock and 18th century English society?
Typically, an epic poem details an adventure of a hero or warrior. In Rape of the Lock, Pope utilizes Belinda as his heroic figure, which creates a stark contrast between her and classic epic hero, such as Beowulf. Instead of getting ready for battle, Belinda beautifies herself in order to look appealing to men. Upon looking at herself, Belinda immediately notices her beauty, “A heav'nly Image in the Glass appears/To that she bends, to that her Eyes she rears” (Canto I, line 125). Pope writes a mock epic because it allows him to take an insignificant scene – in this case, Belinda putting on her face – and raises its significance using the poetic form. Belinda’s beautification lacks significance, but the subtext shows the importance of beauty and materialism to her. The toilette scene also shows the frivolity of bourgeois society, of which Belinda belongs to, and its emphasis on materialism.
Belinda’s shows her materialism through the many cosmetic items on her vanity. Her items include, “The Tortoise ...
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...s Belinda as both a saintly and licentious figure. He first describes her as being “rob’d in White” (I, 123), which creates an image of her as pure and chaste. He also describes her image as “heav’nly (I, 125) and later refers to her as a Goddess (I, 132). She also uses powders so that she appears as pale as possible. Pope’s language sets her up as a pious figure that appears pure and angelic, but undercuts that image by showing her attention to beauty. Belinda exhibits a spiritual shallowness that allows her to fall between the image of a Madonna and a whore. This furthers her duality, in that she wants to look beautiful but needs to adhere to certain levels of acceptable beauty. She cares enough about her appearance to adorn herself exquisitely, but also cares about looking as pure as possible. If she did not appear pure, then others would not view her as chaste.
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