The Rape of the Lock is Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem which was published in 1712 and further expanded and republished in 1714. The poem tells a story of a beautiful woman Belinda whose rejected admirer makes up his mind to revenge the woman and cuts of a lock of her hair. The poem is based on the real-life events. One of Pope’s friends has indeed gone through the events depicted in The Rape of the Lock. He cut off a lock of a woman’s hair without her permission, which became a reason for continuous quarrel between their two families. Pope chose a mocking style of writing when compiling his poem. By this he was trying to present the situation jokingly and to make up two families. Of course, Pope introduced certain changes into the story and added certain magic elements to it. For instance, The Rape of the Lock abounds with fairy-tale characters, such as fairies, spirits, elves, sprites, and so on. All these try to warn Belinda about the misfortune and even manage to save her lock of hair for several times, but, eventually, the Baron realizes his evil intentions and cuts off Belinda’s lock of hair, thus, taking revenge for being rejected. The poem under consideration is quite symbolistic; the hair is one of the most important symbols which presents the essence of the poem and reflects the values of those times when the poem was written. In The Rape of the Lock hair symbolizes beauty and youth, as well as social position and wealth reflecting at the same time the conflict between two genders, male and female.
To begin with, the hair in The Rape of the Lock symbolizes Belinda’s beauty and youth, which is why she feels humiliated when the lock is cut off. From the immemorial, long hair was the sign of women’s beauty which they were immensely proud of. Belinda is depicted in The Rape of the Lock as a beautiful woman with marvelous hair and “nourished two locks, which graceful hung behind / In equal Curls” (Pope, Price, and Miller 50). Pope emphasizes the beauty of these locks calling them “nourished” and “graceful”, which shows how valuable they were for their owner. There is no doubt that hair makes every woman beautiful, especially long golden hair, as often depicted in the fairy-tales. After all, all the magic stories with female characters present their heroines with long splendid hair (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and others), which serves as a symbol of their beauty. In addition, the hair also symbolizes the characters’ youth. Belinda is a young attractive woman who visits social events and meets numerous people; this is a life of any person of high social rank of the 18th century. Going deeper into the history, it is possible to notice that only young women have been depicted with free-flowing hair. Older women used to tie up their hair; the same goes for the women who have been married, because the tied up hair has been associated with an image of a wife. Belinda’s free-flowing hair shows that she is young and not bound by family obligations. This is why her hair has an additional value for her; not only does it symbolize her beauty, but it means that she is young and unmarried. The fact that one of her “gracious” locks has been cut off humiliates her, makes her disgraced, and is perceived as violence on the part of the Baron. All this is connected with the idea that woman’s hair is her pride, her treasure, and the essence of her beauty and youth.
What else should be mentioned is that hair is the symbol of social position in The Rape of the Lock. Though this is never mentioned in the poem, Belinda belongs to the upper class. There are several moments which testify to this fact. First of all, this woman does not have to work; she is presented as waking up in the morning and starting to prepare herself for the social event at once. To be more exact, different fairy creatures prepare her: “The busy Sylphs surround their darling care; / These set the head, and those divide the hair, / Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown…” (Pope et al. 49). Secondly, it is hardly possible that women of the working class can visit such events, which is why Belinda may be stated to have been of high social rank. And, thirdly, the Baron fancied Belinda and in those times men preferred to choose wives among women of the social status equal with theirs. Besides, the Baron must have known Belinda from the like social events which are organized for wealthy people. Hair was often regarded as a sign of social rank. For instance, in many countries only young women who belonged to the upper classes were allowed to show their hair in public (especially loose hair). Married women, as well as those who were of older age, had to tie their hair up, whereas those of the working class had to cover it. The traditions connected with hair are still preserved in a number of societies. Even at present young women prefer long hair, those who are married usually cut it, and some of the older women cover them with headscarves or kerchiefs. This, however, rarely symbolizes any social status. Thus, in case with The Rape of the Lock the hair symbolizes high social rank of its owner, Belinda.
And, finally, hair in The Rape of the Lock symbolizes the eternal conflict between male and female gender. In this poem the conflict is realized through Belinda rejecting the Baron and through the latter’s taking revenge for this: “The adventurous Baron the bright locks admired, / He saw, he wished, and to the prize aspired: / Resolved to win, he mediates the way, / By force to ravish, or by fraud betray” (Pope et al. 50). This shows how determined the Baron was and how much he desired to have Belinda’s lock. Though the words “admired,” “wished,” and “aspired” may convince the reader that the Baron had affection for Belinda, in truth the Baron’s actions were driven by nothing but vengeance for Belinda’s once offending his dignity. The Baron’s aspiration to cut off Belinda’s hair is his subconscious desire to humiliate her for he knows that her hair is her pride. Belinda is presented as a victim, a victim of the rape of her hair; just like any victim of rape committed by a man, Belinda was unable to stand up to her attacker. Instead, she had to hide from other people due to her lock being cut. The Baron’s succeeding to fulfill his plan and being left unpunished means that Belinda lost this war between opposite genders and was subdued by her assailant. This further presents men’s violent behavior as naturalized (for the Baron was not even sorry for his deed), whereas a woman is presented as a victim. Therefore, hair symbolizes much more than beauty, youth, wealth, and social status; Pope’s presenting a woman whose lock was stolen by a man turns attention to gender inequality, both physical and legal, the inequality which the modern society still ardently fights with.
In conclusion, symbolism in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is evident. The hair in this poem symbolizes youth, beauty, and social status of women. Together with this, it turns attention to the conflict between men and women and inequality existing between these two genders. With respect to youth and beauty, long hair has always been a symbol of them; the fact that the Baron cut off the lock of Belinda’s hair shows that he wished to deprive Belinda of her beauty, or at least to take away some of her pride in her beauty. Moreover, hair symbolizes Belinda’s social status; firstly, it signifies her belonging to the upper social class and, secondly, it means that she is not married, for she wears her hair loose. And finally, hair in The Rape of the Lock is a symbol of gender inequality and men’s receiving no punishment for being violent with women. In this way, hair is not only a superficial symbol of beauty, youth, and wealth, but also a reflection of deeper problems rooting in the society.
Pope, Alexander, Price, Martin, and Miller, Christopher. The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems. New York: Signet Classic, 2003.