The Rape of the Lock as A Social Satire


The Rape of the Lock is not only a mock epic poem that explores 18th century England society but also a social satire. Alexander Pope made it clear that initially he did not write the poem for this specific purpose. Nonetheless, directly or indirectly it is an absurd misrepresentation of aristocratic class; it is an imitation of the routine life of people who belonged to feudalism. Aristotle mentions two types of poetry in his book “Poetics”: tragedy and comedy. In his eyes, tragedy is better than comedy; however, we cannot underestimate the powers of a comedy, the primary purpose of which is to satirise the society to make reformations.

What is Satire?

Aristotle says that when a poet imitates nature, he presents it either good or worse; from worse he means that a poet shows mirror to the society by revealing their absurd behaviours and follies. It means that the Greeks knew about the satire; however, the word “satire” was unknown to them. It has been derived from the Latin word “satira” which means “medley”. A writer uses this technique to show people their shortcomings so that they can make improvements. It is very wrong to understand satire merely as a synonym for humour. Humour may have many purposes; laughing, excitement, interest of audience etc; satire on the other hand is purely for the purpose of reformations. 

Satire in 18th Century

In English literature, the technique of satire was much improved by the end of the 17th century. Almost every poet of that era wrote at least one satirical poem. In fact, the trend increased day by day and literature based on this technique engaged more and more audiences. Clark Lecturer James Sutherland expresses his views on usage of satire in 18th century and says:-

“By the middle of the eighteenth century satire had become a literary habit”

Clark Lecturer James Sutherland

In those days, a war between the witts was started. They attacked each other in writing. Resultantly, literature was published a lot and satire became common for everyone. Alexander Pope is also one of them who gained fame in those days and made his name in witty satires. 

The Rape of the Lock as A Social Satire

The Rape of the Lock as a Social Satire

The Rape of the Lock was a response to a request that John Caryll made to Alexander Pope. He was his friend who requested him to write a poem. Thus, the real purpose of The Rape of the Lock was not to satarize the society. Alexander Pope once said:

“The stealing of Miss Belle Fermor’s hair, was taken too seriously, and caused an estrangement between the two families, though they had lived so long in great friendship before. A common acquaintance and well-wisher to both, desired me to write a poem to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again. It was with this view that I wrote the Rape of the Lock.”

However, when the poem was published again in 1714 with an extended version, it gained too much fame. It was a complete satire in itself. Alexander Pope wrote this poem to make fun of a society that was wasting time in useless activities. He mocked them in a way that they enjoyed reading the poem without realising it. So, The Rape of The Lock is a Mirror to the Eighteenth Century Aristocratic Society.

Satire on Vanity of 18th Century England Society

In The Rape of the Lock the poet explores the vanity of english aristocratic society; he exposes their excessive beliefs in their own abilities and attractiveness to others. On one hand, he talks about fashionable men whereas on the other hand he also mentions that ladies were not different from men in this regard. He creates war-like scenes in the poem to  ridicule the society and to show them they make preparations for useless activities as they are going to war. He does not target a single person nor does he talks about any specific profession but as a whole; it is the beauty of The Rape of the Lock that it is a complete social satire due to which it has a universal appeal.

All the ladies of that era were fond of gilded chariots. The poet shows their vanities. They considered themselves superior to others in beauty. Although the poem has not been ever judged from psychological perspectives yet it is a matter of fact that the poet shows mental psyche of those people through social satire in his poem The Rape of the Lock. He writes:

“With varying Vanities, from ev'ry Part,
They shift the moving Toyshop of their Heart"

Social Satire on Males and Females In The Rape of the Lock

In the poem, the poet creates a female character named Belinda. Although in the complete poem, he talks only about her yet he means to say every single female of that era who belonged to aristocratic class. On the opposite, he creates a male character named Baron. He uses him to show the routine life of gentlemen. England has been known for the people with heroic deeds for many years; however, the lifestyle that the gentlemen adopt in this poem is entirely opposite to the heroism. The poet laughs with us on them.

In the very beginning of the poem, the poet starts showing the laziness of the upper class. Belinda wakes up from sleep and sleeps again. It means that she has nothing to worry about. The poet means to say that plenty of money was there with those people, hence, they had no worries. Subsequently, she prepares herself for a party just like a soldier prepares for a battle. In an epic poem we see a poet give a detailed description of armour and body of a hero. Similarly, Alexander Pope mentions in detail Belinda’s combs and pins.

The poem also shows that people’s hobbies also change with the passage of time. They were no more interested in courageous, heroic and war stories; rather they were busy in making themselves look better to others in a ball party.  Thus, there is a social satire on noble ladies of that centaury in The Rape of the Lock.

There is no denying the fact that women were busy impressing men and men were trying their best to make good impressions in front of the ladies. Women’s curiosity has been shown towards puffing, make-up, using cosmetics, dying their hairs, petting etc. whereas men on the other hand are shown useless, idle, lazy, unwise, foolish and hollow minded who think flirting with ladies as their primary moto.

Satire on Materialistic Relationships

Relationships between men and women were not real at all. The poet sheds light on this issue too. Romeo and Juliet once lived there; however, the poet does not portray any such relationship between anyone. He shows that the people were busy in making affairs and they were apathetic to real relationships. 

The Rape of the Lock in actual is the rape of honour and a social satire that honour had no value in the eyes of those people. There was no purity in those ladies. It seems that the Pope was living in the 21st century. In these days, people are living in “living relationships”’ without marrying; however, that was started many years ago though it was not usual for everyone. The poet has shown this in his poem if we deeply study it with symbolic meanings.

The poet targets every relationship. People do not like the friendship of those people who are inferior to them. When Belinda’s lock was cut, her friends left her alone; the incident is a social satire on emptiness in relationships between the people of that era. 

Conclusion of The Rape of the Lock as a Social Satire

Suffice is to say that the poet does not directly uses any word against the standards of 18th century England society; rather he uses the technique of social satire in his poem The Rape of the Lock to spread awareness about the follies of their people. He covers almost everything in the poem. From every angles, The Rape of the Lock seems a poem that best defines the technique of social satire.