Pope vs Pollak
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Pope vs Pollak
'Pope never does controvert the premise that female sexuality is a material property over which man has
a natural claim. Woman's entire value is tied up with her identity as a piece of property transferrable
among men. To shine for man's sake--or to reflect his light--is woman's trial on earth, and Pope has
designed his heroine to symbolise this fact' (Ellen POLLAK).
Compare the validity of this critique of the poem with what you would consider to be Pope's critique in
Ellen Pollak as a prominent feminist writer, reasons from his work that Pope placed the role of the female as
a subservient maid at the feet of men. The i
Rape of the Lock splits the academic society with those who share
the view of Pollak who claim that Pope is simply reiterating the myth of the role of women, they are servants to
the domestic, their role is to do nothing more than serve the male community. Counter to this opinion however
are those who believe Pope has actually satirised the role of the female, the text being dominated by a female
presence, places the male community in the role of servant to master. When looking closer at not what is said
directly within the text but reading, as one so often has to, between the lines is that it is what is inferred that
holds Pope’s true intention. The underlying suppression of sexual longing is shown through Belinda’s denial of
male advances. Further the baroque culture of Restoration Britain is masking the shunned sexual desire.
Pollak examines the social constructs that the female was to live in, her chastity and sexual identity was so
important because of the implications upon the family name. The social expectations where held within the
virtue of the female and yet she had no claim upon her own identity. Pollak calls this social myth, ‘passive
a persuasive ideal of the female role that announced the tenets of womanhood as being the
inferior of men, who serve only through domestic and reproductive means. Pollak names the tenets as;
‘married, conjugally faithful, modest, good natured, cheerfully tolerant of idleness, and pre-eminently intent on
pleasing her husband.’2
When one combines this with the historicist argument that female promiscuity was so
weighted because it held legal reverberations, the issue of sexual practice and identity becomes a judicial matter
Comment on Susan Gubar's "The Female Monster in Augustan Satire" (Vol. 3, No. 2) Signs, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Spring, 1978), The
University of Chicago Press, p. 728-732. Henceforth quotations from this piece will be abbreviated to Gubar.
Gubar p. 728
as well as being social. Female promiscuity disrupted social and class concerns therefore thus the civil
responsibility was solely held by the female, they could not gain honour as this was a male attribute to acquire
for the family, and yet they held the entirety of the possibility of shame. Moreover when this responsibility is
innate and baptised upon birth, the woman is responsible for her sexual actions and yet so often is unable to
obtain sovereignty over them. The social and economic constructs of Bourgeois culture prevented women from
gaining any social standing, whilst the economic laws left women without any means of obtaining her ability to
self-sufficiency, thus the only possession that women held was virginity and the preservation of this until
marriage. Pollak explains the use of stock characters to mock the females broke these archetypes, ‘while it
placed a negative value on all women who strayed from these often impossible and contradictory expectations,
generating as its most popular stock deviants the figures of coquette, prude, pedant, and superannuated virgin or
When one looks to the text it is clear that Belinda embodies the character of the coquette. The
images of fair, innocent, angel, virgin and belle are juxtaposed with the vanity Belinda displays, her physical
attributes open the poem as she awakens from her sleep, ‘gentle belle, soft bosoms, her ear’4
the importance of
her beauty is further emphasised throughout the text. Her vanity is described through the preening she
undergoes and the lusting admiration of the male characters, ‘On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore,
which Jews might kiss and infidels adore.’ 5
Belinda, who can be viewed as a synecdoche for all womankind,
can flirt with the role of a masculine temptress nevertheless Pollak argues that Pope limits this by the Baron
taking her lock.
The adverse view to those who agree with Pollak show that it is in fact the females who dominate the males
within the poem. Within the poem there is indeed a saturation of the feminine both through character and the
imagery that runs throughout. Belinda as a character is in defiance to the stereotype of the passive woman, she
manages to wear a veil of the virginal female through her denial of male sexual attention, however she also is
described as a coquette who is overtly sexual and takes pleasure in defeating men. This gender imbalance Ralph
Cohen suggests that, ‘Belinda, Thalestris, Clarissa, Spleen, and Ariel and Umbriel-originally women--dominate
Gubar p. 728.
Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock. Representative Poetry Online, Canto 1 line 12. Henceforth references will be denote Pope.
Pope, Canto 2, line 7-8.
the men as well as the poem itself.’6
The males within the text are places as inferior to the women, they are
often defeated in the battle over sovereignty, ‘“O cruel Nymph! a living Death I bear," Cry'd Dapperwit, and
sunk beside his Chair.’7
Going further with this analysis Cohen argues that men are the animals that are to be
tamed by the females within the poem, ‘men become the housebroken possessions of the women, to blither at
their command, to obey their every wish’8
this diametrically opposes the opinion of Pollak who claims it is
Belinda that is tamed of her sexual deviancy through the taking of her lock. The emasculation is symbolised
through the use of a pseudo- therianthropic shifting of men from human entities to that of ‘lap-dogs’9
argues the importance of this within the dismembering of the male power within the poem. ‘Pope never used
the word elsewhere, though in this poem he mentions "lap-dog" four times’10
When one looks for the contextual
significance of the word lap-dog the descriptions only mock the characters of the men as obsequious small
creatures that are ‘fashion accessories, status symbols, and to provide warmth for the wealthy and fashionable.
Lapdogs were also used in earlier times to attract fleas away from their owners.’11
In addition to this, Pope has
the males stripped of their most masculine element, ‘prostate falls’12
this emasculation at its most extreme,
which it would seem Cohen is a likening to s religious sacrifice for the female. A ritual procession with
religious lexicography with altar. With the Sylph’s representing a reincarnate soul of a former coquette Pope
permeates the poem with female presence, one must note though whilst Belinda is female and human the
Sylphs are creatures of another dimensional sphere, and this realm is impenetrable to men. This feminised
hierarchy subverts the conventional structure of 18th Century British society where men were placed within a
higher order to the female demographic, and through legislative and cultural degradation there was no ladder
Ralph Cohen, The Reversal of Gender in "The Rape of the Lock" South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Nov., 1972), p.54-60,
South Atlantic Modern Language Association.
Pope Canto 5, line 61.
Pope Canto 1, line 15.
Bruce Felton and Mark Fowler, "Fashion and Grooming". The Best, Worst, and Most Unusual, New York, Galahad Books, 1994,
Pope Canto 2, line 43.
offered for women to climb the social ladder. Belinda represents masculine features, she is held within the
realm of divine status, comparable to a God like icon. Cohen notes her forceful competitive nature in the game
of Ombre, ‘Belinda's approach to the game of Ombre is at once aggressive and ambitious.’ Furthermore despite
the reversal of masculine attributes from the subjugated males to the females of the poem, Belinda is not
absolved of her feminine beauty. In Canto two, her beauty is described as rivalling the sun, ‘Bright as the sun,
her eyes the gazers strike, and, like the sun, they shine on all alike.’13
Interestingly the sun and moon are placed
within the poem, the moon often a galactic representation of women, this organic metamorphose of feminine
presence, ‘Of airy elves by moonlight shadows seen.’14
In comparing Belinda to items of another realm, or as
Cohen suggests ‘Pope depicts Belinda as a more worldly creature than the worshipful Baron’15
Belinda in an unachievable class to the Baron, the Baron must worship at her feet. This echoes the ideas of
Hugo Reichard who claims the master and servant roles, where the Baron, ‘felled before witness, by a woman
with a snap of her fingers, in a puff of tobacco, amid a fit of tears and sneezes.’16
The Baron appears without
name, he is known only through his title that immediately places him to the edges of the narrative. He is also
introduced with the image of a removed prostate. His physical masculinity is stolen before his introduction is
completed, he is left unfinished both in name and identity but also physically. Belinda personifies excellence
that, by the adoration of the men is held in divine eminence, whilst the Baron is carnally defective. Cohen
continues this reduction in the Baron’s status ‘Baron is foredoomed to lose his adventure, and he is seen at the
mercy of the "powers," sylphs, gnomes, and women.’17
This prolepsis of male failure seen with ‘Here Britain’s
statesman oft the fall of foredoom’18
one can see the game of Ombre as essentially representing the entirety of
the poem, here ‘Resign’d to fate, and with a sigh retir’d’19
male dominance cannot be justified. This is finally
Pope Canto 2, line 13-14.
Pope Canto 1, line 31.
Pope Canto 3, line 5.
Pope Canto 3, line 146.
consummated when the Baron cuts the lock, ‘". . . By this Lock, this sacred Lock I swear’20
the act in itself is
not the most important event but Cohen puts forth that, ‘even on the one occasion of triumph-his "rape"-
Clarissa must supply him the instrument of outrage, his "spear."’21
Belinda's weapon acts is antithetical to the
Baron, she has ownership of her ‘deadly Bodkin’22
which Cohen asserts is unladylike, ‘and she draws it, not
from her hair, but "from her Side," where daggers were more commonly worn.23
’ When the rape of the lock
occurs, Belinda takes her vengeance upon the culprit to restore balance. This parody of Homer’s extensive
description of weaponry is used by Pope for Belinda and her bodkin. Feminised artillery reduces the status of
men further as it take the most masculine of iconography and removes it from its historically entrenched place.
Pope encompasses many of the symbolic ideals of masculinity and strength and attacks both, finally the
unmovable obstacle to the view of Pollak lies in the physical reversal of biological definitions of gender ‘Men
prove with Child’24
Moreover the critique of Pollak’s assertion follows with the ‘Repression Hypothesis.’ This was very much
was the accepted critical view of sexual discussion historically, one that hides the truth over how sex was
actually communicated between the sexes. Foucault was a prominent figure who opposed the idea that sexual
representation throughout history was prohibited, conversely Foucault believed that it is not whether one has
permission over sexual activity but ‘the way in which sex is put into discourse.’25
This new historicist approach
view the poem through a different context to the question of whether the female is repressed sexually or a battle
over the rights of possession. It looks further at the text and the idea that human sexuality is omnipresent
throughout the history of social discourse. Pope would perhaps hold this view of his work that the elaborate
Pope Canto 4, line 133.
Pope, Canto 5 line 88.
Pope, Canto 4 line 53.
Mohik K Ray, Sexuality in The Rape of the Lock, Studies in Literary Criticism, Atlantic Publishers New Delhi, 2002, p.46-59.
Henceforth further references to this essay will be denoted Ray.
world of post Restoration bourgeois culture is in truth the masked or ‘camouflaged sexuality.’26
absence of sexuality within life and literature was actually a hidden secret discourse taking place and it is this
denial of sexual activity that embodies Belinda within the poem with her ‘guardian Sylph’27
named Ariel that
protects her chastity. Nevertheless within the poem Belinda is a dichotomy of contradictory figures, she plays
both virgin and ‘goddess’28
sexual abundance is seen within her character. This parallel of terms is the property
of Belinda, the binaries go further to emphasise the illusion of the poem concerning appearance and truth and
does Pope’s intended discussion to lie. Perhaps Pollak represents a different discussion all together, the
question over female subservience at the feet of men does little to look at the whole discussion of sexual
conversation within the poem. There is a balance of sexuality within the poem, the title being both sexually
overt and violent. Pope uses the singular lock, which immediately connotes for modern readers to Freudian
concepts of lock holding symbolic significance as female genitalia and the violence of rape as offering a
proleptic fall of this chastity. However Ray pushes this idea further than its obvious significance by invoking
the knowledge Pope had of its totemic use with, The Rape of Lucree and The Rape of Helen where the taking
of a single lock of hair was an ancient sacrament to ready one for marriage, ‘crinis sacer’ the idea of the sacred
lock. When one takes this opinion the Baron in taking the lock is not symbolically taking the virginity of
Belinda through an act of power and control, but is in fact ridding her of the ‘ritualistic sign of it.’ 29
her reaction to the taking of the lock shows her apparent anger is not in what is symbolically being taking from
her but the sign itself. For Belinda ‘the signifier is more important than the signified’30
again this shows the
layering by Pope between what is used to mask the reality of sexual importance. The expected attitude of 18th
Century society was for women to show only sexual apathy over desire therefore whilst Belinda may desire the
affection of men, as shown with her egotism, conversely this must be masked by conscious rejection of this
Alexander Pope, The Rape of The Lock. Line 20. Henceforth further references to this work will be denoted Pope.
Nonetheless one must also consider the critical view that looks to the game of Ombre which can be
concluded as a synecdoche for the entirety of female and male competitiveness within the poem. It also is a
microcosm for the sexual game that took place in British society. As looked at previously the idea of both
female ambivalence to sexual advances and the ornate baroque culture of 17th and 18th Century British society
was in actuality the externalised expression of sexual repression. This Freudian concept, obviously unknown to
Pope, enables a psychosomatic analysis of the characters as if they were real. Belinda and her ego is shown
through a procession of religious, militaristic and mythological images. Pope’s use of asyndeton ‘rows, puffs,
powders, patches, bibles, bille-doux. Now awful beauty puts on all its arms’31
to display Belinda’s placing of
her religious items on the equivalent level as the tools she uses to prepare her beauty. Her narcissism is thus
likened to a religious blasphemy. The Baron on the other hand is described as having adorned his alter much
like a dutiful pilgrim. This contrasts the foils to the extreme, the Baron holding honour with religious affairs
and Belinda a self-adorning sinner. Belinda’s vanity is bordering the evangelical, and the battle which plays
through the game of Ombre clashes her fetishism with masculinity. This brings forth the battle that commences
between male and female powers. The use of heroic couplets and a firm iambic pentameter pace echo the
steady marches of an army into battle and Belinda approaches the game though it were a battleground of sexual
competition. Pope allegorically uses the unquestionably female tools of preening and the pampering of Belinda
at her ‘toilet’32
to connote to the preparation of a warrior before battle. She holds the masculine attribute of
ambition and is seen to perform on the same level as the males who play the game too.
To surmise, despite the criticisms of Pollak’s assertion that Pope in his work The Rape of the Lock is
prevailing the myth of the passive woman it comes to be a more convincing argument than that of her
prosecutors. This woman in the opinion of Pollak, has been bound by Pope in eventual faith to her husband,
being a dutiful and quite repressed creature unable to invoke her right to life beyond the domestic and with no
means to possess anything further than her innate virtue. I suggest, that it would be closer to the truth to suggest
that Pope, by mocking this role being given to men rather than women, does not agree with Pollak’s deductions.
Pope Canto 1, line138-139.
Pope Canto 1, line 121.
Reichard claims Belinda does not seek marriage or a man to share her life with but prefers ‘men at her feet.’33
Belinda plays the role of the coquettish stereotype who revels in the attention of men. Belinda prepares herself
for this battle to garner the notice of men, pampering herself with both religious and militaristic precision.
Nonetheless ultimately the taking of metaphorical chastity ruins her chances to fulfil this desire completely,
Belinda must to marry and serve as wife before she loses her beauty ‘since locks will turn to grey . . she who
scorns a man, must die a maid.’34
Belinda’s virginity and her youthful exterior are her only sanctioned
properties. Indeed as Brook’s claims, Pope is waging a war between the sexes over the rights of ownership,
however Belinda cannot win this game through she can outsmart the men. The noteworthy issue that one must
evaluate comes with the hypothesis that Cohen puts forth, men as submissive lap-dogs and women as battle
ready goddesses, however this view does not relinquish Pope of the act of lock shearing. The feminine is
implied also by the cyclical nature to the poem, where Belinda is attributed to the ‘swarthy Moors’ which
echoes the end of the poem where she is compared to Shakespeare’s Moor.35
This cyclical structure again
pushes forth the feminine and the correlations it has with the female cycle and the moon. The female is sown
into the fabric and structure of the poem. Belinda ultimately fails in her attempt to compete with the men on
equal standing, her apathetic shunning of sexual advances may allow for an attempt of female ambition,
however, in stealing her lock, the Baron takes her only true possession, her virginity. The outcome of Belinda’s
attempts to both play the tease whilst never sacrificing her true winning card, her purity, is ironically stolen by a
supposed obedient male. Hence, Pope does in the end by sacrificing his established gender caste only comply
with the Pollak thesis. This sole act condemns Belinda back to her place within society, she must sexually
submit herself, willingly or not, to masculine dominance. Pope may indeed believe he has adorned Belinda and
womankind with the role usually reserved for men, and many critics claim Pollak’s theory can be attributed to
the males who dance to a female flute. Yet still the very act of this reversal and in mocking it, he is suggesting
the ridiculous nature of this social order.
Pope Canto, line 28.
Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock. Representative Poetry Online.
i. Ellen Pollak, Comment on Susan Gubar's "The Female Monster in Augustan Satire" (Vol. 3, No. 2),
Vol. 3, No. 3, Spring 1978, p. 728-732.
ii. Hugo M. Reichard, The Love Affair in Pope's Rape of the Lock, PMLA, Vol. 69, No. 4, Sep 1954, p.
iii. Ralph Cohen, The Reversal of Gender in "The Rape of the Lock", South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 37, No.
4, November 1972, p. 54-60.
iv. Rebecca P. Parkin, Mythopoeic Activity in the Rape of the Lock, ELH, Vol. 21, No. 1, March 1954, p.
v. Harold Weber, The Poetics of Sexual Myth: Gender and Ideology in the Verse of Swift and Pope by
Ellen Pollak, Reviewed, South Atlantic Review, Vol. 51, No. 3, Convention Program Issue, September
1986, p. 86-88.
vi. Ellen M. Pollak. Pope and Sexual Difference: Woman as Part and Counterpart in the "Epistle to a
Lady”, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 24, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century,
1984, p. 461-481.
vii. John Trimble, Clarissa's Role in The Rape of the Lock, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol.
15, No. 4, 1974, p. 673-691
viii. Mohik K Ray, Sexuality in The Rape of the Lock, Studies in Literary Criticism, Atlantic Publishers New
Delhi, 2002, p.46-59
Emily Lees-Fitzgibbon, 1102880.