Follow TV Tropes


Literature / The Rape of the Lock

Go To

The definitive Mock-Heroic epic, penned by Alexander Pope. The title isn't what you think it means: "Rape" here refers to the word's older meaning as "kidnap", and "lock" refers to a lock of a woman's hair, here taken unwillingly. So get your snickers out of the way now.

In a World… where the flirts, coquettes, and heartbreakers are protected by airy Sylphs, Belinda is the queen bee of her little court, with suitors at her every hand — and none as persistent as the Baron. However, one day Ariel, the chief guard of Belinda's honour, gets a premonition that some calamity will strike. Guards are set on all objects of import — earrings, fans, curls, and petticoats (especially the petticoats) — but, in an unguarded moment over a coffee cup, the sylphs fail to stop the Baron from stealing a lock of hair — the lock of hair that made Belinda's symmetrical coiffure perfect. And so, the Battle of the Sexes ensues. Will Belinda be reconciled to the Baron? Or will ill humor and temper tantrums carry the day?

Regardless, prepare to laugh and be impressed. The Rape of the Lock is considered to be one of the most important works of literature in the English language — important enough that only it and the works of William Shakespeare himself are allowed to provide names for the moons of Uranus according to the International Astronomical Union.

Based on a True Story — in fact, the engagement of Arabella Fermor, a good friend of Pope's, was broken off (and never reconciled) for precisely this reason. Pope was attempting to get her to reconcile to the man who had stolen her hair by both mocking all the Serious Business made about a bit of a curl, and by warning of the unhappiness that comes of being vain and stubborn. He didn't quite get that the problem wasn't about her being "vain and stubborn" but about her intended being a Jerkass who led all his friends to mock, belittle, and ridicule her.

Being over 300 years old, The Rape of the Lock is in the public domain. Wikisource has full text, as does Project Gutenberg.

Tropes included:

  • An Aesop: Clarissa's speech on the importance of good humor.
  • Alchemic Elementals: Women's souls, after death, become elementals tied to whichever element they were most aligned to in life — fiery and aggressive ones become salamanders, soft-willed, yielding ones become nymphs, stuffy prudes become gnomes, and airy coquettes become sylphs.
  • Ancestral Weapon: Belinda's hair-pin, passed down from her great-great-grandfather.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Ariel the sylph's reaction to the premonition of Belinda's Bad Day is to send equal numbers of sylphs to guard her dress, her handkerchief, and her gloves, as her heart, her honor, and her chastity.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: The Lock itself—it turns into a star at the end, unseen by all but the Muse who inspires Pope.
  • Berserk Button: In Belinda's case, it's taking her hair and ruining her elaborate coiffure.
  • Blow You Away: The sylph's greatest power in the physical world. Unfortunately, they aren't that powerful at even that, seeing as how Belinda barely notices the light breeze on her neck when her hair is about to be cut Doom is NIGH.
  • Defiled Forever: Not nearly so grim as usual, but this is how Belinda reacts when her hair is cut. Then again, no one blames her for losing it — it's only her reaction that makes this a horrible breach of her honour.
  • The Ditz: Sir Plume, as exemplified in his incoherent speech to the Baron.
  • Elemental Personalities: If a (rich) young lady has been a scornful prude, she becomes an earthy gnome after death. Hot-tempered girls become salamanders, and emotional, weepy ones become nymphs, while light-hearted damsels turn into sylphs. Afterwards, they spend pretty much their entire afterlives encouraging the living to indulge in their respective behaviors. Ariel, a sylph, exists to help Belinda be even more of a flirt and heartbreaker than she already is. However, when Belinda's hair is stolen and she declares war on the race of men, Ariel can no longer influence her, and she falls under the power of the gnomes.
    ''For when the Fair in all their Pride expire,
    To their first Elements the Souls retire:
    The Sprights of fiery Termagants in Flame
    Mount up, and take a Salamander's Name.
    Soft yielding Minds to Water glide away,
    And sip with Nymphs, their Elemental Tea.

    The graver Prude sinks downward to a Gnome,
    In search of Mischief still on Earth to roam.
    The light Coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,
    And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air.'
  • Felony Misdemeanor: The lock! Being Based on a True Story and all, yes, a family really did consider it that big of a deal.
  • Gender Bender: Ariel must have been a woman in life, but is a male sylph in the afterlife. This may be because Sylphs are modeled after elemental spirits, who do not necessarily have genders.
  • Hair Memento: The story is all about mocking this trope, treating the cutting of a small curl of hair as the most heinous of crimes. (And by the way, the title refers to the old meaning of "rape" as taking something by force, so get your minds out of the gutter.)
  • Have a Gay Old Time: As mentioned in the description, the word "rape" in the title is used in the older, more general sense of carrying something off by force against someone's will.
  • Law of Disproportionate Response: Actually addressed. The narrator contrasts the oh-so-superficial and hedonistic world of the court against the realities of crime, punishment, and illness that are happening to the unwashed masses at the same time as a Serious Business card game is underway. And then, when Belinda's hair is cut, she pretty much treats it as The End of the World as We Know It, as do all her sympathizers. This is no coincidence, as this story mocks the classical Epic, applying all its tropes to mundane situations.
  • Long Hair Is Feminine: Attacking Belinda's hair counts as attacking Belinda's beauty and person—even though her hair is still mostly intact. Justified in that time, as mentioned in the accompanying letter, women were supposed to be decorative rather than rational.
  • Makeup Is Evil: Downplayed, but Belinda's use of make-up is definitely tweaked. Possibly because fashionable make-up was really extreme at the time—the ideal look was an impossibly-coloured and proportioned caricature of a woman's face.
  • Meaningful Name: Umbriel, the gnome who accomplishes much mischief, has a name which suggests "umbrage," or anger [from Latin umbra, shade or shadow]. And Ariel, the "airiest" of sylphs
  • Mundane Made Awesome: Have we mentioned this? Because the poem is made of this trope. Never mind the actual hair-cutting—the protagonist getting up in the morning and putting her makeup on is described as if it's some kind of epic (pardon the pun) Lock-and-Load Montage.
  • Narrative Poem: Rhyming iambic pentameter, with cantos and everything.
  • Nonindicative Name: Thanks to Have a Gay Old Time, this leaves us with one awkward title.
  • No Periods, Period: Alexander Pope would probably roll over in his grave note  if he knew we were discussing this, but look: when the narration took us down the Cave of Spleen and described all the ailments and afflictions that pursue exclusively women, we all know exactly what he's talking about.
  • Parody: Pope carefully mirrors all the conventions of the Epic genre, but uses them to depict trivialities.
  • Peeve Goblins: A gnome upsets a bag of ill humor over Belinda's head, causing her even more distress over the theft of her hair and leading to a massive battle of the sexes.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Pope knows better than to insert lavish descriptions of Belinda's outfits... however, considering that her petticoat alone, with its fifty-sylph guard of honour, is described in terms of which Achilles himself would have been proud, it simply follows that the dress that goes over it is equally sumptuous.
  • Purple Prose: Such talk is the meat and drink of this poem. And the oxygen. And the sunlight. And the metabolic enzymes necessary to break down said meat and drink so as to combust them with said oxygen. You get the picture.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Pale skin was de rigeur back then for beauty, and Belinda's hair is described as "sable."
  • Regal Ringlets: Of course! Tumbling symmetrically down the back of Belinda's neck.
  • This Is a Work of Fiction: In an introductory letter attached to later editions, Pope assures Miss Fermor that of course he didn't base the main character on her, it's just a silly story for young ladies with a sense of humor.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Much of the biting satire is built around exaggerating this trope; the "haircut" took a lock of hair about the size of your thumb, yet it's treated like a full-blown Traumatic Scalp-Shaving.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The events of the people are all true, but the sylphs and gnomes and the Cave of Spleen? Not so much.
  • Water Is Womanly: When young women die, the romantic, emotional girls become water nymphs, in contrast to stuffy prudes becoming gnomes, hot-tempered girls turning into salamanders, and light-hearted girls becoming sylphs.
  • Whoopi Epiphany Speech: Clarissa explains it all, in a brilliant soliloquy that nails the entire superficiality and foolishness of the court through the heart, and praising the value of good humour and virtue over appearances and vanity. However, nobody listens to her.

Alternative Title(s): Rape Of The Lock