The Unfortunate Lock

In Restoration literature, one usually finds that many characters are cast as exemplary examples of exactly what is wrong with society in general. The satirists of the age did not spare any scrutiny. Women in this literature are certainly not exempt from this satire. Alexander Pope wrote of a beautiful woman named Belinda in the most famous mock epic from that time, Rape of the Lock. He tells the story of her precious lock, taken from her because of vanity and pride. Pope sets out reminding the reader "mighty contests rise from trivial things;" though he may treat Belinda as a heroine, she is really to be scorned and mocked for her vanity. "Elegy to the Memory of an Unfortunate Lady," however, treats its main character much differently. Pope treats the unfortunate lady with the utmost sorrow. She, though her faults are basically the same as Belinda's, paid for her sin by suicide. Pope does not treat this woman with scorn but mourns her loss. In these two works, the women serve as reminders against human vanity, but they are treated with a much different emphasis and tone.

The triumphant Belinda is introduced in all of the lazy grandeur and ease associated with Restoration court life. Pope expresses her magnificent beauty by saying that her eyes even eclipse the sun. He reverently describes her morning ritual before the mirror: "A heavenly image in the glass appears, / To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears" (l 125-26). Belinda is even transfixed by her own reflection, captivated by her god-like beauty. She is victim of the spell that her appearance weaves over others. Pope uses Belinda as an example of humorous vanity; no one would actually think in this manner without many, many beauty pageants behind her or in the case of the man, a quixotic affinity with Don Juan. Nonetheless, Pope levels a charge of vain beauty at mankind through Belinda. He treats her like a goddess descended from the heavenly realm, but any astute reader may assume that Pope is only serious in his exposure of vice, not enamored by her beauty. He even goes so far as to say that her vanity will outlive her body;

Think not when woman's transient breath is fled, That all her vanities at once are dead: Succeeding vanity she still regards, And though she plays no more, o'erlooks the cards. Her joy in gilded chariots, when alive, And love of ombre, after death survive. (l: 51-56)

Where will the vanity survive? It will survive within the lives of those who live on in the vain life that they have embraced. This statement recalls Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in Mark Anthony's famous speech after Caesar's assassination. He said to the people of Rome that the evil that men do lives after their death but "the good is oft interr'ed with their bones." Belinda's vanity will live after her own death in the vain lives of others. Belinda's vain pride and want of the Baron's attention renders her would be protectors, the sylphs, utterly helpless against the Baron. His intent is ostensibly evil, to rape the lock; he wants the humiliate Belinda, but she is blinded, as by her image in the mirror, to his insidious intent. She cannot fathom someone who would not be so smitten by her charm as to render any and all ill will towards her impossible. Her vain ignorance makes the lock's rape possible. The lock is basically inconsequential to the reader, but Pope treats it and her with such renown and pomp that one cannot help but to see his disdain for the vanity within her character. Pope shows the vanity of the human race through Belinda by taking a seemingly insignificant clump of hair and turning its rape into an epic. He immortalizes Belinda as if to say that her battle for vanity is ongoing, even to the present day.

Pope's treatment of the woman in "Elegy to an Unfortunate Lady" is entirely different from his treatment of Belinda. He employs a very serious elegiac tone towards the woman and also when addressing the reader. Pope's tone is employed, not in biting satire but in true sorrow for the woman's faults and their culmination in her death. He still implicates human vanity and ambition but does not present the woman as an object of scorn but rather a victim of a corrupt and fallen society.

The reader is introduced to the woman as a ghost who's "bleeding bosom [is] gored" (l 3). Unlike Belinda, who is introduced in beauty and ease, this unfortunate lady is introduced as a specter who has pierced her own breast with a dagger. Pope asks, "Is it a crime to love too well? / To bear too tender, or too firm a heart, / To act a lover's or a Roman's part?" (l 7-9). Pope would agree that loving immoderately is a crime, but Pope elicits sympathy from the reader. He further explains, "Why bade ye else, ye Powers! her soul aspire / Above the vulgar flight of low desire? / Ambition first sprung from your blest abodes; / The glorious fault of angels and gods" (l 11-14). Pope offers an mournful, almost fist-shaking appeal to the heavens, asking why the angels fell and mankind with them. He does not absolve the lady of her ambition but curses its birth and manifestation in the hearts of all men though the angels' fall.

Pope does not immortalize this woman as he immortalizes Belinda but instead says that she was not mourned and grieved for save by the writer himself. She is buried in an unmarked, foreign grave by foreign hands. She is not given a monument or polished marble. "So flew the soul to its congenial place, / Nor left one virtue to redeem her race" (l 27-28). Pope again draws on Shakespeare's assertion that the good in a person is buried forever, leaving only vice. "Life's idle business at one gasp be o'er, / The Muse forgot, and thou beloved no more" (l 81-82). The lady will not be loved when the Muse passes to death; she will be forgotten.

Pope treats these two ladies very differently. He sets Belinda as an object of disdain, one who is to be scorned and whose faults should be avoided at all cost. Vanity infects her, and her own vanity is immortalized in the lock. The unfortunate lady, on the other hand, is presented as a victim of man's fall. Pope, rather than placing her as an object of scorn, places her as someone to be pitied. The unfortunate lady is a product of the pride and vanity in mankind; she is tread underfoot and forgotten. Her gored breast is, in part, the combined fault of angels and mortals. He treats the women differently with the same purpose in mind: that though his satire and his elegy, he might save some from their own folly.

David VanWyk