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The Necessary Evil
By Lindsey Kofoed
Beauty is a currency used by many but understood by few. It has infinite shapes, forms and dimensions. One of the most common, and debatably one of the most powerful manifestations of beauty takes the form of female vanity. The term “female vanity” most often conjures up unfavorable connotations of frivolity and narcissism. That is largely the effect in much of Alexander Pope’s “Rape of the Lock.” However, there is underlying purpose to beauty rituals and what is loosely held as female vanity. Running parallel to the central theme of female vanity in Canto I of Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” is the historical societal necessity of beauty.
In the dressing table scene of “Rape of the Lock” at the end of Canto I, lines 121-148, the main character, Belinda, has just awoken from a peaceful slumber. She slides out of bed and positions herself in front of her dressing table and mirror (modernly called a “vanity”) to get ready for her day. Standing before the mirror, she watches herself be transformed from the pale-faced sleeping beauty to a vibrant and radiant young woman through the help of her cosmetics, her maid, and the Sylphs. Poetic technique as employed by Pope in this scene lends credibility to the very beauty ritual he is describing. Pope’s attention to the seemingly simple act of putting on makeup conveys the authority of this sacred rite.
The opening two lines of this passage, “And now, unveiled, the Toilet stands displayed,/Each Silver vase in mystic Order laid” (121-122) set the initial tone of mystery and anticipation through the use of inverted syntax and words such as “unveiled” and “mystic.” The overlying tone of epic dignity causes the entire passage to read like a giant hyperbole. Pope depicts this scene as something that is happening to Belinda through “Cosmetic Powers,” (124) rather than something she is doing. Participation in this “event” is exemplified by carefully situated personification in line 137, “Here Files of Pins extend their shining Rows.” This effective imagery allows the reader to see the pins scrambling for lineup, eager to be at Belinda’s disposal.
Pope alludes to the idea of pride being connected to beauty when, in line 128 he is describing the beginning of Belinda’s beauty ritual as beginning “the Sacred Rites of Pride.” During the era in which this poem was written, pride was a noble, desirable quality. Could it be that female “vanity” is simply an outward personal display of one’s pride?
It is the middle of the passage that really comes alive through personification, saturated with poetic and linguistic brilliance. The line, “And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box” (134) is constructed in such a way that when spoken it leaves the reader almost breathless. The first two words, “All Arabia,” have short vowel sounds, the middle word, “breathes,” is the long vowel sound to balance the two ends of the line, and the last words, “from yonder Box,” are short vowel sounds. Pope combines these vowel sounds through assonance to create the breathy effect. This line also uses a synecdoche to encourage the reader to imagine the sensual scents that escape from the open box and fill the room.
Pope simply lists a few of the items on Belinda’s table in line 138, “Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux.” The sophisticated reader can see that much more lies right below the surface of this powerful line. Most noticeably are the items Pope chooses to list, and their order. Pope touches on the frivolity of beautiful women by putting the Bible right next to the love letters. A little bit deeper into the line reveals Pope’s use of plosive sounds to amplify the “list” quality. The repetition of meter, the three consecutive trochees, gives the line an emphatic rhythm, emphasizing the ritualistic importance of the listed items.
The metonymy of the line, “Repairs her Smiles, awakens every Grace” (141) delivers the message that Belinda is painting on the lady-like smile expected from someone of her “Grace.” If beautiful Belinda didn’t carefully accentuate her lips, her Grace may be considered incomplete.
Finally, in the closing line, Pope illuminates the underlying principle of the beauty ritual he has just described. Pope writes, “And Betty’s praised for Labours not her own” (148). The introduction of praise at the end of the passage ties in the subtle, yet evident, parallel theme of the societal necessity of beauty. The beautiful Belinda begins another day, living up to the expectations of beauty, as society shows its appreciation through praise.