Moral lesson of The Rape of the Lock | What moral lesson do you find in The Rape of the Lock? Discuss with illustrations.

Moral lesson of The Rape of the Lock | What moral lesson do you find in The Rape of the Lock? Discuss with illustrations.

Moral lesson of The Rape of the Lock

That there is an important moral lesson to be drawn from The Rape of the Lock should be clear from the specific purpose it served in its original version. It was originally written with a view to bringing about a reconciliation between the two families of Farmers and Peters, and it did succeed immensely. Having read the poem, the two families realised the superficialities of their quarrel and buried the hatchet for good. To be sure, they did derive some moral lesson from the poem, or else they would not have become friends again.

Nevertheless when the most uncompromising of the eighteenth century critics, John Dennis read the first version of the poem, he did not find a moral, lesson in it; and on that ground he rejected the poem as trivial and formless. He pointed out that in a work of satire of mock-epic structure the moral norm must be clearly stated and Pope had failed to provide it.

In the second version of the poem, apart from adding the whole of supernatural machinery, he also added in Canto V a speech delivered by Clarissa with the sole purpose, as he said, of making his moral norm explicit in the poem. Since then the speech of Clarissa is regarded as the repository of Pope’s moral lesson, and this character as the mouthpiece of the poet, though this has not been always accepted without reservations. But to. any attentive reader of The Rape of the Lock the moral lesson would appear to be implicit in every satirical portrait, or description. Every exaggeration presupposes a norm which is implicit in the exaggeration itself. For example, in the first Canto, Pope is satirising the sloth the late rising and wasteful habits of the aristocratic ladies through exaggerations in the description of Belinda’s lap-dog waking her up and of her worshipping the cosmetic rather than the cosmic powers. By implication, the moral lessons to be drawn are that one must get up early, be prompt in habits and avoid excesses of artificial make up. Similarly moral lessons can be deduced from the satirical scenes of the rest of the poem. By exaggerating their vanities, superficialities, craze for fashions excessive zest for flirtations, Pope is making us deduce that these are vices and must therefore be given up and that virtue lies in accepting the natural course of life. Again, by exposing virginity to ridicule, for example, in Ariel’s speech which describes how the way of protecting the virginity of a beautiful lady is to make her flirt not less but more. Pope is preaching that virginity up to an age may be a virtue but a life time virginity for a woman is nothing short of vice, for it is unnatural and abnormal, some fantastic pictures of which we get in the Cave of Spleen scene in the fourth Canto.

Thus, if we read The Rape of the Lock closely, moral lesson is latent everywhere and Clarissa does nothing more than deducing it more explicitly for the readers. The crux of Clarissa’s speech lies in her upholding the virtue of “good sense” and “good human,” which was also the essence of the eighteenth-century moral code. She is a good preacher, though, in the given situation, all her preaching falls flat on the audience. She begins by most flattering the irate ladies. At first, she recognizes the importance of the physical charm, the attraction of a beautiful face, and even the legitimacy of artificial make up, wearing expensive jewellery and so on. But then she asks are women the Centre of attraction of men of all ages only because of their physical beauty? She proceeds to describe how women are the centre of attraction. Lovers and gallants call them ‘angels’ and adore them like angels. Even middle aged or old wise men sometimes develop passion for beautiful women. When those beauties go to the theatre all the lords and aristocratic gallants crane their necks from their boxes to have a glance of them. Is the reason of all this merely the physical charm and youthfulness of women, asks Clarissa and herself answers –

“How vain are all those glories, all our pains,

Unless good sense preserves what beauty gains.”

In other words, unless good sense is acquired, no beautiful woman would be able to retain her beauty for long. The reason is very simple. The merely physical beauty passes with age old age completely destroys it. Even in the youth, excessive indulgence in frivolous sex-intrigues, dissipation would make a beautiful face look faded and ugly. If a beautiful woman acquires good sense, she will not only be radiant in her youth but will retain the beauty of her manner, demeanor, long after she has lost her physical beauty.

By “good sense,” Clarissa means what any eighteenth century moral philosopher would have means avoiding the excesses, moderation, and sticking to the golden mean. And it is not enough to practise moderation, good sense under compulsion, it is necessary to cultivate a good sense, understanding and a sense of joy, that is good humor. In short, what Clarissa is pleading for is an understanding of irreversible natural law of growing old and losing physical beauty for ever, and in that light, an understanding of the futility of all attempts at day-long embellishments.

Perhaps, the poem would not lose much, were it without this speech of Clarissa; for as stated earlier, she makes explicit what is implicit all through the narrative. But then this is in complete conformity with mock epic structure of The Rape of the Lock. And besides, the speech is well timed, it sustains and adds to the suspense of impending war between the sexes.

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About the author

Kumud Singh

M.A., B.Ed.

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