Characterization is one of the important devices in literature. No doubt, plot of any literary writing is the part and parcel of it but characterization cannot be overlooked because even if other devices are weak in a story, it is the characterization which can convert a weak story into a strong one and make it a master-piece. There have been many works which have become master-pieces in the history of literature due to strong and extraordinary characterization. We have so many great painters in the world of literature. They are Chaucer, Fielding, Jane Austen, Shakespeare and Milton, etc. Pope is one such artist. He has delineated the aristocratic class of his society with all its fondness for prick-teasing, perfidiousness, japery, artifice, hypocrisies, jealousies and levity. Almost all the characters depicted in the poem suit the plot and theme but the character which has won acclamation form the readers is of Belinda. Pope has used the whole of his energy and knowledge to make her a forceful character.
Belinda is all pervasive and central figure in Pope’s poem. It is said that she is the main but mean character of the poem. The whole story and all other characters rotate around her. She is introduced in the story as a paragon of beauty and female charm. She is not only a priest of “the sacred rites of pride”, she is also compared to a warrior arming for the battle. She emerges as a heroic figure and conqueror in the epic encounter of the beaux and belles. Her name is derived from Latin and means “lovely to behold.” She is a model and the representative of all the aristocratic class women of Pope’s age. It seems that Pope himself is enchanted with his own creation. The poet describes her as “The Brightest Fair” and “The Fairest of Mortals.” It is very obvious when we see her during her ride over Thames. “Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay.”The main characteristics of her character are following.
First, in Pope’s age late sleeping and late rising were common among the ladies of aristocratic class. Belinda is the representative of such women. She gets up at 12 O’clock of the day; even she is not fully awake rather she regards herself as sleepless beloved.
Now Lap-dogs give themselves the rousing shake,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake.
Second prominent aspect of the women of Pope’s age was that they were fond of decorating themselves with different cosmetics in order to win the attention of the onlookers. Belinda, as a representative of these women is no exception. When the cover of her dressing table is removed, we see different silver pots of cosmetics arranged on the table in a strange order. There is a casket containing dazzling jewels imported from India. But in another casket, there are the best perfumes brought from Arabia. In another box there are spotted combs made of tortoise-shell and ivory. Another box contains shining pins that are arranged in rows.
“Unnumbered treasures ope at once, and here
The various off ‘rings of the world appear.”
And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.
Third important feature of women of Pope’s time was that they were vain and proud. Belinda, as a representative of these women is also proud and arrogant. She is called “Fairest of mortals.” She is the goddess of beauty. Her cheerful and sharp looks have the expression of the pleasant state of her mind during her journey to River Thames. But neither she fixes her eyes on a specific person nor shows her favours to anyone. However, she smiles to all of them in thankfulness. Often, we see her rejecting offers of some people but not in a way that can break their heart. Her eyes are as bright as the sun and capture the attention of the people gazing at her; and like the sun, her eyes shine equally on them. This is also the quality in her that makes her prominent and raises her value in our eyes.
“Favours to none, to all the smiles extends,
Often she rejects: but never once she offends.”
Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,
And, like the sun, they shine on all alike.”
Another important feature of aristocratic women was that they knew all the tricks to attractthe young gallants. They paid special attention to learn and to be perfect in this art. They had no concern for anything except the learning of how to be at home in all this. They knew how to beautify themselves with different cosmetics and beauty products. Belinda also knows these tricks to trap young gallants and nourishes two locks which add charm to her beauty.
“This nymph, to the destruction of mankind,
Nourish’d two locks, which gracefully hung behind
In equal curls and well conspir’d to deck
With shining ringlets her smooth iv’ry neck.”
These ladies always flirtedwith men. They were very charming and attractive outwardly but inwardly they were morally corrupt. Whatever they had on their faces, was artificial. Belinda also knows how to pretend to be modest by assuming insincere blush on her cheeks, by making her little hearts spring at the sight of a fashionable young man, and by rolling her eyes to see a young man.
“Tis these that early taint the female soul,
Instruct the eyes of young coquettes to roll,
Teach infant cheeks a bidden blush to know,
And little hearts to flutter at a beau.”
Another important feature of the women of aristocratic class of Pope’s age was that they were hypocrite and jealous. Belinda is also a girl of double standard. Outwardly, she is trying to pretend false modesty but inwardly she wishes to be in the company of the young men. She desires that her favourite lock should be cut into pieces. Ariel is her guardian who is trying to protect her but he thinks that he should first observe Belinda’s own thinking. As he sits on the bunch of flowers lying on her body, he observes and is surprised to study the ideas rising in her mind. In spite of her utmost efforts to conceal her secret, he observes that secretly she has been in love with a young man. At that, he is shocked and gets confused and in the end finds that all his power to protect her is completely over. He heaves a sigh and goes away leaving her to her fate. It clearly shows that Belinda is what she is not. She is ready to throw dust in the eyes of others as she swindles herself. The pretensions made by Belinda and her inward feelings are at logger-heads. Inwardly, she is in love with Baron but outwardly she becomes a coquette and overlooks him. That is what Ariel feels in the end;
“Sudden he view’d, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking at her heart.
Amaz’d, confus’d, he found his pow’r expir’d,
Resign’d to fate, and with a sigh retir’d.”
Another important feature of women was that ‘Honour’ was a word with little meaning for them and ‘Reputation’ was more important than honour. They had no regard for morality. The breaking of a China jar was as serious a matter for them as the death of their husband. Same is the case with Belinda. Having lost her lock, she cries, “Return the lock” and the high vaulted roofs of the Hampton Court echo with the same words and resound “Return the lock.” She experiences greater resentment over the cutting of the lock than youthful kings who are captured alive in some battle or war. She shows more disappointment than scornful old maids who have lost their charm. She expresses greater sentimentality than the passionate lovers who have been deprived of the pleasures of love. And even furious Othello does not shout so loudly at his wife for the handkerchief that prickles his mind, causes tragedy in his life and blights his life. It shows that Belinda also behaves like a spoilt child. We can also say that Belinda’s shallowness and the superficiality could not have been more skillfully exposed than in this lament.
“No louder shrieks to pitying Heaven are cast,
When husbands, or when lapdogs breathe their last.”
One thing is very surprising. Even her lament is of double standard. We are highly surprised when we see Belinda saying;
“Oh hadst thou, cruel!been content to seize!
Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these.”
No doubt, her anger is quite natural but she goes beyond the limits when she cries hysterically. It is the situation about which a writer says: “Grandiosity can be seen when a person admires himself, his qualities, such as beauty, intelligence, talent or any other quality or achievement. If one of these happens to fail, then the catastrophe of a severe depression is near. In Belinda’s case, it is a breach of hero-worship and rules of chivalry and courtship.”
The portraits of Belinda and Clarissa like women have compelled some critics to raise the objection against Pope’s treatment of female characters in“The Rape of the Lock.” They think that Pope has gone beyond the limits in portraying his female characters. But I think, Pope’s real purpose in writing this master-piece was to satirize women for their coquetry, flirtiest nature, artifice, shallowness, artificiality and jealousies. That’s why, Pope’s attitude to Belinda is considered very mixed and complicated. His style is mocking as well as tender and encouraging. Here one thing is worth mentioning and that is the paradoxical nature of Pope’s attitude. It is related to the paradox of Belinda’s situation. She is considered an embodiment of contradictions as is the society she is living in. The readers cannot find the character like Belinda in literature. John Dennis says: “Belinda is a chimera, and not a character.”
To sum up, several aspects of the personality of Belinda have been portrayed by Pope in “The Rape of the Lock.” Now the question is what she is because her character has many lights and shades. She is purely a goddess, or a pretty spoiled child or a flirt? I think, she is a combination of all three, and yet much more than such a combination. We see her in many different lights. She is a coquette, a society lady, an injured innocent, a sweet charmer, a society belle, a rival of the sun, and a murderer of millions. She has, indeed, a Cleopatra-like variety. (Words: 1755)