Commodity and Religion in Pope's the Rape of the Lock: Alex Eric Hernandez

By Eric Hernandez, Alex | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview
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Commodity and Religion in Pope's the Rape of the Lock: Alex Eric Hernandez


Eric Hernandez, Alex, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


Critics reading Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock typically identify the bathetic placement of items on Belinda's toilette as an example of the proliferation of consumables in the poem. The heroine's "Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux," aside from being a moment of literary inventiveness for Pope, serve as a paradigmatic example of the mixture of high and low themes characteristic of bathos. (1) The past twenty-five years have seen influential work proceed from a variety of contextual perspectives in order to analyze the contemporary market for these consumables in relation to Pope's own attitudes to commodity fetishism, drugs, and women, illuminating long-overlooked aspects of the poem. (2) Yet despite this, little has been said about Pope's decision to include Bibles among these consumables, much less about the vibrant religious imagery the poem is rife with. Indeed, among the major critics of the work, only Geoffrey Tillotson mentions the Bible in the toilette scene at any length--and even he seems less concerned with what the connection between the Bible and the other commodities might mean to the poem as a whole than with the extent to which Belinda can therefore be identified with Arabella Fermor, the real-life victim of the poem's eponymous transgression. (3)

This essay argues, by contrast, that the placement of the Bible among the other consumables on Belinda's table in fact signifies something important, that it suggests for us a specific confusion of religion and consumer culture in Pope's England. For there, in the heart of the first canto, Pope criticizes those who would commodify the ethical heart of Christiantity by making the provocative claim that, like the powders used to beautify Belinda, the Bible may become simply another accessory for those positioning themselves socially--or, perhaps more insidiously, it becomes an ideological tool for a rapidly industrializing society. Pope's point, one suspects, is that such treatment in fact neuters the ethical message at the heart of the religion, that it turns it into something to be traded according to transient market forces. This seems especially true in the charged world of the British beau monde in which chastity and propriety in a young woman may operate as marital selling points, themselves instances of the market's potency in structuring the metaphorical space of lived experience. I argue therefore, that Pope draws on a tradition of religious and political debate in which the Bible had become a sort of code, shorthand for a certain view of patriotism and religious affiliation, still relatively synonymous in the context of Pope's England. Extending from slightly before the Interregnum through the Restoration, this tradition sought to map a political middle ground for the Bible, equating it with Anglican Protestantism and civic duty, thereby disenfranchising not only the more radical wing of the Reformation and its attendant schismatics, but also the recusant Catholic community of which Pope was a part. Yet this marginalized position also offers the poet a unique avenue from which to advance his own critique of the religious and cultural status quo, engaging in textual play through The Rape of the Lock, and later, in its anonymously published companion "Key to the Lock." that conflates this brand of religious iconography with contemporary attitudes toward and concerns with a changing political economy. Pope is thus imaginatively engaged in a project of yoking two strands of critical thought: one, concerned with the religious and theological signifying potential of the Bible, and another, concerned with early capitalist anxieties latent in the text.

These anxieties, of course, appear most clearly in the relationship between the poem and its consumables. That The Rape of the Lock is a text about things and the consumption of things as much as it is about the characters consuming them now seems a critical commonplace; much has been written in recent years about Pope's troubled relationship with the objects that populate his poem.

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