Question: What is the relationship between the poem's opening interest in "strange motives," its various structures of mediated agency visible in the poem, and the genre of satire?

 

In the Rape of the Lock (1714 ed.), Pope repeatedly represents human actions as shaped by forces beyond immediate individual conscious will. His two opening puzzles‑‑why the Baron cuts the lock and why Belinda responds as she does‑‑both are addressed in the poem's strongest scenes of such alienated agency: first, the Baron is acting under the influence of coffee consumed at the card game; second, Belinda reacts because Umbriel the gnome bursts a bag of rage and tears over her head. Although the characters are clearly comic, they represent serious thought about agents of human action as both standing outside of the body and incorporated into it. Belinda's deepest emotions are also out of her full control, and Pope offers a picture of all our emotions as "passions," forces to which we become patients, much as when our bodies (or minds) are invaded by diseases.

 

This is further consistent with the whole machinery of the sylphs, representing a kind of alienated or deviated agency we have come to accept as very realistic. Pope constructs the sylph world as 1) the spirits of former women 2) charged with the duty of protecting virginity 3) trying to offer counsel and protection to Belinda but perhaps misleading her as much as guiding her well. The spirit world does not seem to simply be played for laughs, because it presents a picture of what we would now call ideology, in this case a critically important "ideology of feminine virtue" which guides Belinda's every move. Pope consistently represents those actions Freud will also see as most fraught with strange motives, those involving sex, violence, and gender identity, as beyond our complete, conscious, willful control. Finally, the shadowy picture of agency in the poem runs in striking parallel to the way authors of all kinds hover behind texts as invisible agents the way sylphs hover over Belinda.

 

This can have strong ethical consequences for satire. If a theory of human personhood and agency involves such alienations, it becomes hard to successfully blame and arraign anyone for even the most reprehensible actions. Can Pope satirize anyone without being able to assign motives to individual character and willful choice? If he ends up blaming the victims, has his satire lost all moral authority as a virtuous source of correction to rampant human vices? Or is he instead satirizing those who believe individuals are not responsible for their actions?