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The Attitude Towards Women as Demonstrated by Pope and de La Fayette

Written by Marjorie Montenegro

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The Attitude Towards Women as Demonstrated by Pope and de La Fayette
 
In exploring the differences in the attitude towards women in The Princess of Cleves and The Rape of the Lock, there are a number of gauges that can be used; however, the most striking example can be found in the style employed by the two authors.  Alexander Pope utilizes mock heroic epic form to give voice to his scorn of the asinine scenario played out throughout The Rape of the Lock.  Madame de La Fayette, however, utilizes a historical backdrop coupled with the intrigue found in the royal escapades of the time to enhance the seriousness of the issues faced by the protagonist of her story.  The different techniques employed by the authors immediately color the judgment of the reader and instill certain prejudices towards the stories' main characters.
 
However, you can further ascertain the author's view of women by looking at key indexes throughout the texts.  While Pope displays women as mere adornments to men, de La Fayette portrays them as the true wielders of power content to allow their men to believe that it is they who are in control.  While Pope's story echoes the hollowness of Belinda, de La Fayette's pours over the deep turmoil and conscience of Madame de Cleves.  While Pope condones the lack of education in his self-absorbed "heroine," de La Fayette demonstrates appreciation for the cultured and learned women of her work.  While Pope portrays the existence of the coquette in his tale as a lonely life void of camaraderie, de La Fayette demonstrates the companionship that women of substance enjoy and seemingly need in order to be whole.  And finally, while Pope's story is concluded by the condescending speech given to pacify the vain superficial feelings of Belinda, de La Fayette's story ends where the thinking on the part of the reader is meant to begin.  Madame de La Fayette clearly expects the reader to draw from Madame de Cleves' story a moral.
 
Heroic epic poetry, such as The Odyssey, relates grandiose tales of adventure had by heroes of stature doing daring deeds all set in magnificent surroundings; however, mock epic poetry utilizes the same machinations of heroic epic poetry without the words grandiose, daring or magnificent.  Rather then relating what is great and wondrous, it ridicules the plot by setting it into the structure of the classic form without the depth of what once resided therein.  Through the use of mock epic Pope was able to show the difference in the plight of Belinda with the plight of someone actually leading a substantial life.  In The Odyssey gods appear in order to aid the worthy hero in his fight against the mass of would be suitors invading his home and coveting his wife; however, in The Rape of the Lock gods appear to Belinda from Spleen in order to fuel her ire at the loss of her tress of hair.  Rather than a battle between Odysseus and Cyclops, which would lead to breathtaking excitement for the reader, Pope gives us a halfhearted wrestling match between a self-absorbed bubblehead and a knight in shining scissors.
 
The Princess of Cleves, on the other hand, uses rich historical detail in order to transport the reader to a time of court intrigue and gives the reader identifiable landmarks in which to put the period in context.  When picking up a book of modern history, the reader is apt to believe what they're reading is true to life; therefore, the words are given credence in that context.  Madame de La Fayette understands this and uses it to draw the reader into the story with an air of credibility and seriousness.  As the dilemma faced by the protagonist is serious, de La Fayette brings our thoughts into a comparable mode when presenting Madame de Cleves; story.  When reading a history book, the reader is unlikely to ask, "should I believe this or not?" but merely accepts without question; therefore, when reading the history of the time as a background to the story presented by Madame de La Fayette, the reader is put into a mode whereby it can be accepted that Madame de Cleves' story is true.
 
But what about Pope's story indicates a belittling of women?  In all descriptions of the women in The Rape of the Lock, the only true facet of character revealed is that of superficial beauty.  We are privy to the dressing ritual of Belinda where Pope alludes to a religious ceremony casting Belinda as the priestess.  Through this allusion we see that the act of beautification is the religion of Belinda.  Although not intended in this context, I find the use of toilet apropos in this instance as the solemnity given to the occasion of her dressing is nothing more than that which should reside within such toilet.  Pope, therefore, has made his point about the shallowness of women when describing Belinda's morning ritual, or her holy experience, by saying:

And now, unveiled, the Toilet stands displayed,/ Each silver Vase in mystic order laid./ First, robed in white, the Nymph intent adores,/ With head uncovered, the Cosmic powers.

Here Pope alludes to a religious event with the altar represented as the "Toilet" while the silver chalices have now become "Each silver Vase."  The reference to "Nymph" who is "robed in white" and "With head uncovered" is reminiscent of the priest in his robes.

A heavenly image in the glass appears,/ To that she bends, to that her eyes she rears;/ Th' inferior Priestess, at her altar's side,/ Trembling, begins the sacred rites of Pride./ Unnumbered treasures ope at once, and here/ The various offerings of the world appear;/ From each she nicely culls with curious toil,/ And decks the Goddess with the glittering spoil.

As we see, the "heavenly image in the glass" would be Belinda's own image in the looking glass, with the unworthy priestess, such as Belinda's handmaidens, assisting her in getting dressed.  The "offerings" of those who had worshipped before her, which were so numerous as to be "unnumbered" would bedeck the princess with "glittering spoil."

Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms;/ The fair each moment rises in her charms,/ Repairs her smiles, awakens every grace./ And calls forth all the wonders of her face;/ See by degrees a purer blush arise,/ And keener lightnings quicken in her eyes.

Pope, still ridiculing, makes references to the effects of makeup on Belinda.  However, rather than letting the process seem as an enhancement, he tells of how it makes her more "real" than she was previous.  For example, "Repairs her smiles," "calls forth all the wonders of her face," "a purer blush arise," and "keener lightnings quicken in her eyes."  These elements of beauty which should come naturally, as told by Pope, are only effectuate by the use of cosmetics.
 
Further into the story we see, much to our chagrin, the effects of this sacred exercise when this beauty corrupts those around her.  Pope states:
 
On her white breast a sparkling Cross she wore,/ Which Jews might kiss, and Infidels adore.

It is important to note that the cross that is worn around Belinda's neck incites Jews and Infidels to convert.  It is not the site of the cross that causes this reaction but its placement on Belinda.  Apparently, the sight of Belinda's charms takes on more importance than religion.  The superficial clearly overrides the religious conviction of both the Jew and the Infidel.  Equally apparent is the fact that Pope's heroine uses her appearance to gain power, but let us look at what power is given to women in de La Fayette's story.
 
The men in The Princess of Cleves actually rule only behind the iron petticoat.  From the opening of the story we see that the King himself is manipulated, and thus controlled, by women.  From the onset de La Fayette shows how the King was not ruler of his realm but rather ruled by the women in his life.  This is apparent from the descriptions of both the Queen and the King's mistress in Book 1.  Said of the Queen:

The ambitious temperament of the Queen made ruling a great pleasure to her.  She did nto seem to mind the King's attachment to the Duchesse de Valentinois, and she never displayed any jealousy towards her.  But she was capable of such profound dissimulation that it was difficult to judge her feelings.  In any case, policy demanded that she keep the Duchesse closely attached to herself, since this also insured the attachment of the King.

Further in the passage, the description of the Duchesse de Valentinois, mistress to the King, furthers the belief that the King was in charge of neither his environment nor himself.
 
But the King was never so happy to bestow favors and bounty on his courtiers as when they were recommended by the Duchesse de Valentinois.  Although she was no longer young and beautiful, she ruled the King with such absolute control that one could say that she was mistress of his person and of the State.

Certainly, there is more to the King's women than their appearance alone, but what of our heroine?  When she first meets her future husband, the Prince of Cleves, although taken by her beauty his love is fueled by "the modest air that he noticed in all her actions it could be said that at that moment he fell in love with her."  This alone distinguishes Mademoiselle de Chartres as one who is not consumed with physical beauty, but rather, is unaware of her outward effect on men.  Additionally, through her openness with her feelings, we are privy to the importance that morality plays in Mademoiselle de Chartres' life.
 
Since Mademoiselle de Chartres had a very fine and noble heart, who was touched with gratitude by the Prince de Cleves proposal.  This gratitude lent an air of sweetness to her answers to him, which was enough to give hope to a man so deeply in love as the Prince.  Thus he flattered himself that he had the match he so much desired.  Mademoiselle de Chartres repeated this conversation to her mother, who told her that the Prince de Cleves was a person of such grandeur and work, and that he displayed such wisdom for his age, that if she wished to marry him, she would gladly consent.  Mademoiselle de Chartres replied that she had noted the same good qualities.  She said that she would marry him with less aversion than another, but that she didnt feel any physical attraction to him.

Here, Mademoiselle de Chartres values the good qualities in the Prince of Cleves.  Although in essence she consents to the marriage, she steadfastly refuses to lie about how she feels toward the Prince.  She is a person of morals who values the same in others.  This quality distinguishes her from the other ladies of the court and therefore, it is the mark of her true beauty.
 
In further examining the treatment of women, it is important to see what the author values in the women of their story.  What does Pope, in Rape, say about education in regards to women?  Pope makes his opinion clear by saying in his letter to Mrs. Arabella Fermor:

The Machinery, Madam, is a term invented by the Critics, to signify that part of which are the Deities, Angels, or Daemons are mad to act in a Poem: For the ancient Poets are in one respect like many modern Ladies: let an action be never so trivial in itself, they always make it appear of the utmost importance . . . I know how disagreeable it is to make use of hard words before a Lady; but 'tis our Sex, that you must give me leave to explain two or three difficult terms.
 
He furthers this opinion of 'your Sex,' by showing Belinda's total lack of ambition about even the basic awakening of the day.  The life of languid leisure so succinctly described gives rise to the belief that each day in the life of Belinda, our protagonist, is a series of lazy mornings, self-indulgent afternoons, and evenings wrought with flirtatious nonsense.  Just the awakening of Belinda alone magnifies the lack of sense she possesses.  Her dog, Shock, however, is intelligent enough to see that she has wasted far too much of the day.

He said; when Shock, who thought she slept too long, Leaped up, and waked his mistress with his tongue.
 
This disregard for education in women is not present in The Princess of Cleves.  In this story we are told of the importance of a womans education through a series of references to those women who have obtained one.  In Book 1, de La Fayette describes various members of the court and in doing so shows the respect garnered to women of learning.

Madame Elizabeth de France, who was later to be the Queen of Spain, was beginning to display that sparkling wit and incomparable beauty which were later to be so unfortunate for her.  Mary Stuart, the Queen of Scotland, who had just married the Dauphin, and who was called the Reine Dauphine, was perfection itself both in mind and body.  She had been brought up at the French Court, and had absorbed all of its refinement.  She was born with such a taste for all the most beautiful things that, despite her extreme youth, she was a connoisseur and appreciated them better than anyone.  The Queen, her mother-in-law, and Madame, the King's sister, also enjoyed poetry, drama, and music.
 
It becomes apparent by virtue of these examples that education is not wasted on women; however, this point is most succinctly made when describing the pre-court life of Mademoiselle de Chartres.

Her father had died young, and had left her to be brought up by her mother, Madame de Chartres, whose nobility, virtue, and character were extraordinary.  After she lost her husband, she spent several years without returning to Court.  During this absence, she devoted herself to her daughters education.  She not only cultivated her intellect and beauty, but she also sought to give her virtue and to make her lovable.
 
A further marker to the treatment of women in each of these stories comes from the saying, "You are known by the company you keep."  If that is true than it further demonstrates the emptiness of Belinda for she is portrayed without any true friendships, with perhaps the exception of her dog Shock.  Throughout this 'epic' we are shown how only the Sylphs accompany Belinda through her day, and hey are akin to transparent wisps of what once was.  The counsel of the Sylphs is neither sought nor taken and Belinda is perfectly content with this arrangement.  So isolated is she that when at last she does receive counsel in corporeal form, she eagerly takes it.  Furthermore, much of her hysterics are nothing more than a cry for attention, showing how desperately lonely she really is.  Belindas ire is urged by Thalestris' speech regarding public humility:

Gods!  Shall the ravisher display your hair, /While the Fops envy, and the Ladies stare!/ Honor forbid!  At whose unrivalled shrine/ Ease, pleasure, virtue, all our sex resign./ Methinks already I your tears survey,/ Already hear the horrid things they say,/ And all your honour in a whisper lost!/ How shall I, then, your helpless fame defend?
 
Of course, Belinda, being the superficial woman that she is, immediately takes to heart Thalestris' idea of being publicly humiliated.  In response she cries:

A Sylph too warned me of the threats of fate,/ In mystic visions, now believed too late!/ See the poor remnants of these slighted hairs!/ My hands shall rend what even thy rapine spares:/These in two sable ringlets taught to break,/ Once gave new beauties to the snowy neck;/ The sister lock now sits uncouth, alone,/ And in its fellows fate foresees its own;/ Uncurled it hangs, the fatal shears demands,/ And tempts once more, thy sacrilegious hands./ Oh hadst though, cruel! Been content to seize/ Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!
 
In The Princess of Cleves, each lady enjoys the camaraderie of many friends of both genders.  She tells stories to them and shares secrets about herself and others.  Although many of these may qualify as superficial friendships, among the assorted ensembles there are a few chosen to be the confidante of the Lady for whom the troupe follows.  Because of her excellence in character, Mademoiselle de Chartres was immediately sought out by all of the Ladies of Court to be among their companions.  This, of course, with the exception of the Duchess of Vallenoius.

The fact that the Duchess chooses to reject Mademoiselle de Chartres only furthers the ideal of good and evil in this story, because the Duchess is most often associated with the negative aspects of human nature, such as jealousy, unfaithfulness, and trickery; therefore, it is only apropos that an innocent, such as Mademoiselle de Chartres, would not appeal to the Duchess.  She does, however, become the confidante of the Reine Dauphine, a Lady of substance who, among all others, gives Madame de Cleves the most to be concerned about in vying for the Duc de Nemours affections.  Madame de Cleves becomes the Reine Dauphines main confidant in matters of the heart, a relationship established early in the novel.  When Madame de Chartres wishes an alliance between her daughter and Monsieur d'Anville, she approaches the Reine Dauphine to secure it.  The following passages demonstrate that although initially the Reine Dauphine wishes to console Mademoiselle de Chartres, it is de Chartres who inevitably offers consolation.  The understanding between these two women allow for such an exchange to gratify the needs of each without belittling the needs of the other.
 
It was a great relief for the Reine Dauphine to reveal to Mademoiselle de Chartres the unhappiness she felt at not being able to help her.  "you see that my power is very limited.  The Queen and the Duchesse hate me so much that its not very difficult for them or for their followers to stand in the way of everything I want. . . .  Mademoiselle de Chartres told the Queen that these presentiments were so ill-founded that she wouldnt keep them for long and that she shouldnt doubt that her future happiness would fulfill all her expectations.

Later in the story, the expectation of honesty is expressed when Madame de Cleves believes that the Duc de Nemours is in love with the Reine Dauphine, and, therefore, questions her about statements made in her presence.  It is this dialogue which shows the extent of familiarity that Madame de Cleves has with the Reine Dauphine and the expectations of truthfulness that exists between the two.
 
She could not help revealing some of her feelings, and, as the other ladies moved away, she went to the Reine Dauphine and whispered to her, "Is it for my benefit that you have just been talking, and do you wish to hide from me the fact that you are the one who has made the Duc de Nemours change his conduct?" . . . . You are unjust, said the Raine Dauphine.  "You know that I have nothing to hide from you.  It's true that before the Duc de Nemours went to Brussels, he had the intention, I think, of letting me know that he was fond of me.  But since his return it seems to me that he doesnt even remember the things he said.  I admit that Im very curious to know who has made him change, and it will be a strange thing if I cant figure it out," she added.  "The Vidame de Chartres is in love with a lady over whom I have a certain amount of influence.  Through her I will try to find out what has caused this great change."

In their relationship we see not only friendship, but the camaraderie of two people who can turn to and rely on one another.
 
Finally, we must examine the point of each of these stories.  What are the morals of these tales?  What do each of the protagonists learn as a result of their trials?  Belinda in Rape, in her customary manner, has learned nothing.  Furthermore, we, as readers, have learned nothing through examining Belinda with, perhaps, the exception of what a trite and useless life she lived.  In addition to this lack of deep introspection needed on the part of the reader, what constitutes the closing of this poem?  The last lines of this "epic" show how trivial the character of Belinda is and with its happily ever after fairy tale ending, we know that what we have read is nothing more than a story of a child.  Thus, we close our examination on Pope's The Rape of the Lock with his own words:
 
Then cease, bright Nymph? To mourn thy ravished hair,/ Which adds new glory to the shining sphere!/ Not all the tresses that fair head can boast,/ Shall draw such envy as the Lock you lost./ For, after all the murders of your eye,/ When, after millions slain, yourself shall die;/ When those fair suns shall set, as set they must,/ And all those tresses shall be laid in dust,/ This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to fame,/ And midst the stars inscribe Belindas name.
 
Yes, Belinda's vanities will live to fight another day; however, all is not well in de La Fayettes tale of conscience and love.
The Princess of Cleves forces us to examine deep, intrinsic values that linger in our minds long after the tale has been told.  Was Madame de Cleves a victim of her virtue, her mother, her guilt, or a combination of all of these?  Were her choices wise or foolishly controlled by everything and everyone but herself?  What would we have done in a similar situation?  These questions are questions without a definitive answer; however, as the reader we are permitted to answer from our own perspective.  This quality is representative of greatness in literature and depth of storytelling.  The difference in our mindset when concluding de La Fayette as opposed to Pope is the difference between night and day, right and wrong, and true storytelling versus amusing verse.  Now, the more concrete finale of Madame de Cleves trial:
 
But he did not let himself get discouraged.  He did everything eh could to make her change her mind.  At last, when many years had passed, time and absence softened his sorrow and extinguished his passion.  Madame de Cleves gave no indication of returning.  She spent part of each year in the convent and the rest at home, but in a retreat and in occupations more holy than those of the strictest convents.  her life, which was quite short, left examples of inimitable virtue.
 
All the factors examined throughout this paper constitute the difference not only in Alexander Pope's and Madame de La Fayette's work, but the difference between a man and a woman,s attitude towards women.


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