Structuralism & “The Rape of the Lock”

This is number two in my ongoing graduate paper series. (You can find number one here.) I will only be posting those papers I write which I feel might help other writers who read my blog. For more information, please refer to my works cited document(s). ~ MM

I was thrilled to discover that Barry’s chapter on structuralism handed me a key toward the solution for my own greatest weakness as a writer: how to avoid over-explanation, aka, how to trust your reader. Barry’s description of Barthes’ five codes of narrative structure helped me see better how different readers might view words on a page for different reasons. Number 3, especially, caught my attention. Barry says that cultural Codes, according to Barthes “… contain[s] references out beyond the text to what is regarded as common knowledge.” (Barry 49) In using cultural cues that are well-known among my readership, I can say something without going into a long narrative to describe and explain it. Of course this may seem like a “no-brainer” for most people, but I tend to try too hard to explain exactly what I want my reader to know and think and feel… which has been a constant thorn in my literary side. In fact, the very idea of structuralism is what I have been looking for to uncomplicated my writing for children overall.

But I digress on my own personal uses for this chapter. I’ll move on now…

Barry’s definition of structuralism is “… [in] essence, the belief that things cannot be understood in isolation…” (Barry 38) When viewing a story through the lens of a structuralist, one must not look so much within the confines of the story itself, but rather “read between the lines” and look “outside the box” to better understand the story as a whole. Barry discusses different ways this can be accomplished, such as understanding the use of language itself: “… if language as a sign system is based on arbitrariness… then it follows that language isn’t a reflection of the world and of experience, but a system which stands quite separate from it.” (Barry 40) and the structure of relational context: “Concrete details from the story are seen in the context of a larger structure, and the larger structure is then seen as an overall network of basic ‘dyadic pairs’, which have obvious symbolic, thematic, and archetypal resonance…” (Barry 45) The chapter then goes on to break this system down even more, into five “cultural Codes” as expressed by Roland Barthes in his 1970 book, “S/Z”. These codes are The Proairetic Code: indications of actions, The Hermeneutic Code: questions or enigmas used to heighten suspense, The Cultural Code (defined above), The Semic Code, and The Symbolic Code. The first three Codes are easily defined, but the latter two, Semic and Symbolic, are a bit more vague. In order to better explain these, Barry takes the reader through three “Stop and Think” exercises based on two specific texts: Poe’s “The Oval Portrait”, and the beginning of an unnamed novel by Mervyn Jones. However, these exercises can also be used in structuralizing other texts, such as our readings for this week.

I have chosen to use Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” in Stop and Think Exercise #1 on page 52 of Beginning Theory. In Barry’s example, he asks the reader to parallel contrasts of story-within-a-story halves in Poe’s poem. He gives examples of said contrasts such as the relationship between two people and the role of the art in each half. These halves in Poe’s work, Barry says, are the reality of the wounded unnamed officer with the story-within-a-story of the painting and the gruesome way it came to be. In Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock”, there are similarly halves that can be contrasted. The most obvious is that between the frivolous reality of a young maiden losing a simple lock of hair to a beau and the heightened dramaticism Pope gives to the same, rendering it a rape in the midst of a battle. Still, within this obvious relationship there are many more contrasts to be noted. Among these are Belinda’s anger at her pride being “raped” by the scissors in contrast to the Amazonian warrior defending her honor in battle, the playing of a game of cards between beaus and belles at a party in contrast to an epic war waged between them, and the loss of a simple lock of hair in contrast to the radiant trail of a star. All these, as well as many others I have not named, can be seen even better though the lens of structuralism when one studies outside the cantos to Pope’s own life, from where the epic poem came. In doing a small amount if research, I found that it is a satirical view of a true story that happened within Pope’s own social circle, which he decided to gently mock in order to calm those involved.

Of course, there are many ways to look at Pope’s poem through structuralism by both comparing and contrasting, from study of its mythological mentions to the allegorical card-battle, to the Shakespearian additions of Othello and Ariel. This would be quite a poem to study further!

Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory Manchester University Press (1995, 2002): 17-20. Print

Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock”. Web


One Response to “Structuralism & “The Rape of the Lock””

  1. […] Structuralism & “The Rape of the Lock” « morganmarshallworlds Barry's description of Barthes' five codes of narrative structure helped me see better how different readers might view words on a page for different reasons. Number 3, especially, caught my attention. Source: […]

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