century Englishwomans world was small. It
emphasized beauty and domesticity and therefore the products that helped
achieve those ends. Women, in their limited sphere, became associated
with the vice of materialism. As materialism became a gendered concept,
men who indulged in luxuries came to be considered effeminate. The
Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope and Marriage A-la-Mode
by William Hogarth both depict men and women who lack virtue and rationality
because of their luxurious and opulent lifestyles. Completed in 1717,
The Rape of the Lock set its critique against the backdrop
of an aristocratic world. However, the middle of the eighteenth century
brought industrialism and changing classifications of society. English
society came to associate the developing commercial class with a preoccupation
with material goods. Produced thirty years after Pope's poem, Marriage
A-la-Mode illustrates the addition of a more complex class dimension
to the critique of femininity and materialism. Society, adding this
class element to the already gendered concept of materialism, cast middle
class women as the ultimate materialists.
Prosperous marriage was the goal for most women of the eighteenth
century. Beauty, grace and charms were means used to achieve this end.
A decent dowry and a virtuous reputation also helped. However, a womans
physical attractions and social graces could be both an asset and a
liability to societys perception of her virtue and morality. On
the one hand, women were appraised on the basis of their physical beauty,
which cannot be separated from sexuality and its association with immorality.
Contradicting this was the belief that, according to Jones, a
womans beauty could make manifest her inner virtue (1).
English culture interpreted womens social graces as a civilizing
force, and manners and morals added to a ladys overall attractiveness.
Yet, to every writer . . . who was prepared to suggest that women
aided sociability, there was an opposing view . . . that the presence
of women tempted men into effeminate assemblies devoid of virtue
(Jones 154). Vanity, as illustrated by attention to clothing and appearance,
was another vice, Bouten notes (79). It was believed to be immoral to
spend too much attention on clothing, Browne writes, yet this attention
was necessary to demonstrate good taste and show off ones assets
modestly ( 34).
The need to be beautiful created a demand for goods and products
such as fine fabrics and perfumes. A world of material culture grew
up around women, based in these products and in womens role managing
the household. A gentlewoman," Vickery notes, "was far
more likely than her brothers to inherit personal property, due
to the inheritance practices of the time (294). It was no wonder that
material goods held talismanic properties, for a woman used
material things to honor God and her family, to lend substance to her
relationships (Vickery 284-285). Womens involvement with
objects and goods, a result of their limited sphere in life, led society
to cast them as materialistic.
In The Rape of the Lock, Pope condemns his heroine for
such materialism. Pope first focuses on Belindas appearance to
make his case. Pope illustrates Belindas physical attractions
in no uncertain terms. When she looks in the mirror, a heavenly
image in the glass appears (1:125). Her eyes are bright
as the sun and her neck is smooth and ivory (2:14,
22). Our heroines power is in her beauty, which is the reason
she nurtures two locks which graceful hung behind (2:20).
These are the very locks that the Baron desires. Belindas beauty
is her primary tool in her quest for a suitable husband.
Belinda seems to have a natural loveliness, but it is her intricate
toilet that turns her into an exquisitely finished product. Pope describes
her morning routine as he would a mass. Her servant or inferior
priestess . . . begins the sacred rites of Pride (1:127-128).
Through the use of cosmetics, Belinda arms herself for the
drawing room and the battle to make a good match (1:139). She emerges
from her efforts as a painted vessel, her natural loveliness
enhanced by arts available to her class. Belindas dressing table
is a menagerie of cosmetics, many from exotic lands like Arabia and
India. These products must be relatively new to British shores, brought
over by the beginnings of colonization and industrialization, and attest
to Belindas financial and social situation as well as her vanity
These extravagances are not just limited to Belindas appearance,
but are visible in her setting. Our heroines lapdog, her downy
pillows and the pressed watch that summons her maid
all attest to her situation in life (1:18-19). Her drawing room is home
for more exotic items, like a charming Indian screen and
a Japanese lacquered table (3:14, 107). She and her friends enjoy coffee,
tea and snuff. Most conspicuously, when the Sylphs seek to warn Belinda
of the Barons impending attack, they twitch the diamond in her
ear. The Sylphs, spirits who act as ladies-in-waiting to vain young
beauties, are themselves described in terms of luxury. They reside in
a palace, from whence they issue attired in glittering textures
with ever-mingling dyes (2:64, 66). Similarly materialistic
are their duties. Their function is to tend the Fair by
curling waving hairs and ensuring general beauty and charm
(2:91, 97). These duties are ironically juxtaposed with those performed
by other spirits who guard with arms divine the British Throne
This materialism has affected Belindas character, and she
engages in no rational and productive behavior. She and her suitor idle
away the day talking and playing cards. Likewise, Belinda wastes the
morning tarrying in her comfortable bed and rising at twelve. With a
Baron gracing the drawing room, Belindas family is obviously well
situated monetarily and socially. However, women in her position, at
least matrons, would probably have some household responsibilities.
Lorna Weatherill describes the difficulties of cleaning and running
a household in the days before vacuum cleaners: even among the
better-off, considerable effort was needed (139). As Weatherill
notes, women in the gentry were expected to be able to cook, even
if they did not always do so (149). Pope chooses not to depict
Belinda performing any of these duties. Nor does he more than briefly
acknowledge that it is beyond Belindas scope as a woman to actively
participate in much of life, and not necessary for her social situation.
Instead, he focuses on her female errors of materialism
and extravagance (2:17). The wise Clarissa sums up Popes dissatisfaction
with this lavish lifestyle:
Pope casts the harshest light on Belinda at the end of the poem.
She is most upset that it is this particular lock that has been removed:
Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize / Hairs less in sight,
or any hairs but these! (4:175-176). The rape is not as important
as the damaging of her appearance. In fact, this sign of the Barons
regard excites in her no dreams of his intentions. Belinda forgets that
her tendrils are merely tools in the dating game, and loves her beauty
for its own sake. While readers may question whether the Baron can have
intentions to wed Belinda and still commit this disrespectful act, Pope
obviously means to cast Belinda as the victim of her own materialism.
The Sylphs instruct us that women who are too conscious of . .
. face, are destined to be too proud for any man (1:79). The Gnomes
guide these proud beauties, as they guide Belinda in the end to draw
the deadly bodkin (5:88). Belindas opulent lifestyle,
her focus on her appearance, and her lack of any rational exercise of
mind all contribute to her reaction to the Barons act. To Pope,
there is nothing virtuous in this reaction; it is an irrational result
of her rarified, materialistic existence.
Belindas Baron, who idles away his day playing cards with
Belinda and her guests, is, according to Jones, an example of women
leading men into effeminate assemblies devoid of virtue
(154). Pope portrays the Baron ironically as a valiant knight, whose
jousting arena is the drawing room. There he whiles away the instructive
hours learning who gave the ball, or paid the visit last
(3:11-12). The Baron desires Belindas hair as an addition to his
collection of love tokens: three garters, half a pair of gloves,
/ And all the trophies of his former loves (2:39-40). He needs
material objects to remind himself of his loves and conquests. The Baron
worships at the altar of Love, reminiscent of chivalrous knights and
their undying passion for their lady fair. But this knight has no worthy
battle to keep him from growing soft and womanly under the influence
of too much sentimentality. The Baron is an aristocrat and has no occupation
but to pursue love to an unmanly extent. His battlefield is first the
card-table, where he advances the Ace of Hearts (a further sign of his
preoccupation) and loses the field. When he claims the lock, he cries
for wreaths of triumph as if this rude and ungentlemanly
act is comparable to the fall of Troy (3:161). Belinda tries to enlist
the aid of another materialistic gentleman, Sir Plume of amber
snuffbox justly vain, but his unthinking efforts to
defend her honor predictably fail (4:123, 125). The other men present
for the final fight, Dapperwit and Sir Fopling,
have telling names (5:62-63). These men are dapper fops, well dressed
and useless. Belinda goes on to defeat the Baron, though she does not
gain the lock, which ascends to the heavens. The Baron is far from a
valiant knight. He embodies materialism, idleness and sentimentality:
characteristics typically associated with women. The end of the work
leaves us in little doubt that materialism has corrupted both Belinda
and her Baron.
William Hogarth, thirty years later, continues Popes critique
of materialism while adding new elements of class-consciousness. In
his series of plates entitled Marriage A-la-Mode, we see the
disintegration of a materialistic couple. Like Pope, Hogarth focuses
on the young Countesss looks and the products she uses to achieve
this beauty. She is fair and expensively dressed. The very fact that
her morning party takes place at her dressing table (a phenomenon not
restricted to this particular lady) attests to the importance of beauty
in this culture (Hogarth, Plate 4). Even in the last plate, where the
Countess has killed herself out of grief for her hanged lover, she is
well dressed from the covering on her head to the buckled shoes that
peek out from under her skirts (Plate 6). However, in Marriage A-la-Mode
our heroine is less coveted for her looks than for her middle class,
merchant familys wealth. This reflects English societys
changing relationship to wealth and commerce.
Material objects are the most important elements in the Countesss
world. This piece is saturated with them. They suffocate the rooms depicted
and there are no outdoor scenes, as Maza and Shesgreen point out in
their article Marriage in Hogarth and Bosse (208). Objects
are of the utmost importance, and will be purchased even though bills
remain unpaid (Plate 2). The black servants depicted in plate four,
particularly the young boy in the turban, represent an exotic and colonial
consumerism (2657). The Countess is proud to possess objects (and people)
from far lands. Art pervades these plates, but it is art of a dubious
nature: bawdy paintings and indifferent sculptures. The settings are
composed of the young couples plethora of tasteless knickknacks
(Maza and Shesgreen 208). Hogarth, an artist in a newly consumerist
society, is not against the acquisition of objects that have aesthetic
value. Crow suggests that he is against the wrong sort of commodities
and pleasures: meritless architecture, dismal paintings, spurious antiquities,
silly toys, and silly indulgences (237). In an era of growing
consumerism, the crime Hogarth portrays is not the desire to spend but
to spend indiscriminately.
The exterior signs of materialism give clues to the moral depravity
of the couple. Both the husband and wife display a lack of virtue, illustrated
in their sexual excesses and neglect of their child. Their sexual liaisons
outside of marriage directly cause their downfall. Marks of syphilis
infect the Earl, his mistress and the child, who will most likely die
young. Sensual gratification is just another kind of luxuria
(Maza and Shesgreen 208). In this opulent and dissipated lifestyle,
the desire for children has been displaced by the consumption
of objects and of commodified persons (Maza and Shesgreen 208).
The Earls mistress is one of these commodified people (Plate 3).
She sells herself for money, surely one of the worst horrors of commercialization.
A rattle dangles on a chair in plate four, the only evidence of the
young heir. We do not see the doomed child until the last scene (Plate
4; Plate 6). The child is already crippled by inherited venereal disease
and will die young. Furthermore, neither the husband nor the wife engage
in any productive or rational behavior that might counteract their excesses.
They are always depicted in a situation surrounding a party; one is
always in progress, just ended or soon to begin.
Hogarth portrays the young Earl as effeminate, like Belindas
Baron. In the first plate, he gazes into a mirror, totally unconcerned
with the major life decision being made for him. This interest in physical
appearance was normally associated with women; there existed, according
to Crown, an identification between a desire for .
. . visual beauty and effeminacy (237). We soon find
that the Earls priorities are partying, women and spending money
(in no particular order). As an aristocrat, he can be expected to have
no occupation, but the Earl is determinedly idle after the manner of
a young coquette like Belinda. While equally effeminate fops attend
his wifes levees, sitting around in curlers, the Earl will likely
be found with his mistress or asleep after a night of wild drinking
( Plate 4). His seemingly endless desire for women, even though he suffers
from venereal disease, is a sign of a highly unmanly weakness of will.
The Earl even accepts the emasculation of being cuckolded. All the signs
of improper behavior on the part of his wife are apparent as early as
plate two, where there is clear evidence of a party conducted while
the Earl was out and ended in haste (Plate 2). He probably confronts
the Countess and her lover, Silvertongue, only because they have forgotten
all attempts at discretion (Plate 5). When he finally does duel with
Silvertongue, he is utterly defeated. Finally, it becomes evident in
plate six that the Earl has failed his noble family by producing an
heir who will not live to carry on the line (2659). The young Squanderfield
has squandered his life in what would be considered womanly weakness
Marriage A-la-Mode was produced in the 1740s, thirty years
after The Rape of the Lock, when England was entering the
Industrial Revolution. Hogarths work reflects a world of growing
commerce and consumerism as well as a developing middle class. He criticizes
all classes for their obsession with money and consumer goods, but in
different ways. The aristocrats are at fault for their overspending.
It is the older Squanderfields desire for money to complete the
new mansion that brings about this unhappy union. The young prostitute
sells herself because wealthy men like the young Earl will pay for her
services. The working class, represented by the prostitute, the apothecary
and the angry woman (either the prostitutes bawd or the apothecarys
wife) are as obsessed with money as their social betters. The older
womans huge skirt indicates material vanity, and both the bawd
and the apothecary participate in the corrupt sale of goods.
Hogarth criticizes the middle class in a more complex manner, while
acknowledging that no class is safe from the new, mid century preoccupation
with money and possessions. English society in this era still associated
class with character. Hogarth portrays the merchant and his daughter
as social climbers, as Crown notes; the disasters that befell
the protagonists are caused in part by their emulating the
rich and desiring similar possessions and styles of self-display
(236). We see this emulation not so much in the father, but in the daughter.
She, as the woman of the household, would be responsible for furnishing
it. As Maza and Shesgreen succinctly put it, the young wife seeks
out bad art (208). Bad art, while also present in the older Earls
drawing room, is of an even lower quality when chosen by the Countess
with her middle class tastes. The Countesss father, as a merchant,
symbolizes commercialism. His attempt to purchase relationships with
cash is a sign of this ages moral illness, an illness based in
commercialization and consumerism. In the last plate, at the Countesss
death, we see her fathers house. The room depicts a very different
scenario from the rooms in the Earls home. It is stark and threadbare,
with cobwebs and broken panes (Plate 6). While there is less art on
these walls, it is in extremely poor taste and depicts such vulgarities
as a boy urinating. A starving dog, ribs visible, eats off the table
while no one is looking. The father, unmoved by his daughters
death, busies himself removing an expensive ring from her finger. The
merchants house bears the mark of miserliness. His money is either
saved or spent on something other than the comfort of his family. In
his portrayal of the merchant, Hogarth illustrates the lowest depths
to which ones character can sink under the influence of greed
While neither Pope nor Hogarth let the aristocracy escape unscathed
from their critiques of materialism, eighteenth century society perceived
the middle class as the originator of growing consumerism and materialism.
This perception is implicit in Hogarths merchant. In the first
plate, he is a main player in bringing about the match. In the last
plate, he is the unloving father who profits off his daughters
death by taking her ring from her lifeless hand. The merchant can be
seen as a corrupting force in this world. Weatherill notes that the
new commercial class did have expectations and lives that
led them to be more interested in innovation and in varied domestic
goods (189). They were anxious to express their refinement
as a means to cultural distinction (Jones vii). According to Jones,
aristocrats and gentry, rooted in the land, looked down on commercial
wealth that threatened to unsettle the established orders
of taste and criticism (4). They saw its commerce, technology
and town-centered lifestyle as greed and as a threat to Englands
At this time, luxury probably was the greatest single social
issue and the greatest single commonplace and played on issues
of both class and gender (Maza and Shesgreen 208). Women came in for
the worst of the censure because of their identification with household
goods and beauty products. Women functioned as the main consumers for
the family in the eighteenth century. This purchasing power was both
empowering as an important part of household management which
might . . . liberate women from some of their more onerous tasks,
but, according to Honeyman, it also supplemented the definition
of womens role (47). Vickery suggests that [h]ousekeeping
was a form of work which lacked an obvious and lasting product
except for the products purchased that graced the drawing room or dinner
table (283). Women lived, Vickery adds, in a world where the use of
beauty products could determine their future and where furnishings displayed
. . . social status to the wider public (291). Thus, society came
to believe that women were inherently materialistic.
In a culture that believed both women and the middle class were
materialistic, middle class women were judged as the worst offenders.
The tastes of the commercial class were described in the terms of effeminacy,
Jones notes, as the work of weak, unregulated passions, womanly
cravings after fripperies (5). Middle class womens pretensions
to upper class taste and style were interpreted as presumption and social
climbing. The Countess, with her bad art, is an example of this. Hogarths
contemporaries may have interpreted the Countesss vulgar taste
and materialism as corrosive to the dignity of her aristocratic husband,
and just as damaging as her merchant fathers obsession with money.
With the progress of the Industrial Revolution, women became
excluded from jobs as productivity and rationality, with which women
were only weakly associated, became increasingly valued (Honeyman,
31). Factory work was only for the lowest classes of women. As home
and work became more distinct from each other, the association between
women, family and home grew stronger. According to Jones, The
taint of luxuriance was deftly avoided by the new image of the
middle class family as a haven of domestic propriety (207).
Owning goods came to be considered virtuous when associated with a domestic
sphere that was separate from the harsh outer world. Materialism and
consumerism were still associated with femininity, but with more positive
connotations. This change heralded the birth of both the industrial
age and Victorianism, with the middle class family as its ideal.
This ideal still exists in much of the western world. Many Americans proudly claim to be members of the middle class, which still represents virtuous family values. Consumerism is prevalent in American society, accepted by the majority and protested by a small minority. Far more people buy material goods than produce them. The relationship between materialism, consumption and traditionally feminine characteristics lives on in advertising. Campaigns target women as primary consumers, particularly in the areas of home and beauty products. Advertising, with its barrage of beautiful women and well-run households, teaches women that material objects are essential to their survival and happiness. Materialism as a gendered concept endures in societys assumption that men who value aesthetics are sentimental and effeminate. Modern culture has yet to escape from the effects of these long-held associations between femininity, class and materialism.
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