As the name indicates, the Mock-Epic is a literary form that burlesques the Classical epic by bringing the formulas characteristic of the epic — the invocation of a deity, a formal statement of theme, the division of the work into books and cantos, grandiose speeches, battles, supernatural machinery, and so on — to bear upon a trivial subject. The main effect of thus employing techniques of the epic is, however, not so much to have fun with the epic as to deflate a subject or characters that by contrast appear particularly trivial. For example, Pope's Rape of the Lock uses its highly polished verses, mordantly satirical heroic couplets, wit depth, and intelligence to satirize the fuss that results when an idle young lord cuts a small lock of hair from the head of an idle young beauty.

By ludicrously overstating the importance of the whole affair (largely by parodying the epic, which readers in Pope's day knew well), he succeeds, paradoxically enough, in making the whole thing seem ridiculous and funny but also somehow tragic. As a result, Pope makes us aware of the fact that not only the participants in the drama but also the rest of humanity, including Pope himself and certainly his readers, are somehow ridiculous and funny — and tragic — too. Here are a few of the ways in which the plot and structure of The Rape of the Lock burlesques elements characteristic of the epic:

Epic Mock Epic
Iliad, Aeneid The Rape of the Lock
The Arming of the Hero Toilet [dressing] scene.
Battle Card Game.
The Statagem The Pinch of Snuff.
Meddling Gods and Goddesses Sylphs and Gnomes
The Journey to the Underworld The Cave of Spleen
Dream Dream

Originally created 1987; last modified July 2000

Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000