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A Critique of Female Beauty Juxtaposed to Male Naivety:Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room”

Updated on April 6, 2012

English class associations during the Restoration and the eighteenth century are laden with a plethora of formalities. Gender roles are incredibly crucial to one's perception in the world, and the circles upon which people socialize are rigid in the expectations set-forth. Literature of the period can serve as an evaluation of the discourse surrounding the society in terms of its rhetoric, and the support, analysis, and critique of. Jonathan Swift writes a series of poems that are popularly termed “excremental;” the poems give the reader a comprehensive view on the ridiculous standards women are held to in terms of beauty, and through satire allots critical attention to the actuality of who women are. In particular, Swift's “The Lady's Dressing Room” focuses on the behind close chambers activities of a beautiful woman named Celia, as perceived by her lover in secret, and his rummaging of her things used to achieve her beauty. The dictations of eighteenth century English society on the subjugation of women can be determined by means of explication of “The Lady's Dressing Room” from a feminist lens.

Swift uses satire throughout the eleven stanzas of “The Lady's Dressing Room” to illustrate the overall idea of the vanity in women are consumed with because of the subjugation of men through expectations of perfection. In the opening of the “The Lady's Dressing Room” Swift gives a basic synopsis of how much time it takes for a woman, and Celia in particular to get ready to be seen by others. “Five hours (and who can do it less in?) By haughty Celia spent in dressing,”(Swift, line 1) is Swift's commentary on a females necessary time needed to make themselves presentable. These first two lines of the poem give the reader a blatant realization of how significant the presentation of the female is for the English society. The fact that it takes Celia five hours to become the Celia that people recognize is reflective of the severity associated with appearances. Also, the language Swift uses in those two lines also give insight as to the type of person Celia is. Swift describes Celia as “haughty,” which speaks to her character as being arrogant. Because Celia spends at least five hours to prepare herself it can be assumed that she is self-absorbed or vain in some respect; So for Swift to construct her to be arrogant as well is basically an evaluation of the individual who is vain. Swift is criticizing vanity and those that are vain.

“The Lady's Dressing Room” has a character by the name of Strephon who is the lover of Celia and stumbles upon her empty chamber and decides, because of an inherent curiosity to inspect the room,

Strephon, who found the room was void,

And Betty otherwise employed,

Stole in, and took a strict survey

Of all the litter as it lay. (Swift, line 5)

Swift is giving the reader a subjective view of Celia through the eyes of Strephon because Celia is not present to defend her own perception. Every element of who Celia is, at least in terms of her appearance is available for analysis. This leaves Celia completely vulnerable and ultimately any woman who has her back turned. It opens the private area of a woman's life completely because there is nothing she can hide. In retrospect, Swift is also providing social commentary for Strephon and ultimately men, considering Strephon, like Celia in relation to women, is a representation of all men in the context of “The Lady's Dressing Room.” Swift is saying that men who subscribe to the idea that women are these objects of immaculate perfection are also vulnerable, but in the sense that to learn the truth is destructive to them. Strephon is completely clueless as to the process that Celia uses, if any, to become the image he knows her as, which is why he would even have a desire to inspect her room.

In the of the second stanza of “The Lady's Dressing Room,” Swift's satire actually begins to address the issue of female subjugation and male naivety.

And first a dirty smock appeared,

Beneath the armpits well besmeared.

Strephon, the rogue, displayed it wide,

And turned it round on every side. (Swift, line 11)

This first half of stanza two of the poem is isolating the inquisitive nature of Strephon and the surprising clothing of Celia, “the goddess.” Because the smock is examined thoroughly by Strephon, it speaks to his child-like thinking and curiosity. The tone of the lines is fanciful and is bound to take a quick turn to the negative because of Strephon's findings. The reason this finding is significant is because it completely negates and contrasts with the perception of Celia that Strephon has. Swift is possibly saying her that people should be careful of where they look because they may not like what they find. But Swift, is clearly speaking to the falsity of vanity, in that despite whatever attempts people make to be perfect, there is still something about that vanity that is less than appealing.

Swift goes on with the second stanza of “The Lady's Dressing Room” to finally connect the inquisitive findings of Strephon to the perception of Celia.

In such a case few words are best,

And Strephon bids us guess the rest;

But swears how damnably the men lie,

In calling Celia sweet and cleanly. (Swift, line 15)

This discovery of something less than appealing about Celia by Strephon completely changes his perception of who she is instantly. Swift is basically saying that Celia, as determined by Strephon, is not as clean and attractive as he once believed. It speaks to the objectification of women in the period, suggesting that the only way that they are actually attractive is through the means of a lie, and only if that lie can be completely hidden. In terms of men, Swift is suggesting here that men are shallow enough to judge women primarily on their appearance and that if they come to find out some fact that is contrary to their held belief, they are quick to change their position, even if, it simply revels the females humanity. For women, this is suggesting that they are expected not to have the same biological processes that men have, that cause undesirable odors, and in this case, Celia's attempt to hide her own natural fumes.

In the third stanza of “The Lady's Dressing Room” Swift gives negatively framed commentary on cosmetics,

The various combs for various uses,

Filled up with dirt so closely fixed,

No brush could force a way betwixt. (Swift, line 20)

Swift is constructing women and their secrets in an exaggerated negative light because it is effective by eliciting disgust. The language in the segment of the poem provided above, suggest to the reader, and Strephon that Celia has incredibly dirty hair and is disgusting enough, or not lady-like enough to clean her combs after using them. Celia is quickly becoming a representation of disgust because of all the things Strephon are finding and paying close attention to. Swift is methodically deconstructing the way women are perceived. Swift also focuses on the cosmetics like make up in his systematic deconstruction of Celia, who again, is representative of women.

Swift takes the satirical defamation of the female further with his critique of make-up and facial cosmetics in particular,

A paste of composition rare,

Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead, and hair;

A forehead cloth with oil upon't

To smooth the wrinkles on her front. (Swift, line 23)

Strephon is beginning to completely unravel the composition of Celia. The language Swift uses to describe the “paste of composition” as “rare” hints to the lie that Celia’s skin is. The deep obsession with vanity is called out her again, but with an emphasis on the skin that is constantly being made perfect by the use of make-up; Swift also exposes the concealment of age with his reference to wrinkles on Celia’s face. He is working to destabilize the emphasis of perfection in terms of skin and age.

“The Lady’s Dressing Room” continues to defame the beauty of Celia and her class. There are references to her teeth being scraped clean, the use of animal organs as cosmetics, references to cosmetics she uses to cover spots, which hits to venereal disease, and her spitting bucket; the list of disgusting things that Celia does to achieve her unreal perfection could continue. Swift finally in the most disgusting display of Celia’s non-perfection reaches its climax once Strephon stumbles upon a box that interests him very much.

The language Swift uses to describe the box, which is interpreted as much of Strephon’s thoughts center around a mythological context. The box is compared to Pandora’s. Strephon is clear in his understand of the myth of Pandora’s box. He knows full well that there can be not any good that comes from such a box. Yet he still opens it. Swift describes Strephon digging around in the box that has a foul scent. The conceit of the mythological Pandora’s Box is still in play but only in this case Strephon and not Epimetheus who is searching for hope. These are the building blocks that give way to the “excremental” element of “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” It turns out that Strephon is digging in a chest full of Celia’s excrement. This is the capping off of the gross things that happen when no one is watching Celia. Strephon proclaims, “Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits” (Swift line 118)!

Jonathan Swift is successful in his attempt to call to attention the subjugation of women in his poem “The Lady’s Dressing Room” because it is such a descriptive account of something that is in fact true. From a modern perspective, this type of work is very much relevant. If Swift were to have lived in the 21st century, it is very likely that he could still write “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” if not something much more exaggerative thanks to modern inventions that manipulate the way people are perceived like the internet and Photoshop. Literature is timeless, and cross the barriers of culture, and Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room” accomplishes such a feat.

Work Cited

Swift, Jonathan. "The Lady's Dressing Room." The Norton Anthology: English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: Norton. 2590-93. Print.


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