The Controversy of “The Lady’s Dressing Room”
“The Lady’s Dressing Room”by Johnathan Swift is a controversial, misogynistic poem written to mock women of this era. Swift wrote this expecting a reaction from women and men, trying to prove to men that women are not as elegant and dainty as they may seem. In this poem, Swift uses Strephon, a main character to spy in Celia’s dressing room expecting it to be elegant however, it is a frightening mess. Swift voices his own opinion about women through the voice of his main character Strephon. Swift wants readers to see the reality of how women really live and refute the beautiful goddess-like image that people think women are like.
There are several prevalent themes in “The Lady’s Dressing Room”, the biggest theme was Appearance vs. Reality. Swift constantly compares the Celia that everyone sees with the Celia that Strephon is now discovering. “But swears how damnably the men lie, / In calling Celia sweet and cleanly” (17-18). This quote is explaining how Strephon talks about and perceives Celia while also calling men liars to prove his point. Swift also shoes Strephon going into Celia’s empty dressing room expecting something much different than what he finds. Swift uses these specific words to show readers what his original view of women, especially Celia, was like. Without this quote it would be hard to get a basis for his thoughts about women.
The reason why this theme is so important is because of this Augustan era, so many writers focused on this public voice that Swift clearly displays. Swift wrote this poem with the intentions of people reading it and having a reaction. However, compared to others, Swifts writing is a little more grandiose in style in terms of adjectives. There are a lot of dramatic describing words that emphasize on the satire he is trying to portray. For example, “Such gaudy tulips raised from dung.” (144), the last line of the poem, is clearly satirical towards women. However, there is another important thing to notice about this quote, the use of letter choices. The letter “G” and the letter “D” make readers emphasize the word gaudy and dung causing that sentence to come out more aggressive than if Swift changed his word choice. Appearance like a tulip, reality, more like feces, which is a dramatic comparison, but Swift is trying to end his poem on a memorable, dramatic, and satirical note.
One way that Swift continues to refute his point is different types of imagery creating a response from his readers. Reading the poem as a whole, there is imagery in every line, however, there are a few that stick out more than others. For example, one of the beginning lines is, “The goddess from her chamber issues, / Arrayed in lace, brocade, and tissues.” (3-4). This choice of wording puts a beautiful image in readers heads, some may even believe that this poem is going to be a positive view of women at this point. However, this is the last line that does not have grotesque imagery about women’s process of trying to look presentable in their eyes. Swift wants to lead by putting one image in your head to start only for him to refute it the rest of the poem.
One example of how Swift refutes the image of women being beautiful is “Nor be the handkerchiefs forgot, / All varnished o’er with snuff and snot.” (49-50). This is imagery it puts a gross image in your head that causes readers to react. Swift wants readers to realize how gross women can actually be. Handkerchiefs are usually thought for women who are crying to use for their tears, in these lines Swift wants people to know that women use them for gross matter and snot. Swift uses this choice of language because these bodily fluids are something that makes everyone react after hearing about or seeing these things. This makes men see a fairly different image of women after realizing the reality of women and their bodily functions.
Swift makes an unappealing olfactory response, “The petticoats and gown perfume, / And waft a stink round every room.” (113-114). This the ultimate imagery line because it creates two different reactions sight and it almost causes readers to smell what is being described. It makes readers cringe at the thought of smelling something so bad and not being able to get away from the smell. As an author writing a piece like this there is nothing more you want than to generate a response especially when you can appeal to more than one sense. This is why Swifts poem created such a controversy because he was causing responses that most poems or writers did not do this well. There is a significance in the words that Swift uses, waft and stink, he could have said “a gust of unappealing smells” which would have caused a much different reaction. Using words like this cause the mental response along with an olfactory one.
Lastly, Swift uses Strephon to voice his own opinions causing Strephon to go through the epiphany that a lot of men do not go through. The way that Swift makes Strephon’s voice so powerful is the short lines set up in iambic pentameter that also lack punctuation. This creates chaos as a reader, you can experience the shock that Strephon is experiencing because of how fast you are discovering all of these gruesome details. For example, The various combs for various uses, Filled up with dirt so closely fixed, No brush could force a way betwixt; A paste of composition rare, Sweat, dandruff, powder, lead, and hair; (Swift 2767)Strephon sees Celia in an entirely different way after going through her dressing room. Listing item after item trying his best to prove his point. The chaos of this epiphany is felt by the readers because of this style. If this poem was to be read out loud it would flow very quickly due to the lack of periods and overuse of commas. This causes the reader to continue reading and rarely stop, especially the list at the end that makes readers just keep reading faster and faster and will continue to flow this way because of the semicolon after this list. It was Swifts main goal to create this response.
Swift not only created a response to the common people but he created a response to women writers, such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Montagu wrote a whole poem mocking and responding to Swifts satirical poem towards women. The purpose of any piece of writing is to generate a response which is clearly what Swift did. Montagu was also trying to generate a response but in doing so some may argue that she just made Swift more famous because after people read her piece they, of course, had to read his to understand her motivation for writing “The Reasons That Induced Dr. Swift to Write a Poem Called the Lady’s Dressing Room”. There is no hiding that her poem was a direct response to Swifts “The Lady’s Dressing Room”considering the title.
In conclusion, writing is about causing reactions and responses and Swift did nothing but that. Swifts main goal was to teach men the reality of what women are really like and refute the goddess-like images that a majority of men have. He used controversial themes, different types of imagery, and the voice of his character Strephon to create readers to have the same or opposite response that he wanted them to. No matter what response readers felt after reading this, Swift was successful in using public voice to create the response he wanted. Swift used just the right words and punctuation at just the right time to cause all of the readers senses to be triggered. This was a successful way to cause reactions and controversy during the Augustan time.
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“The Lady’s Dressing Room”by Johnathan Swift is a controversial, misogynistic poem written to mock women of this era. Swift wrote this expecting a reaction from women and men, trying to […]