The Reason’s Why Swift May Not Be Viewed So Misogynistic
When looking over Swift’s, The Lady’s Dressing Room, it is easy to be swept away by the contents, most pertaining to the grotesque. The shock is that the grotesque belongs to Celia, the “victim” of the satirical poem, which causes many readers to see Swift’s intentions being laced with misogyny. It is almost a natural reflex to assume that Swift is aiming his satirical ammunition towards women, but in fact the poem goes a little deeper than that. Another approach to analyzing this text is to recognize that Swift’s aim is not to undermine women, but instead to demystify the woman as the goddess through attacking assumed vanity. Swift is successful in doing so without being viewed as misogynistic through a closer look at how he debunks the idea of a goddess being pure and divine, and the absence of Celia throughout the poem.
The first stanza puts the reader’s on the same level of expectations as Strephon for Celia due to the text reading, “The goddess from her chamber issues,/Arrayed in lace, brocade, and tissues:-” (Swift 2346). There is a strong word usage here, goddess –not to mention the fact that it is followed up with the visual of her leaving the room dressed fancy. What’s important to catch here is the association most people have with the term goddess. This worldly assumption of goddesses being lovely is a mark of vanity, and it could be due to many things, but one important source in particular is Homer and Ovid’s Greek mythologies, in which the goddesses, for the most part, are depicted as beautiful, lovely, and immortal. So with Swift adhering to Celia being on par of a goddess, the reader is eager to picture her as such and with willingness we walk inside the dressing room with Strephon, completely strapped with tension of exploring his seemingly splendid mistress’s quarters. Of course, the rug is essentially pulled out from under Strephon and the reader at the content on the page, but more importantly near the end of the poem Swift has a few comparisons of goddesses that suddenly shades them in a more negative light and thus defacing their vanity. In the twelfth stanza Swift writes,”But Vengeance, goddess never sleeping,/ Soon punished Strephon for his peeping” (Swift 2349). This personification of vengeance into a goddess, and one who seems to curse Strephon from ever enjoying the “charms of womankind:” is rather comical, yet harsh to the image of the goddess (Swift 2349). Further down, in stanza thirteen, we have the narrator evoking the image of a goddess being born “from stinking ooze” (Swift 2349). According to the Anthology, this is a reference to the Roman goddess, Venus, the Roman counterpart to Greek Aphrodite. Swift draws a comparison of how the lovely Venus rose from filth to become the goddess of desire and beauty, to Celia, who clearly has to go through a rather rigorous beauty routine in order to emerge from her dressing room as the “goddess” she seems to be. Swift ends the whole work with, “-And bless his ravished eyes to see/ Such order from confusion sprung,/ Such gaudy tulips raised from dung” (Swift 2349). Again, we have this visual of Celia, the goddess in Strephon’s mind, now being brought down to a flower raised from feces.
This is where it becomes clear that Swift debunked the idea of the goddess being wholly pure and divine and more than likely had a gritty, if not smelly, emergence, thus staking the heart of vanity associated with the goddess. Strephon has been horribly tricked in his vain assumption of Celia, as did the readers who laid trust in Swift’s beginning description of her.
Another important point to bring to light is the idea of Celia, our goddess being absent from the poem, but only the remnants of her, both literally and figuratively, remain in the dressing room. Laura Baudot makes a strong argument that the absence of Celia in the poem is crucial to opening “unexplored dimensions of Swift’s poem” (Baudot). At the beginning of the text in the first stanza, the muse of the poem is caught exiting her dressing room, thus exiting the poem herself. According to Baudot, “Celia’s absence leaves a void.” This void is important, but in terms of the goddess argument, it serves a greater purpose in directing the reader’s attention to what is there verses what is not. Celia the “goddess” leaves the room, and all that remains is the evidence of her very human condition. Baudot says that, “enthusiasm is the determination to imagine something divine in beautiful objects,” but Strephon and the readers find out, she is far from divine, thus leaving Strephon and the reader’s perplexed at Swift’s description of her as a goddess (Baudot). So we have to ask ourselves, why would Swift describe her as such, only to give us something scandalizing to read about? This is where it is again important to realize that Swift uses the void of Celia in the poem to debunk the idea of the goddess by creating a mistress in which Strephon is so enthused with, but then by giving her a very disgusting dressing room he is peeling away the assumed vanity the readers (as well as Strephon) have about the goddess and or muse of a poem.
When we choose to look at his work from a more under-the-surface view, it can be justified that Swift may not have been aiming to be misogynistic, but more or less trying to attack the vanity that is assumed by both the reader and Strephon that Celia would be as divine as a goddess. In this light, it is much easier to appreciate and applaud the work that Jonathan Swift put into The Lady’s Dressing Room.
Baudot, Luara. “What Not to Avoid in Swift’s ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room.'” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 49.3. (2009) 637-666. Rice University. Web. 16 May 2015.
Swift, Jonathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, volume 1C, fourth ed. New York: Longman 2010. 2346-2352. Print.