Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On "The Lady's Dressing Room"

“The Lady’s Dressing Room”, written by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) in 1739, is a poem which describes the character of Strephon venturing through the dressing room of ‘lady’ Celia. Finding the room without Celia or her employee Betty, Strephon grabs the opportunity to inspect the lady’s private space. The poetic speaker looks through the eyes of his protagonist Strephon and conducts a meticulous list of his findings. The representations of Celia’s dressing room, as well as her characteristics, are toned with irony throughout the text. In fact, the title of the poem itself already suggests a touch of irony, as the vivid descriptions of Celia’s untidy room and habits do not quite match the features of a classic and well-mannered ‘lady’. Therefore, the poem can be understood as a satire, or even a parody compared to the glorification of women in other traditional literary genres, such as in the blason. The text, with its predominant use of various styles of irony, becomes a provocative mockery: the woman is turned into a ridiculous figure. The fact that a lady’s dressing room should remain a private matter which no men – especially an admirer – should ever enter, gives the poem a controversial intonation.

First of all, it is important to “imagine the speaker’s tone of voice." We shall recognize that verbal irony (as one of the different types of irony) is frequently used in “The Lady’s Dressing Room”. This kind of irony “relies on a perceived disparity between what someone says and what they mean." The poetic speaker tends towards this particular figurative language in order to reveal the delusion of a woman’s proper demeanors. In other words, the speaker, through Strephon’s perspective, manages to convince the reader that a ‘lady’ has got a lot of secrets as soon as she is behind closed doors. A look into Celia’s private sphere defines the distinct difference between the image she gives in ‘public’ and her being in the dressing room. To illustrate this statement, we can take the opening line of the poem: “Five hours, (and who can do it less in?)”(1). The poetic speaker scoffs at the idea that a woman such as Celia takes an eternity to prepare in dressing. Furthermore, the speaker’s tone suggests this behavior as being an unnatural and ridiculous phenomenon. Of course, if Celia were approached in another context, let us say in a situation where she already appears ‘sweet and cleanly’ (18), the time of preparation for her ‘beautiful self’ should neither be mentioned nor an issue. In addition, using a hyperbole, which is “a deliberate exaggeration used for effect”, emphasizes the absurdity of the amount of time a woman spends in her dressing room.

The punctuation also has a certain relevance in order to produce a greater effect. Verbal irony in the text cannot only be found as structured in brackets such as stated above, but the fact that a ‘mocking’ tone also comes in the form of a question accentuates the ridicule of the situation. Another example of such irony occurs as the poetic speaker asks,

“The stockings why should I expose,
Stained with the marks of stinking toes,
Or greasy coifs and pinners reeking,
Which Celia slept at least a week in?” (51-54)

The speaker assumes that she is wearing the same clothes for a certain amount of time: her stockings are then ‘stained with the marks of stinking toes’, her coifs become ‘greasy’ and the pinners are ‘reeking’. ‘No object’ in the dressing room gets past Strephon (47), yet isn’t it ironic that the speaker appears to stress out the why should I expose in his question? In effect, the speaker successfully gets his point through using this figure of speech rather than making a direct statement: these particular details exposed underline the intonation of the text and imply the disturbing lifestyle of ‘lady’ Celia. The insight into the dressing room damages the myth of a lovely – and supposedly ‘cleanly’ – woman. The speaker is judgmental: the term ‘goddess’ is a misconception as the ‘survey’ (7) of Celia’s habits leads to unpleasant surprises. The poetic speaker suggests a clearer – yet deceptive and offensive – image of Celia.

“But swears how damnably the men lie,
In calling Celia sweet and cleanly.” (15-18)

Structural irony is “produced when a speaker […] says something with sincerity but which is made ironic by the situation […]" This style of irony is one of the major factors, which enable the speaker to put forward the charade of Celia’s character. Whilst the speaker could have simply continued making an excruciating description of her habits, the use of structural irony emphasizes the distinction between the ‘Celia’ revealed by Strephon and the ‘Celia’ who is admired by men. This is significant as the poetic speaker opposes the terms ‘haughty’ (2), ‘careless wench‘ (71 and 108) and ‘giant’ (62) in describing Strephon’s Celia, to the characterizations: ‘goddess’ (3 and 119), ‘in her glory’ (135), “virtues” (58) and ‘queen of love’ (131). The speaker is honest by accentuating the positive terms that define Celia, but the fact that it is in a context where only her excruciating deeds are described makes the irony even more impressive. The ‘glorified’ Celia is destroyed. Men, who would think of her as a ‘goddess’, should not indulge themselves to stay at her ‘mercy’. The inventory of her private sphere is provocative, as the speaker perpetually wants to smear the image of Celia.

Finally, dramatic irony is another style of irony that is used in order to dramatize Strephon’s disgust during his ‘inventory’. Dramatic irony is defined as the “discrepancy between what a character believes about his or her actions and what the the play (in this case the poem, my emphasis) demonstrates about them.” The last part of the inventory describes the discovery of the ‘chest’: the poetic speaker even suggests that Strephon continues the investigation. Immediately, the speaker not only offers the reader another episode of dreadful representations of Celia’s manners; but the reader can imagine, even before Strephon opens the chest, that the following description of the survey will be worse than the liter, the comb, the towels and so forth. The poetic speakers questions:

“Why Strephon will you tell the rest?
And must you needs to describe the chest?” (69-70)

The terms must you needs mark the doubts on whether the definition of the ‘chest’ is necessary, but the tone indicates the ridicule of the following ‘investigation’. It is evident that the speaker is keen on revealing Strephon’s findings, which makes the irony of the situation even more poignant. Furthermore, the metaphor of the ‘chest’, which is compared to ‘Pandora’s box’ (83), is the highlight of this poem. Celia’s excrement, first juxtaposed to ‘human evils’ (86) and then followed by the explanation of the ‘meat’ (99-106), makes the poem an exquisite satire, which is “a mode of writing that exposes the failings of individuals […] to ridicule."

After reviewing the different styles of irony in the text, “The Lady’s Dressing Room” proves to be a successful satire i.e. the woman is magnificently mocked. The poem offers quite an offensive inclination towards women. It is relevant to mention that Celia’s appearance in the dressing room is obviously different compared to the image she ought to share in ‘public’. The fact that Strephon intrudes into Celia’s dressing room is already a break of trust. In addition, the speaker emphasizes the elements of her face and body parts; and finally gives a horrifying representation of her excrement. In effect, the ‘mocking’ attitude towards women is provocative. We can argue the reason behind this mockery: does Strephon represent an admirer who was rejected by Celia, and who now seeks revenge in exposing her? Are men curious to discover women in their private sphere? Is showing the ‘human’ yet unpleasant side of a ‘lady’ supposed to ridicule the adoration of women? The reader finally senses the misogynous tone – demonstrated with the various ironies – in the text, which supports the “hatred of women." Indeed, “‘The Lady’s dressing room’ is understandably regarded as one of the most notorious sites of anti-feminist animus, no less so of being, […] in a long literary tradition of obscene and scatological satire against women.”


I wrote this critical essay on Jonathan Swift's poem "The Lady's Dressing Room" for my Textual Analysis class. To read the poem, please click on the following link: