Jonathan Swifts “The Ladys Dressing Room”
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In Greek mythology, Pandora, a stunningly beautiful mortal, is created to punish man for his disobedience to Zeus, the supreme ruler of the Greek gods. When given a box that she is forbidden to open, Pandora cannot resist satisfying her curiosity about the contents of the box and opens it, releasing all evil into the world and leaving hope at the bottom of the box. Similarly, in Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room,” Strephon’s curiosity about the contents of Celia’s dressing room causes him to open the door, examine all the details of the room, and interpret their reflection of the “Goddess” (3) Celia’s character.
He consequently releases from the image of beautiful women the evils of scabs and excrement left over from the preparations of this woman, who is a “Goddess” in his mind. Strephon is left blind to the hope in the potential beauty and life growing from this filth and excrement in Celia’s beauty, only to associate women with the dressing room’s odors and, likewise, to associate odors with women. Essentially, because Strephon is unable to resist his desire to discern the process behind Celia’s beauty and chooses not to leave this process a mystery, Vengeance punishes him by destroying his image of women that he rightfully deserves.
Strephon’s desire to reveal the mystery behind Celia’s beauty causes him to search her void dressing room, invading her privacy and consequently meriting punishment. Because “Five Hours, (and who can do it less in?) by haughty Celia spent in dressing” (1-2), Strephon’s curiosity gets the best of him and encourages him to find the reason for the beauty of the “Goddess” (3). While he reads, or examines, the details of the room, “No object Strephon’s eye escapes” (47), and each object is filthy to him. As though he could not have enough disgust for this dressing room, “Strephon ventured to look in, resolved to go through thick and thin” (79-80), releasing from this “Pandora’s Box”(83) – the toilet, “a sudden universal crew of humane evils” (85-86). Strephon therefore satisfies his curiosity about Celia’s dressing room, but because he chooses to invade her privacy, he is suddenly exposed to all the revolting remains that Celia leaves after the elaborate process of transforming herself into a goddess. Vengeance consequently thinks he deserves to be punished for desiring to reveal the mystery of Celia’s beauty.
Strephon also reads the vulgar dressing room as a reflection of Celia’s faults, and in doing so; Vengeance rightly punishes him for being judgmental. Strephon, only seeing all the scabs and dirt in the room, does not get to know Celia and her true personality. Unlike other men, Strephon “swears how damnably the men lie, in calling Celia sweet and cleanly” (17-18), largely because the other men choose to leave the process behind her physical beauty a mystery. In addition, Strephon, who should not have been in Celia’s room in the first place, calls her a “careless wench” (71) for leaving her chest, or toilet, “standing full in sight” (73). Strephon therefore reveals his judgmentalism by examining Celia’s dressing room without her permission and even disapproving of her carelessness when he chooses to take the risk of being disappointed in her by entering her room.
He also “impiously blasphemes” (137) Celia’s ointments and creams, further disrespecting the privacy of the “Goddess.” Moreover, Strephon’s reaction to Celia’s dressing room influences his judgment and causes him to see the filth and dung as a reflection of Celia’s character. In contrast, the speaker believes there is more to Celia’s being than her physical beauty and the process behind it. To the speaker, a beautiful flower can grow from this dung, but more importantly, dung is necessary to create a beautiful flower. Strephon’s judgmentalism therefore keeps him from realizing that these objects of filth are not signs of Celia’s character but are truly hints of the potential beauty that dung can produce.
As a result of Strephon’s methods of reading the dressing room – scrutinizing every detail of the room and interpreting them as Celia’s faults, Vengeance rightfully punishes him by shattering his image of women. Strephon can no longer view women as beautiful creatures: His foul Imagination links, each dame he sees with all her Stinks: and, if unsavory odors fly, conceives a lady standing by . . .. (121-124) In other words, for every woman he sees, he is reminded of the rotten smell of the room, and for every rotten smell in the air, he creates an image of women in his mind. This image to which the odors “give birth” is not the same as the speaker’s image of a beautiful flower sprouting from the filth. Vengeance, in fact, has made “Strephon blind to all the charms of female kind” (129-130), giving him a forever ugly image of women. Strephon “looks behind the scene, Satira’s but some pocky queen” (133-134); essentially, because he cannot resist the desire to understand why it takes Celia five hours to become a “Goddess,” he ruins his image of the production and sees Celia as a “pocky queen.”
Vengeance also causes Strephon to lose hope in the dressing room; he cannot see the potential beauty in the midst of all the filth. After Strephon ventures to search the chest, he still hopes that there is something good inside, but “Strephon cautious never meant the bottom of the pan to grope, and fowl his hands in search of hope” (92-94). The speaker thus associates hope with “shit” (118), mockingly revealing Strephon’s refusal to accept hope in the midst of the filth. instead, Strephon chooses to see the room as filthy and faults Celia for the filth. In addition, he is unable to see that “Such order from confusion sprung, such gaudy tulips raised from dung” (143-144). He could have seen that from this excrement a beautiful flower grows in Celia. He is blind to hope, the fertilizer to his image of women. Thus, although Strephon has the chance to have hope, to understand that from the filth beauty can arise, he chooses not to accept this hope and does not deserve to have a beautiful image of women any longer.
Like Pandora, Strephon cannot resist his desire to uncover the reason behind a mystery, Celia’s beauty. He consequently exposes himself to the disgusting process of her becoming a beautiful goddess and this exposure shatters his image of women. Like Zeus, Vengeance, “Goddess never sleeping soon punished Strephon for his peeping” (120-121) because of Strephon’s scrutiny of the room and his resulting inaccurate interpretation of Celia’s character. Because Strephon “blasphemes” the “Goddess” by scrutinizing every detail of the room and judging Celia, he is eternally aware of all the evils behind woman’s beauty and loses hope of seeing this beauty ever again.
Swift, Jonathan. “The Lady’s Dressing Room.” The Poems of Jonathan Swift. Ed. Harold Williams. Oxford: Clarendon, 1958.