What does the poem "The Lady's Dressing Room" by Jonathan Swift mean? What is the poem trying to prove? What is the message of the poem?
Swift, as is his wont, is satirizing society and one of its most cherished, long-standing conventions. In Swift's day, women, especially women of quality, were idealized by men, placed on a pedestal to be admired for their charm, grace and beauty. And yet such women, like all of us, are only human. The unfortunate Strephon finds out just how human his mistress is when he creeps into her dressing-room one day. Swift sets out, in pretty lurid detail, the horrendous sight that assails poor Strephon's eyes. His mistress's clothes are filthy, as indeed are her combs; her handkerchief is encrusted with snot; she plasters her face with cosmetics made from a dog's intestines. And worst of all, this lady of quality feels the need to evacuate her bowels into a chamber-pot. The horror!
Of course, a moment's reflection would've told Strephon that we all have our dirty little secrets and that, yes, we all need to answer the call of nature from time to time. He's doubtless aware of that. But his mistress has been so well-disguised by her fancy clothes and expensive cosmetics, so artificially prettified by society's standards of how a woman should look, that the sordid reality of what she gets up into in the privacy of her own boudoir comes as a genuine shock. Strephon curses his mistress as he cleans up the revolting mess, but Swift chides him for his shallowness. He must learn to accept women as human beings, warts, excretia, and all.
This poem gave rise to one of Swift’s most quoted lines: “O, Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” It describes the horror of a man, Strephon, who enters a lady’s dressing room and begins opening all her drawers and cabinets until he is so horrified by what he finds that he is convinced Celia is no goddess, but a creature of the deep, no longer able to keep its “hoary secrets.”
What is interesting about this poem is that, while the descriptions of what goes on in the dressing room are deliberately sensationalist and disgusting, it is not Celia who is the butt of the joke, but Strephon. His shock and outrage to find that “Celia shits” is the climax of his mistake: to genuinely believe women are goddesses is to set oneself and them both up for a fall.
The conclusion of the poem makes the point that, if men expect women to be divine, then their makeup rituals may indeed disgust them—but this is foolish. The speaker himself is very happy to see “such order from confusion sprung,” painted women “as Tulips raised from Dung,” because he is not stupid enough to believe that women emerge every day as goddesses without any work.
Like many of Swift's works, this poem is satirical. The topic of the poem is just what the title says: he's describing what happens in a lady's dressing room. However, the first lines signal the satirical approach: five hours to get ready? This is hammered home by the evocation of a goddess, as if the women were divine, an image Swift then contrasts with both agricultural byproducts (dung, hard work, smell) and a kind of industrial production. He's saying how much work it is to make women beautiful, and how disgusting the work behind the scenes is.