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Depiction Of Feminine Identity In Jonathan Swift English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1608 words Published: 26th Jul 2021

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She delighted him with love, but did not tempt him with lust; she pleased him with discourse and sweet society, yet provoked him to no libidinous desire. - Thomas Heywood, Gynaikeion

The sort of relation Jonathan Swift had with specific representation of women in his writings, have aroused so many reactions from his own time to ours. Though there are some historical and biographical facts of his life that reveal he has never married but also there is no evidence that he ever had kind of sexual affairs. In fact in his writings sexual pleasure is not alluded to and even implicit references to sex and sexuality show his negative outlook towards them. As obvious examples: the beneficial sex of prostitution, with its disgusting diseases; the passion of wellborn and wealthy women for socially and even physically inferior men or old men for young women; the lust of the female yahoos for Gulliver. Warren Montag observes that in Gulliver’s travels “there is no hint of sexual intrigue or feeling at all except aversion” (Montag, 155).

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Since we expect a satirist to be often didactic in purpose and manner, so is Swift as a satirist of his time. Even when he is about to talk of a marital behavior and event he looks at its sexual part with aversion in opposition to its ceremonial and religious aspect. The embrace that even a sort of ordinary eroticism can cause in Swift’s view is clear in the words of the speaker of the poem the lady’s dressing room:

Should I the queen of love refuse,

Because she rose from stinking ooze? (Collected Poem, 452)

If we interpret the queen of love here as an allusion to the goddess Aphrodite, the image that has been created for us as a goddess suddenly shattered and faded by the very expression of “stinking ooze” which precedes the later expression of the word shit in the poem; “oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” (Collected Poems, 451), or when the speaker agrees that women are “gaudy tulips raised from dung” (Collected Poems, 452), he implicitly and explicitly associates women with various senses of dirt and filth. Though these kind of male points of view presented here are not romantic at all in the very courtly and admiring sense but is however, familiar for the reader of the time and even any reader of Swift.

All through Swift’s works there are numerous examples of this kind of negative representation of women which can be simply regarded as the reflection of his own time, the very context in which he has become a literary figure, a male literary figure, as the majority, this has been a common approach toward women. The number of upper class sons who are “tolerably educated, with a sufficient share of good sense”_ a mere thousand, of comparable women, he believed there were only five hundred, signifying the fact that half the men of sense must “couple themselves with women for whom they can possibly have no esteem; I mean fools, prudes, coquettes, gamesters, saunterers, endless talkers of nonsense, splenetic idlers, intriguers, given to scandal and censure” (Prose Works, 4:228)

Right as he harshly scrutinized women as a sexual entity and as a gender, Swift also presented some appreciations of positive kind of friendship with individual women. There are evidences which show his satisfying relationship with Esther Johnson that lasted from youth to middle age and finally ended with the death of the woman. However, what is obvious in Swift’s writings, in any respect, is the appreciation of the desirability of educated and intellectual women rather than mere objects of desire.

I cannot call to mind that I ever once heard her make a wrong judgment of persons, books, or affairs. Her advice was always the best, and with the greatest freedom, mixt with the greatest decency. She had a gracefulness somewhat more than human in every motion, word, and action. Never was there so happy a conjunction of civility, freedom, easiness and sincerity.

On the Death of Mrs. Johnson

This passage exemplifies exactly Swift writing as himself, as Swift the writer and not attributing any word to a created literary character or persona; a generous appreciation of a woman’s intellectual character, which comes from his memorializing lines of Esther Johnson, Stella, which was written right after her death. It clearly demonstrates that part of Swift’s character that praised women in whom he found valuable qualities and characteristics, intellectual and moral and human, that he believed made them apart from the ordinary society of women. The influence of Stella on Swift is undeniable for any reader of his works. Besides the literary beloved aspect of Stella’s character, through most of his blossoming life and career Swift was so depended on her, Stella a person whom he calls the greatest friend, a part of his social circle in Dublin, the nursing company while he was ill, the transcriber and supporter of his literary careers, the intimate friend of his hopes and sadness and worries.

It is said of the Horses in the Vision, that their Power was in their Mouths and in their Tails. What is said of Horses in Vision, may be said of Women in reality.

Thoughts on Various Subjects

On the other hand, this other passage which comes from Swift’s unpublished set of works and mentioned in Louise Barnett’s book as an epigraph, reveals that other sharply different side of Swift which owns his negative and adverting feelings toward women while viewing them as a gender not intellectual individuals. Here women are presented just as a rough disgusting physical stereotype, entities known and characterized by the very two physical parts attributed to women in seventeen century, mouth and genitals!

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In the patriarchal social context of Swift’s time, these two type activities, speaking and wringing the male authority and prosperity, were attributed to women and naturalized by all, that a literary figure like Swift, writing in the age of enlightenment and intellectuality could hardly resist and change or at least cover. He condemns the speaking nature of women, conversation of women, but at the same time he praises Stella’s conversation as the ideal form of female conversation glorified by intellect and fair judgment. Stella’s conversation for him is the ideal instance of civilized sort of speech: which is acceptable, sensible and truthful, right as opposed to the stereotype of ordinary women’s non appropriate chatting.

Though Swift published so many works anonymously to avoid prosecution, but however there is no evidence to think of the speaker as someone other than Swift himself. In fact, this publishing anonymously gave him the freedom he needed to express his own attitudes openly.

To be undone, by the Vanity, the Folly, the Pride, and Wantonness of their wives, who under their present Corruption seem to be a kind of animal suffered for our sins to be sent into the world for the destruction of Families, Societies, and Kingdoms. (Prose Works, 12:80)

This condemnation of female gender has come in Swift’s anonymously published work Answer to Several Letters from Unknown Persons. Swift is not an exception in his own time regarding the way female gender was looked. For him the power of tail, symbol of sexuality, can be regarded as a form of illegitimate female power. It is the power women use to destroy the male reason and order. And this passage is the representation of it.

To attract his people’s attention, with the special purpose of challenging their behavior and the way of life, in fact to satirize them and show them their follies, to make them move and overcome the inferiorities of their humanity, any critic, any satirist, may depict the most bitter and sharp critiques, and so does Swift. Exaggeration is inevitably an important part of his satire. His depiction of female identity except for his favorite adorable female friends is vividly hyperbolic, but in no way comic, at the other hand it is so bitter.

As a writer of enlightenment age always there is a desire for order, restraint, and decorum in Swift’s writing; proper behavior in both individual and social level is an instance of basic principle in humanity. Women in Swift’s opinion, were sort of jeopardy while cutting cross the boundaries of order and restraint. They shatter the fixed circle of their own existence and power and try to arrogate male privilege. They shatter the foundations of harmony and order in a society to which male is the authority. Thus what Swift as a satirist who tends to correct, objects to strongly, is departure from the order of man’s world which is ruled by reason and traditional principles. Whatever the cause of his intensity toward that negative approach of women would be, the impact of the seventeen century patriarchal ideology is undeniable. At the other hand, besides the fact that women are the most dangerous violators of the neoclassical ideal order, a great part of his negative attitude toward women and his negative undermining representation of them in his literature is due to his religious and social doctrine of his time. It seems so unfair to name him simply as a mere misogynist cause his wisdom and ability to create such great admiring verses and lines to his favorite kind of women is not something accidentally or out of disordered mere passion and obsession. Thus always there should be a just reading of Swift’s literature to distinguish between these outlooks.


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