In Beerbohm's "A Defense of Cosmetics," there are passages which seem serious in tone and sentiment; as if he truly believes the (ridiculous) arguments he makes. Though it becomes clear that he satirizes sage writing, it is sometimes hard to tell when Beerbohm is making too much of his arguments and goes over-the-top for satirical effect and when he is attempting to act as a true sage. In the following passage Beerbohm cheerily contends that the rising use of cosmetics will keep women in a lesser position in society.
Women appear to have been in those days utterly natural in their conduct — flighty, fainting, blushing, gushing, giggling, and shaking their curls. They knew no reserve in the first days of the Victorian era. No thought was held too trivial, no emotion too silly to express. To Nature everything was sacrificed. Great heavens! And in those barren days what influence did women exert! By men they seem not to have been feared nor loved, but regarded rather as "dear little creatures" or "wonderful little beings," and in their relation to life as foolish and ineffectual as the landscapes they did in water-colours. Yet, if the women of those years were of no great account, they had a certain charm, and they at least had not begun to trepass upon men's ground; if they touched not thought, which is theirs by right, at any rate they refrained [113/114] from action, which is ours. [pp. 2-3]
1. Where in this passage does it become clear to the reader that Beerbohm is satirizing? Would it have been as clear to Beerbohm's contemporary reader since the piece pre-dates the women's movement and women's suffrage?
2. Beerbohm's tone throughout the essay seems overstated and tongue in cheek. Do you think he truly believes that the "made-up" face of a woman is a good thing? Why is his point of view so ambiguous?
3. One of the functions of satirical writing is to make an attack; to look at a situation in society as if through a mirror which reflects everyone's face but the author's own. Who might Beerbohm have been attacking?
4. In this passage Beerbohm refers to a previous time when women had some influence over men's affairs and "had not begun to trepass upon men's ground." Beerhbohm seems to set up a then-and-now comparison. What is the affect of doing this? How does it enhance his argument?
Last modified 10 April 2005