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República Bolivariana de Venezuela Universidad Central de Venezuela Facultad de Humanidades y Educación Escuela de Idiomas

República Bolivariana de Venezuela Universidad Central de Venezuela Facultad de Humanidades y Educación Escuela de Idiomas Modernos Contemporary English Literature

República Bolivariana de Venezuela Universidad Central de Venezuela Facultad de Humanidades y Educación Escuela de Idiomas

Images of a Woman’s Life in the XX Century An Analysis of Adrianne Rich’s Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law

Andrés González

Caracas, October, 2016

This is a man's world But it wouldn't be nothing Not one little thing Without a woman or a girl

James Brown (1933 - 2006)

The second half of the 20 th century can be considered in America the age of the minorities. In a country with economic growth, the massification of the media machinery, opened arms towards multiculturalism, and yet marked with discrimination, social injustice, demonstrations, and segregation, a plethora of civil movements were beginning to take shape: the civil rights movement of the Afro-Americans –the first and most important minority at the time– would signify, in the history of modernism, a universal struggle for recognition and the fight for equality; in New York, Latin-Americans would change the musical landscape with the appearance of salsa as a term that, more than just music, would revolutionize and organize the diverse latino tendencies under the same flag, symbolizing the search of a unified identity through the arts; and San Francisco would become the headquarters of the first national lesbian organization and one of the many centers of the gay rights movement that would lead in the 70s to the election of the first openly gay politician, Harvey Milk.

Feminism also gained popularity and a change of perspective during this time,

though it was already around since the final decades of the 19 th century and the firsts of the

  • 20 th with authors such as Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir. The movement of this

early period is defined as the first wave of feminism, and according to Raman Selden, Peter Widdowson and Peter Brooker in their work A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory, was concerned “principally with women’s material disadvantages compared to men” (2005:118). However, it is in the 70s, they explain, when feminist criticism “shifts to the politics of reproduction, to women’ ‘experience’, to sexual ‘difference’ and to ‘sexuality’, as at once a form of oppression and something to celebrate.” (2005:121). It would be during this period, defined as the second wave of feminism, in which Adrianne Rich develops much of her style as a writer. A poet and a essayist born in 1929, she is considered by The Guardian newspaper as “one of America’s most powerful writers” (2012). Her third collection published in 1963, titled Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law –the object of this analysis– signified a substantial change in style.

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law is a ten-part poem, with each part composed of an uneven number of lines and stanzas, in which Rich gives us an insight of the difficulties of being a woman in the American society of the 1950s, and the effects of patriarchal structures on women’s intellect. The ten parts –full with references to important feminist writers, female figures in general and quotes of other literary works that are deliberately altered in the poem– unfold as unrelated images of day-to-day life with no chronological

order, in which the personae addresses two women that are perceived as the main characters of the work: a daughter-in-law, who –we may speculate– personifies the author and portrays her perspective as a sort of narrator; and an older woman that is criticized by the latter since she submissively complies to what society expects of her.

The description of the older woman is given from the very beginning. The speaker addresses her using the personal pronoun you, which aggressively builds tension as if a discussion between them were taking place. A ‘before and after’ is established in the old woman’s life: “You, once a belle in Shreveport/ with henna-colored hair, skin like a peachbud/ still have your dresses copied from that time […] Your mind now, moldering/ like wedding-cake/ heavy with useless experience, rich/ with suspicion, rumor, fantasy…”. The image of a piano is used to symbolize the innocence and purity of the older woman’s early stages of life, in contrast with a moldering wedding cake used to define her mind, which is seen by the daughter-in-law as a waste. This highlights a critic to the lost potential regarding the intellect of women, as a result of women’s imposed roles by a society that does not allow further self-development.

The daughter-in-law also describes herself in many instances throughout the poem, but instead of using the personal pronoun I, she speaks of herself in third person, creating a distance between the narrator and the literary character. This also seems to be a tool deliberately used to stay in ambiguity and create suspense, compelling the reader to identify through hints, in terms of description and the events presented in the poem, which character is being referred to. The second part of the poem, for example, focuses on a woman, whom is whispered by angels: “Banging the coffee-pot into the sink/ she hears the angels chiding and looks out/ past the raked gardens to the sloppy sky/ Only a week since They said: Have no patience”.

Angels, spiritual beings that are closer to god, come to symbolize intelligence and knowledge. They function in the poem as guides, who –like conscience– counsels the character in what is just and morally correct. Taking this image into consideration, even though there is no explicit evidence in order to determine the identity of the character in the third part, we may argue that she is indeed the daughter-in-law, who is portrayed throughout the work as a contrast to the older women. Both characters seem to reflect the two stances of women in the American society of the mid 20 th century: on the one hand, the submissive who chooses to endure the consequences of a patriarchal society (the older woman); on the other, the subversive who challenges it (the daughter-in-law). This opposition becomes more apparent in the second stanza of the third part, in which an actual discussion takes place: “Two handsome women, gripped in argument/ each proud, acute, subtle, I hear scream/ across the cut glass and majolica/ like Furies cornered from their prey”

Other symbolisms in the poem are portrayed through the images of everyday objects: a coffee pot, old knives, a heated iron, mildewed orange flowers. These utensils are the representation of the gender-imposed role of women, whose main function in the American society –and we may risk by stating in the whole world also– was to provide to the head of the family food to eat and clothes to wear. This imposition, however, does not slow down the impetus of the daughter-in-law for knowledge in the following passage:

“[…] reading while waiting/ for the iron to heat/ writing, My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—/ in that Amherst pantry while the jellies boil and scum/ or, more often/ iron-eyed and beaked and purposed as a bird/ dusting everything on the whatnot every day of life.”

The image of a “loaded gun” showed through a verse by Emily Dickinson in the previous passage we find particularly interesting, since it is closely connected to the idea of intellect and knowledge as a means of liberation against oppression. In fact, there are a variety of references throughout the literary work that are related to this topic: of figures related to the intellectual and artistic world such as Frederic Chopin, Alfred Corton and Diderot; of classic literary works in Latin such as Cicero’s Pro Rege Deiotaro and Horace’s odes; of excerpts of French and English poems such as Charles Baudelaire’s Au Lecteur, and Thomas Campion; and of other feminist writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts of the Education of Daughters and Simone de Beauvoir’s Le Deuxième Sexe. This transversal nature of the literary work grants the reading experience a palette of ideas that reinforces the subversive attitude of the author against a society, whose deep intellectual areas are mostly dominated by men. In this sense, knowledge is a revolutionary act through which Adrianne Rich, along other feminists, exercises critic and challenges the American establishment. It is a weapon which, conceived in a man’s world, is used by women in a calibanistic way.

Sex is also present in the literary work as a need that has to be satisfied: “A thinking woman sleeps with monsters/ The beak that grips her, she becomes.”. This verses allude to the characteristics of power exercised by the dominant classes. The Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci had already established that though a dominant group could influence the everyday thoughts, expectations, and behavior of the rest of society by directing the normative ideas, values, and beliefs through academic and political institutions, the nature of this power had to be also consensual: in order for a hegemony to take place, the dominated classes of society must also accept it. This is particularly true in the dynamics of power exercised over women since psychoanalytically speaking women reassure this domination because they are taught that way. As a result, they become agents of the establishment, the very same enemy they are fighting against.

Nature is also an image that is mentioned by the personae in several stanzas of this work: “And Nature/ that sprung-lidded, still commodious/ steamer-trunk of tempora and mores/ gets stuffed with it all: the mildewed orange-flowers/ the female pills, the terrible

breasts/ of Boadicea beneath flat foxes’ heads and orchids”. The fact that is capitalized gives us the hint that it personifies a character in the poem. In fact, one of the most common counterarguments that has been used against feminists in history is related to nature and biology. That is further explained by Raman Selden, Peter Widdowson and Peter Brooker:

“Arguments which treat biology as fundamental and which play down socialization have been used mainly by men to keep women ‘in their place’. The old Latin saying ‘Tota mulier in utero’ (‘Women is nothing but a womb’) established this attitude early. If a woman’s body is her destiny, then all attempts to question attributed sex-roles will fly in the face of the natural order.” (2005:121)

Moreover, in the sixth part of the poem the personae questions nature’s role in the realization of the patriarchal structures of society by the daughter-in-law: “[…] Pinned down/ by love, for you the only natural action/ are you edged more keen/ to prise the secrets of the vault? has Nature shown/ her household books to you, daughter-in-law/ that her sons never saw?”. This passage seems to evoke an internal discussion of the narrator, who struggles with knowledge as both a means of liberation but also a burden that feminists have to carry. Truth is, in this way, though a path to the ultimate freedom from the shackles of phalocracy and male oppression, a way of life also marked by hardships and battle.

Finally, the last stanzas of the poem are dedicated to the never-ending struggle of feminism, portrayed by the path that the daughter-in-law has to walk through: “Her mind full to the wind, I see her plunge/ breasted and glancing through the currents/ taking the light upon her/ at least as beautiful as any boy”. This ending, even though that acknowledges the difficulties that feminists have to endure, is also marked positively by the beauty of fighting for equality. Whether Rich’s last verses are pessimistic or optimistic regarding the outcome of feminism, it is not clear and it does not have to. Either way, she teaches us the value and meaning of standing up in protest for recognition.


Selden, Raman et al (2005) A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Pearson Education Limited: Harlow

The Guardian (2012) Adrienne Rich, award-winning poet and essayist, dies aged 82. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/29/adrienne-rich-poet- essayist-dies