Aunt Jennifers Tigers
By Adrienne Rich
Aunt Jennifers tigers stride across a screen
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifers fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of uncles wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifers hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on striding, proud and unafraid.
The first stanza sets the setting for Aunt Jennifers dream world for her and her tigers (Aunt Jennifer represents all women who are caught under the oppressive hand of a patriarchal society). Aunt Jennifers tigers represent what women desired to be like during that time period. The tigers are do not fear men and as depicted on line four are heroic and conduct themselves in a manly fashion. These confidents tigers represent everything women desire to be.
The second stanza represents the reality of Aunt Jennifers life. She is depicted doing needlepoint, which happens to be a very traditional activity for a woman. However, she is having trouble with this activity as expressed in line 7. Her inability to do this needlepoint represents her inability to express herself in a male dominated society. This weight that rests heavily on her hand is not something she enjoys and is oppressing her from doing what she really wants to.
The third stanza gives us a truthful look at the reality and end of Aunt Jennifer. It re-emphasizes the impact living in this patriarchal society had had on her. Despite the tragic end of Aunt Jennifers life these tigers and the ideas of an oppressed free life for women carry on.
What does Rich say about this poem?
Im startled because beneath the conscious craft are glimpses of the split I even then experienced between the girl who wrote poems, who defined herself in writing poems, and the girl who was to define herself by her relationships with men (632).
Rich says this poem is an example of a split that took place in her earlier writing. She has written in the oppressors (male) style however, has expressed feelings of a woman not writing for a purely male audience. Rich has gotten away with expressing these ideas because she wrote using the strategy of formalism that inevitably allowed her writing to sound the same as traditional male writing.
I wanted women poets to be equals of men, and to be equal was still confused with sounding the same (632).
What does she intend to illustrate? How does the poem illustrate this point/s?
I believe she meant to illustrate a narrative of a woman, Aunt Jennifer, under the oppression of a male. This is illustrated in the 2nd stanza when Rich describes Aunt Jennifers hand as being too heavy to pull the needle through the wool because of the massive weight of Uncles wedding band (7, 633). This massive weight is mans control over his wife and the wedding band is a symbol of his control. This idea is also supported in the third stanza when Rich describes Aunt Jennifer dead being still ringed with the ordeals she was mastered by (9-10, 633). Overall the poem illustrates oppression by stating in the first stanza what she really desires and then describing how she is oppressed and held back by the male in her life.
For a poem to coalesce, for a character or an action to take shape, there has to be an imaginative transformation of reality which is no way passiveMoreover, if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate, nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is renaming (635).
How does the poem relate to the quotation at the top of the page?
The poem relates to the quote by transforming reality. She creates this world of the tiger that is a challenge to the norm. This is Richs alternative to the life of Aunt Jennifer. She shows in this poem both what the reality is and what the reality she wants is.
How is the poem an act of transformation? What is transformed? To what end?
The poem tries to transform the normal life of women, represented by Aunt Jennifers life, into the life of the tiger. The normal life is bound by the traditions that women have set for them by men. The tiger is free to roam do whatever he wants in a world full of color. So instead of an actual transformation in the poem its more of a wish for a transformation.
Rich wants this transformation because she hopes for herself and other women to be free from the duties that normal life holds for most women, such as marriage and knitting.
How is the poem a renaming?
The poem is a renaming because it is using Aunt Jennifer to represent the state of women, but the tiger is there to show what should be the state of women. Instead of saying directly the new way that women should exist in the world she places the tiger there to show by example.
This poem is the first that Rich presents us with. It was written during her early stages of writing when she was a student. It was during the period when she was still confused with equal and sounding the same (632).
Rich re-visions her poem in this quote:
It was important to me that Aunt Jennifer was a person as distinct
from myself as possible – distanced by the formalism of the poem, by
its objective, observant tone – even by putting the woman in a
different generation (633).
This poem was incorporated to exemplify Richs beginning years as a writer. It gives the reader a starting point for her to show how drastically her writing changed throughout her career.
She realizes years later when she is re-visioning that in those years formalism was part of a strategy like asbestos gloves, it allowed her to handle material I couldnt pick up barehanded (633).
This means she was able to touch on subjects that werent directed solely for a male audience because she was able to make them sound the same by using formalism. Formalism was the male rule or known way to write poetry.
It is also worthy to not the irony in this poem. Since it was
written when Rich was still a student and wanting to rebel against the
traditional female roles, you would never expect Rich to take on the
role of Aunt Jennifer in real life. However, she then decides that
she, ?was also determined to prove that as a woman poet she could
also have what as then defined as a full womans life. She
eventually found herself overweighed by her obligations as a wife and
mother to not be able to put ample time into her writing. She was
taking on the role of Aunt Jennifer and that is when she had her whole