Summary and Meaning of Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers by Adrienne Rich

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About the Poet:

One of America’s leading public philosophers, Adrienne Rich, was a poet, essayist, and feminist. She was called one of the most extensively read and powerful poets of the second half of the 20th century. Extensively read and enormously influential, Rich’s career spanned seven decades and has chopped closely to the story of postwar American poetry itself. On May 16, 1929, Adrienne Rich was born in Baltimore, Maryland. She showed up at Radcliffe College and graduated in 1951. She was selected by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award for her first collection of poetry “A Change of World” published that same year. All her life she has been in love with the hope of telling the utter truth, and her command of language from the first has been shockingly powerful.


There is no writer of analogous influence and achievement in so many areas of the contemporary women’s movement as the poet and theorist Adrienne Rich. Over the years, hers has become one of the most powerful, challenging voices on the politics of, race, language, power, and women’s culture. There is not quite a compilation of feminist writing that does not contain her work or specifically engage her ideas, a women’s studies course that does not read her essays or a poetry collection that does not include her work or that of the next generation of poets soaked in her example. In 1997, she refused the National Medal of Arts protesting the United States House of Representatives and Speaker Gingrich’s vote to end finance for the National Endowment for the Arts.

About Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers:

Rich’s poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” depicts a woman trapped within the cultural constraints and responsibilities of married life. The poem was an early effort by Rich to define male and female relationships. In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, Rich uses formalism to not dishonor her with this topic. In this beautiful poem, she powerfully voices the poem in a third person description which sets herself apart from Aunt Jennifer. The predominant subject of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is Aunt Jennifer’s domination through marriage and her exploitation of embroidery as her only form of self-expression. Adrienne Rich clarifies her feminist concerns in this poem. In the male dominated world, a woman of her time was only supposed to be a devoted homemaker. This poem through the world of Aunty Jennifer, tells us about her inner desire to free herself from the grasps of rude marriage and male-controlled society.

The Setting of Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers:

Rich’s poem, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, is beautifully inscribed. It provides stunning imagery set with an extraordinary rhyming scheme. However, beyond the perfect wording of her poem and the beautiful images it provides lies a dark and noteworthy truth. Aunt Jennifer is locked in within an overbearing marriage. She is a victim whose only form of assertiveness is through needlework. Aunt Jennifer creates a lovely screen showing glorious tigers that preserve the strength and assertiveness which she lacks. The Tigers are masculine, but they maintain the potentials of admirable men which Uncle lacks. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is an interpretation on marriage, women’s domination, and the use of art as a coping mechanism.

Stanza-wise Summary of Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers:

All through in the first stanza, the poet transfers the image of Aunt Jennifer’s energetic colored tigers living in a rich green landscape. To the poet, these tigers are living life with authenticity and majesty as one would expect of tigers in the wild.


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In the first stanza, the Tigers are at stride in sleek chivalric certainty. The pacing of the Tigers may characterize fluid and controlled motion, as compared to the dancing movement of the first line. Nevertheless, the Tigers may be marching back and forth, because their movement is constrained to their tree top since there are men present them. The Tigers may be attractive and healthy, or they may have that male quality of domination which is so often insincere. Yet, it is denoted as a sleek chivalric certainty. To be brave is to be honorable and steadily brave including manners towards women. Being admirable every so often suggests sincerity. Therefore, sleek chivalric means that the tigers are beautiful and understanding towards women.

In the second stanza, Aunt Jennifer is undertaking needlework. Her fingers are fluttering through her wool as she sews. This fluttering may be the elegant movement of her fingers as she works. On the other hand, Aunt Jennifer’s trembling fingers may be a sign of agitation within Aunt Jennifer. In this case, the latter seems more in the offing, because Aunt Jennifer is having difficulty pulling her needle as she stitches.

In the next stanza, the speaker defines the ugly image of Aunt Jennifer’s corpse having terrified hands which are still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by. The speaker is asserting that Jennifer has true fear of something in order to be terrified. By utilizing the word ringed, the speaker appears to be referring back to the wedding ring or Uncle as it were.

Uncle seems to be the master who put Jennifer through sufferings and mastered her leaving her frightened. These troubles may be why Jennifer selected to use Ivory needles for her creations. After all, ivory safeguards the physical body. However, Ivory hails from animals which are mastered and destroyed by men as well.

Annotations of Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers:

In the first stanza, Aunt Jennifer’s circumstances and character are compared with her artistic creation that portrays her ambition. The drapery on which she has knitted tigers is very symbolic of what she wants to be in life – fearless, self-confident, polite and influential like the tiger. This feeling is expressed in the words “They pace in sleek chivalric certainty”. The Tigers represented as dancing across the screen bring to mind a creature that is self-confident, well-balanced and cheerful; all things that Aunt Jennifer is not. The use of colors suggests that Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers and their land are more energetic and enjoy a sense of freedom far greater than her. Yellow or the bright topaz implies the sun and violent energy, while green reminds one of springtime and rebirth.

Aunt Jennifer’s present state is made known in the second stanza. Her fingers are beating through her wool showing both physical and mental weakness. She finds it hard to pull the needle. The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band which sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand reminds us that her marriage tasks weigh her down. This makes her unable to realize her full perspective as a woman in a male-dominated society. She escapes from her difficult state of affairs through art, that is, through knitting. 

The closing stanza comprises imagery that reflects back on the first two stanzas. The reference of the hands signifies Aunt Jennifer as a whole. Though her death would free her from her present depressed state, her hands will remain horrified with the wedding ring which binds her to her ordeals that took complete control of her. The only sign of her liberty from her present life is the art work which she drips into by depicting the dancing, proud and an unafraid tiger which is what she really wants to be and which she accomplishes through her imagination.

 

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