Tuesday, 10 May 2016

A Critical Analysis of Aunt Jennifer's Tigers

The poem Aunt Jennifer's Tigers must have come as surprise to the acquaintances of Adrienne Rich because of the rather strong feminist current that runs through the poem. It is certainly an intense poem with a not so happy theme of the constraints faced by Aunt Jennifer in marriage. 

The first stanza describes the tigers that Aunt Jennifer has embroidered on a cloth screen. They are prancing, chivalric and unafraid. They are a symbolic representation of what Aunt Jennifer wants to be in life, they are a cry for help. The first hint that Aunt Jennifer is afraid of her husband is indicated in the lines, "They do not fear the men beneath the tree" an indication that this is about the excesses of a man. The words,"topaz denizens" and "world of green" are symbolic, with the former representing the beauty of life lived without fear, and the latter representing a perfect world, a world where women have little to fear from men, and a world where there is greater freedom for women. The tigers on the cloth panel present a contrast to Aunt Jennifer herself.

Thus if the first stanza describes what Aunt wants in life, the second describes how matrimony has impacted her. Life has been so harsh that it has left her a mental wreck, making even the task of knitting a difficult task.The refence to "Uncle's Wedding Band" that "sits heavily" on her hand is an indication that the chores, duties, and responsibilities of marriage have been tough on her. The poet has described her physical and emotional break down when she describes, "Aunt Jennifer's fingers fluttering through her wool". 

The third and last stanza is in fact a set of two couplets. The first two lines describe how Aunt Jennifer will continue to be "ringed with the ordeals she was mastered by" (that is the problems of marriage) even after death. This is rather depressing, to know that death will not provide release to her. There is a pun on the word, "ringed" it is as if she is a circus animal in a circus ring who has to do what is commmanded by her trainer. The last two lines however end with a note of  hope because they show the tigers that continue to prance even after she is dead.The tigers represent Aunt Jennifer's hope that will find life even after she is dead  because they "Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid."

To understand who the speaker is in the poem, one might turn to how the speaker refers to the principal figure in the poem as, "Aunt Jennifer". It is as if the speaker is a little girl, probably eleven or twelve years old, who is decribing her aunt, so we need to look at the whole poem also from the point of view of a little girl who is imacted by what she sees.

The Poet has also used some very powerful symbols and images as metaphors for ideas and beliefs. The cloth panel with the tigers on it is a metaphor for art - art as a means for escaping from the vicissitudes and tribulations of life. The tigers represent freedom. Similarly, "a world of green" is a metaphor for the perfect world, a world where women don't "fear" men. In the same way, the "ivory needle" might be seen as a metaphor for the tasks, responsibilities and chores that a married woman has to undertake. Seen in the ideal sense, a wedding band is a symbol of marriage, a consensual surrendering of one's freedom inorder to bond together in a joyous union. For Aunt Jennifer however, "Uncle's wedding band" is a symbol of imprisonment, slavery, and even bondage without any joy, or perhaps even respect for each other. "It sits heavily" upon her hand, in other words, marriage has been more of a burden, a dead weight rather than joyful bonding!

Some of the important themes explored by the poet in this poem include chauvinism in marriage, domestic violence (although we can't say definitely whether Aunt Jennifer's husband was physically violent with her), feminism, and art as an expression of hope.

The reference to context questions listed below will help the reader analyse the poem better:

1. Stanza 1 : "Aunt Jennifer's...certainty."

   a) Where are Aunt Jennifer's tigers to be found?
   b) Explain the expression: " Bright topaz denizens".
   c) What does "workd of green" represent?
   d) Who are "They" in the third line and whom do they not fear?
   e) What is the significance of the statement: " They pace in sleek chivalric certainty."

2. Stanza 2 : " Aunt Jennifer's ...hand."

    a) Why are Aunt jennifer's fingers "fluttering through her wool"?
    b) What does she find "hard to pull"? Why?
    c) What does "wedding band symbolise?
    d) Write Synonyms for, massive and fluttering and use them  in sentences of your own.

3. Stanza 3 :  "When Aunt is dead...Unafraid."

    a) How is the opening sentence of the stanza different from those of the first and the second?
    b) Identify the pun in the second line and explain its use.
    c) What was Aunt Jennifer terrified of after death? How is it a hyperbole?
    d) How do the first two lines of the stanza contrast with the last two lines?

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