Adrienne Rich's Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law
Adrienne Rich, American poet and essayist, is best known for her examination of the experiences of women in society. She received the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first collection of poems A Change of World. Her other books include Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), Of Woman Born (1976), The Dream of a Common Language (1978), Your Native Land, Your Life (1986), and An Atlas of the Difficult World (1992). During her career, Rich has been active in the women’s movement, the promotion of civil rights and anti-war activities. Much of her poetry reflects these concerns. In the words of Nina Baym,
A multitalented writer, polemist, and literary theorist, Adrienne Cecile Rich is an exponent of a poetry of witness and dissent, a poetry that voices the discontent of those generally silenced and ignored.
She has encouraged people to question their beliefs, and in many of her poems Rich analyses herself, reflecting on such subjects as her Jewish heritage, myth, the historical development of women, homosexuality, and the politics of oppression.
Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law stands as a watershed in her poetic development. The poem is divided into ten sections. It is a powerful and angry poem that makes an important statement about Rich’s feminism. Her tone is far more straight forward, wounded and embittered. In this poem, she feels extraordinarily relief. She is no longer distance herself from the suffering women. Feminism’s rejection of the unreasonable demands that patriarchy puts on women finds strident expression here.
Interpretation of Rich’s poem can begin even in the title. The title “Snapshots” suggets carelessly taken photographs of the family members at unguarded moments. They have none of the studied formality of photographs taken in a studio or by a professional photographer. “Daughter-in-law” is an intriguing term. Rich chooses a “daughter-in-law” as the focus of the poem rather than any of numerous other female roles because the opposition between the young woman and her mother-in-law presents an effective vehicle for comparing the status of women in their respective generations. In representing generational disparity with a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relationship, however, Rich establishes the connection between her women through their relations with men namely, the son and husband. In other words, through the example of a female relationship, that is, the product of interaction with men, Rich effectively demonstrates the magnitude of the male influence over the lives and even the relations between women – female slavery. According to Nina Baym,
Through Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law Rich gained national prominence, in part because of the accomplishment of her lyric voice, mostly in free verse, and in part because of her treatment of feminist-related themes
The first part of this poem shows the rapid change in a woman once marriage and motherhood befall her. Earlier, she was lovely and fresh, rumours and suspicious beset now her mind. The poetess used a simile, “a mouldering like wedding cake” here. The woman who has once a beauty finds that her mind is now crumbling and rotting like wedding cake. The simile points out that the woman’s mind and the cake are equally fragile and equally susceptible to decay. The words ‘heavy’ and ‘rich’ carry on the simile. Wedding Cake is rich and heavy on the stomacy; similarly, the woman’s mind is heavy with rumours and suspicions. From the observations that Rich’s fiction mother-in-law “still has her dresses copied from that time” and that her mind is “crumbling to pieces under the knife-edge of mere fact.” It is evident that this woman has neither the chance nor the ambition to escape from this existence. Her daughter-in-law, is acutely aware of the bonds that are keeping her chained to domestic tasks (“wiping the teaspoons”). The angles urge her to ‘save herself’ and grow away from her mother-in-law.
In the second stanza, Rich uses domestic metaphors to illuminate the torturous and slave-like aspect of what she terms in her essay ‘all enforced conditions under which women live subject to men.’ She imagines the woman to be hearing ‘probably angels’ who tell her to be impatient, to be insatiable, and to save herself because she cannot save others. The angels in the house tell her that the woman is barely conscious of hurting herself in the hot water from the tap or the fire from a matchstick or the stream from a kettle. But the probably angels say to her that she is already so emotionally and perhaps even physically bruised and battered that ‘nothing hurts her anymore.’
In the third section, Rich speaks of the old nature argument about women. She says that women are biologically inferior, the weaker sex. For a ‘thinking woman’ as Rich notes, her menial labour is enough to cause nightmares (‘Sleeps with monsters’). Even, it may be implied from the poem, thoughts of death. “The beak that grips her” implies that women are in fact keeping themselves trapped out of fear of alienation. In other words, the role of women is governed by social restrictions which have been dictated by men. In “Snapshots,” Rich emphasizes this submission to convention by listening the contents of Nature’s “streamer-trunk of temporal and mores” (times and customs). The objects that are commonly supposed to represent femininity, such as flowers and ‘female pills’ (menstruation pills) conspicuously hide the ‘terrible breasts of Boadica,’ represent of women’s real power and strength. Instead of attacking the true enemy, man, women waste much of their energy attacking each other, like furies deprived of their rightful quarry.
In the fourth stanza, Rich imagines the life of another thinking woman, Emily Dickinson and a favourite of hers. This nineteenth century reclusive American poetess lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, all her life. One of her poem begins with the line ‘My Life has stood a loaded gun’ – yet for all her genius, she was surrounded not by fellow poets and writers, but by pans containing boiling jellies, by dusters and by irons – household paraphernalia.
In the fifth section, the woman is trying to confirm to patriarchal stereotype of the sweetly smiling, softly speaking lady shaving her legs so that her body hair doesn’t disturb the men’s delicate sensibilities. But even as she shaves her legs, she is aware that they shine like the tusks of a dead, prehistoric animal, the mammoth. In other words, she realizes that by conforming to male stereotypes of women, she is trying to conform to something outdated and lifeless, something that denies her own individuality.
In part six, Rich suggests that women are somehow always positioned outside the hub of things as a creature only to love and serve and perhaps see to the household accounts – men, nature’s ‘superior’ creations. Nature is personified as a woman, with grown sons and all women are her daughters-in-law rather than her daughters. Through this image, Rich is suggesting that patriarchal tradition has always seen women in a subordinate position to men and that they have presented this subordinate position as something natural than something created. Being ironic, Rich doesn’t believe in these myths propagated by patriarchy.
In the seventh section, Rich is talking about how women struggle against great adds to make a significant contribution to civilization are given by ugly labels. Their contribution is undermined because they do not conform to patriarchal notions of the woman’s fit place – that is, in the house, tending to her husband and children. In “Snapshots,” Rich demonstrates the Calumny of men against one such ‘special’ woman whose intelligence and ambition they find threatening – Mary Wollstonecraft, author of “Thoughts on the education of Daughters.” Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein ‘fought with what she partly understood,’ namely the societal conventions that restricted the education of woman, and she achieved much. However, for her accomplishments she faced the jealousy, and, therefore, the scorn of men: “Few men about her world or could do more, hence she was labeled harpy, shrew and whore.” A harpy is a mythical monster with a woman’s face and body and a bird’s wings and claws. It is supposed to signify greed. A shrew is a disparaging word used for quarrelsome women.
In the eight section, Rich speaks of how women do in fact die at fifteen in a certain sense-their dreams die, their selfhood dies. They become partly conventional and partly legend – that is, their sense of their own reality is sapped. They cannot change their lives. They merely wish for change. They dream of lost opportunities – “all that we might have been.” And the reality of what they are, “fire, tears, wit, taste, martyred ambition,” stirs within their sagging middle aged chest.
In the ninth stanza, Rich says that certain women have been comfortable with the role and image patriarchy has given them. They have been content with ‘mere talent’ and have not been too ambitious. She speaks of how women have been duped by flattery into accepting their own mediocre work. Flattery has prevented them from striving to achieve something tremendous. Only a few heroic women opted for tremendous work, facing men. She notes that there are ‘few applicants’ for the ‘honour’ of becoming a martyr, or allowing her work to be martyred, as a result of male division.
In the last section of the poem, Rich ends on a more hopeful not by prophesying that the woman of the future will be ‘more merciless to herself than history’ – she will be hard on herself, harder even than history. She says this new woman will be ‘at least as beautiful as any boy/or helicopter.’ This implies that the woman will be part machine, part boy. In other words her sex and her humanness will have to be changed in certain respects.
We can see the truth of Rich’s words – women now increasingly opt for a career, some of them dress like men, and many ignore the conventional roles which society has given them as wife and mother and home maker. They are also like a helicopter in the sense that they fly, they conquer new worlds, and also they have a little bit of the machine in them. Rich is suggesting that women have to cut themselves off from the nurturing role (domestic instincts) given them by history and create a new function for themselves. Otherwise, a clear break with the past and women’s freedom will not be possible. Her cargo will be women’s freedom. The elements of mature, the sea and the wind will also recognize the ability of this new woman – the air is described as ‘wince(ings)’ under the impact of the new woman’s blades.
Through each of Rich’s “Snapshots” runs a common thread – the power of men to suppress women, whether physically, intellectually or emotionally. Rich said that she found this poem to be a relief to write because through this work she allowed herself to free discuss about feminism. To conclude we may tune with Michael Klein, and say thus:
Concentrating on the societal status of women in general and lesbians in particular, her (Rich) poetry had evolved into the passionately political force for moral good that it is today.