Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers : The poem
Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers is an interesting poem which looks at the life of a married woman, the institution of marriage within which she suffers and shows how she uses art as a medium to escape the reality she’s in. Divided into three stanzas of two couplets each, the poem employs a rhyme scheme of aabbccddeeff. The poem uses the figure of Aunt Jennifer and her needlework – a tapestry of magnificent tigers in a forest in order to explore the themes of womanhood, marriage, repression of one’s personality and the importance of artistic expression.
One look at the poem tells us that the first stanza is all about Aunt Jennifer’s tigers, the second about the aunt herself and the third stanza brings the two together where a part of Aunt Jennifer is preserved in the tigers she’s stitched. In three short stanzas, the speaker demonstrates how marriage as an institution has failed to allow Aunt Jennifer the full realization of her self, how the artistic expression through her needlework provides a space where she can project her bottled-up aspirations and how her art will live beyond her death as an expression of her identity. This idea is further explored in the in depth summary and analysis of Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers in the section Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers Summary and Analysis by Litbug.
With its striking colour imagery and highly sensory language, Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers gives a glimpse in the life of a woman who finds herself weighed down by the institution of marriage and finds her only escape in the art that she produces.
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Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers : SUMMARY & ANALYSIS
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance 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.
The first stanza of the poem introduces us to the Aunt’s ‘tigers’ that are stitched across a screen (needlework). It is interesting to note that though the first stanza begins in Aunt Jennifer’s name, the entire stanza is really about the tigers that she has created.
The tigers in the needlework are said to ‘prance‘, which is a very peculiar word to describe the movement of a predator. Now, prancing is a movement that is more often used to describe kids in the playground rather than tigers in a forest. A tiger normally prowls rather than prances and a dancing and prancing tiger seems like some Winnie the Pooh character rather than a real animal. This is where one must be careful. The tigers stitched on the cloth by Aunt Jennifer isn’t merely a representation of a real tiger. It is rather a representation of Aunt Jennifer’s tigers and is symbolic of the tigers within her as shall be seen in the course of analysis. Aunt Jennifer’s needlework therefore isn’t just imitative but an expressive one. The tigers are a symbol of the free, roaring spirit that moves around the forests, fearing no man or beast. The same spirit lies within Aunt Jennifer. Though marriage had crippled this free spirit in the real life, it bursts forth in the figure of the tigers whenever the aunt stitches the screen. These tigers are colored like topaz, a yellow semi-precious stone and are said to be the proud residents (denizens) of the green forest. Green and topaz are colours often used to represent happiness and prosperity which would mean that the tigers are thriving in the forest stitched by Aunt Jennifer. The tigers in the needlework are free, uninhibited, and unafraid of the men who stand beneath the tree. The literary device of alliteration is used to describe the movement of the tiger: They pace in sleek, chivalric certainty. The tigers therefore are a symbol of liberty which Aunt Jennifer has been denied but longs for.
Also, the words ‘prancing‘ and ‘chivalric‘ underline the use of anthropomorphism which assigns human attributes to the beast’s movements. This further heightens the symbolic significance of the tigers.
The theme of gender and role-playing arises in the very first stanza of the poem which is highlighted by the presence of men in the domain of the tigers and the ‘chivalric certainty’ with which the tiger moves. Chivalry, a trait dating back the Middle Ages was mostly a code of conduct followed by the knights (consisting of behavioral codes like courtesy, politeness loyalty among others), especially in their relation to women. Essentially, it was a form of role playing by men employed for more reasons than was traditionally claimed. By the time we reach the second stanza, we understand that the ‘code of conduct demanded by marriage has also forced Aunt Jennifer to play the role of the ‘dutiful wife’ which has severely repressed her individuality.
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through the wool
Find even the Ivory needle hard to pull
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
The second stanza introduces us to Aunt Jennifer with her “fingers fluttering” through the wool. Aunt Jennifer has been busy stitching the needlework. The alliteration may be used to emphasize the repetitive manner in which Aunt Jennifer’s carries on her needlework. The fluttering of fingers brings to one’s mind the free movement of the butterflies and birds. One might expect that Aunt Jennifer enjoys what she’s doing. Alternatively, the fluttering of fingers may also betray signs of anxiety, nervousness and weakness. Aunt Jennifer seems to face some difficulty in pulling the ivory needle across the wool. This is because a massive” wedding ring weighs her fingers down and prevents her from working on her art.
Her marriage to the uncle doesn’t seem to have been a particularly happy one. A metonymy (a figure of speech which refers to something by using an object closely associated with it) is used to describe the matrimonial disaster that Jennifer’s gotten into: the weight of the wedding ring (band) is used to represent the sad unfortunate married life Aunt Jennifer has been through. The ring that seems to sit heavily on her hand is in sharp contrast to the weightlessness of the fluttering fingers as mentioned in the first line of the second stanza. Though her needlework is the expression of her self, it is the wedding ring which weighs the finger down when she attempts to make this expression. The fact that the symbolic heaviness of her married life constrains her art – her final attempt at self-expression speaks volumes about her marriage.
The use of the ivory needle and wool in this stanza is in many ways symbolic of the exploitation of animals (wool is fleeced from the sheep and ivory from elephant tusks and rhino horns) by men, perhaps the same men of the first stanza who stand under the trees, men like her Uncle. Truly, man has traditionally exploited whoever or whatever that can be exploited, both within and outside his species. The figure of the man stands as a looming presence in the life of Aunt Jennifer, as it does in the needlework featuring the tigers. The juxtaposition of the ivory needle (a sign of exploitation) to the wedding ring in successive lines of the same stanza hints at the restrictive nature of the institution of marriage.
The gloomy, closed and claustrophobic domestic space of the second stanza in which the aunt is trapped is contrasted with the open, spacious and natural atmosphere of the forests in the first stanza. The Aunt is truly unhappy in the ‘man-made’ institution of marriage, clearly unlike the tigers who roam about freely in their ‘natural’ state.
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 prancing, proud and unafraid.
The third stanza is a ghastly one and presents the reader with the sight of Aunt Jennifer’s lifeless body. One noticeable aspect of the poem is the silence of Aunt Jennifer. She doesn’t utter a word throughout the poem. It is always her fingers that do the talking. The panels provide her a space to project her emotions. The actual talking is done by an unnamed speaker who speaks in the first person and seems to be related to the ‘aunt’.
The speaker becomes important in this poem. Not only is the speaker very aware of the condition Aunt Jennifer is in, but is also capable of foreseeing the consequences of the aunt’s marriage.
Whereas the second stanza describes the aunt working on the needlework in the present continuous tense (fluttering), the final stanza uses a future tense (will…) to foretell the aunt’s fate. Because the speaker is clearly of a later generation (she calls Jennifer her ‘aunt’) this foresight on her part could hint at a self-awareness and development in feminist thought in the generations that came after Aunt Jennifer.
An enjambment (the continuation of sentence beyond the end of a line or a stanza) )is used through the word “still” :
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
One might thus infer that even when Aunt Jennifer dies, her hands will lie lifeless (still) surrounded (ringed) by the great troubles (ordeals) she was overpowered by (mastered by). Note the pun used in the form of the word “mastered” which not only betrays a certain power equation but a gendered one at that. Even in her death, the ring on her finger will remain as a testament of the unhappy marriage in which she was trapped. By this time she isn’t an active agent stitching the tapestry but a passive object that is acted upon. Similar to the tapestry of the tigers shaped by her fingers, she has become an object shaped by the pressures of the social forces and the institution of marriage. While the tool used was an ivory needle‘ in the tiger’s case, it is workings of a wedding ring in the case of Aunt Jennifer.
However, even after her death, the tigers in the panel created by her will “go on prancing, proud and unafraid”. The tiger in Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers are representative as much of the artist as of the art itself. In its representation of a personality repressed by social forces and its expression of the marginalized female voice, Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers, like the tigers stitched on the screen, stands as much a political expression as an artistic one.
Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers : About the author
Adrienne Rich was one of the most vocal feminist voices to be heard in the late 20th century American poetry. Born in Baltimore Maryland, Rich was exposed to literature at very young age. Rich was very influential in placing lesbian concerns at the forefront of late 20th century feminist debate and was successful in criticizing effects of institutionalized marriage on women’s freedom. Besides providing a strong voice against patriarchy and the exploitative social order which suppresses the full expression of non-masculine identities, Adrienne Rich was also known for her anti-war stance she advocated against the U.S government policies during the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq.
Some of her works include A Change of World, A Human Eye: Essays on Art and Society, Diving Into the Wreck, Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations among others. Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers is how much earlier work of hers taken from the collection A Change of World.
Rich passed away in on 27th March, 2012.