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On "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"


Deborah Pope

The fearful, gloomy woman waiting inside her darkening room for the emotional and meteorological devastation to hit could be Aunt Jennifer, who is similarly passive and terrified, overwhelmed by events that eclipsed her small strength. "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" is, however, an even clearer statement of conflict in women, specifically between the impulse to freedom and imagination (her tapestry of prancing tigers) and the "massive weight" of gender roles and expectations, signified by "Uncle's wedding band." Although separated through the use of the third person and a different generation, neither Aunt Jennifer in her ignorance nor Rich as a poet recognizes the fundamental implications of the division between imagination and duty, power and passivity.

From A Separate Vision: Isolation in Contemporary Women’s Poetry. Copyright 1984 by Louisiana State University Press.


Thomas B. Byars

Rich's own remarks on this poem, in "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" (1971), are an important starting place; she discusses how even in a formal and consciously distanced poem of her early period, she can discover clear (if latent) feminist concerns (Lies 40). Perhaps most interesting, however, is the fact that the needlework tigers, like Rich's poem itself, are ineffectual as rebellion, because the very means of their rebellion are inscribed in the oppressor's language, and thus reveal an unhealed split in the psyche of the oppressed.

The tigers display in art the values that Aunt Jennifer must repress or displace in life: strength, assertion, fearlessness, fluidity of motion. And the poem's conclusion celebrates the animal images as a kind of triumph, transcending the limited conditions of their maker's life. Accepting the doctrine of "ars longa, vita brevis," Rich finds in her character's art both persistence and compensation; she sees the creations as immortalizing the hand that made them, despite the contrary force of the oppressive structure of Aunt Jennifer's conventional marriage, as signified by the ring that binds her to her husband. This doctrine is utterly consonant with what was, according to Rich, "a recurrent theme in much poetry I read [in those days]. . . the indestructibility of poetry, the poem as vehicle for personal immortality" (Blood 168). And this more or less explicit connection helps show how deeply implicated Rich herself was in Aunt Jennifer's situation and her achievement, despite the "asbestos gloves" of a distancing formalism that "allowed me to handle materials I couldn't pick up barehanded" (Lies 40-41).

The problem, however, is that the tigers are clearly masculine figures--and not only masculine, but heroic figures of one of the most role-bound of all the substructures of patriarchy: chivalry. Their "chivalric certainty" is a representation by Aunt Jennifer of her own envisioned power, but it is essentially a suturing image, at once stitching up and reasserting the rift between her actual social status an her vision. Aunt’s name, after all, echoes with the sound of Queen Guinevere's; her place in chivalry is clear. Her tigers are only Lancelots, attractive because illicit, but finally seducing her to another submission to the male. So long as power can be envisioned only in terms that are culturally determined as masculine, the revolutionary content of the vision, which was all confined to a highly mediated and symbolic plane in any case, will remain insufficient. Indeed, the fact that assertion against the patriarchy is here imagined only in terms set by the patriarchs may be seen as this poem's version of the tigers' "fearful symmetry." And the "Immortal hand or eye" that framed their symmetry is not Aunt Jennifer's framing her needlework, but patriarchy's, framing Aunt Jennifer.

From World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the "Jubilation of Poets." Copyright 1990 by The Kent State University Press.


Meg Boerema Gillette

Deborah Pope's and Thomas B. Byars's readings of Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" describe the poem as a contest between the individual and the social, between "imagination" and "gender roles and expectation" (Pope), between the "oppressed" and the "oppressor" (Byars). Reading the poem through oppositions, these critics search for the poem's resolution. The question for Pope and Byars seems to be, who wins? Imagination or gender roles? The oppressed or the oppressor? For Pope, the answer is an evasive, Rich fails to "recogniz[e] the fundamental implications of the division." For Byars, the answer is the unforgiving, "Rich's poem itself [is] ineffectual as rebellion, because the means of their rebellion are inscribed in the oppressors language." Ultimately, as these critics argue, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" fails to resolve the conflict between the individual and the social.

My reading of the poem, however, is that the poem resists those oppositions upon which Pope's and Byars' criticisms depend. I would argue that "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" does not stage a contest between the individual and the social, but rather characterizes them by their interdependence. (The personal in this poem is deeply implicated in the political, and vice versa.) In the central symbols of the poem--the tapestry tigers and the Uncle's wedding band--the individual and social, the personal and the political meet. The tapestry tigers are not just individual artistic expressions; they are politically inflected, engaged in patriarchal chivalry myths (as Byars argues), and--as icons of colonialism (I would add)--suggestive of capitalist regimes of power (notice too they are sewn with an "ivory needle" (line 6)). The personal and the political again meet in the intimacy of "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7). By the physical intimacy of a wedding band and by the familial presence conferred by "*Uncle's* wedding band" (emphasis added), "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" personalizes the presence of patriarchal politics.

The poem's structure also draws the personal into the political and the political into the personal. The parallel syntactical structures of verses one and two suggest the relatedness of their content. Both follow the construction "Aunt Jennifer's," with verse two substituting "tigers prance across the screen" (line 1) with the similar sounding "fingers fluttering though her wool" (line 5). The use of color in the second lines of each verse--"topaz" and "green" (line 2) and "ivory" (line 6)-and the presence of men in the third lines-"the men beneath the tree" (line 3) and "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7) persist in the stanzas' parallelisms. These parallelisms draw associations between the images described. Owing to such parallelisms, the straining "fingers" of the second verse resonate with the energetic "tigers" of first verse. Reading the second stanza back to the first, the weight that "sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand" of its final line (line 8) lends sobriety to the "chivalric certainty" of the final line of the first stanza. Though verse one nominally describes artistic freedom, and verse two nominally describes patriarchal power, the structural affinities between the two verses resist the strict binarizing of rebellion and repression. The final verse of the
poem persists in this destabilization as here rebellion and repression meet in the simultaneity of the fearless tigers and the lifeless aunt:

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. (lines 9-12)

To condemn "Aunt Jennifer's Tiger's" then, as Byars does, for its rebellion's indebtedness to patriarchal culture is, I would argue, to miss the point. What makes the poem interesting, I think, is the very interplay between rebellion and repression, between the individual and the social, between the personal and the political. To demand a resolution wherein individual expression wholly escapes the social/political, magically rising above patriarchal discourse, seems to me a least a little naive and largely dismissive of the poem's more sophisticated conceptualization of power.

Copyright 2001 by Meg Boerema Gillette


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