Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers (1951)
Introduction .. Adrienne Rich (1929—2012) was an American poet who exerted profound intellectual influence on American society. Towards the later part of her literary life, she became a rebel championing the cause of feminism, sexuality, social justice, pacifism, and many such revolutionary ideas that were clearly out of step with the contemporary society. No amount of criticism could sway her away from her path. She was the stormy petrel of American feminist movement. The poem Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers depicts her yearning for women’s liberation, and her anger and frustration against the stranglehold of male domination over women’s lives. Rich’s collection Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-1972 (1973) won her the prestigious National Book Award.
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.
Explanation … Aunt Jennifer is a fictional character who is living out her sunset years. Enfeebled due to her old age and reminiscing about her tormented youthful years gone by, she creates a tapestry where jungle tigers roam around freely in the jungle. They are the least unafraid of the men sitting under a tree. The tigers and the men carry a lot of symbolism. The tigers signify defiance, freedom and strength. The men nearby symbolize the men folk who dare not harm the tigers.
Through the tigers, the author conjures up images of free, fearless and liberated women who have cast off any fear of the men lording over their lives for long.
Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
Explanation .. Aunt Jennifer has obviously been weighed down by advancing age and stifling marriage that choked her freewheeling spirit for most of her youth. Now, she is weak, but her indomitable spirit is still aglow. She struggles to grip the ivory needles with her fingers. Her husband’s domineering nature has jarred her miserably, and she still struggles to break free of his stranglehold. She is trying to live out her miserable dotage.
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
Explanation .. She fought a losing battle trying to cope with her husband’s attempts to subdue her soul. The scars of this abrasive relationship have run so deep that even after her death, the unhappy experience will gnaw at her spirit inflicting pain and agony. However, her crusade for women emancipation, gender equality, and fair treatment of the weaker sex as depicted through the free and fearless tigers in the tapestry would continue to inspire countless women to strive for liberation, and deliverance from male dominance.