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 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 by her old age and reminiscing about her tormented youthful years gone by, she creates a tapestry where jungle tigers roam around freely in their habitat. 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 strident 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 her advancing age and a 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.
Questions and answers
Think it out
Q1. How do ‘denizen’ and ‘chivalric’ … The tiger in his habitat is a very ferocious animal. It does not fear anyone. The use of the two words points to the fact that tigers lead a carefree when they live in their own jungles. They do not fear any predator.
Q2. Why do you think…. Aunt Jennifer has been weakened by her advancing age. This apart, the thick and heavy wedding band on her hand makes her position worse. She can’t hold the needles firmly. There is a metaphor here. The wedding band refers to her unhappy life as a wife when all her basic freedoms were taken away from her. This made her miserable. The scars continue to inflict pain on her.
Q3. What is suggested …… Aunt Jennifer felt stifled and constrained by her stern husband. She couldn’t enjoy her married life as she had expected. The pain gnawed at her relentlessly. As a result, she has lost all her youthful vigour.
Q4. Of what or of whom .. Aunt Jennifer was very unhappy in her role as a wife. The scars are so deep that she fears they will make her miserable even after death. Thus, she is terrified of her dark insufferable past life.
Q5. What are the ‘ordeals’ … Uncle Jennifer apparently was a dour person who clamped too many restrictions on his wife. She couldn’t defy him, nor could she endure him. Like a millstone around a prisoner’s neck, the wedding ring circumscribed her life limiting it to an inconsequential existence. The word ‘ringed’ means the restrictions of her husband on her life.
Q6. Why do you think … Aunt Jennifer wanted to break free, but she couldn’t. She conjured tigers because these animals are fearsome, and very few dare to confront them. They symbolize defiance and freedom. So, Aunt Jennifer chose to weave tigers.
Q8. Do you ….. Yes, most readers sympathize with her for the way she endured the pains and frustrations of her married life. The speaker appreciates and applauds Aunt Jennifer for her indomitable spirit.