Snapshots of a Daughter in Law: Adrienne Rich

Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich is a poem which features a scattered time-line and multiple subjects. These varying points of view branch from an aged mother-in-law, a young daughter, and more abstract subjects. These seemingly disjointed viewpoints and segments are arranged in a way which provides the reader a cohesive story of an individual opposing an existing patriarchal society and embracing feminism.

Although Rich presents the story in a way that makes it seem as though the reader is the main subject, “You were once a belle in Shreveport…” (568) the story actually follows the daughter of the older woman. A younger character, easily linked to new schools of thought that may directly or indirectly oppose established order, serves as a more relatable avatar for readers. Rich appears to be encouraging people to take up the mantle of feminism in this work, and providing a revolutionary young of age protagonist may more easily reach the type of reader she hopes to reach.

With this in mind, it is understood that the development of the main character, and thus the development of the thematic idea, begins at the end of the first section, labeled 1. The line, “Nervy, glowering, your daughter/wipes the teaspoons, grows another way.” (570) shows Rich utilizing powerful vocabulary, specifically the word ‘glowering’, to signify a discontent towards a specific entity. In this case it is the daughter’s discontent towards her mother-in-law. This displeasure towards an existing system is what begins the character’s development arc and thus the development of the poem’s message.

A great amount of conflict is introduced in section 3, continuing the idea of opposition between an existing system and a younger entity. The first stanza of this section presents images of stately household items and aged flora, objects which draw to mind established wealth and ‘old-money’. Particularly the ‘steamer-trunk of tempora and mores” (569). Both the object, a steamer trunk, and the latin words for times and customs, are representative of aged institutions. The second stanza shows a rebellion against that, when two women are locked in argument. This stanza shows violent imagery of knives thrust into backs, and the two participants are described as Furies of ancient greek lore. Also, old imagery is scattered throughout the second stanza. adjective such as ‘rusted’ and ‘old’ are used to describe objects, and the use of ancient Greek mythology lends an old and powerful air to the stanza.

Section 6 can be viewed as the fear and hesitation that may be faced upon the journey that Rich is describing. The second stanza of the section compares the main character to a bird in a cage, “Poised, trembling and unsatisfied, before/an unlocked door, that cage of cages,/

tell us, you bird…”(570). This comparison casts the main character in a timid light.Vocabulary such as ‘trembling’ and specifying that the door is unlocked, that the only thing preventing the bird from freedom is the bird’s desire or capabilities, carries the air of a challenge. Rich uses section 6 to construct a ‘call to action’ for the main character. A series of questions at the end of the stanza seem to serve as a method of egging on of the main character, questioning if she would be worthy of the opportunities she is considering fighting for. This self-doubt as well as jeering challenge serves to demonstrate the importance of being absolute in one’s convictions. Rich hopes to demonstrate that it would be useless to take up the challenge if one lacks certainty.

The end of the poem, section 10, shows the culmination of all the efforts and challenges that have been faced in the earlier stanzas, and concludes our character’s development. The reader is given images of a majestic figure, strong action words which provoke thoughts of battle, and a final stanza that gives a sense of community to the struggle of the poem’s main character. The lines, “Well,/she’s long about her coming, who must be more merciless to herself than history.” grants the reader an image of a powerful woman, and stands in strong juxtaposition to descriptions presented at the beginning of the poem, such as a woman whose mind molds away like cake. Also the lines, “I see her plunge/… her fine blades making the air wince.” (572) show an individual who is imbued with a will to fight for themselves and their own standing in the world. This line can also be contrasted with the beginning of the poem, where our main character is shown wiping teaspoons and performing household chores. This drastic change from servant to warrior encapsulates the message of the poem, one must be willing to struggle for equality, especially against great forces. The final stanza, “but her cargo/no promise then:/ delivered/palpable/ours.” (572) conveys the message that the struggles experienced by our main character are indicative of the struggles faced by women in general, linking ‘her’ (the main character’s) to ‘ours’ (being those Rich shares a gender commonality with). This linkage serves as an ultimatum of sorts from Rich to her readership, seemingly stating that it is a common struggle, and that the efforts of one can help the situation of all.

There is little doubt that Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law carries with it themes of feminism, and discusses issues faced by a woman living in a patriarchal society. However, where one may see only a disjointed and unorganized view of many facets and schools of thought often associated with feminism, there is actually a cohesive and overarching plot which details challenges, expectations, and explanations of what one may do to become a feminist.


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