Introduction and theme
Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers is a poem fully representing Adrienne Rich’s feminist ideas as well as her concept of art. This is also an autobiographical poem that reflects the deep recesses of Adrienne Rich’s mind and also the social mould in which she was thrown as a result of which she gives full vent to her feminist feelings in Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.
First, important theme to be running in the poem is the male-dominated society which leaves women with no choice but marry and be resigned to her fate whatever it is and wants woman to be hush regarding her rights. Women are taken as nothing but commodity to be possessed by others. They are projected to be having no emotions of their own and so they must be dominated by the supreme authority of man. The poem also shows the urge of woman to break away the above shackles laid down by society for her and fulfil her desires of freedom. The tigers also represent art, which has permanent value as compared to the short-lived life of the artist who dies but whose art remains in the world. Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers is a fine example of feminist poetry, which holds a banner of protest against the patriarchal society.
A Critique of Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers
Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers is a fine example of feminist poetry with imperialistic and psychological tensions of the 20th century in which especially women find themselves as insecure and afraid of the Patriarchal social authorities. This is also a visionary poem, which dreams of a happy and fearless life free of male domination, which may give equal and parallel opportunities to the womankind so that they can progress without being hampered by the social male constraints. Aunt Jennifer appears as a symbol of the oppressed women and also the nations dominated by imperialistic powers.
Poem also shows the routine life of a woman any where in the world. Jennifer like any woman is sitting embroidering her screen may be for her marriage is thinking about her future and the household duties followed by it. Her end of life is also similar and reminiscent of a woman’s common lot.
The poem is packed with a number of themes, images symbols and various stylistic merits, which we may discuss as under:
Development of Thought
Fight for the Rights
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty
Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers is also ironical because most of the women issues emerge not mainly because of male domination, but because of their own urge to get themselves free. Though male domination over women is a factor yet it is their desire to forget their feministic features and behave like men or become like men. Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers is a fight for the equal rights. Aunt Jennifer wishes for a tiger’s life free of jungle law where she may define the law and lay restrictions and scope for the womankind. She breaks away from the 20th century traditions in which woman is nothing but a sex symbol. Her prancing tigers exhibit her desire to let loose her ambitions and materialise them.
Women, be they American or Pakistani, are propagating against men and want to break away from the (secure) circles they have laid about them, but I fail to understand what equal rights these women are striving to find because they already possess the rights they must have. I personally believe that most of the tensions for women are not created by men but by themselves. It is the woman who wants to play the role of man, they have forgotten their sense of womanhood, they don’t know it means to be a woman, they think they can replace men, but they don’t try to understand that God didn’t create man and woman equal. They are physically, emotionally, domestically and socially as different as two poles of the world. God created women equal in terms of their reverence, status and importance, but the problem is that women don’t want to excel in second priority of divine creation rather they want to improve in the former aspect that is where they are mistaken and this is what destroys them in society and it is unnatural desire. It is actually that women themselves are responsible for their sense of inferiority and male domination.
Dark Aspect of Married Life
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’ hand
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
Aunt Jennifer's Tigers paints a decidedly dark portrait of a married woman's life in the domestic sphere. Patriarchal society, oppression and female helplessness are all delicately chided in this powerful poem. By examining the way Rich uses metaphor to further her purpose, we will unearth the deeper and multi-layered implications of this well known piece.
In the first stanza, we are introduced to the sympathetic protagonist of the poem, Aunt Jennifer. Instead of describing her, however, Rich chooses to establish Aunt Jennifer's ownership of Tigers and continues to describe them. The tigers are vivacious and vividly portrayed. The tigers are colorfully described as "bright" and seeming full of energy; they happily "prance across the screen.
Aunt Jennifer is described as conducting needle work with a piece of wool. ” We then realize that this menial, domestic task is made difficult by the “massive weight” of the wedding ring that Aunt Jennifer is wearing. ” This is a particularly daunting notion as usually we thing of death as although tragic in many senses, ultimately a liberator. " Completely free and fearless of the men below them, the tigers "pace in sleek chivalric certainty. Where the first stanza serves as a medium to explain what the tigers represent, the second stanza tells us who Aunt Jennifer is, and what she represents. So in order to create something to stand up against the patriarchal society in which she lived, Aunt Jennifer decided on masculine creatures. Aunt Jennifer and her tigers are in fact polar opposites, her tigers are everything that she isn’t and wishes to be. ”
In a possibly subconscious attempt to live vicariously through free and happy beings, Rich’s protagonist, Aunt Jennifer, has created tigers. However, under the oppressive world that she lives in, even this relatively symbol embroidery seems somewhat of a daunting task, for “even the ivory needle is hard to pull. However, Aunt Jennifer’s oppression is so extreme that not even death will grant her freedom. ” As the poem unravels, we realize these tigers serve as a sharp contrast to the psyche of Aunt Jennifer. In a very bittersweet closing couplet, the tigers are described as eternal beings, having the freedom to forever “go on prancing, proud, and unafraid. In short, she says that even in death, she will be oppressed by patriarchal society, or “ringed with the ordeals she was mastered by. Here, we begin to really appreciate the juxtaposition between Aunt Jennifer and her tigers. Sedentary and listless, Aunt Jennifer represents an oppressed housewife lacking the ability to stand up for herself.
Aunt Jennifer – a symbolic character
Who is Aunt Jennifer? Does she even exist? I had to ask myself these questions before even going further into the poem. The answers opened the door to a deeper meaning behind Aunt Jennifer's Tigers. Based on Adrienne Rich's background I believe Aunt Jennifer did exist. However, Aunt Jennifer was not Rich's aunt. Aunt Jennifer represented women all over the world, particularly women in American, who were caught under the oppressive hand of a patriarchal society. Adrienne Rich was perhaps one of those women. Rich, one of the most influential poets of her time, dealt with controversial issues such as sexuality, race, language, power, and women's culture. Her passion in this area forced her to look and challenge the standard and the norm. The popular cliché that refers to marriage as that old "ball and chain" takes on a more serious meaning with Rich as she reveals, through the simple lines of Aunt Jennifer's Tigers, a woman's struggles with expression, rebellion, and a society where power is defined as masculine. This poem tells of "Aunt Jennifer", who is the symbol of feminism in this particular poem. This poem offers an image of power revealed and restrained by domestic arts. This is shown in the case that she is restrained by her husband's wedding band, thus revealing that she Aunt Jennifer was expected to be a devoted and domesticated wife. Aunt Jennifer living her part in a man's world is forcing her into a role that she does not fit naturally. Aunt Jennifer symbolises oppressed women, imperialistically dominated nations and weakness.
According to Deborah Pope, the poem shows a conflict in the feminist mind. 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.
Oppression, Rebellion and Immortality
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.
According to Thomas B. Byars, Rich's own remarks on this poem, in "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" , 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.
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.
Symbolism in Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers
The poem is packed with symbolism from the first to the last. Introduction of the tigers, how they are prancing across a screen symbolizes Aunt Jennifer, roaming in a world freely; although it is telling of a screen she crafted. The tigers are bright topaz denizens because they are different in the world, and are not just plain, (green), like everyone else. This symbolizes Aunt Jennifer's individual thinking, and how she is different. The tigers don't fear the men beneath the tree because Aunt Jennifer did not fear men at first and was living as an independent individual with her own mind.
The tigers are slowly walking elegantly, showing that they are confident and 'chivalric' (gentlemanly)---this may show that Aunt Jennifer knows she is fine without having to be married. This line is telling of Aunt Jen's fingers 'fluttering' through her wool--this is just an allusion using an activity she likes to do, to tell of how she was roaming freely and happily before marriage. The ivory needle is a symbol for how hard it is to keep yourself independent and essentially a free-thinker when you are married. Uncle's wedding band on her finger is massive because he is strict towards how she should be a domesticated wife and not a free soul. It "sits heavily upon her hand" because her marriage has taken a toll on her, and she can feel it heavily on her heart and soul. When Aunt Jen dies, she will die as a lonely and depressed woman, and her hands are terrified because they never got to be free again.
Jen's hands stand as a symbol of her body, in that she was tired and sick from the ordeals (being a housewife) that she was mastered by [her husband--making her act this way] The tigers are a symbol of what will be left of Aunt Jen's existence after her death, in that she never got to "prance" as proud and unafraid when she was married and was constrained by what women were expected.
Style and Imagery
Visual imagery predominates in the first stanza. We learn that the speaker is a niece or nephew from the title and the first line, but we actually learn very little about Aunt Jennifer herself. Instead we see the tapestry that she is weaving and the tigers that “prance”across it. The two action verbs “pace”and “prance emphasize the strength of these animals, while the vividness oftheir “topaz”color draws attention to their striking presence. The aabb rhyme scheme mimics the rhythm of their movement. The word “denizens”has a negative connotation that links with the dark picture of “Uncle”in the second stanza.
In the second picture we shift to a visual picture of Aunt Jennifer. The alliteration “fingers fluttering”suggests her physical weakness; she is so feeble that she has trouble manipulating the needle “through her wool.”In the last part of the stanza we find out that her troubled marriage has had something to do with her condition. The words “massive weight suggest oppression, as do the words “Sits heavily.”The end rhymes “band”and “hand”also indicate that being married has kept this woman down. The point of view here would seem to be that of a woman, indicating that the speaker is the niece rather than Aunt Jennifer’s nephew.
In the third stanza, the speaker projects into the future, and suggests that once she is dead, Aunt Jennifer will continue to be encumbered by her earthly marriage. Her hands will still be “terrified,”suggesting that “Uncle has been so abusive that his reach will exceed human limitations. The word “ringed”has a double connotation—indicating not only the ring that “sits heavily”on her hand, but the difficulties in her life that will continue to surround her. The“tigers in the panel”will also go on forever, but by contrast they will continue into infinity as fierce, arrogant beings. The alliteration in the last line of “prancing”and “proud”heightens our sense of the irony in this poem, because they are so much stronger than the woman who created them.
It is difficult to depict a primary poetic technique within this poem. The reason being that, many devices are used to bring forth the message that Rich has embedded within it. However, symbolism is the most prominent. The poem is set in a traditional format, using simple rhyme and meter to give the reader a sense of formality. Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers", depicts an audacious woman trapped within a timid and suppressed life. Marriage and the culture that supports it have effected the character in this poem greatly. Reality seems inescapable because of the ring that "sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand". The tapestry that Aunt Jennifer is creating in the poem, is very symbolic of her potential. When you picture a tiger, the words power, fluidity, nobility, and strength may accompany that image. Those same words accompany the hidden life of Aunt Jennifer.
The first stanza opens the poem with a truly bold image of tigers as "They pace in sleek chivalric certainty". The tigers obviously have a very significant symbolic purpose in this poem. They portray the fearlessness, assertion and power, that Aunt Jennifer displaces in order to lead her conventional life
Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers is a fabulous poem may also be serving a wife of a colonial officer (Uncle) and being repressed because of his hard attitude. Though Jennifer is unable to change the patriarchal system, she, to some extent, contributes to the rebellion against this system which leaves women but no options to perform in society. The poem is remarkable for its style technique, imagery, symbolism and theme – a typical quality of Adrienne Rich as a modern poet. Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers being a rebellious in nature is an autobiographical poem at the same time because the repressed and dominated personality of Jennifer parallels Adrienne Rich’s. In short, the poem is to be understood at so many different levels that its single interpretation is not possible.