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Relevant BackgroundSummaryThemes | Style 

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers
Adrienne Rich [1929]

Relevant Background

  • Adrienne Rich is an American poet who was born in 1929.
  • She was brought up in a well-off family. 
  • Adrienne was the elder of two daughters. 
  • Her father was a doctor and her mother was a music composer.
  • She grew up in with a Jewish father and a Protestant mother. As a result of this mixed marriage she was used to tensions between her parents. While Rich was growing up, she had to put up with moments of tense silence in her household.
  • Rich felt dominated by her father’s strong personality while growing up. It was he who most guided her as a young poet. This wasn’t always to her liking as he expected her to write her poems his way.
  • When Rich was growing up men dominated and women were expected to become dutiful wives in their adult lives. 
  • All these elements may have influenced the picture of marriage Rich drew in this poem. At the heart of the poem is an image of a husband who controls and frightens his wife.
  • Rich wrote a lot of poems based on everyday experience. One topic she often featured was the tension women felt due to being dominated by their husbands.
  • In ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ Rich is mocking the weakness of Aunt Jennifer and the clout and authority of Jennifer’s husband in their marriage.
  • Rich was also fascinated by how people could use a hobby like artwork to create a happier and prettier world than their daily life.
  • Rich has been one of America’s most important female poets for the past fifty years.

Summary

  • This poem of three four-line stanzas imagines a relative whose hobby is needlework.
  • Aunt Jennifer reveals her dreams of a happier life in her needlework.
  • From the titles given to the adults, it seems as if the speaker is a child.
  • In the first stanza the relative, Aunt Jennifer, makes a panel with images of tigers parading proudly across it.  The tigers are free, unlike their maker.
  • Her panel contains animals that are happier and more confident than she is. There is a ‘certainty’ about them that their maker lacks in herself.
  • Aunt Jennifer paints confident, proud tigers. They are assured and confident dwelllers, ‘denizens’, of their green world. ‘Denizen’ suggests independent citizen.
  • It would seem that Jennifer is not an independent citizen of her own world. She is instead a wife, weighed down by duties as we learn in the second stanza.
  • Jennifer uses sharp and contrasting colours, sharp yellow against a green background.
  • Her tigers are as bright as topaz, a yellow gem.
  • Her picture contains an image of men under a tree, though the proud tigers show no fear of the men. This is mentioned to show that they differ from Jennifer, who lives in fear of her husband to some extent.
  • The tigers remind the poet of knights, full of courtesty and style. Chivalric men respected their women and acted kindly towards them. Again, this seems to contrast with how ‘Uncle’ behaved towards Aunt Jennifer according to the second stanza.
  • In the second stanza, the poet describes Aunt Jennifer’s nervous hands struggling to pull the wool with her ivory needle. The word ‘fluttering’ suggests trembling.
  • We get the impression of a frail woman who finds it hard to pull the needle.
  • It is interesting that if her needle is made of ivory it may have come from an elephant’s tusk. Ivory is a bit like topaz, a precious material. As ivory involves the killing of elephants for their valuable tusks, it would seem that Jennifer may not care much for tigers in the wild or know much about their reality.
  • Thus, her artwork is unrealistic. Perhaps the poet feels it is a pointless and empty type of art.
  • The poet humorously suggests that Aunt Jennfer’s fingers find it hard to hold the weight of her wedding ring and then pull the needle at the same time.
  • The wedding band is another reference to a precious substance, probably gold.
  • By mentioning that it is ‘Uncle’s wedding band’, the poet suggests that Uncle owns Jennifer too and that as a female she is the property of her husband.
  • The words ‘massive’ and ‘heavily’ suggest Aunt Jennifer lives a demanding sort of life in which she has to attend to her husband’s needs and fulfil his commands. As a result she is somewhat worn out in her old age.
  • In the third stanza, the poet predicts that, when Aunt Jennifer dies, her hands will look worn from all her needlework as well as the hard time she has trying to please her husband.
  • Aunt Jennifer is ‘ringed’, trapped in her marriage and controlled like an animal. Her husband is her master.
  • Her artwork will live on after her as a reminder of the dreams she never fulfilled.

Themes

1. Marriage is unequal due to male domination/Inequality

The woman at the centre of the poem, Aunt Jennifer, is a nervous and fearful wife. She lacks inner conviction or ‘certainty’, unlike the tigers she portrays. Aunt Jennifer is ‘mastered’ in her life. She lives a life of inequality. She is so nervous that her fingers ‘flutter’ through the wool she is using in her tapestry or panel. The poet portrays the marriage of Jennifer as an unhappy one for her. Aunt Jennifer feels the burden of duty and obedience. This is shown by the symbol of the wedding ring that she wears. It is described as her husband’s property: ‘Uncle’s wedding band’. It ‘sits heavily’ on her hand because he dominates her life. Her life with her husband is desctibed as a life of ‘ordeals’.  It is shown that Jennifer is terrified in her marriage. Her husband may be fiercer to her than the tigers she produces in her artwork.  The poem therefore provides a negative picture of marriage. The poem is probably saying that the ‘Uncle’ or husband is behaving like a tiger, and the tigers are ‘chivalric’ like the husband should be. Each world is the reverse of what it should be.

2. The world of art is happier than the real world/Dream versus Reality

Aunt Jennifer’s hobby is making designs and pictures from wool. Jennifer produces wool tapestries that she places on panels. The creatures she places there are free and proud, the opposite to herself. She is ‘ringed’ or mastered in marriage and therefore she is not free, but controlled.  It seems that she creates a happier looking world than the one she lives in. She makes precise and brightly coloured pictures like the sharp yellow tigers of the poem, pictured against a green background. These bright contrasting colours are probably much more vivid than Jennifer’s everyday world. Her artistic work will live on after she dies, as, according to the poet, her tigers will ‘go on prancing’. The figures she creates are stronger and happier than she is. They are proud and ‘prance’ about, unlike their creator, who is nervous and fears her husband. The word ‘prance’ or parade contrasts sharply with ‘fluttering’, meaning trembling. The tigers do not fear the men the aunt places under some trees in her tapestry. Therefore, the imaginary tigers produced by Aunt Jennifer live a type of proud and free life that she can only dream about. It is a ‘chivalric’ world, one where gentlemen treat women with great respect. Yet this is also a false world, as real tigers live out a battle for survival of the fittest, where the strongest dominate. Perhaps Aunt Jennifer uses art as an escape from her troubles. In her artwork Jenniger imagines the kind of life she would have liked.


Style

  • Form  This poem is a formal, structured lyric.
  • Structure  It contains three stanzas of four lines each
  • Language Most of the words are short and simple everyday words. The sentences are simple in structure and all take two lines. 
  • Diction The unusual word ‘denizens’ stands out and it shows how special the tigers are, unlike how Aunt Jennifer feels about herself. The word ‘chivalric’ shows that the tigers are proud and charming. It means they treat women with respect. The repetition of ‘prance’ [parade] is interesting and emphasises the happy, confident life of the tigers.
  • Full Stops and Commas Full stops are placed regularly at the end of every second line. The poem is controlled, just like its subject, Aunt Jennifer.
  • Comparison The tigers are compared to knights from the time of chivalry in the middle ages.
  • Imagery The main images are of Aunt Jennifer as a fearful wife and, secondly, the magnificent tigers she creates in her panel. Images of precious substances run through the poem: ‘topaz’, ‘ivory’ and the gold of ‘wedding band’.
  • Metaphor The poet compares the yellow stripes of the tigers to a precious stone, topaz.
  • Contrast [difference] The main contrasts are between nervous Aunt Jennifer and her confident tigers. Another contrast is between the strong yellow and green colours. The words ‘prancing’ and ‘fluttering’ contrast as well.
  • Mood/Atmosphere Fear is the main atmosphere in Aunt Jennifer’s life of ‘ordeals’ where her fingers tremble and show terror.  An air of freedom and confidence dominates the atmosphere in her artistic creations. The men beneath the tree create an atmosphere of mystery.  The image of Aunt Jennifer’s corpse from the future is a bit eerie or creepy.
  • Hyperbole [Exaggeration]  The poet exaggerates the weight of her husband’s wedding ring to make a point about how dominating he is.  
  • Paradox [apparent contradiction]   Here a trembling and ‘mastered’ woman creates free and confident creatures in her artistic endeavours. ‘Fluttering’ fingers produce something that has ‘certainty’.
  • Tone The tone appears to be positive and cheerful when the poet describes the tigers. See the comment on sibilance below. The tone becomes sad and even creepy at times in describing the life of Aunt Jennifer.
  • Repetition The word ‘prance’ is repeated to emphasise the pride and freedom of the tigers. ‘Ringed’ echoes ‘wedding band’. There is repetition of various sounds as indicated in the next few bullet points. 
  • Rhyme Every pair of lines rhyme, like the ‘een’ sound in ‘screen’ and ‘green’ at the end of the first two lines. The rhyme pattern for the poem is: aabb ccdd  eeff. This rigid pattern mirrors the rigid life of Aunt Jennifer.
  • Assonance [similar vowel sound repetition] Note the long ‘i’ sound in ‘find’ the ivory’. This creates a sad or mournful effect.
  • Consonance [similar consonant sound repetition] Note the repeated ‘n’ sound in the first line and the  ‘f’ sound in the first line of the second stanza.
  • Alliteration [repetition of consonant sounds at the start of nearby words] e.g ‘p’ in ‘prancing proud’ emphasises the feeling of confidence expressed in the tigers’ movements.
  • Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sound] Note how the five ‘s’ sounds in the first line create a smooth opening, suggesting an air of confidence within the artificial world of the panel.

 

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