Oppression Versus Self-Expression in “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”
Adrienne Rich is an astonishing woman who has used her writings to confront matters of women’s oppression and the need for women’s liberation from a world of male domination (Pope, “Rich’s Life and Career”). “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” was an early attempt by Rich to define male and female relationships. In “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, Rich uses formalism to not sully herself with this topic (“When We Dead Awaken” 22). She eloquently voices the poem in a third-person narrative which sets herself apart from Aunt Jennifer. The prevailing theme of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is Aunt Jennifer’s oppression through marriage, and her utilization of embroidery as her only form of self-expression.
In the first stanza of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, the speaker describes the tigers. They “prance across a screen”. This implies that the tigers move in a lively fashion, perhaps arrogantly. They are “topaz denizens of a world of green”. The ancient Greeks believed that topaz had the ability to increase the strength of those who wore it, and Egyptians thought that it could protect people from physical harm (“Topaz”). The speaker may be using the word topaz for its golden color, or topaz may be a representation of the strength and impenetrability of the tigers. The tigers certainly seem to be aware of their own power since they have no fear of “the men beneath the tree”.
In the last line of the first stanza the tigers “pace in sleek chivalric certainty”. The pacing of the tigers may represent fluid and controlled motion, as compared to the frolicking movement of the first line. However, the tigers may be pacing back and forth, because their movement is restricted to their tree top since there are men present below them. The use of the word “sleek” is a quandary. The tigers may be attractive and healthy, or they may contain that male quality of suaveness which is so often insincere. Yet, it is a “sleek chivalric certainty”. To be chivalrous is to be honorable and unwaveringly brave including behavior towards women. Being honorable often implies sincerity. Therefore, “sleek chivalric” is either meant as an oxymoron, or the tigers are attractive and considerate towards women.
In the second stanza Aunt Jennifer is doing needlework. Her fingers are “fluttering through her wool” as she stitches. This fluttering may be the graceful movement of her fingers as she works. On the other hand, Aunt Jennifer’s fluttering fingers may be a sign of agitation within Aunt Jennifer. In this case, the latter seems more likely, because Aunt Jennifer is having difficulty pulling her needle as she stitches. Yet, what does Aunt Jennifer have to be nervous about?
Uncle, perhaps? His wedding ring “sits heavily upon” her hand. The ring itself is certainly not so heavy as to impede her stitching. The ring seems to be symbolic of Uncle. Therefore, he is the one who is hampering Aunt Jennifer. If the ring represents Uncle then how is he heavy? He cannot possibly be sitting on her. Is he demanding, severe, violent, oppressive, or even a villain? Any of these options are plausible since the speaker does not provide any information for them to be contested. However, Uncle is conceivably having negative effects on Jennifer’s emotional state if she is displaying physical signs of agitation.
In the third stanza, the speaker describes the grim image of Aunt Jennifer’s corpse having “terrified hands” which are “still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by”. The speaker is stating that Jennifer has true fear of something in order to be terrified. By utilizing the word “ringed”, the speaker seems to be referring back to the wedding ring or “Uncle” as it were. Uncle seems to be the master who put Jennifer through ordeals and “mastered” her leaving her “terrified”. These ordeals may be why Jennifer chose to use ivory needles for her creations. After all, the Chinese believe that ivory protects the physical body (Kapadiaat). However, ivory comes from animals which are mastered and destroyed by men as well.
It has been discerned that Uncle causes Aunt Jennifer anxiety, and that he is dominating her through his mastery. Therefore, Uncle is oppressive. Yet, Uncle is synonymous with Aunt Jennifer’s wedding ring. Is the speaker trying to explicate that marriage is oppressive? The first line of the second stanza states that Aunt Jennifer is working with wool. Wool is a material that often comes from sheep. Sheep is a term which is often used to describe people who are conventional or traditional. Marriage itself is a convention, a tradition. Perhaps, Aunt Jennifer is anxiety-ridden, because of her choice to be traditional and get married into an oppressive institution.
Also, there is the familiar saying to “pull the wool over somebody’s eyes”. Maybe Aunt Jennifer feels deceived in her belief of what marriage is supposed to be. The wool is no longer covering Aunt Jennifer’s eyes. It is now in her hands, a material for her to work with and continuously ponder as she stitches. Aunt Jennifer may have regrets about her marriage, and her lack of understanding how oppressive it would be to her. Yet, she puts her energy into creating an ideal in her tigers, “the tigers in the panel that she made”. Aunt Jennifer’s needlework allows her to express her thoughts and feelings which she cannot otherwise express. Her tigers are strong and chivalrous, rather than weak and oppressive. Her tigers will continue “prancing, proud and unafraid” after she is gone. The tigers represent what Jennifer believes marriage and men should be, while at the same time representing the strength which Jennifer wishes that she possessed. The needlework which seems to consume Aunt Jennifer is her way of coping with her lot in life.
In The “Split” in Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers, Michael Rizza draws attention to an interesting point in line three of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”. He asserts that “The definite article “the” suspiciously draws attention to “the tree”, signaling that we should already know it, as if it were something as familiar as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Rizza contends that women were first subordinated to men when Eve was declared the “weaker sex”. However, Rizza also makes the case that “the tree” may be a tree of lineage with the men as fruit, in which case the women may be grafted onto the tree by marriage. Rizza does not take a stance on these options (64). However, the former proposal seems more rational since the speaker is in fact not talking about “a tree”, but the speaker is describing “the tree” in the panel.
Yet, arguing that “the tree” is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil complicates the poem even more. If the tigers are “denizens of the tree of knowledge do they possess that knowledge? Would that be why they have no fear of the men beneath them, or would that not be more reason to fear the men? Yet, in the last line of the poem the tigers are “proud” which would imply that they do have knowledge of good and evil. Could the speaker then be implying that Eve was right in eating the forbidden fruit and not in fact weak, or vice versa? Do the tigers then represent the ideals that knowledge allows us?
Rizza continues dissecting “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by highlighting the line “When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie”. Rizza calls this line enjambled and asserts that it is saying one of two things or both; that Aunt’s hands will “lie” still in death, or that they will not be truthful. Rizza argues that the hope and escapism which is enveloped in the tigers continuous “prancing, proud and unafraid” is destabilized by the speaker’s knowledge that it is a falsehood (65). If Rizza is correct and Jennifer’s hands do not impart the truth about her life then the poem may not be hopeful, but if that is the case then perhaps Jennifer’s hands have been dishonest in their “fluttering” as well. If the poem has any basis in dishonesty then it might not convey anything which has been assumed. In Aesthetics of Power, Claire Keyes offers a different reason for Jennifer’s hands to be dishonest. Perhaps they will deny being terrified, or deny that the glorious tigers were a woman’s creation. Keyes considers the speaker’s use of the word “lie” to be a “sly ambiguity” (23). In which case, let Aunt Jennifer’s “terrified hands” rest.
Keyes emphasizes the traditional theme that art survives long after its creator is gone. Keyes asserts that in the first stanza of the poem the tigers represent Jennifer’s creative powers and in the last stanza they “represent her unfulfilled longings”. The tigers have a strength which Jennifer lacks. Keyes argues that Jennifer never truly associates herself with the tigers, because to do so would “unwoman” her (22). Keyes is making a strong point here, since the tigers maintain male characteristics. There is no implication in the poem that Jennifer is unhappy with being a woman, only her dissatisfaction with men who do not live up to her male ideal.
“Aunt is not compelling, her creation is”, states Keyes (23). Yet, what does Keyes mean by “compelling”, does Jennifer not attract attention, or does she not force action or belief? If Keynes means the former then it can be agreed that Jennifer’s tigers do strike more interest with readers since the speaker places them at the beginning, and the end of the poem. The tigers are also vibrantly described while Aunt Jennifer seems drab. However, Aunt Jennifer and her situation certainly are compelling in action and belief. Who can consider her suffering and escapism without being compelled to empathize or sympathize with her plight? Aunt Jennifer’s “ordeals” are a warning to women against the oppression of marriage.
Rich’s poem, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, is beautifully written. It provides stunning imagery with an excellent rhyming scheme. Yet, beyond the perfect wording of her poem and the beautiful images it provides lies a dark and significant truth. Aunt Jennifer is trapped within an oppressive marriage. She is a victim whose only form of self-expression is through needlework. Aunt Jennifer creates a lovely screen depicting glorious tigers who maintain the strength and assertiveness which she lacks. The tigers are masculine, but they maintain the qualities of honorable men which Uncle lacks. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is a commentary on marriage, women’s oppression, and the use of art as a coping mechanism.