Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers – Summary and Explanation

                                           

               By Adrienne Rich {Adrienne Cecile Rich (/ˈædˌriən/; May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012)}

Adrienne Rich was an American poet, theorist, essayist and lyricist known for her involvement in women’s movement. She wrote against racism and militarism. The theme of ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ is the experience of women in their married life under dominating husbands.

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers

by Adrienne Rich

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.

Aunt Jennifer’s finger 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.

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.

Synopsis:-

Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers on a screen are her embroidery, representative of her free spirit that she aspires for. She expresses her yearning through her creativity. She creates pictures through her embroidery of the life that she would have liked to live. ‘Bright topaz denizens’ evoke the image of majestic tigers who rule the world of green. These tigers are fearless and fear no men, unlike Aunt Jennifer who is afraid of the oppressor in her life. In contrast to Aunt Jennifer these tigers tread with ‘chivalric certainty’ and possess the confidence and bravery that Aunt Jennifer desires to have.

The second stanza brings out the reality of Aunt Jennifer’s life. She pines for freedom from her burdensome marriage. She finds it difficult to vent out her feelings through her embroidery because of the ‘massive weight’ of Uncle’s wedding band. She is trying to create creatures very different from her own personality and this makes her nervous and her work difficult, even with an ivory needle which is light to handle.

The third stanza is the projection of the future. Even after her death, Aunt Jennifer will not be able to get rid of her marital status. The terror and domination she felt during her married life will continue to remain with her in memories of her. However, the tigers that she had woven will continue to be proud and unafraid living a free life among the greens. It is she who will fade away with time.

Her memories will continue to reflect her subservience to her husband, reminding people of her wishes and how they were crushed in a patriarchal society.

STANZA WISE EXPLANATION

FIRST STANZA
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

The first stanza introduces us to Aunt Jennifer and her passion for embroidery. She is weaving a piece of cloth to be used as a screen. The pattern she weaves depict tigers jumping around in a world of green. They are bright yellow in colour like the topaz stone (metaphor). The dense green jungle is the backdrop of the scene. The tigers, full of the gentlemanly mannerisms, are brave majestic rulers of the forest who are unafraid of men. Here the poet gives a sense of contrast between Aunt Jennifer and her tigers. Unlike the tigers Aunt Jennifer is fearful of the man in her life.

SECOND STANZA
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.

Aunt Jennifer’s fingers tremble with fear as she embroiders the fearless tigers on the cloth. She is weaving something that is absolutely in contrast with her character so she is both excited and afraid. She is afraid that her husband would not approve of her embroidering fearless tigers that are proud of their existence. Her burdensome marriage has worn her out, and she is so tired that she finds it difficult to pull the ivory needle. Her fingers are also weighed down by ‘uncle’s wedding band’. She does not consider the ring as hers even years after her marriage.  Burdened by the obligations of married she is now crushed and worn out.

THIRD STANZA


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

The third stanza is a projection of the future. The poet says that when aunt is dead, her hands which were a part of her terrified existence shall lie by her side. They will also be lying about her existence as a subservient wife as the fingers had created brave tigers in contrast to her real character. The poet here wants to convey that although her husband’s torture had been able to cower her down superficially, but it could not kill her mind which pined for freedom. Unfortunately her ordeal will not end with her death as the burdensome ring will remain on her even after death. However, her desire for freedom will remain alive through her tigers which will continue to prance about on the screen.  

Rhyme scheme: The rhyme scheme used in the poem is – aabb.

Literary Devices in – Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers

Anaphora – use of same word in two consecutive lines (they do not … and they pace in…)

Metaphor – Use of topaz to describe the yellow color of tigers (Bright topaz)

Alliteration – ‘f’ sound is repeated in finger fluttering

Synecdoche – terrified hands (part for whole) her hands represents Aunt Jennifer

Pun – i) lie implies that it would be lying by her side; ii) the fingers which made the tigers would give a false impression about her character.

Pun – i) ringed refer to the ringed finger; ii) her entrapment in marriage.

Alliteration – ‘p’ is repeated in prancing proud

Word meanings:


Prance – move with high springy steps.
Topaz – a yellow precious stone.
Denizens –  people or animal that live in a particular place.
Sleek – smooth and glossy.
Chivalric – gallant and courteous, displaying gentlemanly behaviour.

Fluttering –  moving unsteadily.

Ringed – surrounded, wearing a ring
Ordeals – hardships or unpleasant experiences.
Prancing – moving around in energetic manner.

Questions and Answers – Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers

Q. What do the ‘terrified hands’ symbolize?

Ans. They symbolize the helplessness of women, caught in overburdening marriages with dominating husbands.

Q. What is the theme of the poem?

Ans. The theme of the poem is the crushed spirits of women in a patriarchal society.  The poem portrays that oppression may dominate over the hands of women but not their minds which yearn for freedom.

Q. What does Aunt Jennifer’s death symbolize?

Ans. Aunt Jennifer’s death symbolizes the never-ending dominance of men in a patriarchal society that subdues a woman’s wishes throughout her life and even continues to do so even after her death. Aunt Jennifer’s hands continue to represent the ordeals she faced in her marriage and her entrapment in it.

Q. How does Aunt Jennifer’s personality contrast with that of the tigers?

Ans. While Aunt Jennifer had a subservient and docile nature due to her over dominating husband, the tigers were fearless and strong. Aunt Jennifer lead a compromised life within the four walls of her home but she yearned to live a life free from fear like the tigers which pranced about proud and unafraid in the world of green.

 Q. How do ‘denizens’ and ‘chivalric’ add to our understanding of the tiger’s attitudes?

Ans. The word ‘denizens’ means that they are proud of their home, they feel safe there and have a feeling of belonging attached to it. They enjoy the kingship in the world of green.
The word ‘chivalric’ shows that they have a majestic, brave and worthy position like knights.

Q. Why are her fingers ‘fluttering through the wool’ in the second stanza?  Why is she finding the needle so hard to pull?

Ans.  Aunt Jennifer is trying to weave tigers which are very different from her own personality. She is trying to express her inner longing to be like that of the tiger, but she is not very confident about it. She feels afraid that her husband might find out about her true nature that is why her fingers are fluttering through the wool.

She is finding it hard to pull the light ivory needle due to the massive weight of her husband’s wedding ring, which is the symbol of her burdened marriage. Her effort to do something that her husband would not approve makes her weak and fearful making her task a laborious one.

Q. What is suggested by the image ‘massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’?

Ans. ‘Massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’ suggests that her marriage has been full of unpleasant experiences which had wearied her out. The wedding band is burdensome on her and sits heavily on her hand as a symbol of the bindings and obligations of her marriage.

Q. Of what or of whom is Aunt Jennifer terrified with in the third stanza?

Ans.  She is terrified of her husband’s wrath and the ordeals of a married life with him. Her dominating husband had made her live a burdensome life full of fear.

Q. What are the ‘ordeals’ Aunt Jennifer is surrounded by, why is it significant that the poet uses the word ‘ringed’? What are the meanings of the word ‘ringed’ in the poem?

A. The ‘ordeals’ were the obligations of marriage, submission to her husband and obeying him. Fearing his wrath and fulfilling his commands.

‘Ringed’ indicates entrapment. As the ring encircles the finger, similarly, her marriage entrapped her in a life she wanted to escape from.

Q. Why do you think Aunt Jennifer created animals that are so different from her own character? What might the poet be suggesting, through this difference?

        I think that Aunt Jennifer’s intense desire for freedom and to live a life without fear, came out through her creativity.

While doing her embroidery Aunt Jennifer spends time with herself. It is at this time that she is able to express her innermost feelings through her creative expression, which in her case is embroidering fearless tigers on her screen.  

Through this difference the poet wants to show that the lady is not what she is. It is her circumstances have made her so, but she still retains a desire to live life with respect and pride.

Interpret the symbols found in Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers.

  • ‘denizens of a world of green’ mean, inhabitants of the forest.
  • ‘massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’ means, the burden of marital obligations.
  • ‘Sits heavily upon Aunt’ means, the marriage has laid a lot of stress on her.
  • ‘ringed with ordeals’ means, to get entrapped in hardships and sufferings

Q. Do you sympathize with Aunt Jennifer? What is the attitude of the speaker towards Aunt Jennifer?

Ans. Yes, I sympathize with Aunt Jennifer. The speaker is also sympathetic towards her and abhors dominance of men.

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