Snow White under the Microscope
Introduction to the Analysis
“Snow White,” the wonderful story of a girl who, despite adversity, found true love and lived happily ever after, right? Not the way Anne Sexton tells it. Sexton’s is a modern, poetic version of the classic “Snow White” with a few of her own twists and thrown in. These added plot twists, as well as her descriptions of Snow White and droplets of modern language sprinkled throughout the poem say a lot about the 1960’s and 1970’s culture from which Anne Sexton was writing.
Anne Sexton Herself
The Poem Itself
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Anne Sexton No matter what life you lead the virgin is a lovely number: cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper, arms and legs made of Limoges, lips like Vin Du Rhône, rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut. Open to say, Good Day Mama, and shut for the thrust of the unicorn. She is unsoiled. She is as white as a bonefish. Once there was a lovely virgin called Snow White. Say she was thirteen. Her stepmother, a beauty in her own right, though eaten, of course, by age, would hear of no beauty surpassing her own. Beauty is a simple passion, but, oh my friends, in the end you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes. The stepmother had a mirror to which she referred-- something like the weather forecast-- a mirror that proclaimed the one beauty of the land. She would ask, Looking glass upon the wall, who is fairest of us all? And the mirror would reply, You are the fairest of us all. Pride pumped in her like poison. Suddenly one day the mirror replied, Queen, you are full fair, ‘tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you. Until that moment Snow White had been no more important than a dust mouse under the bed. But now the queen saw brown spots on her hand and four whiskers over her lip so she condemned Snow White to be hacked to death. Bring me her heart, she said to the hunter, and I will salt it and eat it. The hunter, however, let his prisoner go and brought a boar’s heart back to the castle. The queen chewed it up like a cube steak. Now I am fairest, she said, lapping her slim white fingers. Snow White walked in the wildwood for weeks and weeks. At each turn there were twenty doorways and at each stood a hungry wolf, his tongue lolling out like a worm. The birds called out lewdly, talking like pink parrots, and the snakes hung down in loops, each a noose for her sweet white neck. On the seventh week she came to the seventh mountain and there she found the dwarf house. It was as droll as a honeymoon cottage and completely equipped with seven beds, seven chairs, seven forks and seven chamber pots. Snow White ate seven chicken livers and lay down, at last, to sleep. The dwarfs, those little hot dogs, walked three times around Snow White, the sleeping virgin. They were wise and wattled like small czars. Yes. It’s a good omen, they said, and will bring us luck. They stood on tiptoes to watch Snow White wake up. She told them about the mirror and the killer-queen and they asked her to stay and keep house. Beware of your stepmother, they said. Soon she will know you are here. While we are away in the mines during the day, you must not open the door. Looking glass upon the wall . . . The mirror told and so the queen dressed herself in rags and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White. She went across seven mountains. She came to the dwarf house and Snow White opened the door and bought a bit of lacing. The queen fastened it tightly around her bodice, as tight as an Ace bandage, so tight that Snow White swooned. She lay on the floor, a plucked daisy. When the dwarfs came home they undid the lace and she revived miraculously. She was as full of life as soda pop. Beware of your stepmother, they said. She will try once more. Looking glass upon the wall. . . Once more the mirror told and once more the queen dressed in rags and once more Snow White opened the door. This time she bought a poison comb, a curved eight-inch scorpion, and put it in her hair and swooned again. The dwarfs returned and took out the comb and she revived miraculously. She opened her eyes as wide as Orphan Annie. Beware, beware, they said, but the mirror told, the queen came, Snow White, the dumb bunny, opened the door and she bit into a poison apple and fell down for the final time. When the dwarfs returned they undid her bodice, they looked for a comb, but it did no good. Though they washed her with wine and rubbed her with butter it was to no avail. She lay as still as a gold piece. The seven dwarfs could not bring themselves to bury her in the black ground so they made a glass coffin and set it upon the seventh mountain so that all who passed by could peek in upon her beauty. A prince came one June day and would not budge. He stayed so long his hair turned green and still he would not leave. The dwarfs took pity upon him and gave him the glass Snow White-- its doll’s eyes shut forever-- to keep in his far-off castle. As the prince’s men carried the coffin they stumbled and dropped it and the chunk of apple flew out of her throat and she woke up miraculously. And thus Snow White became the prince’s bride. The wicked queen was invited to the wedding feast and when she arrived there were red-hot iron shoes, in the manner of red-hot roller skates, clamped upon her feet. First your toes will smoke and then your heels will turn black and you will fry upward like a frog, she was told. And so she danced until she was dead, a subterranean figure, her tongue flicking in and out like a gas jet. Meanwhile Snow White held court, rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut and sometimes referring to her mirror as women do.
Sexton’s use of modern terms throughout the poem are one of the first, most obvious details that hint at her culture. Some of these tidbits include places where Sexton mentioned the “weather forecast,” “little hot dogs,” “Ace bandage,” “soda pop,” “Orphan Annie,” “roller skates,” and a “gas jet.” Sexton’s audience would be familiar with these things and that would help them connect to and understand her poem better. For example, mentioning how the mirror was “something like the weather forecast” elicits how easily accessible it was to her. She could simply tune into her mirror as if tuning into the weather forecast whether on the television or radio. When she calls the dwarfs “little hot dogs” her audience would think of them as short, fat and greasy, but still very likeable. Her use of that term is both insulting and loving at the same time, like a nickname someone might have for their little brothers. The “Ace bandage” reference would resonate with Sexton’s audience as well as most people have experienced having a tight Ace bandage wrapped around a wrist or knee, perhaps. This reference makes Snow White’s situation more relatable to Sexton’s audience. the “red-hot roller skates” quote would also have found favor in Sexton’s culture as disco was making it’s debut in the 70’s bringing with it, roller disco which would become very popular. Even if she wasn’t referencing the disco portion of roller skating, such a pastime was still popular. Sexton’s audience would know how it felt to have heavy shoes attached to their feet and they could especially relate because of how hot and sweaty one’s feet can get while wearing roller skates. All of Sexton’s modern, cultural descriptions assist her readers in understanding the feeling behind each situation. In doing so, Sexton takes her poem from a mere retelling of a classic tale and makes it personal to her and to her readers. Even where she compares Snow White to a “dumb bunny” has cultural significance, but that is to be discussed in just a bit.
Food for Thought
Snow White’s entire description throughout the whole poem say a lot about Sexton’s culture, as well as her personal attitude toward said culture. The poem starts out with a description of a virgin, “No matter what life you lead/ the virgin is a lovely number….” She goes on to describe this virgin as “fragile,” comparing her to “cigarette paper” and breakable porcelain (“Limoges”). This virgin’s lips are compared to “Vin du Rhone” eliciting that they are deep red like wine. Her eyes are “china-blue doll eyes” which again makes her seem fragile. The idea that the virgin must be somewhat of a goody two shoes is gathered when her eyes “Open to say,/ Good Day Mama….” However, the description is surprising for a moment when her eyes “...shut for the thrust/ of the unicorn.” This description gets confusing because the word “thrust” along with the thought of a unicorn’s horn seem sexual, but the description is about an “unsoiled” and fair skinned virgin girl. Sexton’s attitude at this point in the description seems to change and forces the reader to rethink what he or she just read. Is Sexton romantically describing a blameless virgin, or is she mocking the idea of a virgin? Sexton perhaps is commenting on the sexual revolution that was taking place around the time that she wrote this poem. Sexuality at this time was being freed from the cage of taboos that it had been kept in for centuries. The second wave feminist movement was pushing for birth control and abortion rights and having sex before marriage was becoming not only more common, but more acceptable. At this time, the status of “virgin” was quickly being demoted from someone who was upstanding, pure and noble, to someone who was lame, unpopular and unwanted. Sexton seemed to be supporting this trend by portraying the virgin as weak and fragile, as well as the hint that she may not be as pure as everyone thought. Due to the fact that Sexton says that the virgin’s eyes are “...shut for the thrust…” it may be like a girl who takes off her purity ring for just a little bit until she is done being impure, the ring was not on so she didn’t have to be pure, just like the virgin’s eyes were closed so she did not acknowledge her possibility of not being “unsoiled.” Sexton seems to be mocking the idea of sex as something that would soil a person, which makes sense in the time period in which she was writing. The next stanza of the poem describes Snow White as “a lovely virgin,” therefore giving her all of the characteristics of virgins from the previous stanza. In fact, Snow White’s sexuality seems to be of special interest to Sexton, although this idea is somewhat hidden in the text. When Snow White is going through the forest it’s as if Sexton wishes to symbolize her eyes being opened now to sexuality. Surely Sexton is familiar with the idea of hungry wolves symbolizing men with a high sexual appetites, such as the wolves from the “Little Red Riding Hood” stories. The birds in this forest are calling “lewdly,/ talking like pink parrots” to her as well, perhaps trying to tempt her as the color pink, that the parrots are described as, can represent flirtation. Also, the imagery of the wolf’s tongue “lolling out like a worm” and that of the snakes definitely does not depart from the sexual innuendo of the “wildwood.” Plus, once she is finally free of all that, she comes to a house that is described as a “honeymoon cottage” and everyone knows what happens in honeymoon cottages. Later on in the poem, Sexton calls Snow White a “dumb bunny,” as was mentioned previously. Playboy Bunny waitresses were very popular around the time Sexton was writing this poem, so this reference to Snow White as a bunny seems to hint towards her new sexuality and the fact that she may not be as innocent as she was at the start of the story. Sexton’s description of Snow White so clearly reflects the 60’s and 70’s culture of sexuality, but it does more than just that, Sexton discretely points out the danger of increased sexuality. Throughout history women have always been seen as objects and property, however, attitudes were slowly changing as the first wave of feminism rolled around. Women were being seen as more independent and more respected as actual people, but this new rise in sexuality and the second wave of feminism pushed everything back and women became objects again, except this time they were almost purely sexual objects, rather than useful property. Sexton emphasizes this most of all when she introduces the prince to the story. She writes, “A prince came one June day/ and would not budge./ He stayed so long his hair turned green/ and still he would not leave.” So, he sees Snow White and is so captivated by her beauty that he will not leave. He stays until he is sick, the green of his hair representing his sickness. While this could be a physical ailment type of sickness, it could also easily be seen as the kind of sickness that is twisted and perverse. Either one could make sense and would support Sexton’s idea that he was so captivated by her outward beauty and sexual appeal, by his objectified view of her, that he was overtaken by lustful desires and couldn’t possibly leave because nothing but her could satisfy him. Sexton uses the prince to point out men’s active objectification of women in her time. She goes further when she refers to the girl as “the glass Snow White” and even calls her an “it” when she says “its doll’s eyes shut forever--/ to keep in his far-off castle.” Sexton also describes Snow White as a doll here, and throughout the poem, and implies that she is just something to decorate the castle with. Sexton is pointing to her own culture where this objectification is becoming worse and worse by exaggerating Snow White’s objectification so far as to call her an “it.” Beyond that, of course Snow White’s sexuality is revisited once more when she becomes the “prince’s bride.” Now her innocence truly is gone for sure. It’s as if it is this sexuality that changes Snow White and brings about the plot twist at the end.
Picking Her Apart
The plot twist at the end of the story also says a lot about Anne Sexton’s culture. In the end of her version of Snow White, Snow White seems to have become the jealous, evil character sure to wreak havoc on some poor girl who is more beautiful than her, “Meanwhile Snow White held court,/ rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut/ and sometimes referring to her mirror/ as women do.” This plot twist where Snow White has undergone a change and is now implied to be the evil one points to Sexton’s culture in two ways. The first being a comment on her culture. She continues to comment on the sexual revolution by implying that Snow White’s sexuality and loss of innocence is what corrupted her to become like her evil stepmother. The whole tale is not just a story about a poor girl with a jealous stepmother who eventually finds love and happiness, Sexton’s version is clearly about a girl discovering her sexuality and perhaps going through puberty since the text says that she is thirteen. Before, when Snow White was a virgin, she was portrayed as overly fragile, good and pure. After she is married and her innocence is completely gone she is no longer fragile, good and pure. She is jealous, evil and, according to Sexton, soiled, since she is not a virgin now. The second way that the end plot twist points to Sexton’s culture is that it is not a “happily ever after” ending. It is open ended and the good character, the protagonist is implied to have become the antagonist of a future story. Such writing techniques point to the stray from the necessity of happy endings. The 60’s and 70’s were a time where reality had set in. People knew that “happily ever after” was just a fantasy and the readers of the time would have really liked Sexton’s ending because it is realistic and true to human nature. If a poem retelling Snow White had been written a few decades earlier, it would have likely had a happier ending where Snow White stayed beautiful and good. Sexton was writing in the postmodern era, which explains her employment of the ironic plot twist. Postmodern literature often rejects the way things used to be and embraces the reality of the times, as Sexton’s version of Snow White did.
More Culture Applied to Fairytales
All in all, looking at Sexton’s version of Snow White says a lot about the 1960’s and 1970’s and how Sexton viewed that culture. The postmodern plot twists, Snow Whites journey of sexuality along with her objectification and the modern day terms that were used all come together to show a glimpse into Sexton’s world. While at first Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” seems merely to be a modern time retelling of “Snow White” with an unusual ending, a closer look sheds light on Sexton’s attitudes, ideas and thoughts about the culture around her. She uses the modern terms to connect to her readers, then she points out what is going on in the culture around her, the changes that are taking place, with Snow White’s descriptions and then ends with a comment about the reality of human nature with her postmodern use of the ironic plot twist to sum it all up. While many stories point to their cultures almost by accident or without really meaning to, Sexton definitely does a lot of pointing to her culture on purpose to comment and voice her opinions.