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Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

Updated on October 8, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Adrienne Rich


Manuscript copy of Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"


Reading of Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"

Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" demonstrates the failure that results when propaganda masquerades as a poem.

Adrienne Rich's poem, "Living in Sin," remains one of the best poems ever written in American English. Unfortunately, the poet's prowess failed her miserably in "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers," a piece of doggerel that is nevertheless held in high regard in the radical feminist world.

Structured in three awkward stanzas that in turn feature two couplets, Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" explores a theme that claims the heart of radical feminism, the damage done to women by patriarchal marriage.

The speaker is concocting a drama about the life of her poor Aunt Jennifer. The hapless aunt passes her time with needlework, even though her feeble fingers are barely able to pull the needle through the "screen," as the speaker announces, those fingers find “the ivory needle hard to pull.”

Pitiful Aunt Jenny, even after she has died, will remain an intimidated soul whose “terrified hands” and “ordeals” in life will have “mastered” her. The tigers on her needle-work will remain free to dance happily while cowed Auntie will lie in her coffin, still quaking from the terrors that prevented her from experiencing a pleasant, successful life.

What events or situations of her miserable life caused her victimhood? Perhaps she was never able to overcome dire poverty? Perhaps she suffered a lifetime of an incurable illness that incapacitated her? Possibly she was thrown into prison for a crime though she was innocent? Or perhaps she just passed her life as a lonely, melancholy spinster?

None of the above! Aunt Jennifer was simply the victim of marriage. A simple fact: she married a man and marriage transformed her into a mere cog in the wheel of patriarchy. The speaker has the prescience to predict that her sad aunt will die a married woman. She cannot get a divorce? Might not Uncle die first?

Immediately, the flaws of propaganda have raised their ugly heads before a thorough analysis has even set in!

First Stanza: “Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen”
In the opening stanza, the speaker offers a portrayal of the scene that her miserable aunt has embroidered on a "screen." That the aunt had been able to find the spare time from all the household drudgery with all of its “ordeals” to perform this needlework that is a quite time-consuming and rather bourgeois art is an issue that the speaker seems to have overlooked in her zeal to concoct her forced narrative. By the speaker's own admission in describing the scene, Aunt Jennifer has skillfully crafted a piece of needle-work art that dramatizes tigers “prancing . . . across a screen.”

The speaker then spews forth a major error, claiming that the tigers “do not fear the men beneath the tree.” The purpose of this claim is to assert the proposition that the happy, free tigers live in freedom and do not fear "men." However, human beings of the feminine ilk must, in fact, fear "men." Aunt Jennifer surely fears the man who has made of slave of her, stolen her freedom, and forced on her a lifetime of crafting tigers on screens.

Yet, the near total opposite is accurate in nature. Tigers must and do keep a healthy fear of humans; otherwise they would fail to survive or thrive in their native habitat.

Jim Corbett in Man-Eaters of Kumaon explains: “Human beings are not the natural prey of tigers,” but “[w]hen a tiger becomes a man-eater, it loses all fear of human beings . . . .”; this statement clearly implies that tigers originally do fear and try to avoid human beings.

And tigers become “man-eaters” only through limited conditions: after being wounded or in old age, as is the case of male tigers. Ironically, Rich's analogy loses all credibility with the fact that it is the female tiger that is the second most vicious "man-eater" in the Top 10 Worst Man Eaters in History.

Second Stanza: “Aunt Jennifer's fingers fluttering through her wool”
Now hapless readers will discover that Aunt Jennifer has crafted her art with much difficulty because the needle has been “hard to pull” through the wool. Wool? Seems a cumbersome choice of fabric on which to embroidry?

Why has it been so hard to pull the needle through the fabric? Maybe the wool is too thick for such a craft? Perhaps Aunt Jen suffers from arthritis?

Of course not! It is that big heavy wedding band on her finger! One might become a bit silly here and ask why Auntie is wearing the "Uncle's wedding band" and not her own. But no, let's pretend we know exactly what that means: Auntie has never been capable of owning anything in her life, so of course, she cannot even claim the possession of her own wedding ring.

But then, just how heavy is any "wedding band"? Is it really so heavy as to make pulling thread through a piece of fabric difficult?

If Aunt Jennifer had needed to work a forty-plus-hour week, while struggling to make house payments, utilities payments, and other bills, how much time would she have had to practice the craft of needlework or any other hobby?

Perhaps she would have traded one form of slavery for another. Let not such possibilities interfere with the facts of the radical feminist on her mission to paint “patriarchy” and “marriage” the chief weapons in the much fantasized war on women.

Third Stanza: “When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie”
Finally, the speaker offers a scene from the future only available to a clairvoyant, as she predicts, “When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie / Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.” The speaker has not bothered to demonstrate any evidence of the “ordeals [the aunt] was mastered by.”

Such blather exemplifies the practice of mere preaching to the choir of other radical feminists and their hoodwinked sycophants who continue to buy into the notion that all traditional “marriage” makes slaves of women, and all men who marry them are potentially patriarchal slavemasters.

And the tigers on poor Auntie's screen will naturally remain free to prance, offering sufficient proof that the animals have not been so stupid as to become encumbered by “marriage” and “patriarchy.”

A more risible analogy can be found only in the doggerel of the most immature poetasters. However, that is the nature of propaganda when it meets poetry.


© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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