Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers by Adrienne Rich

The Poet

Adrienne Rich is an influential American poet who was wrote boldly about issues concerning women, war etc. The poem , Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers speaks about the   suppression a woman feels in marriage.

The poem

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 makes beautiful wollen tapestry showing tigers  prancing against a beautiful green background. The  poet admires the beauty of the animals who don’t fear the men standing beneath the tree. The poet admires their ‘chivalric certainity’ , their courage in the face of obvious terror. The fact that the tigers are lifeless makes them bold and chivalrous . The sight of men who could take their lives do not frighten them , instead these topaz denizens roam about fearlessly in the green world created by Aunt Jennifer. Here the poet contrasts the timid and meek nature of Aunt Jennifer to the proud ferocity of her creations , the tigers. The contrast of the bright yellow against green creates a beautiful image as well.

Chivalric certainity –  figure of speech is alliteration i .e .repetition of  the same consonant sound in two consecutive words.

denizens means inhabitants or those who live there.

Bright topaz refers to the bright yellow stripes on the tigers body.  Topaz is  natural mineral which is of  reddish yellow colour.

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.

The swiftness of the movement of the fingers of Aunt Jennifer eagerly creating such beautiful scene is affected by the heavy weight of the burdens and bindings imposed upon her by the wedding band ,which sits heavily on her fingers. Here the poet draws a contrast between the fanciful and courageous depictions in Aunt Jennifer’s art and the her own timid and meek nature.  However  high her art and imagination soars , she is pulled down to the harsh realities of life by the massive weight of the wedding ring she wears. In fact, she finds it a struggle to  move the ivory needle used to spin the beautiful pictures . But it is commendable that the lady overcame her innate shyness and lack of courage  to present her vision of life in the tapestry.  The obvious contradiction between the lady in real life and the fanciful and ferocious nature shown in her creation is brought out beautifully by the poet.

Massive weight suggests a very unhappy marriage , one which restricts joy and freedom to Aunt Jennifer.

Fingers fluttering – figure of speech is alliteration i .e .repetition of  the same consonant sound in two consecutive words.

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 prancing, proud and unafraid.

her terrified hands- here  a part of the body has been used to represent the person and the figure of speech is synecdoche.

Here’s another example from Ozymandias by P.B. Shelley ,. The phrase ‘the hand’ in the third line refers to the sculptor.

“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them.”

The poet says that even death cannot free Aunt Jennifer of the ordeals of her unhappy marriage. Her fingers which seemed to have a courage and freedom which she herself never had will remain submissive and terrified even in her death. The word ‘ring’ signifies the wedding ring which instead being a symbol of love and care had become a symbol of oppression and unhappiness in her life. It could also signify the fact that her life was led not according to her will , but as per the overpowering wishes of her husband , who sort of  created a wall , a prison or a ring ,circling her , thus terrifying and intimidating her.  Unlike Aunt Jennifer , the lady  who never breathed free , the tigers which she created are never intimidated or frightened, they have no fear of any kind. The poet draws our attention to the fact that the ordeals of her married life did not stop Aunt Jennifer from creating such proud , aggressive , fearless creatures  in the panel.

1. Why are Aunt Jennifer’s fingers fluttering in the second stanza? Why is she finding it difficult to pull the needle?

Aunt Jennifer is a woman of meek and submissive nature  who has a fierce and bold imagination which she uses to create proud ferocious creatures in her tapestry. She gives vent to her feelings  and  her desire for a free world by creating a beautiful scene of proud tigers prancing in  green forest. Her fingers are fluttering as creating such tapestry is an enjoyable act for her . However, she does find it difficult to pull the needle as the harsh realities of her unhappy marriage weigh her down.

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

The image created is that of a over bearing husband who has curtailed the freedom of his wife. Instead of being a symbol of love and care , the wedding band is symbolic of oppression and unhappiness in Aunt Jennifer’s case. It is noteworthy that th e poet spells uncle with a capital ‘U’ perhaps hinting at his authoritative and rude ways.

3. What are the ordeals Aunt Jennifer is surrounded by , why is it significant that the poet uses the word’ ringed’?

The poem is a reflection upon the  ordeals  Aunt Jennifer faced due to her  unhappy marriage. The use of phrases like ‘massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band’ hints at the oppression she faced in marriage. In fact , she is so terrified that it is not easy for her to let herself free even in her  art. Aunt Jennifer finds it difficult to pull the needle to create the tapestry , however what she creates is a scene of ferocious tigers prancing about a green back ground . Her artistic creations give us an indication of what her aspirations and ambitions are and her thirst for freedom and assertiveness .

The word ‘ringed’ is indicative of the bindings and restrictions imposed upon Aunt Jennifer by her husband. The ring is also symbolic of the bonding of marriage.

4. 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?

If art is an expression of the ambitions and aspirations of the artist, then its clear that ,Aunt Jennifer aspired to have a free and independent life. The proud , fearless tigers she created are an extension of her desire to be like them in reality. However, she was so tied down in marriage that not even death could have released her of fear and sadness. The poet suggests that as a woman , Aunt Jennifer yearned for  a fearless and assertive personality and a marriage wherein she had equal voice.

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