By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ is a 1951 poem by the American poet Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), published in her first poetry collection, A Change of World, which was published while the precocious Rich was still in her early twenties.
Rich was known for her feminist writings as well as her poetry, and this fact is relevant for an analysis of ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’, in which the speaker describes her aunt’s embroidery featuring tigers who prance proudly and unafraid, in contrast to the aunt’s own meek, oppressive life and marriage.
You can read the poem here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’: summary
The poem comprises three stanzas. In the first stanza, the speaker describes the tigers her aunt has created in an embroidery. On the screen of fabric, the tigers appear to ‘prance’ or move in a lively manner against the backdrop, which is green. They are without fear.
The embroidery also contains some men under a tree, but the tigers are apparently unafraid of the men. They walk about the scene, glossy and smooth and sure of themselves; they are majestic, like knights from the medieval days of chivalry.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes the movement of her aunt’s finger as she works on the woollen embroidery with an ivory needle. On the aunt’s finger is her wedding ring, denoting her marriage to the speaker’s uncle. This wedding ring is described as sitting heavily on the aunt’s hand, implying the oppressive weight of marriage as a patriarchal system (of which more below).
The speaker concludes the poem by thinking about the future. When her aunt dies, her hands will lie in her grave and even in death they will bear the mark of all of the suffering and hardship she endured when she was alive. However, the tigers she has created in the embroidered panel will continue to prance proudly forever, unafraid of anything.
‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’: analysis
If we wished to summarise the meaning of Adrienne Rich’s poem in one sentence, we could do worse than offer: ‘“Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is about a woman using art to triumph over the oppression of patriarchy, which rules her life but cannot rule the art she creates.’ The tigers Aunt Jennifer embroiders represent the kind of creature she wishes she could be: proud and unafraid of the men in her life.
In an early collection of her essays, Lies, Secrets and Silence (1979), Adrienne Rich observed that throughout history, ‘women’s struggle for self-determination’ had been ‘muffled in silence’.
The reference to history is apposite, because ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ may put us in mind of all of those examples from nineteenth-century women’s fiction in which female characters wove or painted their stories or desires because they felt unable to speak them out loud. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s ground-breaking study of this, The Madwoman in the Attic, contains many such examples, and came out in the same year as Rich’s essay collection.
Aunt Jennifer, then, weaves or embroiders an image of woman – symbolically rendered into tigers in her artwork – which does not exist, but which is devoutly to be wished. The tigers are proud, confident, and unafraid: unlike Aunt Jennifer herself, and many other women, they do not go in fear of the men, beneath the tree or elsewhere.
The tigers are a symbol of power but also that ‘self-determination’ Rich identified as women’s struggle throughout the ages. Their ‘topaz’ colours (some varieties of the mineral topaz are indeed orange-brown, with some black) contrast sharply with the green backdrop of the embroidery Aunt Jennifer is working on.
We do not know the age of the poem’s speaker – the niece (if we assume she is female) of ‘Aunt Jennifer’. But there is something simple about the rhyming couplets of the poem, with these couplets themselves being arranged into pairs to form quatrains, and the (largely iambic) pentameter metre of the poem.
The poem’s rhythms might even put us in mind of children’s nursery rhymes – ‘Humpty Dumpty’, perhaps – and this adds an extra angle to the poem’s depiction of female subjugation.
How innocent is the speaker of Rich’s poem? How old, or how young? The key to the poem’s success as a feminist poem, perhaps, lies in the way Rich’s speaker seems innocent of the import of the things she is revealing to us: for example, the link between those men in the first stanza of the poem and the wedding band weighing down Aunt Jennifer’s finger in the second.
The ivory in Aunt Jennifer’s needle, meanwhile, is another reminder of the violent and predatory nature of men, who will hunt and slaughter elephants for their ivory tusks.
We are left, then, to piece together these disparate details and form a picture of, on the one hand, the quiet, meek, and put-upon Aunt Jennifer, and the proud, fearless, and masterly bravura of the tigers she creates through her art.
There are only subtle hints given about those ‘ordeals’ she suffered, ordeals her hands became ‘ringed’ by: both defined and restricted by, in other words. A key word in that final stanza is ‘mastered’, summoning the masculine dominance over Aunt Jennifer’s life.
In the last analysis, then, ‘Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers’ is a poem which celebrates women’s ability to create art out of their oppression, but the nature of Aunt Jennifer’s art is at the same time a reminder that she could not speak out or forge a different path for herself: the (silent) world of those tigers on their green screen, and the (safely feminine) practice of needlework was the only outlet for her quiet defiance against marriage and other patriarchal norms.