Thursday, January 26, 2006

Adrienne Rich's "Living in Sin"

ADRIENNE RICH'S "LIVING IN SIN"

Influenced by Yates and Conrad, Adrienne Rich tried to be the perfect faculty wife and hostess. However, she found this unsatisfying. Rich talks about the gap between literary understanding of how women should live and how they actually live.

"Living in Sin"
The term "living in sin" may be unfamiliar to you - the usual phrase today is "shacking up," as in "shacking up with my old lady." The connotation of "living in sin" is clear - to live with somebody outside the sanctity of marriage is to put your immortal soul in danger. It is also to bring the negative judgment of society down on you.
But while most young people would be scared off by the prohibition, others would be attracted by idea of breaking the rules. The idea of living in sin seemed adventurous to her - exotic and bold.
So, now she's shacking up, or, living in sin. What is this life of adventure like? It turns out to be just like marriage. Dust builds up as in a regular house. The windows get grimy. The milkman clomps up the stairs at 5:00 a.m. In fact, living in sin can be downright seedy. The cat chases a mouse around, and a beetle looks at her from among the saucers. The artist she lives with isn't in the mood to do art (or even to shave), so he wanders off to get some cigs. Either he is immune to the dirt, or he expects her to clean up. Besides, isn't the dirt part of the romance? It's "half heresy" to want the artist's loft to be clean. Yet she cleans up anyway. Why? It's what wives, or "ole ladies," do. She went to bed with the artist, but she woke up with the man.


Living in Sin
She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own --
envoy from some village in the moldings...
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.


The analysis of Living in Sin

First, the title: Living in Sin. General meaning is that the people are unmarried, sinning by loving without God's blessing. In this poem, it's not stated that they're unmarried, perhaps they are, but the sin is in not loving one another.

>She had thought the studio would keep itself;
>no dust upon the furniture of love.

The "had thought" sets the tone of the entire poem. Obviously there was a shift in perspective from before moving in to after. She thought there would be no work involved, that life would be a happily ever after in a fairytale castle ("furniture of love"). Come to find out, she needs to keep up the studio, and work at her marriage (one would imagine a studio apartment - one big room, no separation or privacy). Also, it means that their love is no clean thing, no purity involved here.

>Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
>the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
>a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
>stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
>had risen at his urging.

I would say that "taps" is the water tap (faucet) dripping, "panes" are the panes of glass. Heresy against God. People aren't supposed to wish for a different life if they're with the one they love - it's supposed to be a blissful forever. She is wishing for a lack of something, whereas he conjures up stuff out of poetry - a piano with expensive cloth, a cat, and a still life of fruit. Particularly, the cat is stalking - harsh wording - a cute little mouse - gentle fairytale image. See later how images of prosperity (stairs up, cheese) are beaten down -- the stairs write under the milkman's feet, the sunlight is cold and comes relentlessly. Her whole fantasy world is getting eaten up by this cat of his.

>Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
>under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
>so coldly would delineate the scraps
>of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
>that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
>a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own –
>envoy from some village in the moldings...

"Not that" refers back to her wish for the beautiful life and she never thought that this would be her reality, the laundry list of frustrations, from waking at five to a stranger's violent (the stairs' "writhing") tromp to the sepulchral (graveyard) bottles and leftover cheese. The food is a remnant of last night's romantic meal (see forward to the "back in love again" that would lead to more wine and cheese), but she has to clean up on the following day. No one mentions that Cinderella has to do dishes -after- the wedding. The bug is definitely not a figure in a person's wishes for marriage.

>Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
>sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
>declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
>rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;

This is the introduction of the husband. While we are processing the previous lines, while she has been pondering this harsh reality, he has been getting up, groggily. The piano (summoned by him) is declared out of tune - just like their love - not only is there grime on her windows, the magic has fled from his items as well. Comparatively, each of his items are dingy: the food (then pears, now cheese) is crumbly, the animal (then cat, now bug) is hiding in the wall.

He looks in the mirror and is indifferent to what he sees. See also her poem "Moving in Winter" for the line, "mirrors grey with reflecting them"
He leaves her, for the trivial cigarettes (at 5am?!).
>while she, jeered by the minor demons,
>pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
>a towel to dust the table-top,
>and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.

While she is thinking all this, he is getting up and leaving. While he is leaving, she is getting up and tidying up the house, keeping up the appearance that everything is wonderful. But it's not.

>By evening she was back in love again,
>though not so wholly but throughout the night
>she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
>like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

In love isn't loving someone, and her feeling isn't complete either. In the night, she wakes with the dread that the milkman today exemplified - that the coming day and every day thereafter will wake her with dread; she will wake to face a grubby man, grimy windows, dusty piano, and yesterday's food. Certainly not living with the blessings of God.

7 comments:

andré said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
andré said...

What makes you think that the husband is a poet, rather than a musician? The reference to the keyboard seems to suggest him to be a musician, not a poet. Perhaps, you've mistaken the persona for the author?

I appreciate the insights in the rest of the critcism though. I'll be sure to check out the rest of your blog, and will definitly return. -Andre

Anonymous said...

If the man were truly a musician, he would not be able to stand having an out of tune piano around his apartment. If he really made his living from the piano, he would keep in better condition. The piano functions as another indiciation of the deterioration of their relationship and the 'reality' that the girl in the poem thought would be more like a fariy-tale.

Anonymous said...

You mispelled 'writhe' in your third paragrah. 'he stairs write under the milkman's feet'. I think, that seen as you are an Enlgish educator, that you should proof-read your work after.

Jasmine Chao said...

While some may view that the sin referenced in Rich's "Living in Sin" refers to adultery, it is rather about the sin of staying in a marriage that lacks love. While the milkman is a colorful piece of evidence, it throws readers off, assuming that Rich refers to "sin" in a literal term. The woman in "Living in Sin" is thrust upon the reality that happiness and perfection are not always guaranteed, and pursues the adulterous consequences of a mundane marriage and life. As she cannot bear to remove herself from the demeaning and repetitive cycle of marriage, "Living in Sin" is a woman's revelation that it is a sin to dedicate oneself to a marriage, a life, without love.

Anonymous said...

The argument as to what the husband's/lover's profession has a clear solution. He's an artist, not a poet or musician. In the descriptions of the "things out of poetry," those are things which he has painted (hence the word 'picturesque'). Also, the place they live is called a studio, as in an artist's studio. The things that rose "at his urging" are ideas for paintings, not poetry or musical inspirations.

Lula said...

I had the impression that the husband was an artist, and more than likely a pianist.
Excellent analysis though, thank you.