Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Even though Williams had only recently begun the poetic career that would last more than fifty years when he wrote “The Young Housewife,” the poem embodies at least two elements with which, like the aforementioned parallelism, he would work throughout his life.
One of these is a stylistic feature that impinges strongly on the poem’s interpretation and meaning: the sense of the poem’s being literally autobiographical—an effect that is characteristic of much of Williams’s poetry. Although some critics identify the poem’s narrator as Williams himself, one cannot do this with any certainty, since the poem may be partly or entirely fictional. The most one can say with certainty is that the narrator possesses the skills of a poet and storyteller.
The second element is a thematic one: “The Young Housewife” is about women—a subject that is often at the heart of Williams’s poetry. The poem is an early, successful rendering of several themes relating to women that Williams treated throughout his career, all of which can be summed up under the theme of how a lustful man sometimes behaves in response to a desirable but unobtainable woman.
The interior monologue that makes up the poem represents the way in which a man might transform his sexual attraction to an unobtainable woman into a personally and publicly acceptable gesture of homage to her. Psychologically known as sublimation, this activity informs not only the plot of the story but also the poem’s diction. The effect is that the narrator appears to speak on two levels: a conscious and public level, on which he tells an acceptable story, and an unconscious and private level, on which his thinly concealed libido (or sexual drive), perhaps along with his conscience, reveals itself.
Thus, his mind jumps from the image of the woman “in negligee” immediately to the highly suggestive word “behind,” and throughout the poem he seems to speak in a kind of Freudian language containing buried words and hidden meanings. In this view, the poem suggests that, public appearances notwithstanding, some women do not fare well at the hands (or in the stories) of some men—a universal truth that Williams knew well and about which he wrote often.