abstract illustration of many different faces and settings that reflect the diversity of speakers in the Spoon River Anthology

Spoon River Anthology

by Edgar Lee Masters
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I need help understanding Lillian Stewart's poem in Spoon River Anthology.

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In the Spoon River Anthology, each poem is an epitaph describing, retrospectively, the life of one of the deceased residents of a rural, small American town called Spoon River.

The poem entitled "Lillian Stewart" can be divided into three sections. The first section, comprising the first eight lines of the poem, describes how Lillian was born into a humble family and then moved, with her family and because of her "father's rise in the world," to a "mansion there on the hill." The poem doesn't explicitly state how the father rose so far as to be able to afford the mansion, but it does suggest that the mansion was perhaps more than the family could really afford. Indeed, the narrator, Lillian, says that her "father's fortune was little beside it."

In the second section of the poem, lines nine to sixteen, Lillian describes her husband, who seems to have been a rather cruel, loveless, and greedy man. The husband evidently married Lillian in large part because he assumed the mansion meant that she was wealthy, and that he, therefore, would have been the beneficiary of a considerable dowry. Upon discovering that Lillian was not wealthy, and that he had "married / A girl who was really poor," the husband began to taunt Lillian and accuse her of using the mansion as a "treacherous lure" to ensnare an unwitting man like himself.

In the third section of the poem, comprising the last six lines, Lillian describes the end of her life. Separated from her husband, she lived "like an old maid," looking after her father, "till (she) died."

Overall then this is a rather sad, melancholy poem. Lillian Thomas' life seemed to start well, with a proud mother and a father who "loved and watched" her, but her life then took a turn for the worse when she met her husband, who "vexed (her) life till (she) went back home." There was, however, a glimmer of happiness at the end of Lillian's life, as she was together again, at the end, with her loving father.

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Lillian Stewart introduces herself as "the daughter of Lambert Hutchins." We know then, right away, that her life has been defined by him and his legacy. 

Lillian was "born in a cottage near the grist-mill," which indicates that she was born to modest means. She ends up in a mansion that her father built. She describes its splendor. The fifth and sixth lines employ anaphora, emphasizing "how proud" her parents were of the mansion -- an indication of "[her] father's rise in the world." 

There is a shift in the ninth line: "But I believe the house was a curse / For Father's fortune was little beside it..." We learn that the mansion is unlucky, primarily for Lillian, because her father only had the house he had built, not the wealth people assumed went with it. Thus, when she marries, her husband is disappointed that he married "a girl who was really poor." Focus on those lines. What does this say about her husband and his true intentions for marrying Lillian?

He calls the house "a fraud on the world / A treacherous lure to young men..." Both of those lines are interesting and slightly different in meaning. The first is more of a social betrayal, while the latter is a personal one. 

She goes on, speaking, it seems in her husband's voice: "And a man while selling his vote / Should get enough from the people's betrayal / To wall the whole of his family in." "Vote" here is used as a metaphor. One could say that the reference is to her husband's "loyalty" or the taking of vows. "The people's betrayal" is a reference to her own family. Clearly, he expected them to offer him enough "of a dowry" to care for his own kin. 

The poem ends with Lillian tormented by her husband until she chooses to go back home to be "an old maid," to "[keep] house for father." Notice how "old maid" has a double meaning here. Also, the mansion takes on new connotations. It has transformed from a source of pride to one of torment.

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