Discuss the tone and meaning of the poem "The Young Housewife" by William Carlos Williams.
“A Young Housewife” by William Carlos Williams deserves a second reading. The poet tricks the reader into thinking this is just a poem about a woman in a house wearing a negligee. There is much more to the poem than the surface level.
The deception for the reader comes in two ways: Is this a daydream of the man who passes by and sees the lady or does this really scene really happen with the man acknowledging the woman at the end of the poem?
The tone of the poem is lustful, listful, and derisive. The mood wavers as the poem changes setting and the speaker changes moods. This is the speaker’s poem rather than the woman’s. It is his fantasy or reality according to the decision of the reader.
The woman is bound to her husband. This is not her house but his. The implication is that the wife does not have any ownership or responsibilities other than to satisfy her husband.
She is up at 10 a.m. and still in her nightgown. She feels confined by the “wooden walls” of her husband’s house [notice that it is not a home]. Her attitude toward her place in the marriage points to an unhappy young woman who is caught in the traditional role of taking care of the house and pleasing her husband.
As the narrator passes the house, the poet says that woman comes out to buy ice cream. The passerby finds her dress and movements pleasing [possibly erotic] but yet inappropriate.
The speaker’s view is mixed. The fantasy has changed from someone that is impossible to know to the woman actually talking to the street vendors. From this scene, the young woman becomes the speaker's "fallen leaf."
This comparison is important. The woman has done something to fall from morality or grace or spirituality. This fallen leaf symbolizes the end of the idealized view of the speaker as he watches the young woman inappropriately dressed outside.
…she comes to the curb shy,
uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.
Her communication with the ice cream man, and the fish barker changes the view of the watcher in the car. As the speaker watches the young woman, the reader wonders why he is passing by the second time. This may indicate that he is watching her in a perverse or voyeur manner.
- He observes her in her negligee
- He passes by alone in his car
- He comes by again and sees her outside
- He notes her unbound body
- He speeds up with car running over the dried leaves
- He looks at her as he passes her on the curb, nods his head, and smiles.
The smile could have been knowing, friendly, dangerous, or responsive. The smile is the key to the understanding of the relationship to the young housewife and the speaker.