A Photograph Questions and Answers
by Shirley Toulson

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What does the word "cardboard" suggest in "A Photograph"?

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The word "cardboard" appears in the very first line of the poem:

The cardboard shows me how it was.

This can be interpreted in one of two ways, but each will lead to the same overall meaning.

First, the "cardboard" can be used to describe the thicker paper upon which old photos were printed. Unlike the glossy and flimsy photo papers often used today in quick and convenient printing, old photos were often printed on a thicker, more sturdy backing—much like a thin cardboard.

Another interpretation is that the photograph is framed by a simple piece of cardboard. Through this cardboard frame, the photograph emerges to show the speaker the significance of the joy of these little girls.

Cardboard helps to establish setting and tone. First, the setting is in the fairly distant past, in a time when a cardboard was commonly used to either back or frame photos.

Second, the cardboard helps to establish a simple tone. It conveys a simplicity in the usage and shines the spotlight on the image it captures, the one that reflects the joy of her mother who has been dead now for as long as this girl in the photo had lived when the photo was taken.

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An author’s diction (word choice) can reveal much about the emotions represented in the poem. Shirley Toulson is no different in her poem “A Photograph.”

In order for you to understand what the word “cardboard” suggests, it essential that you take a look at the context. The word “cardboard” appears in the first line of the poem:

The cardboard shows me how it was / When the two girl cousins went paddling / Each one holding one of my mother’s hands, / And she the big girl - some twelve years or so.

Cardboard here literally refers to a photograph of the narrator’s mother and her mother’s cousins. The photograph shows the narrator her mother at the beach--“how it was” when her mother was young and alive. The ideas associated with the word are just as important as the literal meaning of the word. Cardboard is a very neutral and mundane word, so the word suggests a very mundane object and a very mundane moment in her mother’s life. At this point in the poem, the narrator seems emotionally detached from the picture through the very matter-of-fact diction she presents. The narrator keeps the feeling of loss at a distance by maintaining a factual description of the picture.

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