What is the meaning of Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers?"
Adrienne Rich's poem, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" is a story of oppression and (we can infer) violence. However, the threat is not from the tigers in the story. As we read, we discover that they are not actual tigers, but symbolic tigers: and this is central to the story's message:
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
The use of the word "chivalric" brings to mind symbols on a knight's shield, or within an ancient family's coat of arms. "Chivalric" is defined as...
...having the qualities of chivalry, [such] as courage, courtesy, and loyalty.
In days long past, these qualities were admired and desired from knights, lords, etc. It is still something of an ideal, when someone says, "Chivalry is not dead." However, it is (in some ways) mythical in that Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table were said to be chivalrous, but the Arthur of Thomas Malory's chivalrous tales was not real. If he existed, it was during perhaps the Anglo-Saxon period (449-1066), when chivalry did not exist—being a product of a much later time (1066-1485). This is important because it is only the chivalric tiger that she is sewing, embroidering, that has such noble qualities. (There is none—we infer—other than in mythology—not in her house.) So Jennifer sews the image of an animal that represents the ideals of perfect, gentlemanly behavior:
Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen...
"Screen" is also referred to as a "panel," a form of the Old French word (pan) meaning a piece of cloth. Aunt Jennifer is decorating the cloth, and across it "prance" the tigers of "bright topaz," unafraid of the men sewn also into the scene: they are no threat because the figures of the men are not real either. Not so the "men" in Aunt Jennifer's life.
It is the description of Aunt Jennifer's nervous ("fluttering") hands—which find it difficult to handle something as light as thread—that contradicts the beauty and peace depicted on the cloth—because beauty and peace do not exist in her home. The "weight" of her wedding ring is a source of oppression, symbolic of violence and terror:
Aunt Jennifer's finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.
The narrator goes on to note that only death will still her "terrified hands," personifying the hands as representative of Jennifer herself (using synecdoche). There is a pun, or play on words, (on "ring") after the symbol of the wedding ring is introduced; for only when she is dead, will Aunt Jennifer no longer be...
...ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
She is mastered by her husband: controlled in every way. She is nervous and fearful. Only the tigers she embroidered are untouched by fear; they are not terrified, captured on the cloth. But Aunt Jennifer, we learn, deals with it for the remainder of her life—in that her "terrified hands" are finally at peace only when she is dead infers that she is never free of her terror in life: "Uncle" outlived her; her only release was death.