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Marge Piercy's poem "Breaking Out" examines the moment in which a young girl pushes back against the oppressive and violent patriarchal values that dictate her upbringing.
The poem begins with an assertion of the speaker's "first political act," which she cites as the moment of staring into the open doors of one of the closets in her parents' house and deciding that she will not participate in the act of housework once she leaves home. She describes the doors as "leaning together like gossips" in the first stanza in order to evoke stereotypical imagery of the feminine--two housewives with nothing better to do than lean on each other and whisper trivial secrets. It is this kind of "feminine" energy which makes up the closet and contains the "mangle" of chores that the speaker is forced to assist with: the ironing mentioned in the second stanza and the vacuuming in the third.
Unlike the open, receiving feminine energy of the closet, these objects are given masculine traits. It is not just sheets and towels which the girl must iron, but her father's underwear--a symbol of her gender oppression and the submissiveness which she is forced to assume. The upright vacuum is described as a "stuffed sausage bag," which seems almost phallic in nature. Both of these items comment on the presence of male force within the household. They are strange, a bit sexual, and the speaker feels demeaned by them--a feeling which is deepened by her hatred for watching her mother scrub the floors of the house.
This act is significantly compared to the myth of Sisyphus--the deceitful kind of Ephyra who was punished by being eternally forced to roll a boulder up a hill and who serves as the modern emblem of a futile task--in the fourth stanza. The speaker is clear that a woman's work in the household never ends and that she wants no part of it.
The speaker then turns her attention to the object that is most violently used to generate her oppression: the wooden yardstick with which her parents beat her until she screams. It is described as a stork in that it "delivers" her punishment in much the same way the traditional stork figure would deliver a baby to a doorstep. In the seventh stanza, the speaker comments again on the dominant presence of the male figure in her household: her father, who uses the stick "far longer and harder." However, despite this violence seeming gruesome, it actually provides grotesque motivation for the speaker to escape her circumstances and defy the patriarchal values that run her life. She views the bruises she receives as "a map that offered escape" and the veins and arteries as "the roads / I could travel to freedom." They are potent reminders of what she is currently facing and what she knows she must transcend.
The speaker takes her fate into her own hands in the eighth stanza when she seizes the yardstick and smashes it "to kindling." Her disbelief at her own strength in the face of something that has caused her so much pain surprises her, and she cannot help but consider how something weaker than herself could do such damage. This is the moment in which she measures her pain and herself--and thus realizes her true ability to break out of the domestic cult within which she is trapped.
As the speaker asserts in the final stanza, she will not become like Sisyphus (and thus will avoid the fate of her eternally scrubbing mother) by learning that some things in life must be broken. This is the mental freedom she has desired all along, even if it does not immediately generate a physical release from the realities of her harsh childhood.
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