Discussion Topic

Literary devices and syntax in Marge Piercy's poem "Barbie Doll"

Summary:

In "Barbie Doll," Marge Piercy employs literary devices such as irony, imagery, and symbolism to critique societal expectations of women. The poem's syntax is straightforward yet impactful, utilizing enjambment to maintain a conversational tone that contrasts with the serious subject matter, enhancing the poem's overall emotional effect.

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What are some literary devices in the poem “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy?

All poems contain literary devices. That is, all poems possess identifiable techniques that help convey their possible meaning. Marge Piercy’s poem “Barbie Doll” is no different. I can help you talk about some of the literary devices that specifically pertain to “Barbie Doll.”

Tone is the way in which a poem’s speaker talks. It’s their distinct vocabulary and their voice. You could say “Barbie Doll” features multiple tones. At first, the tone is a bit infantile. There’s words like “pee-pee” and “wee.” As the girl grows up, the tone becomes more adult and mature. Terms like “dexterity,” “exhorted” and “consummation” should give you a hint that the girl is developing and learning a few things about the world and what this Barbie Doll might symbolize.

Symbols can help a poet address a larger, more complicated issue, like sexism or unrealistic beauty standards. In “Barbie Doll,” you could say the Barbie serves as a symbol. It might represent oppression or society’s tendency to objectify females and treat them inhumanely.

Irony is a way of using language in a kind of oppositional or paradoxical way. For example, you could claim the narrator’s funeral for her Barbie is ironic. The Barbie isn’t human. It’s rather contradictory or maybe even a little absurd to bury a toy. Yet that might be why Piercy employs irony. It draws attention to how absurd it is that people assigned female at birth think that they have to model themselves after a doll.

An allegory is a poem that has a hidden or alternate meaning. It’s like there’s a secret, coded message. Yes, “Barbie Doll” could be about a girl’s contentious relationship with a toy typically given to girls. Yet it could also be about something else. It could be an allegory for beauty standards, race, body image, consumerism, and probably many other things.

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What are some literary devices in the poem “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy?

The poem also makes use of a literary device called synecdoche, the substitution of a part for the whole.  Despite the fact that this woman is intelligent and strong and capable and healthy, all anyone around her can see is "a fat nose on thick legs" (line 11).  Obviously, when she walks into a room, people don't just see a big nose on top of big legs: they see a whole person.  But because they focus so much on her nose and legs, despite all of her other valuable and important qualities, she feels as though this is all she is.  Her two parts, nose and legs, replace her whole self in this line in order to emphasize that this is how society makes her feel: that only her physical attributes are important, and that hers are radically flawed.

In the end, the poem's irony is what makes us feel like we've been punched in the gut. 

In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending. (19-25)

We don't know exactly how the woman has died; perhaps it was when she went under the knife to have her nose changed from "fat" to "turned up" and when she "offered [...] up" her thick legs.  At any rate, she has succeeded, finally, in gaining society's approval, though it sounds as though seeking their approval is actually what killed her.  It is extremely ironic that her death is referred to as "a happy ending" because most of us would not consider the death of a young woman to be a happy event; however, it is happy because, though she is dead, she is finally acceptable to society, and they find her beautiful.  Since beauty was always the most important thing, the woman has reached "Consummation at last," the ultimate end.

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What are some literary devices in the poem “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy?

Literary devices range from the simple to the complex, and Marge Piercy's poem "Barbie Doll" has several of them. A simple one can be found in the third stanza:

Her good nature wore out
like a fan belt.

This comparison uses like or as, so it is a simile.

A more complex but also more significant literary device is the use of symbolism. The title is "Barbie Doll" and it is this plastic, overly perfect object which is a symbol for everything society expects of a young girl (and older women as well). It is an unrealistic standard and an unachievable goal, which becomes obvious when the young girl in the poem cannot live to the standard and takes her own life.  The symbol of the "casket displayed on satin" and the girl in her "pink and white nightie" is clearly representative of a real Barbie Doll in her pink plastic packaging.

Finally, the imagery (another literary device) of the poem is that which appeals to the senses. The cutting, for example, is a visual, tactile (touch), and olfactory (smell) image. There are plenty of others to be found, including the visual image of "fat nose and thick legs." 

While it is true that this is an unconventional poem in that it does not have the traditional poetic devices of rhyme and meter, it clearly utilizes other literary devices effectively.

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What are some literary devices in the poem “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy?

One theme of this poem is to show that it is soul killing to conform to the beauty image our society demands of women. An intelligent, healthy, and good natured young woman is brainwashed from earliest youth through her dolls to look a certain way. When she is criticized as she grows into puberty for having a big nose and thick legs, and told to act a certain way, it begins to impact her. She seemingly gets surgery—apparently a nose job and perhaps some work on her legs—and uses a lot of makeup to try to be pretty. But it kills her inside.

Piercy uses figurative language to describe what happens to the young woman. After the surgery and make-up, she is compared to a corpse in a coffin. A reader could interpret the young woman as being either literally dead, or that her individuality has died so that she can become a "barbie doll:"

In the casket displayed on satin she lay/ with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on/, a turned-up putty nose,/ dressed in a pink and white nightie.

Piercy also uses the literary devices of double-entendre and allusion in the words "happy ending." "Ending" in the context of this poem, can mean both death or a fine conclusion. The term "happy ending" is an ironic allusion to the fairy-tale the woman is trying to live.

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What are some literary devices in the poem “Barbie Doll” by Marge Piercy?

The poem "Barbie Doll" was written by the contemporary Jewish-American writer Marge Piercy. It reflects many of the common themes of her work, including feminism, social protest, and Jewish identity.

The girl in the poem is being brought up inside the conventions of WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) society. She is given a Barbie doll, which symbolizes the ideal to which she is expected to conform. As many feminists have pointed out, the Barbie has completely unrealistic proportions, to a degree where its influence has been thought to have a negative effect on girls' body images. 

Even though the girl is athletic and smart, she is criticized for being unable to fit the classic WASP ideal; instead she has a large nose and thick, sturdy legs. Using the literary devices of ekphrasis and hyperbole, the poet imagines that the girl could only satisfy social expectations by chopping off her nose and legs and lying dead, like a doll, in a coffin with idealized plastic body parts. 

Although the poem is written in free verse, it does use line breaks to create poetic rhythm and some repetition.

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What syntax is used in Marge Piercy's poem "Barbie Doll"?

Syntax refers to sentence structure, and a typical, grammatically correct sentence contains at least a subject (noun) and a predicate (verb or verbal phrase). Writers might take some license with this typical structure, the expected syntax, in order to emphasize something, to get us to look at something in a new way, or to create a sense of irony. In "Barbie Doll," typical syntax is manipulated this way in a few places.

Firstly, it is typical, when one describes a series of items, to include commas between each item and then the word "and" before the last item: for example, "I went to school, to my friend's house, and then home." However, the first stanza employs a device called polysyndeton, where all commas are omitted and replaced with the word "and" each time:

This girlchild was born as usual
and presented dolls that did pee-pee
and miniature GE stoves
and irons and wee lipsticks the color of cherry candy.

This repetition of the word "and" draws attention to the length of the list itself, as well as the items in it, because the syntax is somewhat unexpected. The repetition makes it seem as though the list is compounded—it snowballs and seems like more than it otherwise would have if the syntax were typical. This little girl was presented with so many proofs of what would be expected of her in life: that she be a mother, that she cook and clean and take care of the house, and that she look really pretty and put together as she does it all. The atypical syntax draws our attention to the way society does this: from a very early age, little girls are already being told what their sphere ought to be, how they ought to act and dress and look.

Secondly, the atypical syntax in the final stanza registers the central irony of the poem.

In the casket displayed on satin she lay
with the undertaker's cosmetics painted on,
a turned-up putty nose,
dressed in a pink and white nightie.
Doesn't she look pretty? everyone said.
Consummation at last.
To every woman a happy ending.

It took "offer[ing]" up her nose and legs, her authentic self, for this woman to be accepted by society. She was declared unattractive and therefore of less value, and so she did what she could to change this. It resulted in her death, but society might say it was worth it—now she looks pretty. When the speaker says, "Consummation at last. / To every woman a happy ending," both sentences deviate from the typical syntax. These short sentences ensure we understand the irony: a beautiful dead woman is still more valued that a living ugly one. It is more important to be beautiful than to be intelligent, strong, healthy, or alive.

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