The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Cinderella” by Anne Sexton retells the traditional version of this fairy tale but gives it a sardonic twist. The poem appears in Transformations, a collection of poems in which the speaker, introduced in the first poem, “The Gold Key,” is a “middle-aged witch” and author of “tales/ which transform the Brothers Grimm.”

As befits oral storytelling, the speaker opens the poem with a direct address to the reader and undercuts Cinderella’s rags-to-riches story in four short stanzas that give examples of contemporary success stories: the plumber “who wins the Irish Sweepstakes,” the nursemaid who marries her employer’s son, the milkman who makes his fortune in real estate, and the charwoman who collects insurance from an accident. Three of these examples are followed by the sarcastic refrain “That story,” which mocks the happy ending of this fairy tale and perhaps its hopeful readers as well.

The following six stanzas retell the Grimm’s tale keeping faithful to its details for the most part but with occasional observations by the narrator telling readers to pay attention to an important part of the story or commenting on characters or plot. In the fifth and sixth stanzas of the poem, Cinderella becomes maid to her stepmother and stepsisters and plants a twig, given to her by her father, on her mother’s grave. On the tree that grows from the twig perches a dove who grants all her wishes. The sixth and seventh...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sexton transforms this tale not by changing its details but by using tone and imagery that mocks the happily-ever-after motif of fairy tales. She employs these devices to keep reminding readers that “Cinderella,” or any idealization of romantic bliss, is a fairy tale, indeed.

The first four stanzas, which act as a sort of preamble to the actual story, establish the speaker’s tone and deprecating attitude toward the tale. The plumber’s luck is summarized and reduced in the phrase “From toilets to riches.” The nursemaid is described as a commodity, “some luscious sweet,” who moves “From diapers to Dior.” Sexton creates variety in the structure of this prelude in the third stanza by changing the number of lines and dropping the refrain “That story,” but the tone is no less biting. The fourth stanza parallels the structure of the first two, and the opening section concludes with the dismissive “That story.” Thus, before the middle-aged witch has even moved to the particulars of Cinderella’s tale she has established that all such stories are somewhat comic and completely unrealistic.

The speaker reinforces this mocking attitude by interrupting her narration to address the reader and comment on the tale. For example, in addition to calling attention to the importance of the dove, the narrator points out the meanness of the stepmother—“That’s the way with stepmothers”—and the impossibility of a dove’s delivering a gown and slippers—“Rather a large package for a simple bird.” When the stepsisters’ trickery is revealed by their bleeding feet, the narrator says with dark humor, “That is the way with amputations./ They don’t just heal up like a wish.” These asides inject reality into the fairy tale and work against the suspension of disbelief.

The speaker’s attitude toward her material, crucial in conveying theme, is inseparable from the imagery and diction of the poem. Informal language, almost slang, serves...

(The entire section is 814 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Furst, Arthur. Anne Sexton: The Last Summer. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Anne Sexton. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

McClatchy, J. D. Anne Sexton: The Artist and Her Critics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

McGowan, Philip. Anne Sexton and Middle Generation Poetry: The Geography of Grief. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Middlebrook, Diane Wood. Anne Sexton: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Sexton, Linda Gray, and Lois Ames, eds. Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Swiontkowski, Gale. Imagining Incest: Sexton, Plath, Rich, and Olds on Life with Daddy. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2003.

Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Sexton. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989.