Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441
“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 stanzas continue the familiar story. When Cinderella must pick a bowl of lentils out of the cinders before she can go to the ball, the white dove comes to her rescue, not only picking up the lentils but also providing her with a golden gown and slippers to match. The prince dances only with her.
The poem continues in the next three stanzas to describe the prince’s escorting Cinderella home, where she disappears into the pigeon house, until the fateful third day when, by covering the palace steps with wax, the prince captures Cinderella’s slipper. The eldest sister cuts off her toe and the youngest her heel in order to fit into the slipper and thus win the prince, but in each case the dove alerts the prince to the trail of blood that gives away the sisters’ ruse. At last the prince fits the shoe on Cinderella. The stepsisters attend the wedding, where the vengeful dove pecks out their eyes.
In the concluding stanza, which echoes the tone and structure of the opening stanzas, the narrator reveals that “Cinderella and the prince/ lived, they say, happily ever after,” ending the poem with the sardonic refrain “That story.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 814
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 to further debunk the romanticism of the fairy tale. Cinderella is described as “gussying up” for the ball. The birds pick lentils out of the cinders “in a jiffy.” In addition, the imagery, primarily drawn from domestic life or popular culture, emphasizes the speaker’s cynicism. The stepsisters have “hearts like blackjacks.” Sooty Cinderella looks “like Al Jolson”—a comparison that points up the inauthenticity of the tale’s outcome—and she calls to her mother for help “like a gospel singer,” hardly a delicate image.
Sexton comments on the economics of the tale and of heterosexual relationships in general when she describes the ball as “a marriage market.” She further develops this sense of relationship as commercial transaction by comparing the prince to a “shoe salesman” as he hunts for Cinderella. Both these images hearken back to the images of the first four stanzas, which present success in terms of money rather than love, with the marriageable nursemaid, in particular, as a kind of delectable product to be consumed.
When the prince finally finds Cinderella, the domestication and confinement of romance in marriage is hinted at by the way Cinderella fits “into the shoe/ like a love letter into its envelope.” Furthermore, when the dove pecks out the stepsisters’ eyes, rather than presenting an image of gore and disfigurement, the speaker tells readers “Two hollow spots were left/ like soup spoons.” Even the most violent acts are tamped down by domesticity, and literal loss of vision becomes equated with the metaphorical loss of vision entailed in domestic life.
The most damning imagery, however, comes in the final stanza. The structure of this concluding stanza is similar to that of the opening four stanzas. However, whereas the beginning stanzas are filled with images of change, albeit sardonic, the final stanzas are filled with images of stasis, suggesting a lack of vitality in married life. In addition to questioning the happily-ever-after ending by inserting the phrase “they say,” the speaker compares Cinderella and the prince to “two dolls in a museum case” with “their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.” If “they say” posits the happy ending as hearsay, the picture of the unchanging dolls with their artificial smiles undermines it entirely.
Furthermore, the list of mundane annoyances to which Cinderella and the prince are not subject only emphasizes the fairy tale’s unreality. The very specificity of the list—diapers, dust, the timing of an egg, repeating stories, getting a “middle-aged spread”—serves to remind readers of the tedium actual married life involves. The speaker concludes by comparing Cinderella and the prince to children—“Regular Bobbsey Twins”—implying this tale of romance and marriage infantilizes its main characters as perhaps does actual, real-life marriage. The poem comes full circle in its last line by repeating the refrain from its opening stanzas, “That story,” thus juxtaposing the strangely static happiness of Cinderella with the equally unlikely good fortune of the plumber, nursemaid, milkman, and charwoman.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106
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.
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