Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The oblique narrative development of the poem yields few clues to the structure of the work. The aim of the poem is not to tell a story but to reenact the process of thinking about one woman’s experience of being kept by a man. The passive role of Stella suggests analogous situations of other oppressed or denied women, including the American poet Emily Dickinson, who remained a recluse in her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Cordelia, Lear’s daughter, who remained faithful to a father who disowned and condemned her. Other women enter the discourse as memory sifts through the pattern of the abused or persecuted female across Western history.

The title of the work is never directly engaged by the text but signifies a historic principle of oppressive authority from which one is to infer the situation of the Western female. The “Defenestration of Prague” refers to an incident in 1618 when Protestant Czechs hurled two Catholic representatives of the Hapsburg empire to their death, thus beginning the Thirty Years’ War in which Protestant and Catholic forces across Europe fought for religious and political supremacy. The Catholics won under the combined banners of France and Austria, and the Hapsburgs crushed Czech culture and language and imposed Catholicism as the state religion. The incident marks the beginnings of modern warfare and the spread of imperial aggression across Europe, forces that continue to shape Western life today. From another perspective, the incident illustrates the aggressions of raw power and the desperate plight of subjugated people. When this is translated into sexual history, one sees the parallel in the bright and public career of Jonathan Swift and the shadowy existence of Hester Johnson in their long but inconclusive relationship.

Howe’s interest in taking up this story of a love affair outside of marriage is manifold. On the one hand, it is a study of the female’s sacrifice of independence and autonomy for love. It is made clear to the reader that Hester Johnson inherited property and a small trust that would have enabled her to live a...

(The entire section is 863 words.)