Diving into the Wreck

by Adrienne Rich
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

The theme of descent and return is a traditional one in Western literature. In Homer’s great epic, The Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), the hero Odysseus descends to the underworld to consult with dead prophets and heroes. Because of their great wisdom, they tell him how to return safely, and he learns how to return home from his expedition. Adrienne Rich has written a modern version of this descent theme.

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The implications of this wreck must be examined. What exactly has failed? Perhaps the “wreck” is the covering up of subconscious desires and knowledge as one grows up. Perhaps the diver represents all humans, submerging into the depths of personal histories to find out who they really are. This is certainly one possibility; however, if one examines the context in which this poem was written, one may learn more about Rich’s intentions.

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Latest answer posted December 5, 2019, 3:04 pm (UTC)

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One of the clues to the meaning of the wreck and the diver is the last statement about the “book of myths/ in which/ our names do not appear.” At the time she wrote this poem, Rich was learning and writing about women’s experiences. Much of this material was unavailable before the women’s movement began in the late 1960’s. Rich was one of the pioneers in the rediscovery of women’s history and women’s literature. In 1971, she wrote an essay entitled “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” In the article, she wrote about an awakening of women’s consciousness, their “drive to self-knowledge.” She wrote, “language has trapped as well as liberated us.” She urged women to reexamine their history, to learn “to see—and therefore live—afresh.”

Thus, the “book of myths” may be a metaphorical equivalent for the language which has trapped and liberated women. The book of myths may be Western history—the story of men’s lives and experiences—that does not speak about women. If the history books do not tell women’s stories, they must search the past (dive into the ocean) and find the evidence so that they can retell the old stories. Perhaps the wreck is meant to suggest the lost treasures of women’s lives and ancient stories; perhaps it suggests the failure of Western history and civilization as they became rigidly patriarchal and denied the value of women. In order to solve this problem, then, to salvage the treasure, it is implied that the book of myths will need to be rewritten to include the stories of women. That is, Western civilization will need to accommodate the vision and insights of women.

To accomplish this new vision, Rich imagined a new kind of creature—the mermaid/merman, the she/he of the poem. This figure, by using the necessary tools—the knife, the camera, the flippers, the ladder, the book of myths—might return to the surface with some of the treasure from the wreck. She/he might be able to tell new stories, write a new book of myths about a new kind of person. Yet this poem does not show the diver returning to the surface. Instead, in subsequent poems, Rich continued the work of retelling the stories of women and salvaging the treasures of women’s lost histories.

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