Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

Confinement is one of Shapiro’s major themes, and the great central image of the glowing vault in “Girls Working in Banks” is a perfect vehicle of confinement with its “polished steel elbows/ Of the great machine of the door.” Doors are devices that can keep people in or out, and the image works well for both banking and religion; money creates class and sets up barriers between people, just as religion often does. The irony is, however, that nothing is to be seen in this vault: There is a terrible void at the center of the bank or church. Yet in another kind of metaphor, a simile, Shapiro compares the vault to “the best room in the gallery/Awaiting the picture which is still in a crate.” The poet seems to be saying that both institutions are empty at the core, yet there is still hope that each will find its own center, just as the picture will be hung one day. A picture is an image, which refers back to the poem itself, a series of images.

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The theme of confinement echoes throughout the poem with the armed guards who watch the people doing business, and with the final escape of these people into the “glorious anonymous streets.” Within the walls of finance the individuals are known, they have names and numbers, and within the walls of religion they are watched by an omniscient god. Yet once the clients escape these institutions the streets are glorious and anonymous, suggesting that the ordinary people might find glory and fulfillment only outside these institutions of mass control.

Significantly for a master ironist, “Girls Working in Banks” appeared in Shapiro’s collection Adult Bookstore, a title that hints at sexually explicit material. The poem does contain some suggestive language, primarily in the guards whose pistols watch people bending over, and in the changing addresses of the girls, from “Open” to “Closed” to “Next Counter.” These hints go nowhere, however, and in fact seem to emphasize only the impersonal nature of everyone connected to the bank. All the girls perform the same tasks, after all; each one gives the same service.

Critics have often called Shapiro an iconoclast, one who delights in smashing images or who attacks traditional institutions to show they are based on error or superstition. A loner, the poet learned about institutions in his youth as a Jew growing up in the South and wrote many poems about his own place in them. One of his early poems that won fame in the postwar era is “University,” a work that attacks the institution of higher education in Virginia as a monstrosity of racism and class privilege. “Girls Working in Banks” falls squarely into the iconoclastic category, and its ruling metaphor works both ways: Banks have become religious institutions where people worship money, and churches, representing religious life, are empty vaults awaiting a true spirit.

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