Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911
The speaker, narrating in first person, is the central character of this long poem. She is the only round and dynamic character in the poem. As readers, we follow her dreams and her visions, her thoughts and her fears. We can only rely on her perception to learn about the course of her conversations or conflicts. She introduces herself to us the night before going to visit her mother. She has recently been left by a lover and is having difficulty sleeping. This gives her character an arc—we are essentially told there will be denouement for this speaker by the end of the poem. We find her currently obsessed with the life, writing, and character of Emily Brontë. The speaker communicates her own struggles (loneliness, compulsiveness, lack of romantic partnership) by telling of Emily's. She adds her own stories of desperation, confinement, and identity issues. Though she is currently visiting her mother, we learn that since the breakup, she has most significantly been in this internal dialogue with Emily, and in an external dialogue with her therapist. She also begins meditation in response to the breakup. In that process, she repeatedly sees a set of "nudes"—images of women in pain. Throughout the poem, the speaker experiences and conveys a large range of emotions, from delicate sadness to intense rage. She struggles with the weight of her memories, especially of the lover, and it is difficult for her to avoid thoughts of him.
In the middle of winter, she is consumed with thoughts of the nudes, Emily, and her own pain. Then, abruptly, "it stopped." For months, she meditates, waiting to see the nudes, until she gives up. She even forgets about the nudes, which is notable given her memory. Then, one night, she sees the last nude—a return to the first nude, which was a woman whose flesh was being torn by wind. She goes closer to the images and this time sees there is no wind, and that the body is clean, and represents all humans. By finishing the set of nudes, and becoming undisturbed by them and the memories she had been carrying, the speaker comes to peace with the breakup and herself. She paints grief as something to push through, or that goes through the griever "and out."
Law is the speaker's ex-lover. We do not hear much about Law directly—only that the speaker misses him and is upset with his decision to leave after five years together. He lived, when they were in love, in a "high blue room," liked to stay in bed in the morning, and used to say that love is freedom. We can infer their relationship was not healthy at the end, as she describes how their love turned "into two animals gnawing and craving through one another." We also know the speaker's mother did not like him. The night Law left, he told the speaker without making eye contact. When the speaker reached out to him, he rejected her sexual advance, but then she undressed and they tried to have sex.
The speaker goes to visit her mother at the beginning of this poem, and as readers we witness tense interactions between them. The mother is opinionated, vocal, and unsentimental. She lives alone, "on a moor in the north," and "eats little but her fridge is always crammed." To the speaker, the mother's perspective is often "dark and small" (as in the given description of her kitchen). She is often frustrated by her daughter's unwillingness to live her life in a way more similar to hers. She...
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is sensitive, and often wants the speaker to turn on the light or close the drapes, despite the speaker's own preferences. The biggest argument is when the mother says women who dress scantily are responsible for their own rapes. She also tells the speaker to "get over" Law. To the speaker, the mother represents normative ways of being and the harsh realities of the world, even despite heartbreak.
The speaker's father has dementia and has been in the hospital for five years. The mother takes a taxi to visit him once a week, and she and the speaker go together when the speaker is visiting. The speaker's father has a vitriolic way of communicating, though it is often nonsensical. He rejects the mother's touch and spends most of the visit yelling. He is a World War II veteran, and the speaker has a photo from when he was young and strong (and the tallest in the photo), whereas he has now shrunk and has to be confined to a chair tied to a wall. He represents to the speaker the passage of time and the frailty contained in it.
Dr. Haw is a therapist who treats the speaker. The speaker does not necessarily trust Dr. Haw wholeheartedly, but reports what she says and sees her as a fixture. Dr. Haw asks the speaker why she continues to watch the nudes during a period when she is obsessed with them and seeing them constantly; after that, the speaker stops telling her about them. She implies that the therapist does not understand or care about their significance. Dr. Haw also tells the speaker that "grief is a long process" and asks what comes of discussing the past. The speaker responds that she "prevail[s]" and the therapist smiles and agrees. She represents to the speaker the hope of regaining her selfhood.