Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

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"Living in Sin" is a poem by American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich. The poem is highly vivid and uses descriptions of daily life, mostly still life, to articulate the poet's sentiments regarding love and relationships. The perspective of the poem comes from that of a housewife. The detailed observations of furniture and household items depict the domestic life of a woman seemingly trapped in that sort of existence despite wanting more emotionally.

The poem is also about the illusions, or perhaps delusions, people have about relationships and life in general: that one's ambitions and desires will be served to them by a cosmic force, and that everything will fall into place without exerting effort. Halfway through the poem, however, the speaker realizes that this way of thinking is incorrect. She realizes that the fine household materials and the effort she puts into making sure her domestic life is in order is part of the illusion she has constructed. This self-deception is a form of defense mechanism to protect herself from the pain of the truth—the truth being she is not truly in love with her husband and her husband does not truly love her. Instead, she is just like the fine furniture and clean porcelain in the house: an object that exists for a single purpose and one that becomes "worthless" when neglected.

Despite holding these objects in high regard at the beginning of the poem, the speaker realizes that she has become trapped in a social bubble where symbols of status are more important than the most basic human emotional needs. In a sense, the objects in her house mirror her own fragility and value. In fact, she shows more love and care toward the house than her husband shows toward her. This realization, although painful, helps her understand her self-worth: that she deserves more than an existence as a glorified personal maid for her husband.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

Adrienne Rich’s “Living in Sin” is a twenty-six-line single-stanza poem that effectively captures the stark contrast between a young woman’s romantic notions and the bitter taste of daily realities once she acts on those notions.

Told entirely from the woman’s point of view, the poem begins in the past, with the vision of how she thought her life would be living with the man she loved. The first two lines effectively convey her naïveté, her simple acceptance of a fairy tale version of her future once she has accepted his offer to come and live with him. The last two lines picture her waking up both literally and figuratively to the painful awareness of what the future holds.

The intervening twenty-two lines present a graphic account of her transition from daydreams to nightmares. Through devotion to her romantic fantasies, the young woman fails to anticipate the trials and disillusionments of daily life. Because she is in love, she imagines that commonplace cares and chores such as cleaning and cooking would not be part of her world. Her small apartment “would keep itself;/ no dust upon the furniture of love.” Her vision of a studio with “a plate of pears,/ a piano with a Persian shawl” seems taken from a painting or a scene in a romance novel rather than from real life. Even once there in her new life, it seems a betrayal of her fantasy to wish things were different, “half heresy” to resent the dripping faucet and the filthy windows. However, the harsh “morning light” dissipates her illusions; the reality of her situation becomes apparent. The light “coldly would delineate” the unpleasant particulars of a morning after: the cheese scraps, the “sepulchral bottles,” and the insects in her cupboards.

Rich makes it clear that the young woman’s unpleasant physical surroundings are not her only problem as she emerges from her fantasy into a colder world. The relationship, too, looks different in the morning light of daily life than it did in her romantic imagination. In lines 15-18, readers get a glimpse of her boyfriend, whose “urging” is partly responsible for her living in sin. He is no longer seen as a figure in a painting, a romanticized musician or artist in his studio. The brief glimpse of him is not very promising. In these four lines he yawns, plays a few notes on the keyboard, shrugs, looks in the mirror, rubs his beard, and goes to buy cigarettes. The impression is of a man who is preoccupied, uninterested, and self-absorbed. There is no mention of an affectionate word or romantic gesture. The piano, it seems, is not the only thing out of tune.

The discordant notes continue as the young woman makes the bed and dusts the table, an attempt, perhaps, to restore some harmony to her small cramped space. While doing so she is “jeered by the minor demons” and neglects the coffee pot, which “boil[s] over on the stove.” The last four lines effectively present her new awareness and her fears for the future. She is not completely disillusioned: “By evening she was back in love again,” but she awakens “throughout the night,” dreading the new reality that the daylight will bring.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 378

The power of “Living in Sin,” an unrhymed free-verse poem, comes from the way it builds in emotional intensity as it progresses. The woman’s early unrealistic fantasy, filled with pears, a piano, and a Persian shawl, makes the present seem even more acrid than it might otherwise. Such imagery is in sharp contrast with the “scraps/ of last night’s cheese” and the empty bottles revealed by the morning light.

Her image of “a cat/ stalking the picturesque amusing mouse” is no preparation for confronting the animal life that does infest her studio or seeing the “beetle-eyes” that would fix her own in the kitchen. Indeed, part of the sin in the title may be the sin of living too long with the illusions of romantic fantasy. The unreality of this view is captured in the first seven lines, both through specific images such as the Persian shawl and the mouse, and through the slightly grandiose phrasing, such as “no dust upon the furniture of love.”

The diction shifts dramatically in the next seven lines. The negative connotations of “writhe,” “tramp,” “coldly,” and “sepulchral” snap the woman, and the reader, out of romantic reverie and place her squarely in her present life. When the insect’s eyes “fix her own” they not only stare back at her, they also fix (correct) her romantic vision, and they fix her firmly in the present moment.

Rich also varies the diction and the context in this section just enough to reinforce her theme. The piano with an exotic shawl in line 5 becomes a keyboard “out of tune” in line 15. The stairs become personified and “writhe” under the weight of the milkman. The daylight, which at first simply reveals the contents of the studio, becomes personified as “relentless” as it approaches inexorably to remind her of her situation.

Rich’s achievement in “Living in Sin” is her ability to keep focused on the specific details of the young woman’s fantasies and her present situation. Most of the poem describes in vivid sensory detail a single day in the life of the woman living in sin. The “minor demons” that jeer at her are conveyed in very concrete images set against the grandiose language and imagery of her earlier romantic notions.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 150

Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Peace. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Gwiazda, Piotr. “’Nothing Else Left to Read’: Poetry and Audience in Adrienne Rich’s ’An Atlas of the Difficult World.’” Journal of Modern Literature 28, no. 2 (Winter, 2005): 165-188.

Halpern, Nick. Everyday and Prophetic: The Poetry of Lowell, Ammons, Merrill, and Rich. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Keyes, Claire. The Aesthetics of Power: The Poetry of Adrienne Rich. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.

O’Reilly, Andrea. From Motherhood and Mothering: The Legacy of Adrienne Rich’s “Of Woman Born.” New York: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Ostriker, Alice. Writing Like a Woman. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Spencer, Luke. “That Light of Outrage: The Historicism of Adrienne Rich.” English: Journal of the English Association 51, no. 200 (Summer, 2002): 145-160.

Yorke, Liz. Adrienne Rich: Passion, Politics, and the Body. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1998.

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