Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Rich's poem deals with the theme of domestic life and the difference between an idealized romantic relationship and the reality of keeping house. The "Living in Sin" referenced by the title clearly has to do with an unmarried couple living together. What the woman thought would be a romantic lark in a glamorous studio has, in the cold light of day, become a kind of drudgery. The "studio" is a vermin-infested dump with noisy pipes and dirty windows. It is up to the woman to do something about it. It's clear, however, that this poem is about more than just housework.

Another theme emerges, however, when we consider why the woman feels this compulsion. Her idealized view of the studio was in part made "at his urging," suggesting that the man is somehow responsible for her false idea of what life in the studio would be. There is no sense of anger or betrayal, exactly, but the difference between what she thought (or hoped) it would be and what it is (a kind of torture) is something the woman negotiates through her work every day. Her "minor demons" jeer at her while she makes the bed: this can be understood both as her conscience compelling her to clean, or as her conscience judging her for her foolishness in allowing herself to be caught in this trap. Either way, the cleaning is an outward indication of her inner ambivalence towards the relationship.

Another theme has to do with the comparison of the man's reaction upon waking to the woman's. The man's morning routine is part of the mess of the studio that the woman wakes to; his actions, rendered in short, concrete images (yawning, rubbing his beard, shrugging) are devoid of any psychological motivations and presumably will need to be "cleaned up" with the dishes. The man's lack of awareness of the state of the apartment is akin to his lack of awareness of the woman's emotional state. It is up to the woman, through her labor, to fill the emotional void of the studio.

Ultimately, the poem makes a statement about love as a kind of delusion, or about the delusions that govern our lives and make us do the things we do. The end of the poem, in which the woman "by evening" is "back in love," suggests that it is through cleaning that she is able to convince herself that the romantic dream she followed in moving to the studio is real. What is clear, however, is that she is desperately alone, and that the battle she fights every day against dust is really a battle to preserve her own identity.

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