Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

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.

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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.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

“Living in Sin” is an early poem by one of America’s leading poets of the second half of the twentieth century. It foreshadows several of the themes and techniques of the more than twenty books of poetry that followed. Its concern with male/female relationships and the societal judgment suggested by the title are a major aspect of her many books of poetry, as well as her collections of essays and talks. The poem represents just one sketch in a large portfolio of works concerned with the proper role of both men and women in a society that seldom questions the status quo or the confining limits that it unthinkingly imposes on both sexes, especially women.

Contrary to what readers may expect, the sin mentioned in the title refers not so much to social condemnation of living together out of wedlock—even though the word “tramp” is rich with suggestions of social disapproval—as it does to a way of life: the young woman’s sordid living conditions, her strained relationship with her man, and her unrealistic expectations. A less proficient writer may have held up the woman as a victim of antiquated social mores and prejudice. However, “Living in Sin” is a richer, more powerful poem because it refuses to engage in facile criticism of social attitudes. Rather, the poet keeps attention focused on the disillusionment of a single individual, one who is more a victim of her own illusions than of social prejudice. Society is at fault only inasmuch as it encourages young people to buy into romantic concepts that have little basis in the daily lives of men and women.

Rich moves the reader smoothly from past fantasy to present reality to a dramatic sense of foreboding as the woman contemplates the future. The last few lines convey a sense of panic, almost as if she is trapped and cannot extricate herself. She is in a new reality, one at least partly of her own making. (The word “in” appears in all the words of the title, “Living in Sin.”) Words change significance over the course of the poem. The word “love” as used in line 23, “back in love again,” has quite a different feel from the much earlier “furniture of love,” in line 2. Rich moves effortlessly from the literal to the symbolic. The milkman’s tramp and the morning light, a simple description in line 9, become fused into an ominous symbol in the last two lines, as she feels “the daylight coming/ like a relentless milkman up the stairs.” It is an effective ending that leaves the woman, and the reader, anxious and uncertain as the future approaches.

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