Marge Piercy

Start Free Trial

Student Question

Explain stanzas 1-4 in the poem "Breaking Out" by Marge Piercy.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Stanza one reveals that this poem is narrated by a woman remembering her first rebellious act as a child.  She recalls the paradoxical image of two doors that cornered her in, yet were usually open.  The doors might represent her way to “break out” of the oppression of being not only a child, but also a girl. Or they could be a reference to her parents as collaborating agents, always watching to conform her, making her feel cornered. As an adult looking back, she views this rebellious act (revealed later in the poem as the breaking of the yardstick her parents often brutally beat her with) as “political,” since it brought about a change in her life view, and therefore her approach to life as an adult. The term is also likely a reference to the various women’s rights movements that the narrator would have lived through.

Stanza two begins to reveal what the child was rebelling against--not so much the beatings as the continual, even humiliating, domestic labor that was expected of females during that time period, perhaps the late 1940’s or ‘50’s. In her mind’s eye the narrator sees a “mangle” (a wringer-style ironing machine), recalling that her young self, symbolically called “i” as though feeling insignificant, believed that the amount of ironing required in their home was excessive, right down to her father’s underwear.  The mangle itself can be seen as symbolic of her feeling of being flattened by societal expectations of women as domestics.  Ironically, even her mother, who was herself slave to this ceaseless role, enforced this life on her daughter.

In stanza three our narrator reflects on an old-style vacuum cleaner, its “sausage bag deflated.../ weary of housework as I.” As a child she had vowed to break free of the gruelling life her mother lead in her daily, futile attempt to scrub away the industrial grime that settled in every corner of their home. The child hated seeing her mother, even a mother who beat her “fiercely,” on her hands and knees.  Stanza four shows the girl finally understanding why she must rebel, after learning the Greek tale of Sisyphus in school.  She made the ironic connection between Sisyphus rolling the boulder eternally and pointlessly up the hill in Tartarus, and the eternal, pointless workload of the domestic woman. Sitting in that classroom, she envisioned her mother and herself, “housewife scrubbing/on raw knees as the factory rained ash.”  By the end of this fourth stanza, it is clear that this child had rejected entirely such a way of life

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial