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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 318

One of the key themes in Adrienne Rich's "Planetarium" is the mistreatment of women by society. This mistreatment can take various forms. In this poem, Rich alludes to female astronomist Caroline Hersch, using her as an exemplar for all the great women whose achievements—however long their lives—have gone largely unremarked, or have been overshadowed by the achievements of the men around them. Caroline Hersch has usually been defined in relation to her brother; Rich puts her front and center in this poem, as society never did.

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Rich describes how "galaxies" of women like Hersch have been viewed as "monster[s]" because they subvert social expectations. At the same time, society's expectations are extremely confusing—they are a "battery" of "signals," all of which seem to be saying different things. Women may struggle to parse these signals and still fail to live up to whatever standard society has set for them—they may feel that they have "lived in vain."

The second key theme in the poem, then, is that of dawning awareness, or recognition of the world around us. In the final section of the poem, the speaker imagines herself not as a monster in the shape of a woman, but as an "instrument," herself a useful tool in her own defense. The signals continue to bombard her, but she is now a "galactic cloud," conscious of the fact that these signals are "untranslatable." In her attempt to turn this confusion into "images," she is no longer seeking the recognition of a society which rejects her, but instead is privileging her own wellbeing: she is an "instrument" in search of her own "relief" and on a quest for "reconstruction of the mind." Having encountered the "NOVA" of social expectation, the speaker seems to have reached her own new plane of understanding. She has been blown apart and is now reconstituting herself according to her own lights.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 449

Through its allusions to mythology, anecdotes from the history of astronomy, and final personal declaration, “Planetarium” depicts a moment of awakening consciousness. Rich states, in metaphorical terms, that she is at last seeing things clearly and is consequently taking a stand.

During the late 1960’s, Rich was struggling to learn truths about herself and about the traditional female roles—wife and mother—that she had filled in the 1950’s and early 1960’s. In those earlier years, she experienced intense feelings of anger, conflict, and failure that she sought—desperately sought, she says—to understand. The “mad webs of Uranisborg” in “Planetarium” echo the “dark webs” (as she herself put it) that she groped among in those years.

Beginning with references to the women shaped like monsters that inhabit the sky—representing the distorted identities that men have given to women who refuse to fit into prescribed social roles—the poem moves to its closing declaration of independence both from those limited roles and from the old wrongheaded perceptions of those who refuse those roles. The power to change things begins with...

(The entire section contains 767 words.)

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