Adrienne Rich wrote the poem over a period of two years when she herself was married to a Harvard economist and was a young mother with three children. Like the daughter-in-law in the poem, Rich lived within patriarchal structures that constrain a woman’s intellect. In the early 1960’s, white, middle-class, and educated women were expected to find men to marry and then be in the service of the American family. The speaker in the poem sees herself as a daughter-in-law, or as a person who exists in relation to other people and structures.
The conflict between the mother-in-law and the younger woman in the early part of the poem expresses the latter’s desire to break from the confining conventions. They are “two handsome women, gripped in argument,/ each proud, acute, subtle,” and “knowing themselves too well in one another” they provide the other with impetus to perceive differences in their entrapments: The mother-in-law’s outworn beauty and the daughter-in-law’s fertile intelligence are the main sources of their differences.
In part 6, the mother-in-law asks, “has Nature shown/ her household books to you, daughter-in-law,/ that her sons never saw?” The tone is contentious, but at heart, the older woman seems also to goad the younger woman onward in the latter’s intellectual quest, as though to say, it may be too late for me, but not yet for you. By part 9, the speaker is aware that the disagreements between women are finally harmful to all women: “The argument ad feminam, all the old knives/ that have rusted in my back, I drive in yours” (from part 3) becomes a realization in part 9 that “Our blight has been our sinecure.” The “our” is significant, since it signifies union rather than division. The “martyred ambition” of all women, then, becomes an important theme for the entire poem.
Significantly, the mother-in-law appears only in the first half of the poem, even though the break between the two remains ambiguous. Because the younger woman starts contemplating the literary voices rather than expending energy fighting with the mother-in-law, she embarks on a truly individual project. She demonstrates her emancipation in the second half of the poem by reflecting upon and questioning the value of the voices.
In this early poem, Rich was discovering the ways that women speak to each other and, most important, to themselves. “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” with its suggestions of camera shots and shifts in focus, is mostly a poem of the young woman’s mind. The speaker refers to herself as “she” to indicate the difficulty of perceiving herself as an autonomous individual.
The poem’s tone is self-admonishing at times and, especially in the domestic snapshots of herself, the speaker is extremely critical. The portrait of the physical woman confined at home is not flattering: She is sullen, even vehement in her actions. The woman’s strength resides in her mind and thoughts, where she rebukes the conventions and hears the orchestration of voices that signify a real need to further her intellectual growth.