Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law by Adrienne Rich

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The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” is a ten-part poem, with each part composed of an uneven number of lines and stanzas. The speaker appears at first to address an older woman, probably the mother-in-law of the other, younger woman in the poem, a daughter-in-law. The two women are respectively “you” and “she,” but neither of the two women “converses” with the speaker in the poem.

In each part, the speaker refers or alludes to a literary passage or phrase. The references provide her with a foundation for a philosophical discussion with the two women. Italicized phrases in the poem indicate the speaker’s reference to another source, and at times she alters the original quotation. In part 3, for example, “ma semblable, ma soeur” is a variation of the phrase by the French poet Charles Baudelaire that reads, “mon semblable, mon frère.” By changing frère (brother) to soeur (sister), the speaker emphasizes her discussion of womanhood.

Although the parts are numbered, the poem as a whole does not develop into a chronological narrative. The speaker structures her thoughts according to emotions or experiences. The first four parts of the poem set up the strained relationship between the two women in a series of “snapshots.” The older woman, “once a belle in Shreveport,” still dresses and plays the part of a Southern debutante. The speaker is critical of her fineries and accuses the older woman of a terrible sacrifice. The mother-in-law is now in the prime of her life, but because she chose superficial beauty over developing her intellectual skills, her mind is now “heavy with useless experience, rich/ with suspicion, rumor, fantasy.”

In the third stanza of part 1, the daughter-in-law is characterized as “Nervy” and “glowering.” She considers her mother-in-law’s uselessness and, in the second part, the younger woman is caught in vignettes which reveal her dissatisfaction with domestic life. She hears voices or remembers something she had previously read; clearly she is struggling with what she thinks set against what she does as a dutiful daughter-in-law. In the next two parts, the speaker uses a kind of verbal camera to capture the two in snapshots which depict their conflict.

The next six parts are devoted to the thoughts roaring in the younger woman’s mind. As the poem progresses, the reader begins to sense that the speaker and the young woman share an uncanny resemblance. In fact, toward the end of the poem, “you” and “I” become “we,” and it is then obvious that all along the speaker has been criticizing her self.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The profusion of literary voices and the shifts in address between the speaker and the two women are confusing until the reader realizes that the speaker’s perspectives are those of the daughter-in-law. The relationship that the speaker/daughter-in-law has with the older woman is riddled with their differences in attitude, values, and expectations.

The speaker is more comfortable speaking of the daughter-in-law—indeed, of herself—as a “she” rather than as “I” to gain psychological distance from the older woman, whose values she rejects. The younger woman’s mind is fertile, though un-expressed, given the constraints of everyday life. Rather than have time to develop or write down her thoughts, she is seen making coffee or “dusting everything on the whatnot every day of life.” The apparent frustration is revealed in the snapshots of her “Banging the coffee-pot into the sink” and sneaking moments to read while “waiting/ for the iron to heat,” or “while the jellies boil and scum.”

The poem is interspersed with the voices of learned men and women which the daughter-in-law might have encountered in those precious stolen moments of reading. The voices challenge the conventions—“tempora and mores ” (times and customs)—of being a woman. The wisdom of thinkers such as the feminists Mary Wollstonecraft (part 7) and Simone de Beauvoir (part 10) as...

(The entire section is 1,176 words.)