Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law

by Adrienne Rich

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The Poem

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“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

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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...

(This entire section contains 601 words.)

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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 well as the poets Baudelaire (part 3) and Emily Dickinson (part 4) augment the speaker’s own thoughts.

The literary allusions provide the speaker with authority as she criticizes the kind of lives women such as the mother-in-law lead. At the same time, the speaker does not yet know how to transform her knowledge into action. In part 5, she is seen shaving her legs as she ironically considers this female beauty ritual with others—“Dulce ridens, dulce loquens” (sweet laughter, sweet chatter).

The allusions authorize and justify the speaker’s dissatisfaction, and they allow her to think beyond the everyday facts of existence. With them, she makes metaphors for her perceived entrapment, such as the image of the caged bird in parts 3, 4, and 6. By part 10, the speaker offers a snapshot of freedom: “Her mind full to the wind, I see her plunge/ breasted and glancing through the currents,/ taking the light upon her.” Although the daughter-in-law’s burden, or “her cargo,” is never lightened, it has—through the inspiration of other voices—been “delivered/ [made] palpable/ ours.”

Throughout the poem, the reader is led through the speaker’s emotions and intellect. Because the speaker is actually addressing her own self in the role of a daughter-in-law, the poem’s dramatic monologue is a kind of self-education as well. The poem is thus highly personal in the way it develops and in the choice of literary voices presented.

The poem’s difficulty arises from the speaker’s use of unfamiliar words and phrases. This strategy, however, is essential to the poem because it expresses and heightens the speaker’s situation: She is an educated woman whose “fertilisante douleur” (enriching pain) is confinement to household chores. She will not simply accept the limitations of this domain; unfortunately, neither is she shown actively rebelling against her present condition. The voices painfully remind her that her life is unsatisfactory, but they stop short of prescribing a cure.

Nevertheless, while the poem seems to end on this discouraging note, the self-criticisms have been an educational process. The speaker has carefully scrutinized snapshots of herself. As she identifies the moments and causes of her dissatisfaction, the voices help her to enact a drama that makes it possible for the speaker to tell herself in the monologue that she must take action.


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Dickie, Margaret. Stein, Bishop, and Rich: Lyrics of Love, War, and Peace. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

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