Last Updated September 5, 2023.
This poem by Anne Sexton is a retelling of the fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but the speaker editorializes in a great many parts, drawing attention to society’s expectations of women and the damage that this can do to women who are taught that beauty is their most important quality. Snow White is introduced as a “lovely virgin” who is just thirteen years old. Snow White’s stepmother, the queen, is also beautiful but “eaten . . . by age.” This stepmother wants to be the most beautiful, and she routinely asks her magic mirror who the fairest woman in the kingdom is. When the mirror tells her that she is the fairest, “Pride pumped in her like poison.” Only her beauty brings her this kind of pride.
One day, the mirror tells her that Snow White has become more beautiful than she, and the queen sees the signs of her age. She orders a hunter to kill Snow White and bring the queen the girl’s heart to devour, but the hunter lets Snow White go and brings the queen a boar’s heart instead. Lost in the forest, Snow White wanders for seven weeks, past seven mountains, before she eventually finds a cottage belonging to seven dwarfs, and she goes to sleep there. The dwarfs marvel over the “sleeping virgin” and watch her wake up. They ask Snow White to “keep house” for them, and they warn her about the queen, knowing she will try again to kill the beautiful girl. Snow White must not open the door to anyone, the dwarfs tell her, while they are at work in the mines.
The queen does try to kill Snow White again, first by disguising herself as a peddler and arriving at the seven dwarfs’ house. When Snow White opens the door to her and buys “a bit of lacing,” the queen ties the laces so tightly around Snow White’s bodice that the girl faints. When the dwarfs come home, however, Snow White is revived. The queen later tries again, repeating her trick but this time selling Snow White a poisoned comb. Once again, Snow White is revived by the dwarfs. But the third time the queen comes calling, she gives Snow White a poisoned apple, and Snow White—“the dumb bunny”—eats the apple, falls unconscious, and will not wake up, despite the dwarfs’ best efforts.
Snow White is so beautiful that the dwarfs do not want to bury her, so they place her body in a glass coffin so that all can look upon her and her loveliness. One day, a prince comes and and falls in love with Snow White—based solely upon her looks—and the dwarfs let him take her body away with him in its glass coffin. When the prince’s men stumble while carrying the coffin, the apple becomes dislodged from Snow White’s throat, and Snow White awakens.
Snow White and the prince invite the queen to their wedding, where the queen is made to dance in “red-hot iron shoes” as punishment for her attempts on Snow White’s life. She is punished, then, for wanting to be the most beautiful in a society that only values women for their beauty. Snow White sits, looking like a doll, and “sometimes refer[s] to her mirror / as women do.” It seems, then, that this is part of a vicious cycle: the queen ages and is supplanted in beauty by a younger woman; that younger woman is taught to cherish her beauty as her most important quality (as it has brought her love and friends); and finally, it is implied that she will eventually age and be supplanted by a younger woman herself, only to continue the cycle.