Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In the versions of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” that have been sanitized for children, the action of the poem usually seems to concentrate on the possibility of violence aimed at the innocent young. In those stories, although the reader assumes the queen to be motivated by her envy of Snow White’s youth and beauty, her motives seem to be subsidiary to the theme of violence itself. In Sexton’s version, the queen’s pride, which “pumped in her like a poison,” is diagnosed directly as motivation. Indeed, Sexton says that before the mirror labels Snow White as the most beautiful woman in the land, the girl has been “no more important” to the queen than “a dust mouse under the bed.” The mirror’s announcement makes the queen suddenly aware of encroaching age and makes her determined to kill Snow White. At the end, the queen is punished for her pride by dancing to death in the red-hot shoes.

Sexton goes beyond simply making the queen a villain, however. In the poem’s second verse paragraph, Sexton uses the second-person “you” to suggest to the reader that everyone is subject to the corrupting effects of pride and may be subject to its rewards: “Oh my friends, in the end/ you will dance the fire dance.” At the end, Sexton describes the queen’s punishment. After describing the shoes that await the queen, Sexton suddenly returns to the second person as someone warns the queen: “First your toes will smoke/ and then your...

(The entire section is 587 words.)