Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

by Anne Sexton

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Last Updated on September 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was originally published in 1971 in Transformations, a collection of poems by Anne Sexton inspired by the Grimms’ fairy tales. The poem is written in free verse and consists of nine stanzas of varying lengths and 164 lines.

In the poem, the speaker compares the pride the queen—Snow White’s stepmother—feels in her appearance to “poison” via a simile that ends the second stanza:

She would ask,
Looking glass upon the wall,
who is fairest of us all?
And the mirror would reply,
You are the fairest of us all.
Pride pumped in her like poison.

Such pride in her beauty is like a poison because society tells older women that they are not as beautiful as younger women. The queen sees the brown spots developing on her skin, the whiskers growing on her face, and her mirror tells her that she is no longer the fairest woman in the kingdom. Having learned to believe that all her value is linked to her beauty, the queen determines that she must rid herself of Snow White so that she will not be supplanted. When her hunter fails her by bringing her a boar’s heart instead of Snow White’s, she tries to kill the girl herself, eventually seeming to succeed by giving Snow White a poisoned apple.

However, when Snow White does awaken from her apparent deathlike slumber, she is immediately married to the prince who has fallen in love with her only because of her appearance. He had been sitting with her seemingly dead body for so long, admiring her beauty, that his hair actually changed color. As a result, Snow White learns that her beauty is what makes her valuable: the prince didn’t grow to love her for her mind or her heart but, rather, her looks. The prince and Snow White invite the queen to their wedding and grotesquely punish her, torturing her to death by forcing her to dance in “red-hot iron shoes”:

First your toes will smoke
and then your heels will turn black
and you will fry upward like a frog,
she was told.
And so she danced until she was dead,
a subterranean figure,
her tongue flicking in and out
like a gas jet.

 In other words, the queen is punished for trying to be the most beautiful by a society that has taught her that, if she is not the most beautiful, then she has no value. The speaker reports that

Meanwhile Snow White held court,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.

Thus, the cycle will continue. Snow White has learned that her value lies in her beauty, and so she checks it in her mirror, echoing her stepmother’s obsession with her own mirror—the one that told her whether or not she was “the fairest of us all.” Presumably she is also beginning to internalize society’s standards, at the young age of thirteen, and she may very well end up like her stepmother someday.

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