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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

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This poem critiques society for valuing women based on their beauty and purity and fragility rather than on their experience, wisdom, or creativity. Further, the poem seems to claim that such a system of valuation compels women only to consider their beauty in an attempt to remain valued by society, creating conflicts among women as they vie for position as the most beautiful. Society, then, pits women against one another. If and when women attempt to eliminate their competition, they are punished for their brutality, and the cycle continues, unabated.

The speaker compares the pride the queen feels in her appearance to “poison” via a simile that ends the second group of lines. 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, she tries to kill the girl herself, eventually seeming to succeed.

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 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 punish her, torturing her to death. 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.

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. Presumably she is also beginning to internalize society’s standards, at the ripe old age of thirteen, and she may very well end up like her stepmother someday.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

Like Anne Sexton’s other fairy-tale poems collected under the title Transformations, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is a long (164 lines), free-verse narrative based on the version of the Snow White tale collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Germany in the nineteenth century. The darkness and violence of this version may surprise readers who are accustomed to fairy tales that have been sanitized to make them suitable for children, but although Sexton has established a very modern voice in this and the other Transformations poems, she remains faithful to the action that the Grimm brothers recorded.

In “The Gold Key,” the comparatively short poem that introduces the collection, the poet speaks of herself as a “middle-aged witch” with her “mouth wide,” ready to tell readers “a story or two.” The “witch” then imagines a sixteen-year-old boy who “wants some answers.” He is really each of the readers, the witch says, suggesting that the answers are to be found in the tales of transformation recorded by the Grimm brothers. In that introduction, Sexton is explaining why adult readers should pay attention to the sort of story usually considered to be children’s entertainment; she implies that these stories have important meanings.

In “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” Sexton begins with a verse paragraph that describes the character of the virgin in fairy tales; the virgin is not only pure but also doll-like. Only in the next paragraph does Sexton identify this particular virgin as Snow White. She also introduces the beautiful but vain stepmother queen and the magic mirror that tells her that Snow White is more beautiful than she is. The story progresses through its familiar events: The queen orders her huntsman to kill Snow White and to bring the queen her heart. Instead, he frees her and brings the queen a boar’s heart, which she eats. Snow White wanders through dangerous forests for seven weeks and at last comes to the cottage of the seven dwarfs for whom she agrees to keep house. They warn her against opening the door while they are off at their mines, but Snow White is tricked by the disguised queen, who offers her a piece of lacing. The dwarfs rescue Snow White from the deathlike swoon caused by her tightly laced bodice. A second time they rescue her when she is tricked with a poisoned comb. When she succumbs to the queen’s offer of a poisoned apple, however, they can do nothing. Sadly they display Snow White’s body in a glass coffin. That is how a prince sees her and falls in love with her. When the dwarfs allow him to carry her body to his castle, the poisoned apple is dislodged and Snow White revives and marries her prince. The evil queen is invited to the wedding, where she is given “red-hot iron shoes” in which she dances until she dies. Readers are not told that Snow White and the prince live happily ever after, however; instead, Sexton’s final image is of Snow White holding court and looking into her own mirror.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 385

As she does with all the Transformations poems, Sexton adds her own voice to the plot elements of the story. It is a voice that is sometimes comic and sometimes admonitory. One source of its comedy rises from the introduction of contemporary items into the traditional tale. When the wicked queen eats what she thinks is Snow White’s heart, for instance, she chews it “like a cube steak.” The queen’s gift of lacing binds Snow White “tight as an Ace bandage.” When she revives, she is “as full of life as soda pop.” When Snow White opens the cottage door to evil a second time, Sexton calls her a “dumb bunny,” and the prince lingers at Snow White’s coffin so long, Sexton says, that his hair turns green.

Although the cube steak and the Ace bandage show Sexton’s gift for the comic simile, her figurative language can also make her story more vivid and underscore the themes that emerge in the tale. During Snow White’s trek through the forest, she meets hungry wolves, each with “his tongue lolling out like a worm.” The forest’s nightmare birds call out “lewdly,/ talking like pink parrots.” The poisoned comb is “a curved eight-inch scorpion.” Sexton compares the red-hot iron shoes in which the wicked queen dances to her death to a pair of red-hot roller skates, uniting the comic with the darkly grotesque.

In this poem, as in many Sexton poems, the reader is also aware of another element in the speaker’s voice, an admonitory voice that sometimes breaks into the narrative to direct the reader’s attention to an important event or to explain how to interpret a motive or theme. Although editorial intrusion seems more characteristic of nineteenth century literature than of work from the latter half of the twentieth century, Sexton’s ironic tone makes it seem both modern and appropriate. After introducing the stepmother’s beauty, for example, Sexton addresses the reader directly: “Beauty is a simple passion,/ but, oh my friends, in the end/ you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes.” The iron shoes foreshadow the end of the poem. Sexton also uses modern details such as the roller skates to unite parts of the story, as she does with references to the mirror.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 106

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