The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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