Last Updated on September 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544
The first stanza makes a number of statements that associate women’s value with their purity and their beauty. The speaker says,
No matter what life you lead
the virgin is a lovely number:
cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,
arms and legs made of Limoges,
lips like Vin Du Rhône,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes
open and shut.
In other words, then, virgins are beautiful, in part, because they are young and pure. The word choice suggests that everyone can agree on this—no matter what kind of life one leads or who one is, everyone knows that virgins are superior—with their fragile cheeks like delicate paper, their limbs like Limoges china (a very expensive brand), lips like expensive red wine from romantic and far-away places, and blue eyes like a doll’s. These virgins are clean and new and valuable for their virginity and their beauty (as opposed to their experience, their wisdom, their creativity, etc.).
Snow White’s stepmother, the queen, is obsessed with her own looks, though she is “eaten, of course, by age.”
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.
The queen has, evidently, internalized the idea that her beauty is her most important quality—and it seems clear that society preaches its value from the speaker’s description of virgins—and it is now the only thing that gives her pride in herself. However, because of the fact that external beauty is said to fade with age, such pride is like a poison because it will, ultimately, harm her. In fact, it has already: it has reduced her self-worth and made it dependent on something she cannot retain.
Snow White, only thirteen years old, is sexualized by her surroundings, turned into an object of desire for predatory creatures:
Snow White walked in the wildwood
for weeks and weeks.
At each turn there were twenty doorways
and at each stood a hungry wolf,
his tongue lolling out like a worm.
The birds called out lewdly,
talking like pink parrots,
and the snakes hung down in loops,
each a noose for her sweet white neck.
She is hounded by wolves with wormy tongues, “lewdly” addressed by the birds, and nearly hanged by snakes. The worms and the snakes can be interpreted as phallic symbols, confirming that she is desirable because of her purity and beauty. Even dead, Snow White is desirable to the prince—remember, she is only thirteen years old—and he wants to take her body home so that he can continue to look at her. When she does awaken and marry him, they punish the queen for her attempts to kill the girl and eliminate her competition.
Meanwhile Snow White held court,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.
In the end, Snow White, still beautiful and doll-like, looks at her own mirror. She has learned, as the queen did before her, that her value is based on her beauty. The speaker implies that she may end up like the old queen, obsessed with her looks and willing to do anything to remain the most beautiful.