Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Supposed Value of Virginity
Sexton introduces the theme of the supposed value of virginity in the first stanza of the poem, even before she introduces Snow White herself. The speaker claims that virgins have universal appeal: “Whatever life you lead / the virgin is a lovely number.” The virgin that Sexton describes (and of which Snow White will be her example) is doll-like, “rolling her china-blue doll eyes / open and shut.” This suggests that virgins, while highly prized by all, are scarcely human figures.
The poet conveys the Grimms’ fairy tale with the traditional details, including the queen and her mirror that alerts the queen to Snow White’s superior beauty. When Snow White is turned out of the kingdom and spared by the hunter ordered by the queen to kill her, she makes her way to the home of the seven dwarfs. Living a cloistered lifestyle among dwarfs (“little hot dogs” who are “wise . . . like small czars”), Snow White maintains her virginity in a sort of arrested development. For example, the dwarfs order Snow White not to open the door to anyone during the day while they are in the mines, for fear of the queen. Like many fairy tales, Sexton’s version displays a tone of admonition (even if it is entirely sarcastic): if a woman does not obey the masculine element, she is doomed, and a woman’s purity—her greatest virtue—must be protected by men.
The Objectification of Women
Closely related to the theme of virginity is that of the objectification of women in modern society, which Sexton explores and sharply criticizes through the story of Snow White. It is virginity and beauty both that give Snow White her value, and the two ideas are linked in that they are both presented as aspects of youth. It is Snow White’s great beauty in particular that makes her a threat to her stepmother, the queen, who is accustomed to being “the fairest of us all.” The queen seems to have internalized sexist beauty standards and her own objectification as a woman, for it is her beauty that gives her her sense of self-worth, and her desire to cling to that beauty that drives her to attempt to murder her own stepdaughter.
In the patriarchal world of the fairy tale, in which women are regarded as objects, there can be no solidarity between women—only fierce competition to retain the beauty that supposedly gives women their value. Even the “wise” dwarfs value Snow White primarily for her beauty, as well as for her ability to complete their housework, a stereotypical woman’s role. The prince, meanwhile, supposedly falls in love with Snow White while she is unconscious and therefore exists as only a perfect, pure, and beautiful object, like the doll to which she is compared. When her stepmother is ultimately punished at the wedding celebration, Snow White sits passively by, examining her image in her mirror—implying that she, too, has succumbed to her own objectification, “as women do.”
The Dangers of Pride
The queen’s pride is what sets the poem’s entire plot in motion. The queen’s mirror has fueled this pride (“Pride pumped in her like poison”) by telling the queen that she is the most beautiful woman in the kingdom. When the queen is told that Snow White is now more beautiful than herself, she orders Snow White’s death and resolves to eat the girl’s heart. In fact, the hunter lets Snow White go and brings the queen a boar’s heart instead. Sexton adds a farcical element to the Grimm vision by claiming that the queen eats up the heart like a “cube steak.”
At the end of the poem, the queen dies wearing “red-hot iron shoes” at the wedding of Snow White and the prince. Much as the queen burned with jealous rage during her life, she is burnt up by the iron shoes in death. Pride, according to Sexton’s version of the fairy tale, is dangerous, toxic, and self-consuming.