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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 383

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Anne Sexton's (née Gray Harvey) "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was published as part of a collection titled Transformations in 1971. This collection includes re-tellings of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (with all of their gory details).

The themes of "Snow White" include, primarily, virginity and pride. Sexton introduces the theme of virginity before she introduces Snow White herself. She 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 are scarcely human figures.

The poet conveys the fairy tale with the traditional details, including the queen and her mirror that alerts the queen to Snow White's existence and superior beauty. When Snow White is turned out of the kingdom and spared by the hunter ordered by the queen to hill her, she makes her way to the home of the famous dwarfs. Living a cloistered lifestyle among dwarfs ("little hot dogs" who are like "wise . . . like small czars"), Snow White maintains her virginity in a sort of arrested development. For example, the dwarfs order Snow White not to leave the house for fear of the queen. Like many fairy tales, Sexton's version preserves the tone of admonition (even if it is a bit sarcastic): if one does not obey the masculine element, she is doomed.

As to the theme of pride, the queen's pride is what sets the poem's entire plot in motion. The queen's mirror fueled this pride ("Pride pumped in her like poison"). When the queen is told that Snow White is fairer, she resolves to eat Snow White. Sexton adds a farcical element to the Grimm vision (which does include the queen eating Snow White's heart): Sexton claims that the queen ate up the supposed heart (while in fact it was a boar's heat returned by the hunter) 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. As the queen was red with jealous rage, she dies, consumed by her red-hot shoes while dancing. Pride, according to Sexton's version of the fairy tale, is self-consuming.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 587

In the versions of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” that have been sanitized for children, the action of the poem usually seems to concentrate on the possibility of violence aimed at the innocent young. In those stories, although the reader assumes the queen to be motivated by her envy of Snow White’s youth and beauty, her motives seem to be subsidiary to the theme of violence itself. In Sexton’s version, the queen’s pride, which “pumped in her like a poison,” is diagnosed directly as motivation. Indeed, Sexton says that before the mirror labels Snow White as the most beautiful woman in the land, the girl has been “no more important” to the queen than “a dust mouse under the bed.” The mirror’s announcement makes the queen suddenly aware of encroaching age and makes her determined to kill Snow White. At the end, the queen is punished for her pride by dancing to death in the red-hot shoes.

Sexton goes beyond simply making the queen a villain, however. In the poem’s second verse paragraph, Sexton uses the second-person “you” to suggest to the reader that everyone is subject to the corrupting effects of pride and may be subject to its rewards: “Oh my friends, in the end/ you will dance the fire dance.” At the end, Sexton describes the queen’s punishment. After describing the shoes that await the queen, Sexton suddenly returns to the second person as someone warns the queen: “First your toes will smoke/ and then your heels will turn black/ and you will fry upward like a frog,/ she was told.” Although the “you” in this second passage refers to the queen, the words “she was told” follow the vivid description and invite the reader to recall the earlier warning. Indeed, at the poem’s very end, the last picture is of Snow White consulting her own mirror “as women do.” Sexton suggests that even Snow White can be infected by the “simple passion” of beauty and the poison of pride that may accompany it.

Another image at the poem’s end suggests a second theme: Snow White’s “china-blue doll eyes,” which “open and shut” like the eyes of a child’s doll. The phrases recall the description of the virgin, that “lovely number” introduced in the poem’s first verse paragraph. The virgin is the innocent heroine of this tale and many other fairy tales, but Sexton’s imagery suggests that she is as empty and artificial as a toy. The opening paragraph introduces another theme as well. The virgin’s eyes “Open to say,/ Good Day Mama,/ and shut for the thrust/ of the unicorn.” The reference to the unicorn recalls the ancient folktale that a unicorn can be captured only by a virgin; the animal will willingly give itself up to her. Here, however, the “thrust” of the unicorn underscores its sexual symbolism. The virgin’s apparent purity, Sexton suggests, may be a ploy by which she captures and marries the prince. Sexton also hints at Snow White’s sexual nature in the description of her wandering through the forests of wolves with phallic tongues and lewdly calling birds until she takes refuge in the dwarfs’ “honeymoon cottage.” Like the virginal heroines of several of Sexton’s Grimm poems, Snow White’s purity is mostly appearance, and she carries in her the potential for the same sort of evil as her persecutor, the same evil that may put all readers in the iron shoes.