Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Though, at first glance, “Washing Dishes Late at Night” appears to be a poem about change, loss, and alienation, the primary theme of the poem is, in fact, religious doubt. However, the poet does not indicate her subject until the final section of the poem, and, even then, she does so obliquely. Up to that point, she has set up a pattern of contrasts, whose real purpose does not become evident until the very end of the poem.

Dominating the poem is a sense that none of the changes that have taken place is for the better. The new arrangement of the room makes the poet uneasy. Moreover, much has been lost, not only a sense of stability, for one assumes that, in the past, the room did not seem to “tip,” but also the kind of magic that made the lovers, presumably the poet and her partner, feel that they lived in a fairy-tale world. There is also the suggestion of a loss of innocence. In the past, even a “dragon” was tame enough to be ridden, but that time has vanished. It is also pointed out that all traces of the lovers’ sensual activities, which, in an unfallen world, have their own kind of innocence, are being eliminated.

Although the couple, at first, joined in making changes, it is significant that the two are now separated. The poet’s partner is energetically eliminating the past, replacing it with something new, while the poet stands alone, washing away the remains of a communal meal, symbolically washing her hands not only...

(The entire section is 553 words.)