Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 553

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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 of the past but also of her own unhappiness.

As soon as Norris explains that she had intended to write about faith, however, it becomes clear that this is not merely a poem about change and the loss of stability or about alienation and the loss of love but about something more basic, the source of all uncertainty: doubt of God’s presence in the world. The alienation between the lovers, as well as between them and the past, is both a metaphor for a spiritual malaise and a symptom of it. Again, one is reminded of the Fall: After they became separated from God, Adam and Eve immediately turned on each other.

Nevertheless, “Washing Dishes Late at Night” does end with a degree of hope. The poem does not end in total darkness but in a “pale light,” though not in the full radiance of God’s presence. Moreover, the fact that it is night implies that morning will eventually come. Most important of all, the couple is once again together, though, at present, all they have in common is their sense of instability and a common fear.

It is a mark of Norris’s stature as a religious poet that she does not take refuge in easy answers. She writes about temptation, as in “The Monastery Orchard in Early Spring,” which refers to Saint Augustine’s boyhood sin and to the allure of sensuality; she writes about the ever-presence of death, as in “The Blue Light” and “Desert Run Scenario”; and, as in this poem, she writes about the terror of doubt. However, the dawn does break; the desert does bloom. In many of her poems, Kathleen Norris voices a faith that is even stronger for having dealt with darkness.