The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window Summary

Joy Foster


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“The Woman Hanging from the Thirteenth Floor Window” is set in east Chicago, “the Indian side of town,” where Native Americans are isolated from their culture and trapped in an endless cycle of poverty, alcoholism, and crime. Suicide seems like the only way out to the young single mother “hanging from the 13th floor window.” It is significant that she is hanging from that floor: Many buildings do not designate a thirteenth floor because of the bad luck associated with the number.

The woman’s life in the city contrasts with the nurturing Native American community that she knew as a child. Mourning “the lost beauty of her own life,” she seeks comfort in the memory of when she “ate wild rice on scraped down plates in warm wood rooms.” Now she is surrounded by people who “scream out from below for her to jump.” The woman lives in a liminal world, suspended between life and death, isolated from her neighbors and her heritage. She wants to speak, but her “teeth break off at the edges” and she cannot express her hopelessness. The only way that she can communicate is through her attempted suicide. That the power of language has forsaken her is another indication that she has lost touch with the American Indian traditions that gave her life meaning.

The ending of the poem is paradoxical: “She thinks she remembers listening to her own life/ break loose, as she falls from the 13th floor/ window on the east side of Chicago, or as she/ climbs back up to claim herself again.” The concluding lines offer the hope that the woman chose to reassert her identity and to survive by abandoning her suicide attempt. However, it is also possible that she let go of the ledge. The ambiguous ending emphasizes the fact that contemporary Native American culture exists on the edge, dangling between survival and destruction.