Ideological Reading: Aunt Jennifer's Tigers

This reading is copyright John Lye, 1997. Comments and suggestions are welcome, just mail me.

Aunt Jennifer's Tigers

    Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.

Aunt Jennifer's fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.

When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
-- Adrienne Rich (1929 --)

One might say that this is a poem which takes a certain ideological position. It is clearly a 'feminist' poem which is critical of the male world for terrifying and oppressing 'Aunt Jennifer' -- causing her to create an alternate world of freedom, one which she could not inhabit other than imaginatively or aesthetically. The desolating effects of patriarchy are assumed and exposed, in three quatrains.

The poem has some ideological assumptions and implications of its own, however, which render it, potentially, something less than -- or at least other than -- a forceful expression of the evils of patriarchy. The struggles for existence of so many in a harsh world, and the deep conflicts of bondage and freedom humans wrestle with on so many planes, are reduced to gender conflict. The genders are polarized, so Aunt Jennifer is totally victimized and the absent Uncle, represented only by his wedding band, the figure here of the oppression of custom and law, is implicitly entirely guilty -- though of what is not certain (fear, in the first stanza, implied slavery, in the second, ordeals in the third). The point is however that Rich has herself created an ideological structure which silences or excludes much of human experience. Children, hunger, war, disease, the struggles of the spirit, racial and religious injustice and oppression, are dissolved into the tragedy -- which it is on one level -- of an apparently upper-middle-class woman who could express her desire for freedom only in her art. Now, I am not saying that that is not a tragedy. But it is a mystified tragedy, one that is constructed so that it looks as if it were the sole conflict and opposition standing in the way of Aunt Jennifer and human fullness. We do not know what terrors Aunt Jennifer had to live with, nor why her friends and relatives did not, if she was so terrified, step in. All we see is the gender difference -- an absolute difference, unproblematical in any way. All social context, in Aunt Jennifer's personal and domestic world and on the broader human plane, mysteriously vanishes.

The ideology of the individual lies deep in this poem. Aunt is divorced from her social milieu in the poem, for instance -- the social is not a consideration. The way her society has structured her life, the involvement she has with it, are strikingly absent. It is her individual loss that is tragic. In keeping with American ideology, its sense of the subject, of the natural and of the human, the ultimate good is personal freedom. If Aunt were free, then things would be okay. There is no social here.

In fact, there is really no sense of what freedom is; it itself is mystified. Pacing in sleek chivalric certainty? Not, as Camus suggested, the recognition of just limits? Or as Lye has written, the possession of the power to pursue justice and mercy? Or as Jesus is reported as having remarked, in seeking truth in his teachings? As freedom from fear, oppression, terror, we can understand it, but the positive expression of freedom has no articulated components, no ideal (in fact as I will later suggest, quite the opposite).

This is a poem which assumes a middle class, a bourgeois, understanding of meaning and identity. Now, one might object to my characterization in that this is a lyric poem, and as such makes no pretense at examining anything more than the emotional realities of the individual: but

  1. 'the individual' is itself an ideological concept;

  2. this lyric in fact functions as a social critique and hence bears the responsibility of its enunciations. (It should come as no surprise that marxist critics have traditionally preferred the epic, the tragedy and the novel, forms in which social relations are explicit.)

  3. is also the case that the ideology of the Enlightenment created an entity known as 'the individual' (and in doing so theorized the 'rights' of the individual), and that the concept of the individual was thoroughly and repeatedly inscribed by subsequent thought.

This poem is an unwitting paean to the individual, the separate and autonomous being, existing independently of social context or reality, whose tragedy is a loss of a freedom which is clearly too 'obvious' to have to be articulated.

The struggles basic to existence are mystified in this poem, as are the conditions of a genuine freedom. The first stanza gives an idealized, romanticized picture which shows that the Aunt was trapped in something more than gender oppression: she was protected from almost everything we know of the real world. Her tragedy may seem of diminished proportions for those people lining up at the food bank, for those who find that when they go to see an apartment for rent the landlord smiles apologetically into their coloured faces and says that, unfortunately, he has just rented it, for those dying of diseases, and the list can go on. The poem in its opening statement locates us in Aunt Jennifer's bourgeois, privileged world, and as we assent to that line we assent to the assumptions which keep us from challenging it. "Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen." In how many households in the world can 'screens' with tigers prancing across them be asumed to be normal? What would the function of this screen be, how would it advance the survival of the family or the society? Presumably it is not for privacy. Drafts?

The poem locates Aunt Jennifer as an oppressor as well as a victim and, as a victim, a victim of different powers than the poem obviously suggests. Let me begin with the second point. She is imprisoned; but is perhaps imprisoned more, or as much, in the prison of ego-psychology, and in the prison of the ideology of the family which isolates her from rescue (a man's home is his castle, it's their private business, we don't talk about family secrets, they will just have to work it out together), in the prison of that understanding of the world which says that it is all right for this person to spend her time knitting while people suffer the terrors of violence and poverty in her very city: she is imprisoned more in these than in the gender and domestic relations which these ideologies help create and support.

Aunt Jennifer is located as well as an oppressor. The tigers which symbolize the freedom of spirit which she dreams of but never achieved except in her dreams as rendered in her art, are themselves figures of her location as an oppressor, because they locate her in relation to India, and hence to imperialism and to cultural and economic exploitation, and they also locate her as a person who never actually had to live in the vicinity of a real tiger at all, whose very insulation from the terrors of the world of raw desire and need, of the violence of survival, is inscribed in her use of them as figures of elegant freedom and playful power.

The wonder of the art of Aunt Jennifer is that, working her dreams as an escape from the terrifying power of the husband, living locked in an isolated, bourgeios consciousness, she produces the very image of her oppression, yet her art is presented as positive, bouyant, triumphant, transhistorical (the tigers will "go on prancing, proud and unafraid," presumably forever). The men beneath the tree are not feared. But the tigers are inherently male; they are chivalric, hence tied to the long tradition of male authority and power; and they are of course Indian (guaranteed by both tigers and the screen), that is to say, they represent the site of colonial empire. (The echoes of colonial domination reappear in the second stanza, in those "ivory needles" -- no steel or plastic for Aunt Jennifer, rather the spoils of Africa, see Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.) Given India, oddly enough, and given the history of Bhudda, so attached to India and to a moment beneath a tree, the men beneath the tree cannot be unambiguously assumed to represent the evil they may seem to represent.

There is here as well in the poem an ideology of art. As an expression of the spirit, Aunt Jennifer's art will survive long after the Aunt is dead. The function of art is then is to express and immortalize the struggles and dreams of the human spirit. But the tragedy of this aesthetic is that the art, in itself, contributes nothing but an eulogy. Her art, the tigers on the screen, 'represents', is symbolic of, a freedom which has no responsibility, which has no suffering, which has no grounding, in fact, in the world. Rich's poem, itself a eulogy, doesn't do much better: it gives us sentiment without social presence or conscience. Having little to say about human experience except inadvertently in the ideology which a reading of it reveals, it remains a bright object whose well-formedness would be its only excuse did not our culture privilege this form of discourse, accord it special economic and particularly cultural privilege and place.

We can look at little farther at how this poem functions ideologically, or how it has its existence as a cultural text, which two statements amount to the same thing. This poem is a form of discourse which ties the reader into certain material and ideological structures, and which is derived from or created through certain material and ideological structures and bears their meaning inherently. Let me take the statement I just made about it as a starting-point: "Having little to say about human experience, it remains a bright object whose well-formedness is its only excuse." Of course, culturally and practically, for us, this is not the case. Its main excuse is that it is literature, and as literature it ties us as readers to the whole structure of 'culture', including i) to the values which we attach, socially and culturally, to Culture ("high culture"), and ii) to the learning required to participate in high culture and the values inherent in that learning, the 'idea' of liberal education for instance. As we read 'literature' we are ourselves structured as subjects, having certain values and expectations. The poem is a material product -- there it is, on the page, it required work to produce it, it required work to negotiate its reproduction in a book, it required work to insert it into the flow of cultural products -- the book had to be designed, marketed, and so forth. As a material product it takes its place in the circulation of value of the society. Adrienne Rich gets prestige, she gets money, she gets a more authoritative voice in the formation of the culture, and so forth. All of the values which support all of those factors are also inherent both in the poem and in the reading of the poem. It is embedded textually and materially, as public language and as public language's requirements and effects. But as we are structured by our reading of the poem in its ideological placement (as art, as a poem about art as the expression of the spirit, as high culture), we mystify these very material conditions.

Our own reading is itself materially as well as ideologically located -- in this case we are reading it as members of a university, as people earning money for or paying money for a course leading to a university degree, as those who perpetuate the privileged place of literature as a discourse protected from social accountability by its 'quality'. Aunt Jennifer's screen perfectly expresses the bourgois understanding of art and its place in culture, in every sense.