Rita Dover’s “Day Star” details the oppression of motherhood, and the submission of personal identity to the role of housewife. Dover describes a mother whose spirit and creativity are thoroughly thwarted by motherhood. She only wants “a little room for thinking,” but her constant chores and household obligations barely afford her an hour of time for herself. The protagonist of the poem steals time for herself during her children’s nap time, when she hides in the garage and looks out at simple things like “the pinched armor of a vanished cricket,” or a “floating maple leaf.” Sometimes, she simply closes her eyes but when she does she sees “her own vivid blood.” The morbid imagery, coupled with the overt language of oppression, promotes the feminist ideals of liberation from traditional gender roles.
Motherhood is described with an almost shocking derision, which has the feminist effect of liberating the speaker via the admission that the role is not all it is cracked up to be. Diapers that are “steaming on the line” suggest that motherhood and housewifery can be a pile of stinking poop. Even sexuality is described in negative terms, as Thomas “rolled over and lurched into her.” She escapes from the moment by fantasizing about the moment of peace she cultivates during her only time alone during the day. The negative attitude that the mother holds towards her role is liberating in itself. Because is socially unacceptable to eschew motherhood, the protagonist is honest, willing to express anger and resentment at the role that many women claim is the highlight and hallmark of their lives.
In “Paper Matches,” Paulette Jiles conveys the same feminist theme as Dover. The anger and resentment that characterizes entrapment in traditional gender roles is symbolized in Jiles’s poem by a match: “We come bearing supper, / our heads on fire.” Dover’s poem is far more literal, but both achieve the same goal of women sharing a common identity within oppression. Neither poet offers any solution but the acknowledgment of anger. Hope is nowhere, as the females in both poems are stuck and imprisoned in their roles. Therefore, both poets suggest that the problem is institutionalized. Women do not have the option to break free from their roles, because their efforts would be met with ridicule. In “Paper Matches,” for example, Aunt Hetty states, “That’s the way it is.” The mother in “Day Star” would not want the ethical burden of abandoning her children, even if she resents being trapped by having to take care of them without the help of her husband.
Rather than celebrate the joy of motherhood or idealize the romantic love between a man and a women, both Jiles and Dover criticize social myths. Both motherhood and marriage can constrain the individual identities of females. Females are subject to seduction by their husbands, and then enslaved into a life of submission. Liberation is possible in the mind only. The mother in “Day Star” builds fantasy “palaces” and craves some kind of space away from her everyday life — even if that space is purely empty. The wife in “Paper Matches” rebels inwardly at the gender norms that permit the men to play while the women work.
As feminist poems, both decry the institutionalization of gender norms and roles. While women may have the choice of whether or not to enter into a traditional heterosexual marriage, the options outside of motherhood are rather limited. Although a more uplifting poem might depict a woman who never got married or had children, both Jiles and Dover critique the gender roles that dominate traditional heterosexual relationships.
A study of literature helps us understand historical context and social reality. Literature, like art, can fill in the blanks of history. What were women doing while men were winning or losing their wars, running countries, and conquering nations? Literature can answer that. Literature can answer questions related to social class and income disparity. What did poor people think about while the aristocracy restricted access to education and literacy? Only through a deep understanding of the literature of a time period can we form a holistic understanding of a culture.
Literature illuminates perspectives of gender, race, ethnicity, and social class. Moreover, literature can reveal the political philosophies that dominated a certain period of time or group of people. Literature can clarify the soul of a collective identity, revealing what a dry historical perspective can never capture. In this way, literature presents the qualitative evidence to history’s quantitative data-mongering. Literature can also answer questions about subjective realities. The themes addressed in literature can distinguish one historical era from another too. For instance, the romantic period described the ills of industrialization in ways that reflected the discomfort with urbanization and unbridled scientific exploration.
On a more literal level, literature can help us answer questions about how language and thought evolved over time. The style of narratives have changed dramatically over the centuries. Even within the space of a decade or two, the style and tone of language change. Who gets published, when, and why are also questions that literary critics must ask in their quest for the answers embedded in the text.
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