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Anne Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

Anne Sexton’s poem “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” has been commonly referred to as such that represents the classical example of so-called “feminist poetry”, in which the motifs of depression and hypertrophied sexuality define such poetry’s semiotics. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of literary reviews of this particular Sexton’s poem can be best described as such that lack insight on the true essence of the author’s motivations, which had prompted her to write “Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs”, due to the fact that in recent years, discussing a psychiatric nature of feminism, became a public taboo. In this paper, we will aim at revealing the metaphysical essence of the author’s psychological anxieties, which had affected both: literary, structural, and ideological properties of this Sexton’s particular poem, while identifying literary devices, utilized by the author to assure the intellectual soundness of her poetic work.

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The close reading of “Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs”, reveals this poem as essentially a poetic sublimation of Sexton’s existential inadequateness (her psychosis), because in it, while describing emanations of femininity as such that has value in itself, the author mocks them at the same time. For example, at the end of the poem, Sexton implies that looking in the mirror will become Snow White’s preoccupation, for the rest of her life, which in its turn, suggests that deep inside, Snow White was not much different from her stepmother:

“Meanwhile Snow White held court,

rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut

and sometimes referring to her mirror

as women do” (Sexton)

In its turn, this brings us to the conclusion that psychologically speaking, Sexton was more of a man than a woman. In its turn, this actually explains feminist undertones, found in her poetry. These overtones can be characterized by the author’s subconscious admiration and hatred towards what is being commonly perceived as feminine virtues. While remaining a woman, in the physiological context of this word, Sexton never ceased striving towards what she considered as manly, “hard” existential values, which explains the fact why, throughout her life, Sexton used to suffer from depression. Moreover, it also explains the apparent popularity of her poetry – depression often serves as the source of particularly strong poetic inspiration. As history shows, it is the creativity of mentally unstable individuals, which often corresponds to the objective value of their artistic or literary works. In his famous book “Sex and Character”, Otto Weininger states: “The most high-spirited people understand and experience depression much more than those who are of level disposition. Anyone with so keen a sense of delicacy and subtility as Shakespeare must also be capable of extreme grossness” (Weininger Ch.11). Thus, we can say that the semantic context of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” provides us with insight into the author’s state of mind, as being affected by her subconscious feeling of contempt towards her own gender affiliation.

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Although Sexton’s poem is being written as a “white verse”, we can still find many examples rhyming, between the lines:

“Looking glass upon the wall,

who is fairest of us all?” (Sexton).

However, it is not the elements rhyming that defines poem’s rhythm, but the author’s utilization of “run-on” poetic composition – in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, the dramatic effect is being achieved by the fact that sentences’ semantic meaning can only be grasped when they are being read in a sequential manner. In other words, there is only one way for the readers to solve a semiotic puzzle, contained in the poem – by reading the poem’s lines exactly as they were meant to be read. Moreover, such poetic composition implies that “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” needs to be read more than just once, in order for its connotations to become apparent; because, even though in this poem, the author’s appeals to logos and ethos, are being marked by their intensity – in order for readers to understand the full scope of psychological implications, associated with these appeals, they will need to deconstruct poem’s structural integrity down to its components.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” represents a so-called “confessional” trend in American poetry, the most characteristic trait of which is “existential nakedness” of confessional poetic pieces. In his article “Confessional poetry & the Artifice of Honesty”, David Yezzi makes a good point when he suggests that: “Confessionalism is a question of degree. What makes a poem confessional is not only its subject matter but also the directness with which such things are handled” (Yezzi 19). As we have mentioned earlier, Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is actually a poetic statement of psychological inadequateness (author, who is a woman, ridicules feminine virtues). Nevertheless, it is only when we read this poem in the way it was originally intended, that its confessionalist subtleties become apparent.

Even though that some parts of Sexton’s poem sound like simply retelling the tale of Snow White, the author assesses Snow White’s adventures through the lenses of perceptional feminism, which explains why the poem’s utilization of metaphorical devices can be best described as such that is not being merely meant to add richness to poem’s sounding, but also as such that emphasizes author’s worldview:

“No matter what life you lead

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the virgin is a lovely number:

cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper,

arms and legs made of Limoges” (Sexton)

While mentioning porcelain, within a context of providing readers with insight into Snow White’s physical appearance, Sexton was able to reach two objectives: to stress out poem main character’s femininity and also to express her own attitude towards such femininity as rather a practical tool that allows women to survive in the male-centered world (“lovely number”).

The implicit method of characterization, exploited by Sexton, fits well into the author’s original agenda of retelling the story of Snow White from under feminist angle. Throughout the poem’s entirety, Sexton refrains from expressing her personal opinions about Snow White. Nevertheless, by reading a poem, people are still able to get a very good idea, as to the author’s attitude towards the poem’s main character, which can be best defined as utterly sarcastic. Snow White is being portrayed as the embodiment of what men perceive as feminine psychological traits: naivety, “cuteness”, irrationality, and servility. According to Sexton, there are two things about Snow White, which amounts to her existential value as an individual: her physical looks and her natural calling for being a housewife:

“They stood on tiptoes to watch

Snow White wake up. She told them

about the mirror and the killer-queen

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and they asked her to stay and keep house” (Sexton)

In its turn, this explains why Sexton had decided to utilize a third-person narration while working on her poem – apparently, the author wanted to distance herself from the poem’s main character, as representing the values of traditional womanhood, which Sexton never ceased despising. At the same time, while being an intellectually honest individual, Sexton could not mentally detach herself from her own physiology, which is why we can say that the character of Snow White does relate to the essence of the author’s existential anxieties; thus, creating a certain logical paradox – Sexton’s portrayal of Snow White is both personal and impersonal. In her article “Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance”, Nina Ayoub partially explains this paradox by quoting Sexton’s words, in regards to her own poetry: “Sexton drew distinctions between the confessional and the personal, and considered the latter as a plural form, personae, and always partly fiction. ‘I am often being personal,’ she told her students at Colgate University, ‘but I’m not being personal about myself” (Ayoub 13).

Apparently, the “impersonal personalization”, which is a striking feature of Sexton’s poetry, has been noticed by many other critics, even though they usually discuss it as deriving out of Sexton’s acute sense of stylistic finesse, rather than out of her disturbed state of mind. In her article “My Sweeney, Mr. Eliot: Anne Sexton and the Impersonal Theory of Poetry“, Joanna Gill states: “Sexton’s writing, I propose, refutes, or at least problematizes, the dichotomy between the new poetry and the old, the compulsive and the restrained. It interrogates the assumed distinction between poetry which is the expression of personality and poetry which is an escape from it and refuses to be restricted to either pole” (Gill 39). We, on the other hand, believe that paradoxical subtleties of Sexton’s poetry (particularly “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”) simply indicate Sexton’s mentality being affected by “split personality disorder”, which has always been the distinctive psychological trait of “progressive” (professing Liberal values) writers, philosophers and politicians.

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is one of Sexton’s poems where the author’s usage of allegorical and symbolical devices is being marked by prophetically autobiographical undertones. There is a deep sense in the author mentioning “red-hot iron shoes” twice, throughout the poem. The image of these shoes is meant to serve as both: the symbol of sensual uncomfortableness, experienced by Sexton over her gender affiliation, and the allegory of destructiveness, which affects the existential modes of people like Sexton:

“Beauty is a simple passion,

but, oh my friends, in the end

you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes” (Sexton)

Moreover, the same can be said about the author juxtapositioning the concepts of “good” and “omen”:

“Yes. It’s a good omen,

they said and will bring us luck” (Sexton)

The semantic contradiction, which derives out of these two notions being put in conjunction with each other, emphasizes the poem’s absurdist motifs – apparently, the author did not simply strive to mock Snow White, whom she refers to as “dumb bunny”, but also the men (dwarfs), which became fascinated by Snow White physical looks and by her servile attitudes.

Even though that James Cosgrove’s article “Transformations: On Anne Sexton’s Cinderella and Briar Rose” does not directly relate to the subject of this paper’s discussion, the reading of it substantiates the validity of earlier expressed idea as to the particularities of Sexton’s perception of objective reality: “The idea of beauty is the subject of Sexton’s criticism… what is externally beautiful is not always beautiful in the moral and ethical sense of the word” (Cosgrove 7). Such suggestion, of course, could only originate in the mind of a mentally deranged individual, simply because, as recent discoveries in the field of genetics indicate, one’s physical beauty, health, and intellectual powers actually derive out of each other. It appears that deep inside, Sexton was well aware of it; however, while not being able to alter her own physical appearance to correspond to the ideals of feminine beauty, she decided to rationalize this ideal as socially counter-productive, in a similar manner with people who rationalize their failure to achieve financial prosperity by referring to money as such that “cannot buy happiness”.

As we have mentioned earlier, in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” Sexton actually allows us to get a glimpse of feminism as such that corresponds rather to the notion of psychological deviation than to the notion of a legitimate political philosophy. Therefore, we can only refer to it as an irony that Sexton’s poem was meant to serve as the poetic vehicle of promoting the feminist agenda. Even though in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, Sexton had proven herself as being entitled with the acute sense of poetic aesthetics, this particular poem can be referred to as anything but exceptional, due to the fact that, even though the author tried to retell the tale of Snow White from a feminist perspective, she clearly failed at making such her poetic interpretation particularly memorable. Even the poem’s name is virtually the same as the name of an original tale. It appears that, given Sexton’s neo-Liberal social attitudes, she would be much better off naming this particular poem “A Caucasian Female and Seven Vertically Challenged Males” – at least then, the poem’s originality could never become the subject of discussion.


Ayoub, Nina “Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance”. The Chronicle of Higher Education. (54) 3, (2007):13.

Cosgrove, James “Transformations: On Anne Sexton’s Cinderella and Briar Rose. 2006. Scribd. Web.

Dugan, Alan “Drunken Memories of Anne Sexton”. The American Poetry Review. (28) 3, (1999): 23.

Gill, Joanna “My Sweeney, Mr. Eliot: Anne Sexton and the Impersonal Theory of Poetry“. Journal of Modern Literature. (27)1/2, (2003): 36-56.

Sexton, Anne “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. 2004. American Poems. Web.

Weininger, Otto “Sex and Character”. [1906] 2001. The Absolute.Net. Web.

Yezzi, David “Confessional Poetry & the Artifice of Honesty”. The New Criterion. (16) 10 (1998):14-21.

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