Literature by Women
3 December 2004
And the Clock Struck Reality: Anne Sexton's retelling of Cinderella Michelangelo, perhaps the most gifted sculptor and painter of all times, once said that "geniuses stand on the shoulders of other geniuses." As Michelangelo built upon the brilliance of his predecessors, Anne Sexton does the same with her poem "Cinderella". Fairy tales originated as oral traditions and were passed along and sculpted by thousands of story tellers. Each raconteur changes elements in the story to fit their individual needs. Sexton reinvents "Cinderella" as a poem and integrates the story with her own opinion and commentary. Sexton's version of this classic story contrasts the rosy images of human happiness conjured by fantasy with the banality, decay, and despair of everyday life. She conveys this message with a sadistic tone and modern language, while drawing upon her own hardships and American culture. Throughout her life, Anne had many personal struggles. Her childhood, though privileged in monetary terms, was also one of deprivation and abuse. Anne's mother and father both struggled with alcoholism, a struggle which, according to her biographers, influenced Sexton's substance abuses later in life. In addition to the alcoholism, Sexton also experienced other abuses by her parents; Sexton's biographers describe her mother as "neglectful" and her father as verbally abusive (Middlebrook 57). Anne Sexton attended Garland Junior College for only one year and married Alfred Sexton in 1948 at the age of 19. Their marriage was unstable and Anne Sexton was continually engaged in extra-marital affairs. A few years into union, Anne had two children, Linda and Joy, and was hospitalized for postpartum depression after the birth of both children (McCartan 2). Her depression was severe, and Sexton was suicidal for most of her adult life. On October 4, 1974, shortly after the release of Transformations, Anne could no longer stand the pressures of her existence and committed suicide (McCartan 35). This biographical information is essential to understanding Sexton's influences in writing "Cinderella" because the poem was written out of personal turmoil. The majority of Sexton's poetry is confessional style, but through her interpretation of "Cinderella", Sexton gives herself a more discrete outlet for her passions (Ostriker 255). Her biographer Diane Middlebrook notes that this poem was "a way to place her struggles in legend rather than personal history'(37)." There are two notable examples of this in "Cinderella." First, the father and step-mother are reminiscent of Sexton's own parents. In the poem the father is distant and the step mother is the cause of all of Cinderella's hardships. Anne's mother and father both struggled with alcoholism, a struggle which, according to her biographers, influenced Sexton's substance abuses later in life. Secondly, Sexton describes the way she sees herself through the stepsisters. She describes them as, "pretty enough / but with hearts like blackjacks (Sexton 11)." Sexton too, was very pretty, but her depression often made her cold, harsh, and full of turmoil (Middlebrook 91). Another part of her personal life that Sexton brings into the poem is her longing for inner piece. This is indicated at the end of the fifth stanza. The poet writes, "Whenever she wished for anything the dove / would drop it like an egg upon the ground." The majority of the poem follows the Brother's Grimm edition of the fairy tale; this section however is Sexton's own variation. Sexton implies that she wishes her personal problems could be solved as instantaneously. She goes as far as to call special attention to this concept by ending the stanza by saying, "The bird is important, my dears, so heed him" (11). In addition to adding her own personal history to the story, Sexton modernized that fairy tale with her critique of current culture. She brings the tales into current...