On "The Young Housewife"
The details of this poem are so unassuming that they may easily be missed. The young woman is not in a negligee, she is "in negligee." One also must do a sort of double-take to figure out how the speaker could know this if she is behind the walls of a house. Though the standard line on Williams is that he freezes moments of perception (language used to render perceptive instants), this poem, while apparently simple, utilizes a three-part temporal framework. The first stanza describes a moment when the speaker passes "solitary." Is he on his way back in the second stanza which begins "Then again . . ." or is this possibly a fantasy on his part? In relation to the only, self-consciously stated, image: what are we to make of the implicit connection between the woman as a leaf and the leaves crushed by the car's wheels? Is the woman something crushed or discarded? All of these questions, as well as the implicit motion of the speaker who is driving by in a car, tend to place the interlocking phrases and descriptions in a kind of metaphorical suspension. Underlying this suspension of what is, after all, a small drama, has to be the speaker's unstated desire for the woman. Once again, the poet's desire structures the details, progress, and interrelation of elements in the poem. from Modern Poetic Practice: Structure and Genesis. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.
The encounter between the passing doctor and the young housewife is scrupulously polite and legitimate. Yet the poem hints at potential sexual contact. We should remember that in the days when doctors made house calls it would have been no cause for public comment for Williams to drive freely about Rutherford. . . .
The poem focuses attention on various tangible barriers and containers, as if the poet were mulling over the structures that physically restrain the young housewife. The "wooden walls," for example, "of her husband's house" are the major physical barriers that hide her from the view of patrolling males, though it seems that this doctor's view has the advantage of x-ray vision, for he discerns her moving "in negligee" behind those walls. When she finally emerges, further physical limitations appear. The "curb" seems to be one barrier that marks the boundary between herself and delivery men. Another constraint is prominent by virtue of its absence: she is "uncorseted." Furthermore, the adjective beginning line 8, "stray," suggests her possible predilection for escaping orderly confines, whether in terms of hair arrangement or in terms of more serious transgressions. The poet, too, exists in a physical container--his car. More pressing than these tangible barriers, however, are the intangible taboos that keep the young housewife and a potential lover from casual consummations. The marriage vow and the doctor's professional code of ethics are the two strongest inhibitors. Yet it is a fact that they are sometimes violated, and the poem recognizes this. Williams surely knew the joke involving the cuckolding of the husband by the ice-man that ends with the punch line, "No dear, but he's coming now." Perhaps there is some slight emphasis on the notion of sexual coming when the young housewife "comes to the curb / to call the ice-man." We should also note the way in which two line breaks in the poem reinforce the poem's concern with boundaries and the possibility of crossing them. The first line break of the second stanza ends with "curb," as if to emphasize the physical nature of the line between public and private property, between the rights of deliverymen and the provenance of a marriage. The transition from line 7 to line 8 ("shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair...") relies for its effect on the reader's assumption that what the young housewife would be "tucking in" would be some loose folds of a garment--her robe perhaps. Yet the next line reveals an element of vanity on her part. She wants to look...
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