Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella”
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Through literary devices such as simile, repetition and symbolism, Anne Sexton delivers the message that there is no way to live “happily ever after.” Using four short stories as a lead in, Sexton makes powerful arguments about society by creating the symbol of the dove and alluding to the story of Cinderella. For Sexton there is no Cinderella, there is no prince charming, and there is no happy ending. However, through “Cinderella,” she argues that the “happy ever after” ending remains an illusion society chases.
Sexton initially presents examples of success stories in which people, with lives of hardship, receive everlasting happiness due to superficial commodities. Sexton creates emphasis for the multiple stories using sentence fragments such as “from toilets to riches,” (4) and repetition of “that story” to create colloquial tone. Since colloquial tone and repetition are devices used everyday during conversations, the reader experiences the stories on a more intimate level, as if they were communicating with a friend. Sexton’s first story describes a “plumber with the twelve children” (2) who transforms his life from tragedy to triumph from winning the “Irish Sweepstakes” (3). Sexton uses the stories to point out a reoccurring theme: a person cannot become instantaneously happy despite their good fortune, because real life is filled with tribulation. Similar stories of disheartened souls who change their lives from “rags to riches” are used as a lead in to the Sextons main allusion, “Cinderella.” Sexton leads into “Cinderella” by contrasting the supposed success stories to the tale of a young woman who searches for a similar fate, only to find a modicum of contentment after an ordeal.
Cinderella, the main character in the poem, is portrayed as being unfortunate, mistreated, and discouraged. Sexton creates understanding for Cinderella using similes. In the first stanza, Cinderella’s step-sisters are said to be beautiful although they still have “hearts like blackjacks” (29). Sexton constructs the simile to compare the sister’s characteristics to that of a lethal weapon, heartless and violent. Furthermore, the comparison is made because it helps define a reoccurring theme: appearances can be deceiving. Such a theme can also be applied to Cinderella. Sexton associates Cinderella’s appearance, blackened with soot, to that of Al Jolson through metaphor. Al Jolson used make-up to blacken his originally white skin. Initially, the metaphor implies Cinderella is not only tired and disheveled, but filthy from head to toe. Such a metaphor also reveals that Cinderella’s personality, which is constantly overlooked, is white beneath the surface of a black exterior. Sexton establishes additional pity for Cinderella, by having Cinderella’s father bestows gifts upon each sister, where the other sisters receive gifts fit for queens, and Cinderella merely receives a twig.
The twig, planted upon the grave of Cinderella’s mother, brings a symbol of protection and truth. A dove, which represents Cinderella’s mother and protector, sits upon the newly planted twig and grants happiness to Cinderella whenever she requests it. Initially, the dove is assigned is to pick-up the lentils, spilt by the wicked step-mother, allowing Cinderella to go to the ball. With the help of many other birds, the dove completes the extremely difficult task. Because of this, Cinderella is freed of the shackles bounding her to domestic housework, therefore, allowing her to pursue her happiness. Sexton relates Cinderella to the dove by announcing the bird’s “warm wings” (51) and gentle touch originate from the “fatherland,” (51) which represents Hitler’s tyrannical reign. Similarly, Cinderella’s kindness and love are suppressed by the cruelty of her family.
After the step-mother still does not allow Cinderella to go to the ball, Cinderella pleads to the dove, her provider of pleasure, and is answered in full. As the dove becomes more essential to the happiness of Cinderella, the dove also becomes more powerful. It is noted by the narrator that the dropping off of a dress and shoes is “rather a large package for such a simple bird” (63).
With her magnificent gown and majestic shoes in hand, Cinderella proceeds to the ball where the prince falls madly in love with her solely based on her appearance. However, the prince is unable to recognize Cinderella after she changes back to her sooty face and ragged clothes. The shallow relationship between Cinderella and the Prince reveals another fault of society: the pressure placed on superficial characteristics and the emphasis placed upon beauty is a priority set too high. When people must “gussy up” (30) to be noticed, the person within is unable to be seen.
The Prince searches for his beloved beauty using a golden shoe left by Cinderella at the ball. The shoe signifies the “happy ever after” ending that so many people in society pursue. The step-sisters, who are both “delighted because they [have] lovely feet,” (80) represent many citizens in society. Although their feet are beautiful, the step-sisters are willing to take their foot and “slice it off and put on the slipper” (83) to live the blissful ending they were hoping for. As the image of self-mutilation indicates, people across the world take extensive measures to try and obtain the happiness that they have sought after for so long.
The same happiness the step-sisters are close to stealing is ruined by the dove. Cinderella’s protector, the dove, speaks to the prince and announces his obvious mistake in choosing the wrong woman. By revealing the step-sisters as merciless frauds, to the Prince, the dove becomes defined as the revealer of truth in a story of corruption. The truth the dove relays to the Prince helps to relay a truth of society: competition for the same dream will not only turn fair intentions sour, but also cause people to use extreme measures against one another in hopes of accomplishing their goals. The two sisters are willing to ruin Cinderella’s happiness in exchange for their own.
The subtle tragedy of the sisters is created by Sexton to strengthen her argument about people in society being able to hurt one another. The first sister suffers defeat and is left with a mutilated toe: “That is the way with amputations. They don’t just heal up like a wish” (86-87). Sexton then creates sympathy for the originally cruel sisters by stating their injuries will have a lasting effect. Sexton uses the comparison between the sisters’ amputation and a wish to add emphasis to a prior theme: lasting effects occur when people in society compete for the same dream. Sexton alludes to the step-sisters to demonstrate that the injuries of those who cannot obtain the dream are often great.
Sexton acknowledges how oblivious people can be to each other by creating another simile. The reference to Cinderella’s foot fitting the shoe “like a love letter into its envelope” (94) is a contradiction. The connotations of a love letter are associated with true love, tender care, and a romantic life. These conceptions are very different from the supposed “love” the Prince and Cinderella share. Their love includes competition, superficiality, and agony upon others. Both of them become utterly unaware of the multiple people they crush in attempting to achieve their personal goals. Through the irony of Cinderella’s “perfect” relationship with the prince, Sexton displays how purposefully ignorant members of society can become in order to achieve their own happiness.
Sexton distinguishes the dove as Cinderella’s protector at Cinderella’s wedding. As the wretched step-sisters make a final attempt to steal Cinderella’s groom, the dove sees through their pretty faces to their blackened hearts and dark intentions. The symbol of the dove gains importance as the announcer of truth because it destroys the sisters’ plans as well their exterior beauty by “[pecking] their eyes out” (97).
Cinderella’s goal is achieved. After a life of hardship she is able to obtain her “happy ending” at the cost of her sister’s anguish. However, throughout the final stanza Sexton uses similes to show the reader that such a life of happiness does not exist. Instead, the Prince and Cinderella are “like two dolls in a museum case” (103), always perfect, never facing adversity, and on display for others to envy. Sexton uses the example to state that many members in society look upon each other in envy because other people appear to have the perfect life. Furthermore, Sexton supports the statement by implying the Prince and Cinderella live like “regular Bobbsey twins” (109) comparing them to children who effortlessly solve mysteries with almost overwhelming perfection.
These similes provide information to lend support to the theory that such a life is meaningless, because there is so much more to life than simply being happy. Although the dolls appear cheerful, they are not truly alive. Sexton uses parallel construction about problems in reality such as, “arguing over the timing of an egg,” (104) and “getting a middle-aged spread” (106), to state that living “happily ever after” is impossible because any real life contains hardship.
Throughout the poem Sexton alludes to the story of Cinderella, uses the symbol of the dove, and various similes to create a concrete theme about society’s deranged perspective of what happiness is. Sexton couples allusion, symbolism, and simile with colloquial tone to identify the theme as society’s inability to recognize its wrongdoings. When a society places false value upon superficial beauty, and feels the constant need to strive for the unattainable “happily ever after,” nothing but destruction ensues.