“Conte” by Marilyn Hacker
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In “Conte” by Marilyn Hacker, Cinderella shows the reader a glimpse of her life after the childhood tale ends, a less happier ending than the original story implies. She feels trapped in a constant state of misery and boredom in the royal palace. Without life experience guiding her, Cinderella is in a dilemma caused by her ignorance of the potential consequences of her actions. With the use of irony, structure, and diction, “Conte” shows how innocence and naïveté result in regrettable mistakes that create life experience.
The poem deviates from the basic fairy tale through the use of ironic predicaments. Cinderella makes a bold statement from the beginning: “First of all, I’m bored” (1). She misses her old life of feeling useful through cleaning. As a princess, she sits around all day listening to complaints and sewing. The mistress tells her problems to Cinderella. Cinderella agrees that the mistress is being mistreated, even though Cinderella herself was mistreated. Mistreatment should not be a major dilemma in a fairy tale. Cinderella also writes, “The plumbing is appalling” (12). A palace with crumby plumbing is the last thing expected in a fairy tale palace.
The prince is also causing conflict. Cinderella writes, “he is forever brooding on lost choices he might have made; before / three days had passed. I’d heard, midnight to dawn, / about the solitary life he craved” (13-16). The prince wanted to find a bride, yet he regrets the decisions he made. From midnight to dawn, Cinderella listens to him crave for his single life back. Like midnight in the original tale, the happily ever after ends and the real world begins as the prince shows his true self through his thoughts after midnight. The state of affairs in the palace show the mundane life that Cinderella experiences everyday. The irony within the poem refutes the perfect fairy tale and reveals Cinderella’s mistake of believing in a happily ever after with the prince.
The structure of “Conte” shows the desperation of Cinderella’s situation caused by her mistakes. The poem is in free verse with no meter and consists of twenty-eight lines in one big stanza. The poem has all the elements of a letter with the most conclusive evidence being at the end of the poem: “Yours, C” (28). A letter is a personal form of writing and gives the reader an inside perspective into Cinderella’s palace life. Most of the sentences are declarative sentences, making the exceptions more obvious in the poem. One of the exceptions is found on lines 17 and 18, where the sentence ends in an exclamation point: “Why not throw it all up, live on the coast / and fish, no, no, impossible with wives!” The exclamation point emphasizes the idea that she feels trapped in her situation as a wife. She wants to find a way out of her misery. On lines 20 and 21 there is a question mark on each line: “or cut my hair, teach (what?) little girls / and live at home with you?”
Cinderella reiterates that her options are limited because of her minimal experience in the world. “Conte” uses a couple parentheses within mid-sentence. Cinderella uses the parentheses to convey deeper explanation of her thoughts. For example, Cinderella writes, “Ladies / ignore me, or tell me all their petty secrets / (petty because they can’t attend meetings) / about this man or that” (4-7). She does not censor her meaning of petty. Her true feelings show in the letter and validate the rough situation that Cinderella is stuck in. At the end, Cinderella asks her stepsisters if she can call them sisters. It is a last effort to create a relationship with anyone, even with her evil stepsisters. The format reveals the depressing state of Cinderella’s situation, and how, in her despair, she learns about the real world.
The diction gives a dark tone to the poem, creating a sense of Cinderella’s feelings in her new life. Cinderella sees the secrets as “petty” and she made “tedium” her virtue (5, 6, 25). This wording reveals boredom that is the center of Cinderella’s palace life. She makes her living on sewing and listening to people complain to her. The mistress “whined about the way she was mistreated” (10). Whine is not a refine action. Also, “appalling” is not what someone wants to hear about the plumbing anywhere (12). The prince “is forever brooding” (13), which is not a good sign for Cinderella’s marriage. Cinderella later reveals in her letter that she “despised” her stepsisters and has “scorn” their lifestyle (22, 24). A protagonist should not be revealing these harsh feelings about others to the reader, since protagonist are typically the good character. The poem italicizes certain words: “they,” “you,” and “not” (6, 8, 22, 17, 19). The stress on the pronouns shows the reader the smug undertone directed towards the people the pronouns have replaced. This stress gives the effect that she is complaining to the reader about her problems. The use of the italicized “not” emphasizes her inability to leave her life and move on to a better life (17, 19). The poem’s negative diction gives insight into Cinderella’s perspective as a princess, and how, as she gained experience, her feelings have become more evident.
“Conte” shows that one needs to learn from inevitable failures in life in order to grow as a person. People can be easily tricked into believing something is better and find out the hard way it is not. The method of gaining knowledge from errors is what connects the world as human beings. Cinderella receives more humanistic qualities in the fairy tale poem, which gives the reader a better way to connect with Cinderella. This new type of fairy tale substitutes perfection for humanity. The happily ever after becomes obsolete, and a new concept appears that creates a stronger connection between the fairy tale and the real world.
Hacker, Marilyn. “Conte.” Literature: The Human Experience. Ed. Richard Abrcarian, Marvin Klotz, and Samuel Cohen. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 212-213. Print.