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Poetic works by William Carlos Williams are known for their unique representation of many images and relationships with few words. Some critics compare Williams’s creations to movies for their expressiveness (Miller 160). “The Young Housewife” is one of the most popular poems written by Williams. In this piece, the author depicts a seemingly brief situation: a male observer’s description of a female character. However, there is a deeper meaning behind this short observation and the nonverbal greeting of the driver who passes the woman by in his car. The imagery effects of the poem offer deep grounds for the analysis of the house’s inside, the woman’s feelings, and the passerby’s attitude toward her. The poet does not reveal any of these issues directly, but he gives numerous hints for the reader to analyze. Thus, the concept of image in “The Young Housewife” is employed as a means of representing the features not pronounced in words but implied by the author.
The General Analysis of the Poem
“The Young Housewife” is a rather short poem, containing three stanzas only. These stanzas are of different lengths: the first one has four lines, the second – five, and the third one has three. Despite the brevity of the poem, the author managed to include a whole range of feelings and emotions in it, which become evident to a keen observer. The main character of the poem, the housewife, is represented as a vulnerable creature. Such a deduction can be made from the line “her husbands’ house” – the poet emphasizes the fact that the woman does not consider that house hers or theirs (Williams 3). Age is the only characteristic the reader receives of the woman. In the title, Williams mentions that she is young, and there are no other features describing the female’s appearance throughout the poem.
It is possible to assume that the narrator can see the housewife’s body since she is wearing a “negligee” – a piece of clothing that presupposes transparency (Williams 2). However, the author does not express any thoughts on this part, so one cannot identify whether the woman is beautiful or unattractive. In the first stanza, it is mentioned that the young housewife is “behind / the wooden walls of… [the] house” (Williams 2-3). Also, the time of the day is stated: “ten a.m.” (Williams 1). Thus, it is viable to assume that the narrator knows about this woman’s routine activities and the way she looks in the morning. The narrator’s assumption proves to be true in the second stanza when the lady goes out of the building.
By comparing the woman to “a fallen leaf,” the narrator may mean two things (Williams 9). On the one hand, he may consider that the woman is detached from her husband, like a leaf that falls from the tree and does not have any connection with it any longer. On the other hand, the emphasis on the word “fallen” should be scrutinized. In connection with the fact that the young housewife is wearing transparent clothes and calls “the ice-man” and the “fish-man,” the word “fallen” may be viewed as a disapproval of the character’s demeanor (Williams 6). The process of “tucking in / stray ends of hair” supports the double nature of the stanza (Williams 7-8). It may be concluded that the lady feels either ashamed of her behavior or uncomfortable and shy in the house where she is not understood.
The third stanza is largely focused on the narrator who describes the “noiseless wheels” of his car, the “crackling sound” they make, and bowing and smiling to the woman as he passes her (Williams 10-12). In this part, it becomes evident that the man either visits the place frequently and is acquainted with the woman or that he feels self-assured and presupposes some sexual context of the situation. Thus, it is necessary to analyze the poem more thoroughly, taking into consideration the identified elements and the selected point of view of the narrator.
The Choice of the Narrator’s Point of View
The present analysis of the poem will be performed from the point of view of a speaker possessing the features of Don Draper, a character of the show Mad Men. Don Draper is known for his self-assured nature and the refusal to give credit to any of the women he has relationships with, including his wife. The man has numerous affairs, and he is not ashamed to express his opinions on females. As Renieblas remarks, Don Draper “acts as a boss” both at home and in the office (35). He hardly ever shares his plans or actions with his wife, so she is not aware of what he does during the daytime or even at night (Renieblas 35). In the office, the man’s superior treatment of ladies is reflected through his relationships with his secretaries. Therefore, Renieblas concludes, Don Draper is the personification of “male empowerment” over “female submission” (35). Taking this view as the basis for the poem’s narrator’s opinion, the analysis will be performed on the assumption that the housewife is being treated by him as an object.
The Concept of Voyeur
There are many indications of the fact that the narrator enjoys watching the young housewife’s private behavior or even gets sexual pleasure from doing so. He is sitting in his car, in safety, and he can drive away as soon as he notices anything suspicious or dangerous. The young woman, on the contrary, is vulnerable; she is as if on display, available for the narrator to observe. As Crawford remarks, Williams finds it easier to deal with the difficulty of “detailing perceptions, thoughts, and encounters while physically moving through a landscape” (180). Therefore, as the scholar concludes, Williams frequently incorporates the element of traveling by car and watching people through the windshield in his poems (Crawford 180). The poet is a part of “a human-car assemblage” with fleeting and rapid perceptions (Crawford 180).
In “The Young Housewife,” the Don Draper type of a man is observing the woman not only outside but also inside her house. The fact that the narrator knows what is happening “behind / the wooden walls” allows presuming that the man has been in the house before at the time in question (Williams 2-3). The young housewife’s detachment from her home testifies that she is disappointed or dissatisfied with her family life. Thus, Williams suggests the idea that the woman may be having an affair. The way she dresses adds to the impression since normally, a married female does not walk around in clothes that let others see her naked body from under the transparent parts of a negligee. As Driscoll notes, Williams communicates a strong sympathy toward the woman (144). However, this sympathy is complicated through the “erotic lens” through which the author encourages the reader to view the female (Driscoll 144).
Williams himself treated “The Young Housewife” as a straightforward tribute to the young lady, stating that seeing “a beautiful woman” is the reason to create poetry (qt. in Driscoll 144). However, several decades later, a cardinally different interpretation was suggested by Perloff. The critic argued that comparing the housewife to a fallen leaf represented the “fantasy of violent possession” on the part of the narrator (Perloff 847). Perloff exemplifies the mentioned fantasy by the narrator’s “rush[ing]” over the leaves (Williams 11). Thus, it appears that subjugating the leaves, them being compared to the housewife, presupposes the subjugation of the woman herself. Driscoll argues that “The Young Housewife” is the celebration of “the privilege and power of the male gaze” (145). The advantage of “effacement” enables the man to see the woman while she cannot observe him (Driscoll 145). The “god-like penetrating vision” gives the narrator the possibility to see the woman even when she is not physically visible (Driscoll 145). Thus, the author depicts the concept of voyeur by empowering the narrator to see the young housewife both inside and outside the house, along with perceiving her thoughts and feelings.
Metaphor and Metonymy in the Poem
Considering the stylistic devices employed by Williams enhances the understanding of the poem’s imagery. Driscoll views “the wooden walls of her husband’s house” as a metonymy of “the domestic limits” of the young woman’s existence (145). Indeed, the female seems to be depressed by her recent marriage and is thus inclined to seek attention from other men, be it a salesperson or a random (or even not random) driver passing by in his car. The metaphorization of the poem is reflected through a striking division between the woman and the man watching her.
The narrator operates a “mechanical” sort of power (Kinnahan 64). While the housewife remains in the house or close to it, her observer has the ability to move and view the situation from different angles. When the man “rush[es] with a cracking sound” over the leaves in the street, he metaphorically emphasizes that he has the power to conquer the woman (Williams 11). As Kinnahan remarks, this claim of mastery is the metaphor of “a form of destruction” rather than the treatment of the housewife as a “fallen” creature (65). Thus, unlike Driscoll, Kinnahan considers this part of the poem not as the issue of subjugation but rather as the possibility of subjugation whenever the man decides he feels like it.
The concept of image in William Carlos Williams’s “The Young Housewife” is employed to represent the features not pronounced in words but implied by the author. Various critics interpret the author’s images differently, but one issue is evident: Williams’s richness of expression is by no means overshadowed by the brevity of the poem. The young woman, who is the main character in the analyzed poem, is perceived as a defenseless creature who has failed to find satisfaction or happiness in her marriage. The narrator is a keen observer of the lady’s life or even a participant in it. By employing such devices as metonymy and metaphor, Williams manages to present the issue of voyeur not in an entirely negative and brutal manner but, rather, in a way which invokes sympathy and eroticism.
Crawford, T. Hugh. “Williams, Science, and the Body.” In The Cambridge Companion to William Carlos Williams, edited by Christopher John MacGowan, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 176-187. 180.
Driscoll, Kelly. “Williams and Women.” In The Cambridge Companion to William Carlos Williams, edited by Christopher John MacGowan, Cambridge University Press, 2016, pp. 143-160. 144-145.
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Kinnahan, Linda A. Poetics of the Feminine: Authority and Literary Tradition in William Carlos Williams, Mina Loy, Denise Levertov, and Kathleen Fraser. Cambridge University Press, 1994. 64.
Miller, Stephen Paul. “The Abstract Expressionist Housewife: Fracture, Transposition, Williams and the Three Phases of Modernism.” William Carlos Williams Review, vol. 32, no. 1-2, 2015, pp. 159-196.
Perloff, Marjorie. “The Man Who Loved Women: The Medical Fictions of William Carlos Williams.” The Georgia Review, vol. 34, no. 4, 1980, pp. 840-853.
Renieblas, Susana Sánchez. “Women at Home and Women in the Workplace in Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men.” Investigaciones Feministas, vol. 3, 2012, pp. 33-42.
Williams, William Carlos. “The Young Housewife.” N.d., Web.