Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer's finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
Adrienne Rich's poem, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" is a story of oppression and violence. However, the threat is not from the tigers in the story. As we read, we discover that they are not actual tigers, but symbolic ones.
In the first stanza, the poet conveys the image of Aunt Jennifer's vibrant colored tigers living in a rich green landscape. These tigers, to the poet, are living life with a regalness and majesty as one would expect of tigers in the wild. Aunt Jennifer is decorating the cloth, and across it "prance" the tigers of "bright topaz," unafraid of the men sewn also into the scene: they are no threat because the figures of the men are not real either. Not so the "men" in Aunt Jennifer's life.
It is the description of Aunt Jennifer's nervous ("fluttering") hands—which find it difficult to handle something as light as thread—that contradicts the beauty and peace depicted on the cloth—because beauty and peace do not exist in her home. The "weight" of her wedding ring is a source of oppression, symbolic of violence and terror.
In the final stanza of the poem, there is no doubt about Aunt Jennifer's terrible marriage and possibly other trouble with other men. The poet speaks of Aunt Jennifer's "terrified hands." This denotes fear, trembling, worry, and consternation in her unhappy life. Life circumstances and situations have ravished and defeated Aunt Jennifer. However, through some of this, and after her death, her tigers (that inhabit the panel that she made) will continue their bold and proud ways, oblivious to the hurt and turmoil of her life.
The tigers in the poem represent Jennifer’s innermost desire. Aunt Jennifer has an artistic talent. If she used it properly, she will surely become a great artist. But she has misused her ability because of cowardice. She can’t go against the established pattern in life. She is pressed by ‘the massive weight’ of household work. Instead of pleasing herself, she tries to please her dominating husband. She lives a quiet and subdued life. But the tigers she imagined are just opposite to her. They are proud, active, fearless, determined and chivalric.
Rich uses innovative forms and the techniques that are supportive to her theme. This poem is a formal and structured in a lyrical pattern. The poem consists of three stanzas, which contain four lines each. The poem is a rhyming poem and the rhyme scheme is AABB, CCDD, and EEFF. Most of the words she uses are short and simple of everyday life.
The unusual diction ‘denizens’ stands out and it shows how special the tigers are unlike how aunt Jennifer feels about herself. The word ‘chivalric’ shows that the tigers are proud and charming. The main images are of Aunt Jennifer as a fearful wife and, secondly, the magnificent tigers she creates in her panel. Images of precious substances run through the poem: topaz, ivory, and gold of ‘wedding band’. The yellow precious stone ‘topaz’ metaphorically stands for the stripes of tiger. In the poem, meek Jennifer and her confident tiger are contrasted with each other. Fear is the prime atmosphere in Jennifer’s painful life where her fingers tremble while doing needle work in her husband’s absence. The air of freedom and confidence dominates the atmosphere in her artistic creation. Use of hyperbole is noticed in the use of ‘massive weight of uncle’s wedding band’ to make a point about how dominating he is. The paradoxical situation is created in the poem when trembling and ‘mastered’ woman creates free and confident creatures in her work of art. The tone appears to be positive and cheerful when the poet describes the tiger but it becomes sad and dull at times of describing aunt Jennifer.
The narrator goes on to note that only death will still her "terrified hands," personifying the hands as representative of Jennifer herself (using synecdoche). There is a pun, or play on words, (on "ring") after the symbol of the wedding ring is introduced; for even when she is dead,
… her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
Rich’s poem, “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”, is beautifully written. It provides stunning imagery with an excellent rhyming scheme. Yet, beyond the perfect wording of her poem and the beautiful images it provides lies a dark and significant truth. Aunt Jennifer is trapped within an oppressive marriage. She is a victim whose only form of self-expression is through needlework. Aunt Jennifer creates a lovely screen depicting glorious tigers who maintain the strength and assertiveness which she lacks. The tigers are masculine, but they maintain the qualities of honorable men which Uncle lacks. “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” is a commentary on marriage, women’s oppression, and the use of art as a coping mechanism. Aunt Jennifer’s “ordeals” are a warning to women against the oppression of marriage.