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Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

27 Dec 2016Literature Essays

The Use of Irony in Anne Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

Introduction

Anne Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is actually an exposition of the weaknesses of women in mid-20th century America and not your usual fairy tale, and this is perhaps the greatest irony demonstrated by the poet. Aside from the title, this literary masterpiece of Sexton is filled with ironic similes and instances of irony all throughout. It is therefore the task of this paper to prove that such use of irony is descriptive of the rather miserable state of women during the time that Sexton was writing the poem.

The Purpose of Sexton’s Irony in the Poem

Sexton’s irony in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” has but one purpose – to expose the miserable situation that women in mid-20th century America were experiencing during the time of the writing of the poem. Furthermore, various instances of such use of irony similarly portray the many different aspects of the frailty of women.

The Dumbness of the Beautiful. Another instance of the use of irony in Anne Sexton’s poem is regarding the seemingly beautiful as otherwise actually low or inferior through the mention of the contrasting qualities of Snow White. In stanza 3 where the mirror tells the Queen, “…but Snow White is fairer than you” (Sexton). Being fairer than a Queen is indeed deserves greatness which is greater than royalty itself. However, this very line is followed by a contrasting statement “…Until that moment Snow White had been no more important than a dust mouse under the bed” (Sexton).

And as if the dust mouse label is not enough, Sexton goes on to call Snow White “the dumb bunny [who] opened the door and she bit into a poison apple” (Sexton). Such use of irony by Sexton in portraying the rather dumbness of women no matter how seemingly beautiful they are is highly indicative either of how she or the society views women in America during the mid-20th century or perhaps it shows the author’s idea of the social destiny that women are supposed to fulfill in society. This dumbness is perhaps brought about by the fact that these women live rather mechanistic lives at the time the poem was written.

The Mechanistic Life of Women. Still one more instance of the uncanny use of irony in Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is the portrayal of women as living purely mechanical lives or rather lives that may have been turned mechanistic through social prejudices directed against women. In the first stanza, Snow White is described as a rather mechanical “china-blue doll [with] eyes that open and shut” and that these eyes “open to say” only good things like “Good Day Mama” (Sexton).

Sexton indeed points out in this line that although Snow White is “a lovely virgin” (Sexton) and that “[she] is fairer than [the Queen]” (Sexton), she is nothing more than a doll, which is a symbol of a lifeless toy that says only “Good Day Mama,” which may represent a line of submission to the pressures of society that women should be obedient, should say only something good and should never complain.

Sexton even ironically hints at the eternal nature of such mechanistic life by mentioning in stanza 7 that upon Snow White’s death, “its doll eye’s shut forever” (Sexton). This line simply implies that even death cannot change the machine-like roles of women. Moreover, the use of the pronoun “it” instead of her finally mechanizes and dehumanizes the feminine role of Snow White, who is actually praised at several instances in the poem where she is called “a lovely virgin” (Sexton) or someone who is “fairer than [the Queen]” (Sexton). This claims to loveliness, fairness and beauty are however the subject of another one of Sexton’s ironies. Does she really believe women are lovely and fair or is she hinting at their rather inferior physical qualities?

The Inferior Physical Qualities of Women. Another theme that Sexton’s use of irony is trying to portray in her poem is the rather inferior physical qualities of women of her time. After stating that “the virgin is a lovely number” (Sexton), the poet goes on to say that this virgin’s “cheeks [are] as fragile as cigarette paper” (Sexton). This is indeed not a compliment for the reason that regarding one’s cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper, or rolling paper, rather implies that women during the time of Sexton are prone to vices such as smoking, hence their fragile nature. Sexton is pointing out through this particular line that the seeming “fragility” of virgin women is not because of their natural loveliness as virgins but rather because of their secret vices.

Sexton also indirectly describes women’s fragile character and miserable state character as she mentions that a lovely virgin’s “arms and legs [are] made of Limoges” (Sexton). This indeed seems like a rather sensual compliment on women until one realizes what Limoges is. First of all, Limoges is a type of porcelain and porcelain may be beautiful but extremely fragile, and it is precious as antique but only until it breaks. Such is the woman of Sexton’s time. Second, Limoges is a type of porcelain which was produced from a material that was quarried by the financially-distressed workers of France and that there were no known manufacturers of it during the first time it was made. Such were the women of Sexton’s time – financially-distressed, powerless and lacking in identity. This powerlessness and lack of identity may also be the reason behind certain secret vices of women during Sexton’s time.

Sexton, through her poem, also hints at the alcoholism of women when she ironically states that a lovely virgin’s “lips [are] like Vin du Rhone” (Sexton). Vin du Rhone is literally “Wine of Rhone” and such an ironic simile may seem like another sensual description of women as wine may involve sensuality but such a description is rather an ironic portrayal of the fact that women during Sexton’s time secretly indulged themselves in alcohol.

Useless Friendships. Still, one more use of irony in Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is the author’s somewhat vague contention that friends are powerless in uplifting the role of women of her time. Although there are in fact seven dwarfs – seven as in many, these seven people cannot even revive Snow White in stanza 7. They desperately do useless acts like “undid her bodice [and] looked for a comb” [but naturally,] it did no good” (Sexton). They also do other useless things presumably from superstitions like “washed her with wine [and] rubbed her with butter” [but naturally,] it was to no avail” (Sexton).

Friends here are not only as small and powerless as exemplified by the “dwarf” image but also mentally-inferior, superstitious and utterly useless. And even in death, the seven dwarfs “could not even bring themselves to bury [Snow White]” (Sexton), which clearly implies that a woman dies helpless in the midst of helpless friends.  No wonder Sexton herself ironically labels the dwarfs as “small czars” who are nothing but “little hot dogs” (Sexton), which implies that their kingly appearances are rather deceiving in that they are actually only fit to be eaten.

Furthermore, the dwarves’ house in stanza 4 is portrayed to be as comfortable as “a honeymoon cottage…completely equipped with seven beds, seven chairs, seven forks and seven chamber pots” (Sexton). At first glance, it seems to be a place with several amenities but little does Snow White know that seven beds are intended for inpidual use by seven people. Everything in the house is therefore a sign of inpidualism and selfishness among the residents. And how can one exactly benefit from selfish friends who do not even know how to share a chamber pot? This is an instance of dramatic irony in Sexton’s poem where Snow White herself does not know what exactly is going on. This dramatic irony also tells us that such “a honeymoon cottage” (Sexton) in stanza 4 is ironically the same place where Snow White dies in stanza 7.

A Rather Vicious Circle. Perhaps one of the most obvious ironies in Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is the fact that Snow White somehow is destined to suffer the same fate as the stepmother/Queen herself. In stanza 2, it is pointed out that “the stepmother had a mirror to which she referred” (Sexton) and that this mirror somehow ironically points out her beauty to her in the words: “Queen, you are full fair, ‘tis true” (Sexton) but insults and makes her insecure by saying “but Snow White is fairer than you” (Sexton). As an instrument that rather leaves the reader feeling more insecure, this mirror is a symbol of social pressure directed against women during the time of Sexton.

The Queen has actually paid attention to the mirror’s insults and because of this, her hatred has eventually brought her to poison her but in the end, the Queen is killed in stanza 8 when she was made to wear “red-hot iron shoes” and “she danced until she was dead” (Sexton). In short, the mirror is in fact the ultimate cause of her ruin and death.

Sexton’s ultimate irony at the end of the poem is that Snow White eventually gets hold of the mirror and “sometimes [refers] to [it] as women do” (Sexton). This irony illustrates a kind of vicious circle as we now find out that Snow White will share the same fate as her wicked stepmother – the fate of the physically insecure who constantly has to listen to the mirror for compliments and criticisms.

Furthermore, another irony involves Snow White’s resurrection at the end of stanza 7, which should have been an enlightening and life-changing experience just like any typical resurrection is. However, the irony is that it is indeed life-changing but in a horribly negative way. In stanza 8, there are three instances of such negative transformation: First, Snow White somehow allows the Queen to be invited to her wedding feast but afterwards she must have turned vengeful and allows her to be killed by “red-hot iron shoes” (Sexton), depicting a rather ironically negative picture of Snow White who is earlier referred to as “a lovely virgin” (Sexton);

Second, Snow White reverts to “rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut” (Sexton), a rather mechanistic way that is thought to have disappeared upon her death; and lastly, she turns to her mirror “as women do” (Sexton). This means that she has succumbed to the same social pressure that once consumed her stepmother and she seems destined to perpetuate it.

Conclusion

Sexton’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is indeed not your usual fairy tale but rather an ironic portrayal of the destiny awaits women during the time of the author. Sexton’s poem is generously peppered with ironies that focused on the dumbness, mechanistic life, inferior physical qualities, useless friendships and a seemingly uncontrollable destructive fate of women during the mid-20th century America. Overall, Sexton’s irony in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” is a testament to the fact that during that particular period in history, women lived a confusing double life of imagined strength and dominion but actual weakness and submission.

Works Cited

  • Sexton, Anne. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” 29 June 2008. Universiteit Utrecht. 20 Apr 2010. <http://www.phil.uu.nl/staff/rob/texts/HumeStandard.shtml>
  • Sexton, Anne. “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The Continental Aesthetics Reader. Ed. Clive Cazeaux. New York:  Routledge, 2000.  Print.

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