Poetry Explication Essay of "How Cruel is the Story of Eve" by Stevie Smith
Many of us are familiar with the Biblical story of Eve; however, few of realize how far it has permeated society since it was first told. In her poem, “How Cruel is the Story of Eve,” Stevie Smith reveals how this story of Eve has served to justify gender inequalities and the subordination of women throughout the centuries. She explains how women have suffered because of their desire to have children: physically through the pain of childbirth and emotionally by their dependence on and consequently subservient position to men. All of this is made possible by Mother Nature who is so powerful a force that she makes them come together and love each other even though it will cause them suffering.
Complete Text of "How Cruel is the Story of Eve"
Theme of Female Submission and Male Domination
The major theme of this poem is how female submission and male domination have grown and evolved over the course of history, perpetuated by society and tradition. The struggle to overcome culturally-prescribed female inferiority is something that women all over the world grapple with, especially in patriarchal cultures. Smith’s choice to use the Judeo-Christian and Muslim story of Eve is deliberate because of its familiarity in Western Society, as well as other areas of the world where Judaism, Christianity, or Islam have a presence; thus facilitating her message by making it easy for the reader to relate to.
Role of Repetition
Throughout the poem the chorus, which appears as the first stanza: “How cruel is the story of Eve/What responsibility/It has in history/for cruelty.” is repeated, thus establishing a rhythm that intensifies over the course of the poem. This introductory stanza acts as Smith’s thesis, because she uses the rest of the poem to explain how the story of Eve acts as the source of female suffering in history. Each time she repeats this chorus, she alters it slightly and uses it to expand her thesis and elaborate her point further in the proceeding stanzas.
Suffering for Children
She uses the example of how women have to suffer the pain of childbirth because of Eve (Genesis 3:16), in the second stanza. Smith understands women’s desire to have children and says that it is not blameworthy; however, she warns that such feelings are hazardous because they put women at risk of getting hurt emotionally. Her anger and abhorrence at this situation is evident, especially in the last line of the stanza, compacted into one word: “Abominable.”
Smith changes her tone in the third stanza when she tags on the topic of misery to the end of the chorus. This theme of misery is expanded on in the fourth stanza as she resignedly describes how a woman needs a man to have a child, and that in order to do so the woman has to “barter” herself to a man in order to get a husband who will then control her. The “tender feelings” she is selling (13), are her aspirations to have children. Regardless of what she chooses: living under the iron fist of her husband or alone and childless; she suffers (35).
Role of Men: The "Burden" of Domination
Unexpectedly, in the fifth stanza, the focus is shifted to the “injustice” men have to suffer. Smith sympathizes with men as she observes how they are forced to rule over women even though they are not capable of it: “How can he carry it, the governance,/And not suffer for it/Insuffisance?” (21-23). She argues that both men and women are subjected to roles that neither one of them wants, and that the men’s burden of dominating women is just as difficult and heavy to carry as that of women’s wretched obedience to them.
The topic of men’s jurisdiction is carried over into the sixth stanza, as Smith explains how men are only able to rule over women by oppressing them: “He must make woman lower then/So he can be higher then,” (24-25). She emphasizes the injustice of this system and the despair of women by repeating the chorus at the end of the stanza.
In the seventh stanza Smith illustrates how women agree to this subordination by hiding their intelligence, “Soon woman grows cunning/Masks her wisdom,” (28-29), and by acting docile, so that their husbands can feel proud and important. Women know that if they challenge their husbands’ authority and refuse to play the part of the ideal submissive wife, then their husbands will leave them and they will be ruined.
Impact of the Story of Eve and Perpetuated Misery
The chorus is repeated in the eighth stanza, with another line added on at the end about falsity, which is elaborated on in the ninth stanza. Smith believes that the legend of the story of Eve was created as a rationalization for women’s suffering, justifying their widespread punishment. She argues this by asking the question: “But what/ Is the meaning of the legend/If not/To Give blame to women most/And most punishment?” (40-44). According to Smith, the legend has been used as propaganda against women; placing the blame for the world’s misfortunes on them.
She explores the impact of the story further in the tenth stanza. She explains the peculiar nature of stories and how they can have a special effect on people’s perception of the world: “This is the meaning of a legend that colors/All human thought;” (45-46). Smith notes how this particularity is absent in the rest of the animal kingdom (46). This unique feature of human thinking only serves to support Smith’s argument that stories and legends can have a significant influence over our seemingly rational minds, even though we might refuse to believe it is so.
The eleventh stanza is an exact repetition of the first stanza except that the last word “cruelty” has been replaced with “misery,” which reinforces the theme of anguish and hopelessness that women experience throughout the poem. This is significant because it is the last time this stanza is repeated in the poem, thus bringing Smith’s discussion of women’s suffering towards its closing. This is the final time that she mentions cruelty and misery in the poem.
The theme of suffering and misery is dominant throughout the poem and discussed in various ways in every stanza. Smith is consistent in her argument and provides an egalitarian debate by showing that not only women, but men too, suffer as a result of this peculiar institution. However, she takes an unexpected turn when she places responsibility on Nature for simultaneously blessing and cursing humanity with the ability to love, and thus causing both men and women to suffer. Her exploration of the power inequality between men and women in history provides insight into how the situation was created and sustained over centuries: as an innate tendency from Nature and as a product of human imagination.
Author's Note, Disclosure, and Copyright Notice
This explication was originally written for my Women in Literature class, but never published anywhere. It has been posted on this site by me to be used as an informative guide for those seeking insight and understanding about this poem. No part of this may be reproduced, used, published or disseminated elsewhere, including for uses such as essays/papers in an academic setting without explicit written permission from the author and a formal citation referencing this specific work and giving credit to Anna-Marie Brodech from Loyola University Chicago as the sole original author and creator of this document, acknowledging her proprietary ownership of this work. Failure to do so will be considered as plagiarism and infringement of intellectual property. Requests for permission, question, and all other inquiries may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2013 Anya Brodech