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The Transformation of Anne Sexton: The Grimm Complex

Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton

Plunging Into the Grimm Poetry of Sexton

There's no question that Anne Sexton was one of the most disturbed poets of her time; with her sexual sadistic ways, she pulls you into her 'fairy-tales' and forces you to read. It's her Plath way of letting you in her mind without you connecting the dots. Sexton's poetry is raw and real, which makes her a unique confessional poet.

She was the best because she spoke my language and not in tongues. When first attacking her transformations of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, I took them as sarcastic spins on the happily ever afters. But I was naïve; I took them as re-tellings instead of poetry.

In her versions, Sexton uses some of the fairy tales to re-tell her own life experiences. While in others, she is merely mocking the 'beautiful' ones and how they fabricate the truth to keep everything looking neat and clean when underneath, it's far from perfect. Of her re-tells, I will look at the following four:

  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
  2. Cinderella
  3. Rapunzel
  4. Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)

1. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"

"Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" is definitely one that mocks. The opening of the poem is one of creativity. In it, she describes the virgin Snow White oddly as being "unsoiled." It's like she's saying women who have had sex are tainted and dirty; they're soiled. This could contribute to how Sexton was treated by her father, but there isn't enough intel to be certain.

Sexton continues to paint Snow White as a fragile figure with "cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper" and "arms and legs made of Limoges." Sexton's view of the virgin is weak and naïve, as they should be, but she is harsh. She paints them to be dumb-founded and have a permanent blonde complex. Now her next image comes off as sexual and damn near shocking: "shut for the thrust / of the unicorn." Here, it seems Sexton is using a mythical creature only a child would believe in to describe a sexual encounter. I believe this is to enforce just how naïve Snow White truly is; a bit over the top, but necessary.

Another creative executive decision Sexton made was the wicked queen's description. She helps bring the queen to life and shows how her vanity and envy consume her and "pump in her like poison." The Grimm version briefly mentions her as envious, when really she is enraged because of fear that Snow White would become more desirable. They didn't fully show how pissed the wicked queen really was, and I believe Sexton was able to see this because not only is she a woman, but also a woman scorned.

Another image of the queen brought to life was when the hunter brought back the heart. I think Sexton gets animated with the scene and is rather funny. When the queen finishes consuming the heart, she says, "Now I am fairest," and then begins "lapping her slim white fingers." She reminds me of the fat uncle on thanksgiving, consuming the whole turkey and savoring every last drop, even the juice on his fingertips.

The woodland scene is another awesome animated scene. Sexton's description of the horrifying trip to the Seven Dwarfs is one that brings the fairy-tale to life:

At each turn there were 20 doorways
at each a hungry wolf
birds called out lewally
snakes hung down in loops
each a noose for her sweet white neck.

It's almost as if Sexton wants her to die, or perhaps she's just intensifying the scene for dramatic purposes to make the reader feel the fear.

One description of Snow White that tickled me was when Sexton referred to her as a "dumb bunny." It's true; she did fall for the unoriginal plots of the queen three times. She had to be an idiot, but the absolute best description was how Sexton showed Snow White to be like every other woman:

Snow White held court,
rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut
and sometimes referring to her mirror
as women do.

Sexton brings the poem to women everywhere and humanizes them at any time and place. She was displaying them all to be vain, envious, and full of pride. It's an interesting twist on what lengths some women will take to be on top and to be the most beautiful. It proves that women are devious snakes ready to strike, just like the queen.

Interview With Anne Sexton

2. "Cinderella"

"Cinderella" is another mock of how people believe fabricated stories of the happily ever after. Sexton, I think, can't grasp the idea of a perfect fairy-tale because her upbringing was so harsh and depressing. So she mocks the superficial fabricated idea of the happily ever after because, in her world, that's not real.

In this poem, Sexton channels her inner Grimm and goes to a dark and bloody place, describing a less-than-perfect fairy-tale. Instead, she leans more on the pain of death and neglect. Sexton's poem rings true of the Brothers Grimm tale and does an excellent job of bringing it to the world of poetry. In her poem, with the death of Cinderella's mother, she gets pushed aside and neglected. It seems as if her father never really loved her at all, or a new woman creates problems, so he ignores his daughter from his first marriage and focuses on his stepchildren:

The man took another wife who had
two daughters, pretty enough
but with hearts like blackjacks.
Cinderella was their maid.

Here we see the father is still alive and well, unlike the Disney version where Cinderella is his world, and when he dies, the stepmother treats her badly and forces her into servitude. So why force his own flesh and blood into servitude and hold women who are only related by marriage in higher regard?

Another part further down that proves this father is rejecting his daughter is when we read what he brings back from town for Cinderella: "Her father brought presents home from town, / jewels and gowns for the other women / but the twig of a tree for Cinderella." Perhaps Sexton kept the father alive because it played better to her story; maybe her father treated her like Cinderella's treated her.

Now onto the mocking portion. In the beginning of her poem, the reader gets a clear sense of a mocking tone when Sexton is describing various rags-to-riches stories. Then at the end of her fairy-tale Sexton describes Cinderella's from rags to riches story, and it seems to me very sarcastic:

Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case
never bothered by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
That story.

Sexton is mocking this idea of "happily ever after" and that no one truly lives happily ever after. This image she paints of Cinderella and the prince is one only made up in fairy-tales and Sexton uses this to illustrate how superficial fairy-tales really are. They only tell of the happy times and the times of romance, never the struggles of a real relationship and what it takes to make it work.

3. "Rapunzel"

"Rapunzel" is the most interesting transformation of the bunch. One thing that jumps out to the reader is the lesbian hints between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. Sexton opens the poem with an odd beginning; before the fairy-tale even begins the reader gets an uneasy sense that the older woman is being sexual with a younger girl; with lines like, "The mentor / and the student / feed off each other", "lie on the couch / and touch and touch", and "old breast against young breast", how can you push aside the idea of sex?

The beginning reminds me of the poem Sexton wrote for her daughter "Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman". In that poem there are hidden signs of a mother abusing her daughter sexually. Perhaps "Rapunzel" isn't just about the fairy-tale, but maybe Sexton had fantasies about her own daughter.

In "Rapunzel", Sexton seems to pay close attention to the words and phrases she uses. For example, in the 2nd stanza, she writes: "Let your dress fall down your shoulder / come touch a copy of you". Here I picture an older woman standing naked in front of a younger girl, asking her to remove her clothes and to touch another woman.

Then further in the opening this older woman asks for things: to be held, but the way lovers hold one another. She also asks for the young girls skin, so that she can "open it up and listen in and scoop out the dark". Then she asks for her lips and in return she will give angel fire". This scene just seems so sensual and sexual, the language is too beautiful not to be interpreting sex. Another interesting point is the word lips, in the poem Sexton writes, "give me your nether lips" referring to the young girls vagina.

Finally Sexton tackles the fairy-tale. Now in her re-write there isn't any real notion of woman on girl action. There was some relationship, but it wasn't clear as to what it was. The only hint at sexual abuse of a mother-daughter relationship is with the mention of Rapunzel and other Gothel playing "mother-me-do" this sort of game is also mentioned in the beginning of the poem before the fairy-tale begins.

One could assume a mother-daughter relationship by the reaction to finding the Prince coming to see Rapunzel without Mother Gothel knowing. She punishes Rapunzel, much like a mother would if her daughter was sneaking around with a boy. Now once I discovered that Sexton had an odd relationship with an Aunt, cuddling for an hour in the afternoon and other hints of sexual abuse, Rapunzel became Anne. Just like Anne, Rapunzel grew more interested in the male species and dumped or planned to dump Mother Gothel. Anne did the same to her Aunt.

4. "Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)"

Another transformation poem that describes some point in Anne's life is "Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)". The actual fairy-tale within the poem pretty much sticks to the Grimm version. The only difference is in the opening and ending which makes the reader look at the poem differently.

The opening hints at a father taking things too far with his daughter:

Little doll child,
come here to Papa.
Sit on my knee.
I have kisses for the back of your neck.
A penny for your thoughts, Princess.
I will hunt them like an emerald.
Come be my snooky
and I will give you a root.

That is an act a lover gives, not a father, and the image of giving a root seems to be an image of a father giving her something much different. But that's speculation and not enough to holler child molester, so let's travel to the ending.

The ending suggests being sexually abused during Briar Roses' unusually long slumber. Sexton writes:

That's another kind of prison.
It's not the prince at all,
but my father
drunkenly bent over my bed,
circling the abyss like a shark,
my father thick upon me
like some sleeping jellyfish.

It's almost as if this fairy-tale is a way of dealing with the sexual abuse Sexton succumbed to. It could have been a way of blocking out the emotional effect the abuse had on her. Making this haunting nightmare into a fairy-tale makes it fake, as if it never happened.

No One Lives Happily Ever After

In only a few transformations we can see Sexton actually becoming the character within in order to deal with the nightmares of her life. In "Rapunzel" she was both Mother Gothel and Rapunzel. Going back to her past history with her Aunt, she is Rapunzel, but then becomes Mother Gothel in the relationship with her own daughter.

In "Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty)", she uses this character to open up about the sexual abuse from her father, but in most of the poems in her book, she was just mocking society and the idea of the happily ever after.

Sexton mocks characters like Cinderella and Snow White because they are weak and choose to be seen and not heard. She uses this to mock the women of her society and even the women of today. She refers to Snow White as a "dumb bunny", being too naïve to notice the wicked Queen's many plots to kill her. Then she mocks Cinderella's happily ever after as a false love by showing the lovers as being put on display in a museum. In Sexton's mind, no one lives happily ever after.


Andrew Spacey from Sheffield, UK on September 05, 2015:

I enjoyed your take on Anne Sexton's fairy-tales, often dark and disturbing work that undoubtedly contain autobiographical elements, taboo still for some modern readers. I like to think that poetry is big and strong enough to take anyone's confessions and help transmute them.

Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on December 09, 2014:

Nice pun in the title, Brittany. Another great reworking of a familiar story to reflect the author's life is Elizabeth Bishop's "Crusoe in England."

Brittany Kussman (author) from St. Louis, MO on April 08, 2014:

Thank you for your read and I'm glad you enjoy reading my hubs. I too have been a student of literature and decided to use that to create interesting hubs about some of my favorite writers and Plath an Sexton are 2 of my favorites. The way they see the world is very raw and real, and I enjoy that.

Cherylann Mollan from India on April 08, 2014:

First of all, I must say I'm very intrigued by your hubs. Having been a student of literature, there's so much I can relate to here. :) This hub too is very interesting. I've always liked Plath's poetry, now I must read Sexton's! It's only in the works of some writers that you get to see the world outside rose-tinted frames, and I absolutely love these artists!