William Carlos Williams' "The Proletarian Portrait"

Updated on June 1, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Williams Carlos Williams


Introduction and Text of Poem

William Carlos Williams' "Proletarian Portrait" features a shape similar to "The Red Wheelbarrow." The poem's function is also similar to "The Red Wheelbarrow"; it makes a statement through a brief description. While the poem about the farm implement offers the simple claim regarding the importance of the tool, the portrait of the proletarian is a bit more complex, and it also has three more lines in a couplet and a single line.

The poem portrays its subject in a total of eleven lines: five couplets and a final single line. Although somewhat awkward in its presentation, the poem offers a glimpse at its subject, a young woman. Readers of this Williams poem cannot be certain that Williams took as his purpose to trigger the mystique of the Marxist class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, but that is likely to happen when readers run across such terms as "proletarian."

Williams, as a member of the "bourgeoisie," paints what he supposes would be a sympathetic response to this young woman's struggle. But is the woman too poor to buy proper shoes, or is she a bourgeois housewife who just has not bothered to replace an old pair? The colorful little drama never confirms the ambiguity for the reader.

Proletarian Portrait

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

That has been hurting her

Recitation of "The Proletarian Portrait"


Invoking the Marxist mystique of the proletarian vs. bourgeoisie struggle, Williams attempts to offer a sympathetic look at a young woman's plight. But the ambiguity of his subject confuses the issue.

First Couplet: A Woman

A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron

The speaker identifies the subject as a working woman. She is young, large, her head is uncovered, and she is wearing an apron. The apron, however, could indicate that she is a housewife, and nothing in the rest of the couplets proves otherwise.

If the use of the modifier "proletarian" in the title attaches only to the young woman, then the reader infers that the woman may be a restaurant worker. It is not impossible that the speaker, however, has observed a bourgeois housewife, standing outside of her house. In that case, the term proletarian is inaccurate.

Second Couplet: Minimal Description

Her hair slicked back standing
on the street

The young woman whom the speaker has observed standing outside in the street has her hair "slicked back." A restaurant or grocery shop worker would likely do her hair this way, but there is no reason why a middle-class housewife who does not employ maid-service would not also wear her hair this way while cleaning her house.

Third Couplet: Little Additional Information

One stockinged foot toeing
the sidewalk

The speaker then offers the additional information that the young woman is wearing stockings, and the one bare foot's toe is helping her balance, but the reader does not know why the woman's foot is "toeing / the sidewalk" until experiencing the next couplet. But again, there is no information to confirm that the young woman is actually "proletarian."

Fourth Couplet: Peering into Her Shoe

Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it

As expected, however, the woman has one shoe off. She is peering into the shoe. Again, the reader must wait to learn the purpose of this act.

Fifth Couplet: Cheap Shoe Means She Poor

She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail

The fifth couplet features the woman's action of pulling out the insole of her shoe, and it also explains why she is tearing her shoe apart: she wants to locate a nail.

Final Line: The Poor Cannot Buy Proper Footwear & Must Suffer

That has been hurting her

She wants to locate the nail because it has been digging into her foot, and that hurts.

Suspicious Stereotypes

When poets rely on stereotypes and stock responses, they expect too little of their readers, but sometimes poets ask too much of their readers. They say, in effect, "trust me, this is how it is or was."

But the reader who refuses to remain credulous or to be tricked will not immediately accept as fact what is stated, even though it is dramatized or poeticized. Williams has not proved his claim in the poem. Using a loaded word like "proletarian" has rendered him suspect, and he never convinces the reader that the image he describes is what he says it is.

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


    Submit a Comment

    No comments yet.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://owlcation.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)