Updated date:

William Carlos Williams' "The Proletarian Portrait"

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 "Proletarian Portrait"

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 as 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"

Commentary

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.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes