Explain the imagery and symbols the Adrienne Rich uses in the poem "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers".


I think the main symbols in the poem are the tigers and Aunt Jennifer's ring. The tigers are symbolic of Aunt Jennifer's creative spirit, her independence, or maybe just her existence as a separate person. The Tigers are beautiful and powerful. Her ring is symbolic of her marriage; it is like a shackle or a heavy burden, and it is a weight makes knitting the tigers difficult. Even after death, she will still be "ringed with ordeals," or still be wearing the ring that symbolizes the troubles that defined her marriage.

The poem is filled with imagery that supports or enhances these symbolic meanings. The tigers themselves, "Bright topaz denizens of a world of green," stand out as gem-like flashes of yellow in a dull green world: we can picture in our mind the contrast of yellow or gold with green—these tigers are vivid creatures who exude a "sleek chivalric certainty." The use of the world "chivalric" is a little surprising here, suggesting as it does a certain relationship between the tigers (knights?) and Aunt Jennifer (their creator/Queen, or the object of their "chivalric" protection, a "damsel in distress"). Perhaps Jennifer is knitting her own protection?

In the second stanza, we have an image of Jennifer at work, "finger fluttering through her wool / Find even the ivory needle hard to pull." The image is one of Jennifer as a skilled craftsperson who nevertheless is constrained by the "heavy burden" of her wedding ring, which makes it difficult for her fingers to move quickly enough to do her work. This sets the "ring," and the marriage it represents, up against the work needed to bring the tigers, Jennifer's self/protector, into being.

In the final stanza we have an image of Aunt Jennifer dead. Even in her coffin, Aunt Jennifer's "terrified hands will lie / Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by." Here, the use of the word "terrified" is somewhat surprising, in that what causes the terror is not clear. It could be Uncle, whose domination the ring symbolizes; however, there is also a sense that the hands could be terrified of what they have created—the tigers. Either way, the tigers "Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid." Her creation will outlive her.

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