In this moving and deeply evocative poem, Rich engages with themes of relationships/love, reality/dreams, as well as the home. Each of these things is spoken about through images that contrast the woman’s exceptions with the reality of her situation. There is still hope for love and a fulfillment of those dreams at night, but each more brings back the daily cycle of unhappiness.
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Summary of Living in Sin
Throughout the poem the poet collects a series of images from her female main character’s life. She brings them together in order to describe the mundanity of her world, one which was supposed to be filled with romance and happiness. There are several important examples of symbolism in the text, things that repeat and come to represent a cycle that the woman is unable to get out of.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Living in Sin
‘Living in Sin’ by Adrienne Rich is a twenty-six line poem that is contained thin a single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, a technique known as free verse. but, there are some similarities between the lines. Most of them, but not all, have ten syllables and there are examples of half-rhyme in many of the lines. There are several shorter lines, such as line seven, which are used as transitional points between one section of the poem and the next.
Literary Devices in Living in Sin
Rich makes use of several literary devices in ‘Living in Sin’. These include but are not limited to simile, enjambment, and imagery. The latter is one of the most important techniques at work in ‘Living in Sin’. Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. Within the poem, the poet depicts the woman’s state of mind through images that tap into all human senses. She is suffering in mind as spirit while surrounded by a life that reflects her state of mind.
A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. There is a good example at the end of the poem: “she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming / like a relentless milkman up the stairs.” This simile represents the coming of reality and the loss of the emotional connection she feels with her partner. The symbol of the milkman reminds her that things are not as they were supposed to be. Her life is not filled with romantic joy and everyday happinesses.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines five and six as well as that between line seven and eight.
Analysis of Living in Sin
She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
had risen at his urging.
In the first seven lines of ‘Living in Sin,’ the speaker describes a young woman in a studio apartment. There, she looks at the bits and pieces of her home. Its fairly dilapidated, not at all like she imagined, in her most romantic moments, her home would look like. A reader should also take note of the title “living in sin” and what it means for the narrative. The woman and her partner are unmarried, living as many religions would say, “in sin”.
Nothing is going quite as she expected it to. The love affair the two are having was supposed to be filled with lovely things like “A plate of pears” and “a cat / stalking” a mouse. Everything was meant to be “picturesque”. The studio itself is a symbol, in a larger metaphor, for the relationship that she’s engaged in. Just as it isn’t living up to her expectations, neither is her partner.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
envoy from some village in the moldings . . .
In the next lines of ‘Living in Sin,’ the speaker describes the movement of the milkman as he struggles upstairs. There is a good example pf personification in these lines as the poet describes the stairs as “writh[ing]” under the weight of the man’s steps. They too are in need of repair. He is not so much a part of the woman’s story as he is a way of representing its mundanity. He is going about his life as he would any day in a world that was supposed to be alive with pleasure and romance. The cheese and bottles are not beautiful, nor were they part of a memorable evening. They sit out, dismally and dejectedly.
There are also insects in the apartment. There is a “pair of beetle-eyes” that watch her and come out from the “moldings”. She describes, vaguely a whole other world whiten her own where the beetle and its companions live. This is an example of synecdoche, or one thing, the beetle’s eyes, representing a larger whole, the entire beetle community. It watches her, perhaps judging her, seeing how her life is falling apart.
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
The man she’s living with is in a similar state to her own. He is bored with it all, yawning while playing the piano. This is the second time that a piano has been mentioned in these lines, taking a reader back to the woman’s initial fantasy about her life. It is “out of tune,” a very clear way of reemphasizing how unfortunately everything has turned out. Her partner does not seem to really be trying to improve things or engage with her. He moves halfheartedly through life and then evening goes out to buy cigarettes. It’s very dull and mundane sounding and feeling.
She is left at home to deal with the house. The woman is “jeered at by the minor demons” of her life. She hates the world she sees around her and is deeply bothered by it. It haunts her as a demon would. But, she tries to improve things by cleaning.
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.
But, unfortunately, things are not easily fixed in ‘Living in Sin.’ When she tries to clean one area she ends up dirtying another. It is a terrible cycle from which there seems to be no escape. The cycle continues as she falls in and out of love, the night bringing with it a resumption of her feelings and then an exhaustion of them. The milkman appears in the last lines again. He is very clearly a symbol of the reality of her world. When she sees and/or hears him moving up the stairs she is reminded how little her life is matching up to her dreams.