“Glass Slipper Sonnet” by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell takes the classic tale of Cinderella and trades in the typical approach of focusing sympathy and understanding on Cinderella herself to discuss the life of one “step-sister.” That life turns out to be one that is sad and hopeless since the “step-sister” realizes she does not fit into “the slipper,” but she is so accustomed to the notion of not fitting in that she is willing to overlook the detail to reach for a royal life with “a prince.” Despite her efforts, the ill-fit of the “shoe[s]” cannot be hidden due to their impact on her “stride,” and that inability to fit into something she is not matched for is a representation of how she cannot move away from her station in life to become anything higher.
What is worse is the poem makes it clear that she has learned to feel out of place, meaning her entire life could be represented in her struggles with “the slipper[s].” She has never fit in, and nothing in her present situation allows her a way to change that. For these details, “[p]ity” is a reasonable response for her story. You can read the full poem here.
Glass Slipper Sonnet Analysis
First and Second Stanza
Often, the story of Cinderella expresses the villainy of the stepmother and stepsiblings against the kindhearted Cinderella, but the approach of this poem has a different motive. For O’Donnell’s analysis, it is the “step-sister” who deserves “[p]ity,” and while that concept might seem odd given the understood level of Cinderella’s innocence, the notion is valid if the reader follows O’Donnell’s reasoning. That reasoning is because this “step-sister” is striving to be something she is not, even though “she’ll never stuff” herself into the role she is attempting to embrace.
A general understanding of the popular story shows that Cinderella fluidly and gracefully stepped into the role of elegance and glamour, but the “step-sister” in this poem is incapable of experiencing that kind of easy transition into a more refined life.
The paradox of the “step-sister” is unveiled through the idea that her “big feet” will not fit in “the slipper,” but she attempts to force herself into it, regardless of it being as undersized as “a size-six sonnet.” This reference to a “sonnet” could be an indication from O’Donnell that the reasons to “[p]ity the poor step-sister” are so vast that they cannot be represented in a something as small as a brief poem, as if the writer is subtly letting the reader know the concepts within the poem extend far out of reach of the stanzas.
The irony, however, is that there are seven stanzas in the poem, but when paired with the notion that the “step-sister[‘s]” “big feet” will not fit into “the slipper” without being forced, this inconsistency makes sense. Just as something that is larger than “the slipper” is being forced inside the “shoe” by the “step-sister,” a seventh stanza is added to a poem that references only “six” in its context. The extra material might be the only hope O’Donnell has of fully showcasing the rationale for this “[p]ity,” just as cramming her foot into a “slipper” is the only way the “step-sister” can fit into “the slipper” that represents a higher-quality life.
The attempt to force herself into that “slipper” is an action that does not only impact “the step-sister” since “the slipper” seems to suffer from lessened quality from the attempt. Because her foot is larger than what the “shoe” is intended to hold, “the slipper seems effete” and “unworthy of the labor spent on it.” This indicates that anyone watching “the poor step-sister” in this “shoe” will not see the shimmering elegance “the slipper” is intended to bestow, which reflects a misrepresentation of all parties involved with the “step-sister[‘s]” straining to be something she is not.
Also worth noting is that thus far, O’Donnell has only referenced one “slipper,” but plural “feet,” as if the “step-sister” is willing to “try” one “slipper” on either foot, regardless of which one it was created for. This, again, shows desperation and a mismatch in structure to mirror how much the “step-sister” wants to become something she is not in order to find a better place in life.
Third and Fourth Stanza
By knowing the story of Cinderella, the reader will grasp that the “step-sister” has to “try” to fit into “the slipper” because in doing so, she can marry the “prince.” The familiarity of the tale makes it so that O’Donnell does not have to express that reasoning, and she can dive into the heart of the “step-sisters[‘s]” mindset.
Because she has to “try,” the “step-sister” “jams” a foot that does not fit into a “narrow” “shoe” until she experiences “pain.” The wording in the third stanza references the core problem of the situation—that her “toes” are “fat,” but the “throat” of “the slipper” is “narrow.” This blunt vernacular plainly states her foot will not fit because “the slipper” is not structured for her, like the sophisticated life of a royal is not a position for which she is fitted. By expressing why “the slipper” does not fit, O’Donnell is giving a representation of the regal lifestyle being something the “step-sister” will never blend into it because she is not fitted for it.
O’Donnell brings in yet another reason to feel “[p]ity [for] the poor step-sister” at the end of the fourth stanza when she addresses how forcing her foot into “the slipper” is “pain[ful]” since the “step-sister” is “no stranger” to “pain,” but rather “knows it by rote.” This indicates she has had “pain” throughout her life, and that “pain’s” comparable enough to what she experiences with “the slipper” to make her current discomfort “no stranger.”
This shows familiarity, and because it has already been revealed that this discomfort with “the slipper” is a representation of how the “step-sister” would not fit into regal life, the reader can infer that the “step-sister” has never felt as though she fits in any living situation she has experienced. In fact, she has “know[n]” that feeling of misplacement through a pattern, as is hinted in the word, “rote.” Throughout her life then, she has always felt like she has been attempting to force herself into a role she does not fit, just as she is having to force her foot into “the slipper” she is not meant to wear. With this noted concept of extended lack of belonging, the reader truly can “[p]ity” the “step-sister.”
Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Stanza
The fifth stanza veers from the understood story of Cinderella by discussing a second “shoe” when only one “slipper” was lost in the fairy tale. This concept is reasonable given that this poem is expanding on the fairy tale in general. By analyzing the “step-sister[‘s]” feelings, O’Donnell is stepping into new fairy tale territory, and this addition of a second “shoe” solidifies that concept.
Furthermore, this addition allows the known phrasing of “[t]he other show drops” to come into play, and that choice is befitting the atmosphere of the poem. The phrasing is connected to pretenses and appearances that crumble with revealed information. This concept of pretense mirrors the overall prospect of the “step-sister” attempting to behave as something she is not, but “as it is wont to do,” “[t]he other shoe” of her true identity is there to reveal that it is a façade.
“The other shoe” fits no better than the original “slipper” since her “other” foot, too, must be “squeezed into the vamp,” and this is a reference to how no part of her life has felt like a situation for which she has been compatible. This royal life she is grasping for is no better fit, essentially, than the façade existence she has already experienced throughout her life. Regardless of the ongoing alienation, though, she pushes past the discomfort in favor of “stand[ing] up straight” and walking. The vernacular indicates she is attempting to show dignity as she “takes a stride,” given the strong posture, but her steps cannot help but be cumbersome and “heavy.” In fact, she is not smoothly walking at all. Rather, she “hobbles onward” as “[t]he slipper strains” through the motions.
There is no denying that whatever grace and regality she is striving for with her “straight” posture is destroyed by “hobble[d]” footsteps that are as “heavy as a farmgirl’s” since those flaws would reveal that the “shoe[s]” are not good fits for her. She attempts to uphold the pretense, but just as she cannot pretend to be regal beyond her reach, she cannot fit her “feet” into the “shoe[s].” This shows a strong desire to climb a social ladder and finally fit in, but the hopelessness of the endeavor is an understandable reason to show this woman “[p]ity.” No “prince” will believe she is his beloved who left a “slipper” behind, yet she attempts this pretense in her desperation to fit in and better herself.
An interesting detail about these three stanzas is that O’Donnell addresses the reader in a very informal manner by saying the “step-sister” “takes a stride towards you.” This technique adds two relevant details to the situation.
One, by addressing the reader, O’Donnell brings the situation into the reader’s realm of existence, making the concept feel more familiar and relatable. If “you” are a part of the scene, “you” can better relate to and understand the details to find “[p]ity [for] the poor step-sister.” For a second detail of relevancy, this “you” mention breaks the level of formality the poem had existed in when only utilizing third-person perspective, and the shift in perspective shows a misstep that mirrors the “step-sister[‘s]” uncertain steps in those “slipper[s]”—as well as her inability to fit into a regal lifestyle. She can “try” to change her perspective and status, like the poet has with “you,” but she will always fall into pitfalls of not fitting in—such as accidentally falling into second-person perspective when the poem has used third-person.
This, then, is a representation of how much the “step-sister” does not know and how unready she is for royal life—and that inability will arise to reveal her lack of formality as solidly as a less formal “you” ruins the formality of the poem. Just as the narration momentarily becomes informal to reference the reader, the “step-sister[‘s]” lack of formality will always give her away since she fits no more into that life than her “feet” fit into “the slipper[s].”
The seventh stanza that pushes the poem from the “size-six sonnet” is also a representation of this inability to become something different than she is. In order to include an odd-numbered final stanza, the ABAB rhyme scheme that has linked every two stanzas needs to be abandoned since no eighth stanza exists to pair the accurately timed rhymes. To make up for this, O’Donnell shifts to an AA rhyme for the single stanza, and that variation exposes its misplacement. It is being forced into the poem, like the “step-sister” has forced on “the slipper[s]” and attempts to force herself into royal life.
Through perspective, metaphor, and a seventh stanza that does not fit the designated rhyme scheme and structure, O’Donnell successfully paints a verbal portrait of the “step-sister” that is capable of sparking the noted “[p]ity.” She is trapped, has always been trapped, and is incapable of being otherwise.
About Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
Angela Alaimo O’Donnell is a strong character in the literary world, and this quality is notable within her multiple volumes of published poetry as well as her work as an English teacher at Fordham University. In addition to her poetry, she has written books that include a memoir and a biography, and she has been involved with essay-writing and journalism. Though she might be a lesser known name among poets, her take on the Cinderella story alone through “Glass Slippers Sonnet” makes her name, in regard to fiction, worth knowing.