‘Cinderella‘ appeared in Sexton’s fifth volume, Transformations, in which she focused, almost entirely, on the retelling of children’s stories. Sexton is remembered, along with Sylvia Plath, for the creation of the confessional style of poetry. These poems are usually in the first person and convey the personal sentiments of the poet. Although this poem is somewhat different than the work for which Sexton is best known, careful readers can still find the dark, emotional, and feminist elements that make Sexton one of the best poets of the 20th century.
Throughout the poem, Sexton takes the story of Cinderella and changes it in order to present a narrative that is, in the end, critical of itself. The story follows the young Cinderella as she suffers at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters. A dove brings her everything she asks for though and it is eventually that dove that helps her attend the ball. There is a fairly gruesome section of the poem towards the end when the stepsisters mutilate themselves in order to try to marry the prince. Then finally, the prince finds Cinderella. Their “happily ever after” is much more disturbing that one might expect, with Sexton suggesting that this idealized ending leaves much to be desired.
You can read the full poem here.
Within ‘Cinderella,’ Sexton engages with themes of women and feminism, as well as the good/evil. These are not the only themes, but they are some of the most prominent. Women’s lives are often at the forefront of Sexton’s work, whether they are other women or herself. This poem is no different. It tells the story of Cinderella with a few twists and turns that make it even more obvious that the scenario playing out is not going to turn out well for the women involved. The “good/evil” dynamic in the poem is incredibly strong. From the start, the same balance of good and evil exists but Sexton pushes it farther, suggesting that the father and the prince have darker, more violent, and even cruel attributes.
Structure and Form
‘Cinderella’ by Anne Sexton is a ten stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. These stanzas range in length from five lines up to twenty-seven lines. As was often the case with Anne Sexton’s poetry, she chose to write this piece in free verse. This means that the poem does not make use of a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, it does not mean that the poem is entirely devoid of either. Readers will be able to find lines that contain half or even full rhymes as well as discernible sections of rhythm.
Sexton makes use of several literary devices in ‘Cinderella’. These include but are not limited to examples of alliteration, enjambment, allusions, and similes. The latter is recognizable through the use of “like” or “as” to make a comparison. For example, Sexton’s speaker describes the “two daughters” as “pretty enough / but with hearts like blackjacks”. She also says Cinderella “slept on the sooty hearth each night / and walked around looking like Al Jolson”.
The latter example also contains an allusion to Al Jolson. This is a surprising and nowadays controversial comparison that suggests Cinderella’s face is as “black” as Al Jolson’s “blackface”. Jolson is mainly remembered today as the “king of blackface”. Additionally, readers should recognize that the entire poem is one allusion to the original fairy tale by the Brother’s Grimm.
Enjambment is a formal device that is used to control the speed at which a reader moves through a poem and the use of end-punctuation. There are several good examples in this poem, as enjambment is used most frequently in free verse poetry. For instance, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza and lines thirteen and fourteen of stanza five.
Alliteration is another important literary device. It is a kind of repetition that is concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Denmark,” “Dior” and “diapers” in stanza two and “marriage market” in stanza six.
Stanzas One and Two
You always read about it:
from diapers to Dior.
In the first stanza of ‘Cinderella,’ the speaker begins by citing two of four “rags to riches” examples. These stories are common enough that the speaker can think of four on a whim. She knows the reader is probably aware of more as well. The first is about a “plumber with twelve children” and the second about a “nursemaid”. One goes form “toilets to riches” and the other from “diapers to Dior”. These changes happen on a turn of fate, some chance meeting or fantastic change of luck that alters someone’s life for, presumably, the better.
Readers should take note of the use of repetition in these lines as the poet outlines “That story” she’s so familiar with. Both stanzas end with this two-word line suggesting that there many more “that stories” to come.
Stanzas Three and Four
Or a milkman who serves the wealthy,
From mops to Bonwit Teller.
There are two more examples of these “rags to riches” stories in the next two stanzas. Here, the speaker talks about a “milkman who serves the wealthy” and a “charwoman”. The latter gets rich off of the insurance when “the bus…cracks up” and the former “goes into real estate”. The charwoman leaves her mops behind and goes shopping at “Bonwit Teller,” a luxury department store founded in 1895 in New York, now defunct.
There are numerous good examples of enjambment in these stanzas, allowing the miniature stories to come across as narratives within a larger poem. It’s quite easy to read and understand them as well. This is due to Sexton’s choice in language and her use of diction and syntax.
Lines 1- 11
the wife of a rich man was on her deathbed
and she said to her daughter Cinderella:
and walked around looking like Al Jolson.
It’s not until the fifth stanza of ‘Cinderella’ that the poet mentions the name “Cinderella”. She transitions into the story of a “the wife of a rich man…on her deathbed”. This is immediately recognizable as the start of Cinderella’s troubles. She tells her daughter that she should “Be devout. Be good” and Heaven will smile down upon her. Unfortunately, this good advice did not work out the way that the mother and Cinderella would’ve liked it too.
Her story unfolds in the next lines. The rich man remarries and two “daughters” come into the family. They’re beautiful, but their “hearts” are “like blackjacks”. This simile suggests that these young women are far from kind, lining up with what readers likely knew about the fairy tale. Cinderella turns into their maid and ends up constantly covered in soot as if she’s wearing blackface “like Al Jolson”.
Her father brought presents home from town,
jewels and gowns for the other women
The bird is important, my dears, so heed him.
The story runs on into the next lines and the father brings Cinderella a “twig of a tree”. This initially seems like a heartless gift, especially compared to the jewels and gowns that the other women received. But, the twig grew into a tree, and “a white dove” sat there. Whenever Cinderella wished for anything, the dove supplied it for her. In the Grimm version of the story, Cinderella asks fo the twig, the first to touch her father’s hat on the way home. Whether or not the father knew what would happen with the twig is up for debate, but since Sexton changed this plot point it seems like that she intended for the gift to be just as cruel as it seems.
In the final line of this stanza, the narrator addresses the readers asking everyone to pay attention to the “bird,” he is “important”.
Next came the ball, as you all know.
It was a marriage market.
The prince was looking for a wife.
All but Cinderella were preparing
That’s the way with stepmothers.
The sixth stanza of ‘Cinderella’ is not quite as long as the fifth, but it does cover a lot of ground. The diction in these lines is quite colloquial, the speaker tells the story as if everyone already knows it and she’s trying not to make a big deal about it. The ball is next, something that Sexton calls a “marriage market”. This clever metaphor is a great way of pointing out how the inherent sexism in such an event.
As readers likely know, the stepmother refuses to let Cinderella go to the ball. She tells her if she’s able to pick up an entire bowl full of lentils that “you shall go”. This seems like an impossible task, but the white dove and “all his friends” came to help her. They picked up the “lentils in a jiffy,” another example of Sexton’s choice to use colloquial diction.
Unfortunately, yet again, Cinderella’s stepmother refuses to let her attend the ball. But, what else did the reader expect? She has no clothes and “cannot dance”. Once more, the speaker acknowledges this as just the way things are.
Cinderella went to the tree at the grave
and cried forth like a gospel singer:
Mama! Mama! My turtledove,
and danced with no other the whole day.
Once more cinderella turns to the white dove for help. She directly asks, through song, that the dove help her. She calls the dove “Mama,” since the tree grew from her mother’s grave. It is important to take note of the fact that in these lines Sexton compares Cinderella to a gospel singer. This is an unexpected comparison but it is also the second time that she has brought up imagery associated primarily with Black culture (the first unfortunately being Al Jolson who imitated African American singing). Gospel is traditionally sung by African American artists and it is likely that Sexton was trying to draw a comparison between Cinderella’s oppression and the historic oppression of African Americans.
Unsurprisingly, the bird gives her what she needs, and she manages to go to the ball and dance with the prince “the whole day”. No one there recognized her, the speaker says, without her “cinder face”.
As nightfall came she thought she’d better
get home. The prince walked her home
He went to their house and the two sisters
were delighted because they had lovely feet.
Cinderella chooses to leave the ball, as she does in the version written by the Brother’s Grimm. She disappears into a pigeon house, which the prince then chose to knockdown. This is slightly different than the original, but similar enough to be recognizable. The change does make the prince seem more violent and even dangerous. On the third day of the ball, the prince manages to trap Cinderella’s shoe on his stairway, just like in the original.
The eldest went into a room to try the slipper on
But he gave it one last try.
This time Cinderella fit into the shoe
like a love letter into its envelope.
The second half of this stanza is comprised of the prince trying the slipper on the two stepsisters. The eldest’s feet were too big, but this didn’t present her with a serious problem. She chose to cut her toe off and stick it in any way. Just as the rest of the poem has been relayed, these events are described as if they are commonplace.
Both sisters tried something similar, but both were also found out due to the blood that was pouring from their feet. He “feels like a shoe salesman,” the speaker says. This humorous line in the midst of this gore is quite pleasing to come upon. But it also suggests that this male character is completely blind to the suffering women go through. Finally, Cinderella’s foot fits perfectly into the shoe.
At the wedding ceremony
like soup spoons.
The ninth stanza is only five lines long and describes the wedding and the fact that the “white dove” pecked the sister’s eyes out. The “hollow spots” were “like soup spoons”. This line presents readers with an example of a simile and the use of alliteration.
Cinderella and the prince
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
The story concludes less up-liftingly than the Disney version does. Cinderella and the prince lived together “happily ever after / like two dolls in a museum case”. They were what they were supposed to be. They wore their “pasted on” smiles and never changed, for all of eternity. In these lines, Sexton is clearly passing judgment on the idealization of fairy tales. They’re completely at odds with the real world and the “real” life that they, or at least, Cinderella could’ve had. In the second to last line, Sexton alludes to the “Bobbsey Twins,” characters from a children’s book. Their writer froze them at six and twelve years old so that they never again aged.
The line “That story” ends the poem, as it did three of the four opening stanzas. “That story” is not one that you want to take part in, she’s saying. The idealized marriage and life are not what it’s cracked up to be. It’s a warning to all readers, suggesting that they too will end up frozen unhappily in time.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also look into some of Sexton’s other best-known works. These include ‘Courage’, ‘The Truth the Dead Know’, and ‘Red Roses’. Some other very related poems are Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Mrs. Midas,’ ‘Anne Hathaway’, and ‘Havisham’. Each of these, as well as all the other poems in her collection The World’s Wife, are either retellings of classic stories or of real-life historical events. Each is tilted to focus on the overlooked woman and present a feminist narrative.