‘The Shadow Doll’ by Eavan Boland describes the complexities of marriage from the perspective of contemporary and Victorian brides.
In the first stanzas of the poem the speaker describes one woman, from the mid-1880s, who got married and was transformed through societal pressures into a “shadow doll”. The doll imagery is prevalent throughout the text, through references to “porcelain” skin and “bisque features”. The bride was kept under glass her whole life, unable to express herself.
In the last stanzas, the poem transforms into a first-person narrative as the speaker considers her own wedding and what it will mean for her future.
‘The Shadow Doll’ by Eavan Boland is a seven stanza poem that is separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. These tercets do not follow a specific rhyme scheme. But, that doesn’t mean the poem lacks unity. Boland makes use of a number of poetic techniques, such as alliteration, enjambment, and metaphor in order to adequately express the main themes.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, in the second line of the fourth stanza with the use and reuse of the letter “s”.
The most important metaphor of ‘The Shadow Doll’ is the comparison between a bride and a doll stuck under the glass. This is expressed very clearly in the second and third stanzas as the speaker describes the bride’s porcelain body and how she is stuck under glass, feeling airless.
Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. It 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. This technique appears in a number of stanzas in ‘The Shadow Doll’ but one example is at the end of stanza three when one has to must bridge the gap between “lusts” and “and just how” in the fourth stanza.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of The Shadow Doll
They stitched blooms from ivory tulle
to hem the oyster gleam of the veil.
They made hoops for the crinoline.
In the first stanza of ‘The Shadow Doll,’ the speaker begins by describing the creation of a bride’s wedding dress. An unknown “They” created flowers from “ivory tulle” (a soft, fine net-like material). These were attached to the “hem” of the bride’s veil which shined an “oyster” grey.
The speaker also states that “they”, who are presumably dress-makers, “made hoops for the crinoline”. Crinoline is a stiff petticoat design that was popular in the mid-1800s, it is commonly associated with the hoop skirt. From this detail, one can assume that the bride is not contemporary. This wedding is taking place sometime in the 1800s, and therefore one should be on the lookout for other indications of the time period.
Now, in summary and neatly sewn –
the shadow doll survives its occasion.
Even though it is only the second stanza, the reader is presented with a “summary” of the situation. Everything is “neatly sewn” together and the bride appears “porcelain”. The word porcelain has a few different connotations, most obviously, to fragile, Victorian-era dolls. The speaker is considering the bride, and the situation she’s in, and decides that she is just as fragile, frozen, and decorated as a carefully crafted doll.
In the second line of this stanza, the speaker also uses the word “airless” to refer to the bride’s “glamour”. She is not free, radiant, emotional or even breathing. As a doll, she is displayed in a bell jar so as not to become damaged. She’s cordoned off from the world and made separate from all that might influence her.
The “doll” makes it through “its occasion”. This is presumably the wedding and the night after. Boland makes use of the title in this line, speaking about the woman as a “shadow doll”. She is one that is kept in the shadows and is made of them as well.
Under glass, under wraps, it stays
visits, fevers, quickenings and lusts
The fact that the woman is “Under glass” is reiterated in the third stanza. She is concealed, behind a transparent surface. Therefore, she can’t get out, but everyone else can look in. She is “under wraps”, a reference to both her wedding dress, all it represents, as well as the constraints of marriage and of being a woman in Victorian (and contemporary) society.
In the first line, the speaker also refers to “it”. This is a cold and detached way of considering the bride as the “porcelain doll” who is still, after getting married, consummating that marriage and living with her new husband forced to act “discreet[ly]”. Anything that might be considered untoward, aka strong emotional responses, lust, and fevers, is kept hidden. She cannot step out of her glass case, nor express anything unbefitting to her status as a doll.
and just how, when she looked at
the bisque features, she could see herself
In the fourth stanza of ‘The Shadow Doll’, the speaker describes how the bride looked down at the “shell” coloured collection of “seed pearls”. These are small, seed-size pearls usually used in elaborate necklaces. In this case, the one she wore for her wedding. Her features, when she’s able to analyze them in the reflection, appear “bisque”. This is another reference to porcelain, a kind of clay.
Not only does the world regard her as a doll, she sees herself the same way. The third line of the fourth stanza is enjambed. This means a reader has to move to the fifth stanza in order to sufficiently resolve the thought.
inside it all, holding less than real
satin rise and fall with the vows
The speaker picks back up where she left off, describing how the bride feels when she looks into the pearls and what she sees. The bride could “see herself / inside it all”. Within the small seed pearls, everything she is is on display. Specifically, she takes note of the “less than real / stephanotis”. This is a kind of white flower which in this case, is sitting somewhere between real and artificial. The flowers are of course a metaphor for the bride herself. She is treated as “less than real” and has started to perceive herself the same way. The bride is trapped in the “satin rise and fall” by her own vows.
I kept repeating on the night before –
the coffee pots and the clocks and
There is a striking transition in the sixth stanza of ‘The Shadow Doll’ to the first-person perspective. Now, the speaker is addressing her own life, her own vows, and what she did before her wedding day. It is possible that the “I” speaking in these lines is the poet herself.
She describes how the night before she got married she “kept repeating” the vows. The scene is quite easy to imagine as Boland provides the reader with a lot of detail. She was “astray”, lost or out of place, “among the cards and wedding gifts”. From this line, one can assume that she was not entirely content before her own wedding and the reflections on the Victorian bride are an expression of her own fears.
There is an interesting contrast between the importance of marriage and all the decisions that lead up to it, and the frivolous gifts scattered around the room. She is debating her own future surrounded by “coffee pots and the clocks”. The clock stands in as a symbol for time as she looks into the past and the future.
the battered tan case full of cotton
pressing down again. And then, locks.
In the final stanza of ‘The Shadow Doll’, the modern bride takes note of the “case full of cotton / lace and tissue paper”. Inside the case, one can assume is the speaker’s own wedding dress, although that is never confirmed. The fact that the case is “battered” speaks to the difficulties associated with the decision and the trials through which she, as a bride and soon to be wife, is certain to go through.
‘The Shadow Doll’ concludes with the speaker making her decision. She presses down on the case, closing it, and then locking it. This is her way of taking a chance and setting to the side any fears she might have about the standards women have been made to conform to in the past. It is a somewhat hopeful ending but at the same time one that leaves the reader without a clear resolution. One will never know if the speaker’s marriage was similar to that of the “shadow doll” in the first stanzas or if she and her partner were able to overcome societal norms and craft a happy and equal marriage.