This short and memorable poem was first published in 1945 in Gwendolyn Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville, her first collection. Throughout, she demonstrates her skill with language, conveying two entire life stories in the span of only a few stanzas. Despite using very simple language, the poem is incredibly moving. It also raises a number of questions about what a good life is and how to lead it.
Explore Sadie and Maud
‘Sadie and Maud’ by Gwendolyn Brooks tells the story of two sisters, Maud and Sadie—one who goes to college and the other who stays home and has children.
The poem begins with the speaker describing the simplest differences between Sadie and Maud. The two are sisters, but they take very different paths through life. Maud goes to college while Sadie stays home, gets pregnant, and uses her metaphorical fine-tooth comb to get the most out of life. In the end, Sadie passes away, her daughters move on with their lives, and Maud lives in Sadie’s old home, where the poet suggests that she’s unhappy, meek, and lonely.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘Sadie and Maud’ by Gwendolyn Brooks is a five-stanza poem that is divided into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. The poem follows a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The poet uses several literary devices, like repetition, anaphora, and half-rhyme, in order to create a rhythm in the piece.
Throughout this piece, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Juxtaposition: occurs when the poet contrasts two images against one another. For example, the formality and professionalism that Maud seeks in her life and the passion and liveliness Sadie persues in hers.
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Sadie stayed” in line two of the first stanza and “bore” and “babies” in line one of the third stanza.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and effective descriptions. They should inspire the reader to imagine the scene in the greatest detail as possible. For example: “Sadie scraped life / With a fine-tooth comb.”
- Enjambment: occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza.
Stanzas One and Two
Maud went to college.
Sadie stayed at home.
In all the land.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker draws an immediate distinction between the two subjects of her work. They are two young women named Maud and Sadie. The first, Maud “went to college.”
This opening line of the poem is quite short and direct. Its impact is only fully understood when readers finish all five stanzas. The poet contrast Maud’s chance to go to college with the fact that “Sadie stayed at home.” She “scraped life / With a fine-tooth comb.” This very interesting metaphor suggests that throughout Sadie’s life, she had to work very hard for what she had in order to get as much out of life as possible. But, it was not easy for her to prosper.
The speaker continues the comb metaphor to describe how Sadie did not “leave a tangle in.” She smoothes out every knot and issue in her life. The speaker describes her as one of the “livingest chits / in all the land.” She was lively, vibrant, and passionate about her life.
Stanzas Three and Four
Sadie bore two babies
Her fine-tooth comb.)
In the third stanza, the speaker describes how Sadie had two children “under her maiden name.” This euphemism describes how Sadie gave birth to two children out of wedlock prior to being married. This is something that “Maud and mama and papa” were incredibly unhappy with. It becomes clear at this moment that Sadie and Maud are sisters: it seems as though Maud looks down on her sister for the choices that she’s made in her life. Everyone except for Sadie was upset about how her life was going.
When Maud and Ma and Papa ‘Nearly died with shame,’ Brook chooses to make the next sentence about how Sally had her ‘last so-long.’ Placing two examples of death next to eachother helps to contrast the differing reasons for that death occuring. Maud, Ma and Papa are clearly upset at the life choices Sadie made. However, how Brooks describes Sadie’s death as her ‘last so long’ makes it clear her death was more of a friendly and loving farewell. It is purposeful to make this contrast in deaths, to emphasise the family’s disapproval, whilst making Sadie, and her life choices, seem more pleasant.
Sadie passed on her vibrancy and willingness to comb life with a “fine-tooth comb” to her two daughters. Sadie dies, her daughters leave home, and take with them Sadie’s “fine-tooth comb” as their inheritance. This is an unusual way to describe something being passed down from mother to child. But, as the last stanza of the poem suggests, it is far more valuable than other types of inheritance.
Maud, who went to college,
In this old house.
The poem ends with a description of Maud, who went to college and is now living “all alone / in this old house,” a reference to Sadie’s old home, now empty of love and liveliness. She’s meek and thin, like a “brown mouse.”
Brooks’ poem finishes with a clear juxtaposition between Sadie and Maud’s life choice. Sadie was a vibrant mother who had two babies, whilst Maud ‘went to college’ to then ‘living all alone / In this old house.’ This contrast enables the reader to reflect on the life choices of each of the girls, and ultimately the happiness it brought them. Sadie was happy, had children, even at the disapproval of her family, whilst Maud followed a life that made her family approve her more, at the expense of her apparent happiness. This could be seen as a signification to do what makes one happy in life, even at the disapproval of others. That, and the fact that Sadie passed her metaphorical comb down to her children, illustrates the clear legacy she has passed on, for which Maud does not have.
The main theme of this poem is sexism. Despite the different paths that these two sisters take in life, they both suffer from society’s expectations of what a woman’s life should be like. Maud seeks out education, and Sadie stays home having children. The latter has to deal with her family’s disappointment in her getting pregnant outside of wedlock, and Maud is left alone after receiving an education.
Sadie and Maud are both women who suffer from societal expectations. But, the poem implies that Sadie leads a happier life than Maud, despite the fact that everyone in her life was disappointed in her choices.
The tone is serious and, at times, informal. Brooks uses slang words like “chits” and “livingest,” giving the piece some personality and feeling that contrasts with the more serious elements.
Maud and Sadie both want to have a good life. But, Maud takes a more formal approach to her life than Sadie does. Sadie is willing to take chances and pursue happiness where she can find it. Maud, on the other hand, sets out to get an education. Sadie dies, and Maud is left alone in Sadie’s old house.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Sadie and Maud’ should also consider reading some other Gwendolyn Brooks poems. For example:
- ‘the mother’ – an emotional poem that conveys the thoughts of a woman who has had abortions and regrets them.
- ‘The Old Marrieds’ – illustrates the eroding relationship of a married couple during a bustling Chicago spring.
- ‘Primer for Blacks’ – speaks on the necessity of accepting one’s black heritage and the unified future that will result from that acceptance.