‘Gretel in Darkness’ was first published in The House on Marshland, Glück’s 1975 collection. It uses the traditional story of “Hansel and Gretel” to explore loss, grief, fear, and trauma. In this particular poem, the poet depicts Gretel’s horror at the memories of the witch she murdered to save her brother.
Explore Gretel in Darkness
In the first lines of ‘Gretel in Darkness,’ the speaker Gretel, begins by describing how despite the fact that some time has passed, she can still hear the witch she killed screaming. Her death is haunting the young speaker. She wonders why she can’t forget what happened to her since she’s living a happy and safe life in her home with her brother and father. She should feel safe there, but she doesn’t. It feels like no one remembers what happened to the witch and Hansel, except for her. The speaker feels incredibly alone in this trauma she’s experienced, and there is no one there to comfort her or who is willing to accept that she’s suffering.
Throughout this poem, the poet engages with themes of repression, misogyny, and memories. Through Hansel and Gretel’s story, Glück tells a broader story about how women are “protected” from life. The men in her life are unwilling to acknowledge or remember what she did. Rather than addressing it, they lock the doors and ignore any of her obvious pleas for help. In their efforts to protect her, they’re really harming her.
Structure and Form
‘Gretel in Darkness’ by Louise Glück is a four stanza poem that is divided into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets are written in free verse. This means that the poet chose not to use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern to unify them. Without a meter, Gretel’s sorrow is easier to pin down and feel. Her thoughts are chaotic and unpredictable, just like the text. Despite the fact that there isn’t a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, there are a few instances in which Glück puts emphasis on particular words. For example, “real, real” at the end of line twenty-three.
Glück makes use of several literary devices in ‘Gretel in Darkness.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Allusion: throughout this piece, the poet alludes to the traditional story of Hansel and Gretel. She uses the latter as her speaker and explores the aftermath of the witch’s death.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet uses the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “word” and “wanted” in line one of the first stanza and “forest” and “fire” in the very last line of the poem.
- Enjambment: it occurs when the poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point. It’s particularly effective in this poem. Gretel’s thoughts are fractured, and her fear comes through in the way that lines are cut off. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza two and lines three and four of stanza four.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
This is the world we wanted.
All who would have seen us dead
Her tongue shrivels into gas . . .
In the first lines of ‘Gretel in Darkness,’ the poet begins by having her speaker describe the world as it is. It is “the word we wanted,” she says. This should set the poem up to be a happy one. Things are as they should be. But that’s not the case. She may have saved her brother’s life, but her mind and heart are still not right. Even though she’s at home and safe, she can still hear the “witch’s cry / break in the moonlight.” There’s nothing that can keep the sound from Gretel’s ears.
In the fourth line, she alludes to the nature of the witch’s candy home and then later, the fact that she burnt the witch alive in order to save her brother, Hansel. By depicting Gretel as a real person with real feelings of fear and guilt, Glück gives her a real identity and makes the story come alive. Killing the witch has resulted in Gretel experiencing what seems to be symptoms of PTSD.
Now, far from women’s arms
and memory of women, in our father’s hut
from this house, and it is years.
In the second stanza, the speaker makes it clear that despite the fact that her father “bars the door, bars harm,” she still feels unsafe. She also explores the fact that she is safe from “women’s arms’ in this home. Her evil stepmother and the witch are far away, but now, she’s in a world where men control her life. Just because things seem to be okay on the outside doesn’t mean there isn’t more complex trauma going on within someone’s life. Gretel has no one to share that with, as the following stanzas confirm.
No one remembers. Even you, my brother,
But I killed for you. I see armed firs,
the spires of that gleaming kiln—
When she looks to her family members for help, they don’t seem to understand that she isn’t over the trauma she experienced. They’re ready to pretend it never happened. Hansel refuses to acknowledge her pain, just as her father does. He’s in the “summer afternoons” in the light, while Gretel is in “darkness,” as the title has already informed the reader. She has to shoulder the burden of the witch’s death alone, even though she did it for Hansel.
Nights I turn to you to hold me
but you are not there.
that black forest and the fire in earnest.
The speaker reiterates how alone she feels in the final stanza. There’s no one to hold or comfort her. In the dark, she’s back in the trauma of the moment with the fire and the black forest. By blocking out her reality, the men in her life are repressing her emotions and forcing her to deal with these images alone. The fire and forest are “real, real” to her, no matter what her family does to try to pretend the death didn’t happen.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Gretel in Darkness’ should also consider reading other Louise Glück poems. For example:
- ‘All Hallows’ – explores the nature of Halloween and uses dark and lonely images to depict it.
- ‘Circe’s Power’ – was published in Meadowlands and is based around the myth of Circe.
- ‘Mock Orange’ – uses the orange to symbolize the speaker’s disappointment with life.