Margaret Atwood

Hesitations Outside the Door by Margaret Atwood

‘Hesitations Outside the Door’ is a simple yet powerful poem that conveys many of the themes that Atwood is fond of writing about. In this narrative piece, her first-person speaker depicts her life through the image of an imaginary door. On her side, is her life of domesticity and on the other, presumably, is one of greater freedom. Atwood is a well-loved Canadian poet, essayist, and novelist who is best known for her dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. This poem is one of many powerful works in the 18 books of poetry she has written since 1960.

Hesitations Outside the Door by Margaret Atwood


Summary of Hesitations Outside the Door

Hesitations Outside the Door’ by Margaret Atwood depicts a woman who is trapped behind a metaphorical door that won’t open and free her.

In the short lines of this poem, the speaker describes her inability to open a door with the right “key” or “lie”. She continues to lie, but they are the “wrong lies”. This suggests that she is lying to herself in a way that is not benefiting her place in the world She’s been unable to open the door and knows that something needs to change in order for her to do so. She’s longing to escape from “the kitchen”

You can read the full poem here.


Themes in Hesitations Outside the Door

Atwood taps into familiar themes in ‘Hesitations Outside the Door’. These include confinement, longing, and gender roles. Her speaker, although she does not explicitly state it, is clearly trapped in a world of domesticity that she does not want to be a part of. She’s seeking a way out of this very particular type of prison but has yet been unable to open the door. Her “lies” are getting her nowhere and she’s still surrounded by the mundane details of her kitchen. The word “hesitation” in the title should also be considered. This makes it seem like the speaker has more of a choice in the matter than it might seem in the text. Perhaps, Atwood is implying that the escape the speaker is looking for is more internal than external. 


Structure and Form

Hesitations Outside the Door’ by Margaret Atwood is an eight-line poem that is separated into couplets or sets of two lines. These lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, a style of writing known as free verse. Despite the name, it does not mean the poem is entire without structure. For example, there are a few instances of half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, in ‘Hesitations Outside the Door’. In the first line there is a good example with the long “i” vowel sound in “I’m” and “lies”. The third and fourth lines also have an example with “at least” and “keys”. 


Literary Devices

Atwood makes use of several literary devices in ‘Hesitations Outside the Door’. These include but are not limited to examples of alliteration, caesura, and enjambment. These are all formal techniques that affect the way a reader moves through the lines of verse. The latter, enjambment is seen in the transition between lines. For example, that which exists between lines two and three as well as lines seven and eight.

Alliteration appears when the poet makes use of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “lies” and “least” in line three as well as “bowl” and “bread” in lines six and seven. There is a good example of caesura in the fifth line. It reads: “The door is closed; the chairs”. 


Analysis of Hesitations Outside the Door

Lines 1-4 

I’m telling the wrong lies,


be keys, they would open the door.

In the first stanza of ‘Hesitations Outside the Door,’ the speaker begins by discussing the nature of her own lies. She tells them, but in one way or another, they are the “wrong lies”. Before the reader has the opportunity to wonder what she means by “wrong lies” she follows the statement up with an explanation. They’re wrong because they are “not even useful”. It’s clear from this statement that if she had a choice she’d rather not be telling lies. The fact that she is, and they aren’t benefiting her, makes the situation even more frustrating. 

In the second stanza, she provides the reader with more detail in regards to the lies and what she would like to happen. If she was telling the right lies they would “open the door”. Immediately it is important to note that she says “the door,” not a door or “doors”. She is interested in leaving one place and entering into another. This brings up images of confinement and a desire for liberation, themes that are common within Atwood’s poetry especially when she’s talking about women. 


Lines 5-8 

The door is closed; the chairs,


outside it.

In the fifth line of the poem the speaker reemphasizes the fact that the door she wants to go through is “closed”. Her lies are not working, they’re not turning into the “keys” she needs to open it. The reader is not told what is on the other side of the door but they are informed about what’s on the speaker’s side. She’s there, in her kitchen, with the “chairs, / the tables, the steel bowl” and her own thoughts. She’s waiting outside the door for something to change and for the right “lie” to open the lock. 

In these short lines, Atwood has successfully crafted a troubling domestic scene in which a woman strives to move away from her life of housework and traditional gender roles. The poem ends suddenly without a resolution leading the reader to imagine that this state of being is going to go on for a while longer. 


Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoy this particular Margaret Atwood poem might also be interested in reading more of her poetic works. For example, Bored’ and ‘Flying Inside Your Own Body’. In the latter, the poet uses powerful images to depict dreams of freedom. Her speaker can only sore free of her life in her dreams/imagination. The former, ‘Bored’ is about a speaker’s past relationship and how her perspective on it has completely changed. She sees the truth of it now and it bores her. Readers might also be interested in some related poems by different authors, such as Love Is Not A Word’ by Riyas Qurana and ‘Dolphins’ by Carol Ann Duffy.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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