Red Roses by Anne Sexton is a story of child abuse told by a narrator, but with the vernacular that represents the emotions and thoughts of the child undergoing the abuse. The word choice and imagery is so contrary to the negative phrasing a reader might expect in a story of a toddler being abused that the atmosphere of the work feels like a juxtaposition. This juxtaposition, as it happens, is one of the primary strengths of the work because it showcases the struggle of a child who loves his mother and wants to stay with her, but needs to make the situation right enough in his own mind to keep going with that love. Little Tommy, the toddler, wants to believe that things are well with his mother, though he seems to know better on a deeper level, and that concept is a driving force in the work—to the point that Sexton’s poem is sincerely haunting and heart-breaking. The poem can be read here.
Red Roses Analysis
The reader might initially have a smile on their face when they begin reading about the interaction between Tommy and “his mother,” picturing the two of them with bright smiles and happiness as they “dance” across the room. Even the notion that this happens “when he’s bad” can be written off by the human mind as a therapeutic exercise for the child. Perhaps, the reader might think, Tommy has misbehaved, and dancing helps him channel his frustration to work through his issues.
This concept, however, falls to pieces in the fifth line when Sexton notes that Tommy’s mother “throws him across the room.” With this addition of information, what felt like it could have been a happy moment of a mother/son experience is now tainted to a level that contradicts the innocence of the wording that occurs in these lines. The child might rationalize that this happens “when he’s bad,” like a sensible form of punishment, and that it’s just “danc[ing,]” but the adult reading this understands that these are mechanisms for covering the abuse. His mother is not happily “danc[ing]” with her child to a heartwarming song. She is playing that song to drown out the noise that occurs in consequence to “throw[ing Tommy] across the room.”
Lines six through fourteen continue the child’s rationale to explain away the mother’s behavior as he reasons that she “never laid a hand on him,” but rather gives him “red roses.” There are two possible explanations for this concept in regard to the mother having “never laid a hand on him.” Either she legitimately has never hit him with her hand, rather choosing other items to inflict the abuse, or the child is so absorbed in the delusion he has created through this “danc[ing]” explanation that he does not see the person hitting him as his mother.
This latter option gains merit when he labels himself and his mother as “Blue Lady and Tommy.” This choice of wording shows he has chosen to deal with the situation with language that is more connected to the tune that plays during the abuse—“Red Roses for a Blue Lady”—than words that actually represent the situation. With that alternate reality guiding him, the “Blue Lady” could be the one hitting him—not his mother. This is also supported in the notion that while his mother supposedly “never laid a hand on him,” a “diamond” was responsible for causing him harm, like one might expect on a ring that the mother was wearing at the time of the hit. Evidence suggests that a hit with “a hand” happened, but perhaps to Tommy, the “Blue Lady” was responsible.
Tommy’s childish tendencies to try and explain away this abuse continue through rationalization and childish comparisons. He does not get bruises or cuts, for instance. “He gets roses in different places,” and they can have different methods of delivery and consequences. It seems one “rose” was harsh enough on his “head” to threaten his consciousness since “he was as sleepy as a river,” and others caused damage that resulted in wounds that are explained as childish things, like “licorice” and a “scarecrow.”
In these lines, the reader is presented with his mother’s coaching in regard to what he should tell other people about these “roses.” Her advice to him is “just remember you fell,” and he repeats that information to “the doctors in the big hospital,” including the “nice lady” to which he spoke. The innocence of this wording is so effective in creating the sensation that the child is having these thoughts, and the concept is enough to tear at heartstrings.
Young Tommy endured his injuries and faced those workers from “the big hospital,” but he “didn’t want to be sent away.” He went along with his mother’s lies then, but the detail that he did not share his “dance” theory with the workers indicates that he knew that something was not right in the way his mother treated him. If he truly believed they were just “danc[ing],” there would have been no reason not to share that information with “doctors.”
Essentially, the reader must face the grim reality that Tommy, on some level, knew he was deluding himself, but he loved his mother so much—or perhaps feared what would happen to him if he was taken away from her—that he held to that delusion anyway.
These lines continue with the admittance that he refused to tell anyone the truth, “although he could talk fine,” which feels like an admission once more that Tommy knows more than he is trying to make himself believe. Still, in the small heart that loves his mother so much, he continues to lie to himself. This concept is blatantly stated again and again in the final lines since Sexton pushes aside the notion of saying that they “dance,” and rather shifts the concept to include vernacular that confesses Tommy does, indeed, know better. “He pretends” and “tries” to treat it as a “ball” game, but it is not enough. Despite that effort, “he [still] squashes like fruit,” showcasing that his efforts to believe the best are as doomed as the relationship he has with the “Blue Lady and the spots of red roses.”
An interesting thing to note in the final line is that the “red roses” are referenced as things “he gives her.” There are, again, two possible explanations for this concept. The first would be that the “Blue Lady” is bruising herself while hitting him, and he is taking credit for “giv[ing] her” those “roses.” The other possibility is that time has passed, and Tommy has now become the abuser in the relationship. Given that the poem starts and begins in present tense, but journeys into past tense during the middle lines, it is difficult to say what the time frame is to fully support or discard the latter possibility. However, the most likely option could be that the “Blue Lady” is being bruised during her abuse of Tommy since no other information beyond the past tense verbs and final two lines of the poem would hint that Tommy has grown past the toddler years that came with such abuse.
Whatever the method was for the “Blue Lady” gaining those “roses,” the haunting delivery of this tale of abuse is a genius method of exploring the scenario from the perspective of little Tommy. Without using Tommy as the narrator, Sexton has managed to provide the reader with a vivid and innocent take on the matter that is befitting a child. Still, even in his youth and innocent reaches to make things sound all right in his mind, young Tommy knows something is not right. Regardless, he holds on to his “Blue Lady.”
About Anne Sexton
Anne Sexton is an American poet from the 20th century whose love of writing may have stemmed from a therapeutic exercise that was advised to her as she struggled with mental illness. Specifically, Sexton wrestled with depression in her life as well as post-partum syndrome, and the former issue led her to commit suicide. Her life beyond writing consisted of work as a fashion model and the status of a mother of two. In her writing, her topics could be strong and controversial, as is the case with her tackling child abuse in “Red Roses.”