‘The Young Housewife’ is a curious poem by William Carlos Williams. One that is defined by his ability to articulate with intense emotional clarity the scenes he would capture in his poems. Yet the ambiguity that’s fostered between the erratic lines of his verse is just as vivid.
Everything from the poet’s diction to syntax is geared toward developing an anticipatory tension between the speaker and the housewife, with the implicit becoming just as palpable to the imagination as what is explicitly described. The result is a poem that mimics life’s mercurial and often unintelligible but profoundly affecting nature.
The Young Housewife William Carlos WilliamsAt ten A.M. the young housewifemoves about in negligee behindthe wooden walls of her husband's house.I pass solitary in my car.Then again she comes to the curbto call the ice-man, fish-man, and standsshy, uncorseted, tucking instray ends of hair, and I compare herto a fallen leaf.The noiseless wheels of my carrush with a crackling sound overdried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
Explore The Young Housewife
‘The Young Housewife’ by William Carlos Williams is a short poem that follows the speaker’s dually observed and imagined descriptions of a woman he sees while driving.
‘The Young Housewife’ unfolds from the perspective of the speaker, presumably a man, who either sees or imagines the sight of a young housewife in her “husband’s house” lounging in her nightgown. In the first stanza, they characterize her as being neglected and trapped within the home as the speaker passes outside in their car.
The second stanza offers a different scene featuring the same woman. Leaving the house, she steps outside without a corset “to call the ice-man, fish-man,” and the sight inspires the speaker to compare her to a “fallen leaf.”
The poem’s final image returns focus to the speaker’s car as it noiselessly passes the house with a “crackling sound over / dried leaves.” The speaker then appears to imagine themselves as just another man passing by the young woman’s house, envisioning how he might “bow and pass smiling” in both greeting and farewell to her.
Structure and Form
‘The Young Housewife’ is composed of three stanzas of varying lengths. The poem is written in free verse and lacks any formal rhyme scheme. The poem is indicative of Williams’ unique modernist style, which used a meter comprised of variable feet that sought to naturally mimic the rhythm of everyday speech. His syntax is also structured to describe actions before revealing details, creating both anticipation and sensual tension.
‘The Young Housewife’ uses a handful of literary devices that focus mainly on illustrating its lucidly evocative scenes.
- Kinesthetic imagery: “the young housewife / moves about” (1-2); “I pass solitary in my car” (4); “tucking in / stray ends of hair” (7-8); “I bow and pass smiling” (12).
- Visual imagery: “behind / the wooden walls of her husband’s house” (2-3); “Then again she comes to the curb” (5); “stands / shy, uncorseted” (6-7).
- Auditory imagery: “to call the ice-man, fish-man” (6); “The noiseless wheels of my car / rush with a crackling sound over / dried leaves” (10-12).
- Metaphor: “I compare her / to a fallen leaf” (8-9).
At ten a.m. the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband’s house.
I pass solitary in my car.
The first stanza of ‘The Young Housewife’ hones in a host of specifics that set the scene of Williams’ poem. The housewife is described as moving “about in negligee” (2), creating a pun on the French word for “neglect” and its reference to a piece of sheer clothing usually worn as a nightgown. Both the diction and imagery underscore the housewife’s sense of abandonment and isolation. This is further emphasized when the speaker describes how she is “behind / the wooden walls of her husband’s house” (2-3), implying that her home is the authoritative domain of her husband.
The stanza’s final line is perhaps the most shocking as it reveals the speaker as an outside observer passing by in their car. This tends to lend a voyeuristic feel to the rest of the poem and all the speaker’s observations. Suddenly the description of the housewife’s negligee is rendered slightly intrusive.
Yet the sensual tension that simmers suggestively throughout the poem between the housewife and speaker can also be interpreted less as creepily invasive and more as an expression of the quietly yearning intimacy the lonely can perceive in others because they possess it as well.
Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.
The second stanza of ‘The Young Housewife’ narrates a new scenario observed by the speaker involving the housewife. In contrast to the encloistered imagery of the last stanza, she appears outside for the first time as she walks to the curb.
Her calls to the “ice-man, fish-man” (6) appear innocent at first until the speaker reveals she stands “shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair” (7-8). Once again, the speaker entangles the woman’s appearance and clothing with suggestive implications as if to imply that she is calling to these men for reasons that have less to do with their unique professions and more to do with hidden desires.
Yet this stereotype of an unsatisfied and thus promiscuous housewife is tempered by another double meaning. One could interpret “uncorseted” (7) as a symbol of her liberation outside her husband’s house. The speaker’s comparison of the housewife to a “fallen leaf” (9) indicates as much, evoking the image of something lonely and downtrodden.
The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
The final stanza of ‘The Young Housewife’ opens with a piece of auditory imagery that also doubles as an oxymoron. Why would the speaker describe their car as having “noiseless wheels” (10) but then also mention the “crackling sound” (11) they create? One interpretation is that the wheels make no noise when heard from the housewife’s perspective, as she is unaware she is being watched, yet the speaker in their car can obviously hear the leaves being crushed.
Another possible reason is that this stanza occurs mainly in the imagination of the speaker, leading to a paradoxical description of events. This is supported by the poem’s last line, which sees the speaker imagining how they’d “bow and pass smiling” (12) by the housewife if they were walking along the sidewalk as opposed to driving by. The ending dissolves the tension and anticipation that has been built between the speaker and the woman with anticlimax. One that underscores the two people’s inherent loneliness and their inability to shake themselves free of it.
The poem’s theme might be interpreted as spotlighting the unspoken empathy and connection that can exist between complete strangers.
The speaker compares the housewife to a “fallen leaf” and then, only a few lines later, mentions leaves again when describing the sound their car makes driving over them. The parallel between both images supports the perception that she feels downcast and defeated in her own home.
The poem’s tone is entangled with the housewife’s characterization. It’s clear that the speaker somewhat sympathizes with the woman’s confinement (perhaps they even desire her), but their perceptions of these obscured sentiments might also imply they’ve experienced something similar. As a result, the tone wavers between melancholy and poignant compassion.
The speaker gives us an exact time of day — “ten a.m.” — which at first falsely implies their omniscience over the situation. Until it is revealed they are just a passerby in their car and not an all-seeing third-person narrator. Its specificity also serves to imply that the housewife is alone, as her husband would be at work and her children at school during this hour. This adds to some of the suggestive tension within the poem.
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