The Young Housewife

William Carlos Williams

‘The Young Housewife’ by William Carlos Williams is a short poem that intimately envisions a few moments in the life of a lonely woman confined to her home.


William Carlos Williams

Nationality: American

William Carlos Williams was an American poet and physician.

His work is commonly associated with modernist movements like Imagism.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: A perceptive glimpse into the loneliness and suggestive passion of a stranger

Speaker: An observer in their car

Emotions Evoked: Abandonment, Boredom, Excitement

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

William Carlos Williams' poem uses imagery and idiosyncratic syntactical structure to create a poignantly provocative peek into a stranger's life.

‘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 Williams

At 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.


‘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.

Literary Devices

‘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).

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

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.

Stanza Two

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.

Stanza Three

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.


What is the theme of ‘The Young Housewife?

The poem’s theme might be interpreted as spotlighting the unspoken empathy and connection that can exist between complete strangers.

What is the significance of leaves within the poem?

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.

What is the tone of the poem?

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.

Why does the speaker include the time of day?

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.

Similar Poems

Here are some other poems by William Carlos Williams that you might enjoy:

Poetry+ Review Corner

The Young Housewife

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

William Carlos Williams

This poem by William Carlos Williams is emblematic of the clarity and suggestiveness of his poetry. As was the case with many of his poems, this one offers a vivid snapshot into a seemingly mundane but intimate moment in the life of a housewife. Through both his precise imagery and diction, he captures all the complexity of the moment as it is observed and imagined by the speaker.
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20th Century

Williams was an essential and inspiring figure within the 20th-century modernist movement. His poems illustrate the lucid wonder through which he perceived the world around him. All of his poems tap into this elusive awe of the ordinary and overlooked scenes of daily life, making them both beautiful visions of his lifetime as well as timeless appreciations of people and life.
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Williams exerted great influence on the direction of modernist writers in America during the 20th century. Not only was the subject matter of his poems experimental in their hyperfocus on the mundane, but they also were also in style and form as well. Although initially part of the imagist movement, he eventually abandoned it in favor of others.
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Desire is a central theme found within this poem by Williams. Although at times, it can be quite ambiguous what kind of desire is being expressed, be it sexual or platonic. The poem does create this anticipation between the speaker and the young housewife they observe. But there are also personal desires at play, such as the woman's yearning for autonomy outside the home.
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Disappointment is another theme that is important to the poem. Williams uses very precise diction to insinuate that the young housewife seen by the speaker is not happy with her life. Her home is described as her husband's, and she is potentially flirtatious with the men who pass by the house. Although we are not told why she is so disappointed, the feeling is potent.
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A minor theme that Williams touches on in the poem is relationships. There are multiple people within the poem who are adjacently connected with other people. The connecting node is the young housewife, who interacts in some way with the different men presented in the poem. Yet despite all these connections, very little meaning or substance is derived from them.
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One of the more prominent emotions elicited from the poem is the sense of abandonment that is perceived in the housewife through the speaker's observations. She is a woman left alone to wander around a house that is not hers but her husband's. Her sadness and loneliness are palpable even to a complete stranger who recognizes the feeling in her.
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There is also a sense of boredom that permeates the poem. One that speaks to the specific feeling of being alone in a house consumed by a potent aimlessness. The housewife is so desperate to escape the suffocating atmosphere that she heads outside and beckons the different salesmen passing by her home.
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Williams also conjures up excitement from the point of view of the speaker. In some ways, this excitement plays into the voyeuristic atmosphere of the poem. But it also mirrors the housewife's shyness as she stands outside calling to the "ice-man, fish-man." This excitement builds until it's released in the last stanza as the speaker imagines themselves greeting the woman in person.
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Daily Life

As is the case with many of the poems Williams wrote, he often focused on mundane moments of everyday life that most people often overlooked. In this poem, his speaker momentarily fixates on the sight of a young housewife who appears visibly disappointed in the life she currently has, thus revealing some intimate truth about the subjects of his poems.
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This poem by Williams does not present a positive perception of one's home. To the young housewife, home is not even a place she can call her own. This, in turn, leads her to feel trapped behind its walls. The poet's diction and imagery offer a poignant portrait of a woman isolated within their own home.
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Imagination plays an important part in this poem by Williams, especially when it comes to developing its ambiguity. Throughout the poem, there are moments that appear impossible for the speaker to observe or perceive. Even its ending implies an imagined scenario in which the speaker walks by the housewife's home and greets her with a kind bow.
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Another major topic touched on within the poem is loneliness. The most obvious portrayal of that is the housewife, who appears emotionally estranged from both her husband and home. But the speaker is also a contender for being lonely as well. After all, this is possibly why they characterize the housewife in such a way either projecting their feelings onto her or perceiving them through empathy.
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Free Verse

As was his style, Williams did not prefer to bind his verse in strict forms and structures. Instead, the subject matter and mood of the poem often dictated the way it was imprinted on the page. Although this poem lacks a rhyme scheme, it absolutely does possess a cadence that the poet controls through syntax.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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