Living in Sin
by Adrienne Rich
Lines 1-14 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Living in Sin
- Oo! This title makes us think that the poem is going to be about a steamy love affair.
- The word "sin" makes us think the poem might also have something to do with religion. "Sin" kind of makes us think of original sin, which makes us think of the story of Adam and Eve, especially when Eve eats the apple.
- But, before we wander down that path, let's remember that "living in sin" is a totally secular (nonreligious) phrase that simply refers to living with your partner outside of marriage.
- Now, about that steamy love affair…
She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
- Hm. Well, the pluperfect verb tense, "had thought" (yep, we love us some grammar, folks!), is our first indication that this love affair is not going to be as steamy as the title led us to believe. "Had thought" makes us think that our speaker is reflecting on the past. Apparently, it's not as steamy as the woman believed it would be.
- Wait, why are we talking about a studio? Well, the phrase "furniture of love" hits us like a bomb—it's like this place was made for lovemaking! The studio is like a small, cozy love-nest. Or, at least, that was the original idea.
- "Furniture of love" also seems to metaphorically link the relationship to the studio. On one level, the poem is talking about real furniture, but this phrase introduces the idea that the furniture is made of love in an abstract way. So this is one of the clues that shows us that what the poem says about the contents of the studio also applies to the love between the couple.
- So now we can be pretty sure that most of what is said about the "studio" in this poem also applies to the relationship.
- Here, the woman tells us she thought the studio (the relationship), would "keep itself," meaning that it would be so perfect that the people who lived there wouldn't even have to do any work to keep it up.
- No dusting or cleaning would be necessary because dust does not exist in the perfect studio (and, through the metaphor, nothing unpleasant exists in the perfect relationship either).
- Sounds like quite a setup! The idea of the studio keeping itself kind of reminds us of Disney's Beauty and the Beast, where all the kitchen utensils and furniture are running around cooking and keeping up the beast's mansion.
- We can't help but wonder if it will last, though…
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
- In these lines, the speaker tells us just how deeply the woman bought into this fairy tale idea.
- Everything to her eye was once exactly as it should be, to the point that finding fault in anything was considered "half heresy." (A heresy is an idea that is really at odds with what most people understand about something.)
- So, to "wish" the taps less vocal (not drip so loud) and "the panes relieved of grime" (i.e., clean) was to be somehow nonsensical. After all, what could possibly be wrong with this love-nest?
- Well, actually, a few things could, like noisy water pipes and dirty windows, for starters.
- (And don't forget that the studio is a metaphor for her relationship, so this suggests that her relationship is not so sparkling and needs some work as well!)
- The next sentence—or the next three and a half lines—gives us a peek at how she had imagined her studio and relationship would look.
- It's kind of like a big, beautiful painting, where everything looks perfect and is in the right place. But the problem with paintings is that they aren't real life.
- Things are frozen in time, and people's real homes usually don't look so perfect.
- We have the image of a beautiful plate of fruit and an expensive shawl draped perfectly over a lovely piano, followed by the quaint idea of a cat stalking a "picturesque amusing mouse." Nice! (But a bit weird, too. Would you find the scene "picturesque" and "amusing" if you saw your cat getting ready to kill a mouse inside your home? We definitely don't think this woman was living in reality!)
- The cat "has risen at his urging." Wait a minute. Whose urging? Here we see the man enter the picture. The fact that the cat got up at the man's urging suggests a harmonious relationship between the woman's partner and their lovely cat. In other words, these lines all just paint a perfect, though unrealistic, picture of what the woman thought it would be like to live with her partner.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
- Woah! What's the milkman doing here?! Maybe this poem will include some steamy love affair!
- Well, don't get all excited. Even though clichéd affairs with milkmen make it tempting to assume that the milkman might represent a potential love affair, we have to ask if there is other evidence in the poem to support this idea.
- Sure, it's true that the choice of the words "writhe" and "tramp" (instead of, say, "wobble" and "stomp") could in some way suggest a fantasy on the part of the woman. She is, after all, prone to fantasy.
- Still, in the reality of her life, and in their context in this poem, "writhe" and "tramp" are words that seem to suggest difficulty and effort. People "writhe in pain," or squirm when they are uncomfortable. People might "jaunt down the street for an ice cream," but they "tramp for miles up a treacherous mountain."
- So, we might think of the milkman's "tramp" as a trudge, or a stomp, indicating the labor of his work as well as the unpleasant sound alerting the woman of his arrival.
- The fact that the stairs "writhe" under his stomp suggests that, like the rest of the studio, they are in need of some repair. Also, it's a case of personification, since inanimate objects like stairs don't really have the ability to writhe, or do anything other than just sit there, really.
- So what is this milkman doing in this poem? He could represent the mundane start of another mundane day, or he could represent an outside witness to the reality of the woman's life, keeping her from getting too carried away with her unrealistic fantasy.
- Just as the milkman witnesses the way she lives, the morning light illuminates the sad reality of life for the woman every day.
- Under the cover of night the cheese and wine may have seemed to represent romance and luxury.
- But this morning the light "coldly" shows the woman that they really just make up more of what needs to be cleaned and fixed in her studio (again, a metaphor for her relationship). The cheese is in the form of unsightly scraps, and the bottles are "sepulchral" (meaning tomb-like, or dismal). This suggests that they were drunk in the spirit of gloom, not merriment.
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own—
envoy from some village in the moldings...
- The studio (again, the relationship) is even infested with insects! A whole village of them lurks behind the walls, represented by this one who seems to be staring at the woman.
- Actually, they're represented by just the beetle's eyes, which—in addition to being pretty hard to spot—is an example of synecdoche, using a part (the eyes) to represent the whole (the beetle).
- So, why does the speaker mention just the eyes? Well, the stare of the beetle might suggest that even this insect stands in judgment of the way this woman is living, a witness like the milkman, prepared to report his findings to the other insects. (That's why he's called an "envoy," or a "messenger.")