Study Guide

The Whipping

The Whipping Summary

The poem opens with a description of a woman whipping a boy—yet again. She screams at him, tells him he's wrong and she's right, chases him all over the place, and hits him so violently that the stick she uses breaks. This whole scene triggers a flashback of somebody (either the speaker or the woman) getting beaten by somebody else whom they now hate. After the flashback is over, the speaker brings us back to the present and tells us that the boy is now sobbing in his room and the woman is resting against a tree. She is muttering and feels as if she has somehow taken revenge on whoever caused her all that pain so many years ago.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-4

    The old woman across the way
    is whipping the boy again
    and shouting to the neighborhood
    her goodness and his wrongs.

    • Somebody is watching something. It is an old woman "across the way," which is like saying "across the street," or "in the apartment building over there."
    • This woman is whipping some boy—again—and shouting so the whole neighborhood can hear.
    • And what's she shouting about? She's shouting about how great she is and how horrible he is. 
    • So far, though, we don't know anything yet about the relationship between the woman and the boy. He could be her son, but he could also be some neighbor kid who she's mad at for stealing cookies from her kitchen. She could be the housekeeper or the boy's babysitter or… any number of other things.
    • Either way, it sounds like the boy has gotten in trouble yet again, and is being punished by an angry, violent woman. 
    • Before we go forward, let's talk a little bit about some of the formal features of this poem.
    • At this point, there is no obvious rhyme scheme (none of the lines rhyme) and no clear meter, which means this poem is written in free verse (so far). We'll have more to say about this over in "Form and Meter."
    • For now, let's see if we can figure what this angry woman is so mad about, or at least why she thinks she needs to whip this poor little guy.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 5-8

    Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
    pleads in dusty zinnias,
    while she in spite of crippling fat
    pursues and corners him.

    • The violent scene continues to unfold as the second stanza begins.
    • The boy crashes through some plants (elephant ears and zinnias). All the while, the woman, who apparently is seriously overweight, continues to chase him all over the place.
    • Okay, so let's put all this botanical stuff together. The woman, who is so fat it is "crippling," is chasing this boy all around. While he's trying to get away, he crashes into some elephant ear plants and then probably hides behind some dusty zinnias.
    • While hiding behind those flowers, he pleads with the woman—presumably to stop beating him. While the metaphor isn't made explicit, the woman is clearly a hunter here, the boy her prey. The woman is out for vengeance.
    • As with the first stanza, there's still no fixed meter, or rhyme scheme here. In fact, it might be safe to just assume that this is how it's gonna be for the duration of the flight… err poem.
    • Keep in mind that we still have no clue why this woman is chasing this kid around and beating him. At this point, we're starting to wonder if maybe this boy didn't really do anything at all. Maybe this woman just has a mean streak. 
    • It's sad to say, but stranger things have happened.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 9-12

    She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
    boy till the stick breaks
    in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
    to woundlike memories:

    • Apparently the woman has caught her prey (uh oh). She's so angry that she "strikes and strikes" the boy.
    • He's still running around in circles, and crying in a very shrill ("shrilly") voice.
    • This woman—sheesh. She's hitting him so hard that the stick breaks. (Think about that for a sec.) This woman is hitting hard.
    • The boy is crying, and his tears are the equivalent of a stormy, "rainy weather" to… "woundlike memories"?
    • Okay, first off, why "woundlike"? Is that even a word? Technically no, but this is poetry, and that's a simile. If somebody's memories are like wounds, that means they hurt. They're not the nice, happy memories you might have of, say, this place.
    • Now, we say "somebody's" because, really, it's not clear whose memories are "wound like."
    • Our gut says it's the woman's, but we can't be too sure. It's possible that the speaker is talking about the boy here, or even about himself. Let's read on…
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 13-16

    My head gripped in bony vise
    of knees, the writhing struggle
    to wrench free, the blows, the fear
    worse than blows that hateful

    • Woah—we get some big changes in the fourth stanza. The poem began with what appeared to be somebody watching this whole whipping thing happen.
    • Now it seems like we're inside the head of the guy observing the whipping. Or are we? We could be inside the woman's too, but, as with so much else in this poem, we're not sure.
    • First, however, let's just figure out what the lines say and then handle this little bit of confusion.
    • This stanza recounts a memory of somebody's head being held between somebody else's knees. Those knees were a "bony vise," which is a metaphorical way of saying the knees were like this. That's a vise—a very strong and powerful tool. 
    • So, while this person was stuck between that "bony vise," he or she tried really hard to get away—it was a "writhing struggle."
    • The struggle was accompanied by "blows" (punches) and fear, a fear that was worse than those "blows that hateful." 
    • Hmm. We end this stanza without a period. Now, that means the line will keep going to the next stanza (this is known in the poetry biz as enjambment). Before we dash off, though, this line does make a certain sense in saying that the fear was worse than the blows, which were hateful. 
    • At the same time, the lack of a period (in this otherwise punctuated poem) means that the line could also be saying that the fear was worse than the blows "that hateful"… something. In other words, "hateful" could be describing blows, or it could be describing a word that's yet to come. 
    • We'll keep reading to see how this line wraps up, but we should first just quickly revisit the whole "Whose memory is this?" question.
    • It could be the speaker's memory of violent childhood. The scene that is unfolding before him (a woman chasing and whipping a young boy) may have reminded him of that "bony vise." 
    • The other possibility is that the memory belongs to the woman doing the whipping. Sure, it's a little bizarre that the speaker can magically get inside the woman's head and tell us what's going on, but hey—this is poetry.
    • Then again, he could just be guessing, trying to figure out her psychology, trying to see just why she insists on beating this boy.
    • We have no real way of knowing whose memory this is, so let's just keep on going and see what else is can be said of this charming childhood recall.
  • Stanza 5

    Lines 17-18

    Words could bring, the face that I
    no longer knew or loved…

    • Ahh, so here's our answer. The word "hateful" from the last line is describing "Words" here in line 17. So, the blows were brought by hateful words. The fear this person experienced was worse than those, though.
    • Okay, so… words and blows? What's the deal with that?
    • Well, "blows" are punches, and words don't really strike people literally.
    • That means then that this is a metaphor for the painful effect that hateful words can have on somebody. 
    • The fear that is being described here is, even still, a whole lot worse than hateful words. 
    • On top of that, there's also a face in this memory, one that's no longer recognizable or lovable to the person whose memory this is. 
    • The appearance of the face is a bit odd. It just sort of shows up here, and we have no idea whose face this is or anything. The most likely explanation is that this "face" is the face of the abuser. 
    • Whoever's memory this is has determined at some point that the face of the person doing the beating would become completely foreign.
    • The person doing the beating is probably a close to the victim—somebody usually "loved" and "recognized"—but is now no longer because of their violent behavior.
    • This is the first time we get the word "I" in the poem, and it might seem like the speaker is now talking about his own experience. Of course, he could also be projecting into the woman and narrating from her point of view. It's just not clear.
    • This little tidbit could even describe the relationship between the woman and the boy. The boy may very well be on his way to no longer recognizing the woman's face, or loving it. So many possibilities—let's see if reading on helps clear things up…

    Lines 19-20

    Well, it is over now, it is over,
    and the boy sobs in his room,

    • Okay, so it looks like we're shifting gears again now. And to think, we were just getting comfortable with that whole stream of consciousness business.
    • Yeah, we're finished with that now, and we are back in the "present." The story is resuming.
    • It sounds like the whipping is over. Actually, the speaker tells us that twice, just to make sure we get the message.
    • The boy is in his room now, sobbing. Gosh, that sounds eerily familiar doesn't it? Fight with the parents, a little discipline, and then the parents cool off somewhere and the kid goes and cries in his room?
    • Yep, we've all been there.
    • Except… it's a little different here. We're not talking about getting caught eating cookies in the middle of the night and then getting a five-minute time out. 
    • Oh no. This is a completely baseless act of violence on the woman's part, for one thing.
    • And she really whips the boy. She chases him all over and even breaks the stick she's using to whip him.
    • Now that we've seen the boy, let's see what the woman is up to…
  • Stanza 6

    Lines 21-24

    And the woman leans muttering against
    a tree, exhausted, purged—
    avenged in part for lifelong hidings
    she has had to bear.

    • Whew—the woman is clearly tuckered out from chasing the boy all over the place and whipping him.
    • She's so tired that she's now leaning against a tree and "muttering" to herself about something or other. She's "exhausted" and "purged" (we'll get to that in just a moment here) and supposedly "avenged" for a whole lot of stuff she has had to endure throughout her life. 
    • Okay, so let's break all this down and make sure we're clear on just what exactly is going on.
    • The word "purge" means to get rid of something. The woman's violent whipping of the boy is an attempt to get rid of, well, something that she doesn't like.
    • We have no idea what exactly the woman is trying to get rid of, but it definitely has something to do with those "lifelong hidings."
    • Now we're gonna go ahead and guess that those "hidings" refer to painful, violent memories—kind of like those described in the fourth and fifth stanzas.
    • The woman is walking around with all this pain and frustration, and the only way she can think to deal with it is by whipping this poor little kid. 
    • In the woman's mind, the boy is transformed into one of the guilty parties from her past, and she beats him in order to get back ("avenge") at whoever has hurt her.
    • We can summarize the whole sequence of events as follows:
      1. The woman is beaten or hurt by somebody, and has to deal with lots of pain.
      2. That somebody is no longer in her life.
      3. She has to go through life hiding all this pain, and that makes her really upset.
      4. The person who hurt her is gone, so she finds a substitute person and takes her anger out on him.
      5. She feels "purged" or relieved after the beating.
    • Whew, life's a hugely complicated cycle of violence now isn't it? It sure is.
    • It may seem kind of weird, but we've all experienced something kind of like this. 
    • You know how sometimes when you've had a horrible day and are super-angry? Sometimes after a day like that you might slam the car door, or knock stuff off of your desk just because you're mad.
    • It's the same thing with the woman, only she's had a horrible life, not just a horrible day. So she's taking her anger out on another human being. 
    • Hmm, something just doesn't seem right here. The woman is now relaxed and "purged," but how long will this last?
    • We know from the first stanza that the woman whips this boy a lot, so it's probably just a matter of time before she does it again.
    • This poem leaves us with the sad reality that taking our anger out on other people, and answering violence with more violence, is really only just a temporary solution.