Study Guide

The Whipping Themes

  • Violence

    "The Whipping" is a very violent poem—it doesn't take a famous critic to pick up on that. Plot-wise, it's about a woman who is whipping a little boy yet again, and who won't let him get away. She chases him around, gets a hold of him, and whips him so hard with a stick that the stick itself breaks. The poem never really tells us why the woman is so violent, but the speaker implies that the woman herself was abused and is now taking her anger out on the next generation. In many ways the, this poem isn't about just random acts of violence. It is about the cycle of abuse, how abuse breeds more abuse.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What is the significance of the poem's title? Why a poem about whipping rather than, say, punching?
    2. This is kind of a poem about child abuse. How accurately and effectively does it describe abuse and the psychology behind it?
    3. Let's suppose this is a true story. Do you think the boy will end up becoming violent too? Why or why not?
    4. How does the woman feel about her violent behavior? Do we have any way of knowing?

    Chew on This

    Violence doesn't solve anything. It just breeds more violence which, in turn, breeds still more violence, which… you get the picture.

    It is a sad fact that many victims of violence are just like the little boy in the poem: innocent victims of somebody else's temper and psychological issues.

  • The Home

    Home? What home? There's hardly any home to speak of in "The Whipping." Yep, that's exactly the point. All the things we tend to think of when it comes to a home (dinner on the table, comfy couches, a loving family) are completely absent from this poem. In fact, all we really know is that there is a bedroom where the boy sobs after his whipping and a whole lot of plants. This tells us a lot, most importantly, that anything "homely" about this place has long since gone bye-bye. It's more like a desolate wilderness now, with the human equivalent of a lion or tiger (the woman) chasing her prey (the boy).

    Questions About The Home

    1. Where is the speaker of this poem? Is he in his own "home"? What might his "home" be like?
    2. What do you make of all the plants in this poem? Do they seem like your typical household decorations?
    3. Is there any hope for the "home" described in this poem? Or is it destined to be a violent place forever?
    4. Why is the relationship between the woman and the boy never really specified? What effect does this have on your reading?

    Chew on This

    Violence destroys homes. The home in this poem, for example, is more like a jungle, a wild and scary place, than a home.

    If this poem is any indication, broken, unhomely homes are more common than we might think. And that's just… terrible.

  • Memory and the Past

    "The Whipping" isn't just about violence and abuse. No, no. It is also about how violent memories of the past still find their way into the present, about how they have a profound effect on our lives. The woman is a perfect example. She whips and whips and whips that poor little boy because she's haunted by her past, a past so violent that the only way she knows how to handle it is by taking her anger out on an innocent boy. And come to think of it, in the future, this boy's past will be just like the woman's (violent). He may also find himself haunted by memories of it. Something tells us that this woman might need a little therapy. Dr. Freud, are you in?

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why is the woman still haunted by her past?
    2. What do you think the boy's memories of the whipping will be like later in life? Will he too suffer from his own "lifelong hidings"?
    3. What about the speaker's past? Doesn't it resemble the boy's present (violent, painful, scary)?
    4. Does the speaker seem controlled or dominated by his past in the same way as the woman? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Forget about the past? Good luck. A whole lot of what we do—the things we say, how we act, etc.—has to do with our memories and our past.

    Even though the past is supposed to be "dead and gone," this poem shows that it is sometimes more like a ghost that keeps coming back and finding ways to affect the present. In that way it's tough to tell them apart.