Study Guide

They Flee from Me Themes

  • Sex

    It might not seem like it at first, but "They Flee from Me" is basically all about sex. The speaker tells us he used to get lucky all the time, but now he's in a bit of a dry spell. But it's about more than just the physical act. There are power plays involved. At first, our guy's in charge. These women come to him, and he seduces them. But suddenly, the tables turn, and the seducer becomes the seduced. So how does a Renaissance man like our speaker – who used to have all the power – handle a sexually assertive woman? The answer to that question remains a mystery.

    Questions About Sex

    1. What do you make of the description of the woman removing her clothes (10-14)? Is it romantic? Cheap? Is she being bold and brave or is she being unvirtuous? What do you think is running through our speaker's mind in this moment?
    2. If the act itself is never mentioned, how do we know this poem is actually about sex? Could it be about something else, too?
    3. Why do you think our speaker is so preoccupied by the fact that these women flee from him? Is he just sad because he no longer has any sexual partners, or is there another side to his concern?
    4. Why does our speaker feel the need to use animals and hunting (birds, deer, catching) in order to talk about sex? What does this comparison say about how our speaker sees women?

    Chew on This

    "They Flee from Me" suggests that sex is never equal. There is always one person who is in control, seducing his or her submissive partner.

    The poem's many references to animals and hunting suggest that our speaker sees sex as a way to control women. It's no wonder it bothers him so much that they no longer seem interested in being controlled.

  • Abandonment

    Our speaker in "They Flee from Me" definitely has some abandonment issues. He says that a lot of women used to visit him, but they don't anymore. He's upset, miffed, and, frankly, a bit puzzled. Yet while the speaker plays the role of the victim, he also suggests that he, too, has abandoned plenty of women. This sure gives us an interesting glimpse into the sexual politics of 16th century England.

    Questions About Abandonment

    1. Does the speaker feel abandoned? If so, how exactly do you know this, and can you relate to the speaker's feelings in any way?
    2. Do you think our speaker is also abandoning these women? Or is this not a two-way street?
    3. How do you think the women feel? Do you think the women of this poem are as confused and upset about being abandoned by their male sexual partners?
    4. Why does the woman in the second stanza abandon our speaker? How does this affect him?

    Chew on This

    The real problem our speaker faces is that he is jealous of the sexual successes of the women in the poem. He feels left behind as they grow ever more promiscuous, and leave him for greener pastures.

    The speaker unfairly suggests that a woman abandoning a man is the equivalent of being uncivilized: instead, she should be a "tame," functioning member of society.

  • Gender

    Many readers see "They Flee from Me" as a poem in which normal Renaissance gender constructions are challenged. After the typical, male-dominated relationships of the first stanza, the second stanza flips to being female-dominated. Now the male seducer is the seduced, and the female is the aggressive hunter, seeking out her male prey. All these newfangled gender politics have our speaker totally baffled at the end of the poem, because he doesn't know what to do with a woman who doesn't quite fit the stereotypical female role.    

    Questions About Gender

    1. How do you think the speaker defines gender? What, in the poem, makes you say so?
    2. Do the differences between the speaker and the women he describes suggest a biological difference between them, or more an emotional difference? Or both?
    3. Do you think this poem has a progressive attitude towards gender? Or is our speaker totally traditional when it comes to how he views men versus women?     
    4. In what ways do the women in this poem challenge popular stereotypes surrounding the behavior of men and women? In what ways do they stick to these stereotypes?

    Chew on This

    "They Flee from Me" argues that gender roles are more flexible than fixed. Both men and woman can be dominant and passive.

    Particularly in the first stanza, this poem suggests that fixed gender roles – "men are this, women are that" – is a way of reducing people to animals.

  • Love

    While the speaker of "They Flee from Me" brags about his sexual exploits, he makes it clear that there was at least one girl who was special. She was really pretty and sexy, and sometimes it even seems to us that he might have loved her. For the most part, though, love is conspicuously absent from the poem, and it's this absence that makes it all the more relevant. It seems our speaker loves sex, not women, and maybe that's the source of all his problems.

    Questions About Love

    1. Based on the poem, what do you think is the speaker's view of love? Do you think he loves any of these women?
    2. Do you think the speaker sees love and sex as the same thing? Why or why not?
    3. Do you think any of these women love him? Or are they using him just as much as he is using them?
    4. What do you make of the relationship between the speaker and the woman who is introduced in the second stanza? Is that closer to love than the relationships he has with the women in the first stanza? Or is it an even further cry?

    Chew on This

    Sometimes sex involves love, but "They Flee from Me" shows us that often it's really just a form of control.

    Part of the speaker's problem is that he loves the woman in the second stanza. But because he's been so promiscuous in the past, he doesn't know how to treat her, which makes him nervous and confused.