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Introduction to Poetry Ms.

Kerman The Safe House

Zara Hoffman October 22, 2012

In A.E. Stalling's poem "The Doll House" the speaker, after rediscovering her childhood doll house, reminisces about how she and her sister played in order to pass the time. The poem addresses the difference between the real world and the imaginary world of the doll house through many contrasting ideas: the transformation of time in the attic compared to the sameness of a childhood doll house, the idea of safety and danger, and the criteria for good and bad. The speaker utilizes these polarities throughout the poem to substantiate her suggestion that the values of good and bad in the real world are reversed in a childs imagination. The beginning of The Doll House juxtaposes the passage of time with the unchanging nature of a doll house. The poem opens in a rhyming, nostalgic tone describing an old, cluttered attic. The speaker uses visual and olfactory imagery to illustrate the passage of time in two phrases: the attic of forgotten shapes (1), where objects collect dust over time, and where the pungent aroma of mothballs and cigars (3) permeates the air. This creates the familiar picture of stored memories, transforming the attic into a kind of emotional warehouse. The end rhyme scheme is temporarily abandoned with the slant rhyme: cigars (3) and years (4), indicating the speakers rediscovery of her childhood doll house. She is awed by how it has remained unchanged: even the little clock, despite being locked up in the attic, "had, for all these years, kept the same time" (12). However, the speaker alludes to the doll houses old age despite its same appearance; she refers to it as the doll house of our early years, / With which my mother and aunt had played (4-5), implying the doll house has created four sets of memories within two generations. The speaker even says that the doll house was where my sister and I made / the towering grown up hours to smile and pass (6-7) suggesting that while the girls are playing in a place where time apparently does not exist, their motivation for playing in the doll house is to

make time go by quickly. While the speaker and her sister appear to play with dolls merely to entertain themselves, there is a subtle, ominous reference when the speaker uses the daunting adjective towering to describe the grown-up hours (7). This indicates that perhaps the girls are not only playing with the doll house to exercise their imaginations, but also to seek refuge from the frightening and unknown parts of adulthood; this also foreshadows the darker events of the second half of the poem. The girls attempt to repeat the experience of their elders and create a simple, repetitive daily routine in the doll house, probably similar to that of their own childhood home, using the objects that were passed down through the generations. While they create a safe haven with this play, they simultaneously feel a sense of frustration due to the lack of change and excitement. In real life, people often find solace in repetition, but the girls quickly become unsatisfied with the predictability. In an attempt to relieve this tension, every night the girls interrupt the mundane activities by [making] something happen, to move the story (25); however what they inflict on the dolls, while in their minds is simply exciting, is in reality a horrendous and traumatic act. This is ironic because while the girls are attempting to flee from frightening aspects of reality, they create dangerous situations in their play, suggesting that perhaps they are drawn to danger, as long as they are in control. Although the poem is written in a childlike way with many end rhymes, "The Doll House" has concealed dark undertones that are not made apparent until the second half of the poem, revealing a perverse reality that exists in the doll house. The first subtle indication of the unsettling nature of the doll house is in line 19, when the speaker intentionally points out that she and her sister put the dolls to sleep fully-clothed (19). The mention of this detail seems odd; typically people assume that when one prepares for bed, their attire would not be described as such. The image of a fully-clothed (19) doll in the vulnerable state of sleep, suggests that the clothes may be a form of protective armor. This leads the reader to question from what the girls

intend to guard the dolls. Perhaps the speaker wants to shield the dolls from the idea of sex, which is a frightening, adult concept similar to the impression evoked from the speakers short description of the towering grown up hours (7). The placement of this idea of protection before going to sleep also foreshadows some of the dangerous things that the girls do once theyve turned out the light. In the second half of the poem, the abstract threat of danger materializes in concrete terms. The words sun and in create a second slant rhyme, calling attention to the girls [flipping] the switch (21), which takes the poem in a decidedly dark direction. The speaker describes how she and her sister [had] something break in, / kidnap the baby or purloin the pie / A tiger, maybe, or a passer by (23-24). Despite the existence of light-hearted, internal rhymes in baby and maybe as well as pie and by, the speaker is describing a kidnapping, which is a horrific and condemned crime in the real world. These depictions are no longer vague allusions to sinister forces, but the poem now clearly illustrates that real-life danger now colors the girls imaginary play. It was the game [they] knew to play (28) if they ever got bored; the girls dont seem to perceive their actions as dangerous ones, but as rather just something to do to entertain themselves. It is not until the last two lines, Not realizing then how lives accrue, / With interest, the smallest things we do (29-30), that the speaker reveals her error in not recognizing that there are consequences to all actions. In A.E. Stalling's poem, what constitutes good in real life is perceived as boring and undesirable in the imaginary world of the doll house; what is regarded as fun and exciting in the girls play is actually dangerous and evil in the real world. People often think of childrens play as benign and insignificant, but behind the pretty faade of little girls playing with dolls, may lurk disturbing and distorted expressions of fear and danger.

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