Cosgrove James Paul Cosgrove Ms.

Ginn AP English Literature 8 December 2006 Transformations: On Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella” and “Briar Rose” “Anne Sexton does a [deep] favor for me: she domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop into my forest once more” (Sexton vii). This account of the effects of Anne Sexton’s poetry by writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., in the forward to Transformations, is what thousands of readers know about Sexton, yet cannot describe in words. In arguably her most famous work, Sexton reexamines selected Grimm’s fairy tales, transforming them into modern commentaries on culture, sex, domestic life, and human nature. Sexton’s retelling of “Cinderella” and “Briar Rose” (Sleeping Beauty) from her work


Transformations explores the concept of feminism and challenges the traditional fairy tale ending of “happily ever after.” Though these poems may bear little or no similarity in Grimm’s fairy tales, Sexton uses her confessional style to bring them together in ways that would not have been possible before the publication of Transformations. Anne Sexton was born Anne Gray Harvey on November 9, 1928, in Newton, Massachusetts. Her father was an alcoholic and there is evidence that she was sexually abused by her parents (Wagner-Martin). At 19, Sexton married Alfred “Kayo” Sexton II and had her first daughter in 1953. After the death of her beloved aunt and the birth of her second child, Sexton went into a deep depression, during which she abused

Cosgrove her children. After numerous suicide attempts, Sexton was institutionalized and encouraged by her therapist to write as a form of self-expression (Wagner-Martin). Sexton developed her literary voice in the late 1950s with the publication of To Bedlam and Part Way Back, and, during this time, was instrumental in developing the “confessional” style of poetry with her contemporaries Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. Her poems were meaningful to readers because they dealt with themes of fear and angst, which were common in the mid-century. In 1972, Sexton’s parents died suddenly, which led to further mental breakdowns. Poetry seemed to be the only stable part of her life, and the connections she made throughout her career led her to numerous sexual affairs (Wagner-Martin).


In 1972, Sexton delved into the school of feminism with Transformations, retelling of popular Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Said Sexton of the poems in Transformations: They are small, funny and horrifying. Without quite meaning to I have joined the ranks of the black humorists…I think they end up being as wholly personal as my most intimate poems, in a different language, a different rhythm, but coming strangely, for all their story sound, from as deep a place (Litz 689). Transformations gained Sexton rave reviews, and critics agreed that she had fused confessional poetry with professional craft (Litz 689-690). During the 1970s, Sexton’s career began to deteriorate with the publication of The Book of Folly and the ironically titled The Death Notebooks, which were published the same year she died. In 1974, after unsuccessful sessions of psychotherapy for her depression, Anne Sexton asphyxiated herself in her garage with carbon monoxide. One of her last works, The Awful Rowing Toward God, was published

Cosgrove posthumously in 1975 along with 45 Mercy Street (1976) and Words for Dr. Y: Uncollected Poems with Three Stories (1978) (Wagner-Martin).


One of Sexton’s most popular poems from Transformations, “Cinderella,” is primarily a criticism of marriage and a challenge of the traditional “happily ever after” ending (Litz 691). Sexton brings the tale of Cinderella into new light by writing in character sketches of the lives of people who, like Cinderella, are underappreciated in the prologue of the poem: “You always read about it:/ the plumber with twelve children/ who wins the Irish Sweepstakes./ From toilets to riches./ That story” (Sexton 1-5). The reader should recognize these stories as get-rich-quick schemes, and Sexton seems to ask the reader to put his or her acceptance of the values of Grimm’s Cinderella in the category of self-delusions (Dhoot and Schaeffer). These character sketches help set the stage for Sexton’s transformation of this old tale. Throughout “Cinderella,” Sexton uses phrases like “that story” (Sexton 5), “that’s the way with stepmothers” (Sexton 55), and “as you all know” (Sexton 41) to give the poem a more sarcastic tone. She even says that the prince’s ball is a “marriage market” (Sexton 42). These phrases are used strategically in order to focus the reader’s attention on the extent to which his or her assumptions and expectations are brought into fairy tales (Regel). Sexton again challenges the get-rich-quick mindset by the prince’s reaction to seeing Cinderella at his ball. Cinderella’s problems are seemingly resolved when the prince sees her beauty and feels he must marry her. The message of this traditional section of the poem could be “if you are beautiful, all of your problems will be



solved,” which sends female children mixed messages about what makes them important (Dhoot and Schaeffer). The ending of “Cinderella,” however, is arguably the most critical in the poem, and challenges the “happy ever after” ending. Sexton’s ending reveals the reality which is often left out of fairy tales. The traditional fairy tale implies that nothing imperfect or sad will ever harm the relationship of a strong man and an obedient wife (Dhoot and Schaeffer). Sexton compares this traditional ending to being trapped inside a glass case: Cinderella and the prince/ lived, they say, happily ever after,/ like two dolls in a museum case/ never bothered by diapers or dust,/ never arguing over the timing of an egg,/ never telling the same story twice,/ never getting middle-aged spread,/ their darling smiles pasted on for eternity (Sexton 100-109). Another of Sexton’s poems from Transformations, “Briar Rose,” is an example of the way that feminist reworkings of fairy tales are concerned with the motives behind the evil characters in the stories, not just their personalities (Regel). “Little doll child,/ come here to Papa./ Sit on my knee./ I have kisses for the back of your neck/… Come be my snooky/ and I will give you a root” (Sexton 16-22). This quote from Briar Rose’s father depicts a culture that condones sexual violence against women, and examines the personal consequences of that violence. Depicting a survivors struggle to expose evidence of sexual abuse by her father, Briar Rose offers a way of defining sexual abuse as a personal, critical, and cultural problem (Skorczewski 311).

Cosgrove The thirteenth fairy, who dooms Briar Rose to death after her father fails


to invite her to Briar Rose’s christening, “her fingers as long and thin as straws,/ her eyes burnt by cigarettes,/ her uterus an empty teacup” (Sexton 32-34), is the evil woman of Briar Rose, and is seen as the outpouring of the revenge of women who do not fit into traditional gender roles (Dhoot and Schaeffer). The thirteenth fairy’s character and appearance in Briar Rose is a prime example of Anne Sexton’s infusion of feminism in the fairy tale. The Grimm’s Briar Rose fairy tale is widely interpreted as a story of a father who wants to protect his daughter from adult sexuality rather than introduce her to it. Sexton’s transformation of the tale, however, turns Grimm’s father into a perpetrator of sexual abuse and elaborates on the fact that he strives to protect Briar Rose from a danger he brought upon her himself (Skorczewski 313). When the king does not invite the thirteenth fairy to Briar Rose’s christening, he brings the fairy’s curse upon her. Fifteen years later, Briar Rose pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, as the fairy foretold, and fell into a 100-year sleep (Skorczewski 315). When Briar Rose is finally rescued from her sleep by the prince, she enters a world of childish fear rather than adult freedom, wherein she is emotionally numb and becomes an insomniac, haunted by dreams of her father’s abuse (Skorczewski 315). In the epilogue of the poem, Briar Rose recounts images of this abuse, comparing her father to a jellyfish that is laying thick on her- a predatorial invertebrate, and the daughter-his eternal prey. Anne Sexton added many elements to the poems “Cinderella” and “Briar Rose” that make them similar in more ways than most readers would realize. The most



significant similarity between the poems is Sexton’s challenges of the traditional ideas of happiness. In “Cinderella,” Sexton compares marital bliss to dolls trapped in a museum case, making traditional fairy tale “happiness” by way of “happily ever after” seem sterile and boring. Similarly, Sexton challenges Grimm’s use of the “happily ever after” ending as well in “Briar Rose.” In Sexton’s version, when Briar Rose is finally rescued by the prince, she is exceedingly uncomfortable in her new life, unable to feel intimate with her husband, still haunted by years of sexual abuse. The idea of beauty is also a subject of Sexton’s criticism in the poems. The stepsisters of Cinderella are said to be “pretty enough/ but with hearts like blackjacks” (Sexton 28-29), indicating that what is externally beautiful is not always beautiful in the moral and ethical sense of the word. Conversely, Cinderella is presumed to be a plain country maid in looks, with cinders on her face, until her true beauty is revealed at the prince’s ball. Challenges to beauty are not always about looks, however. In “Briar Rose,” the king’s daughter is the first maiden of her father’s kingdom, and therefore presumed to be clean, pure, and virgin; yet, Briar Rose has lost this beauty as a result of her father’s sexual abuse. The poems are also similar in that they contain numerous references to pop culture of the twentieth century. In line 32 of “Cinderella,” Sexton compares Cinderella’s appearance to that of Al Jolson, a popular entertainer who commonly appeared wearing blackface, a comparison with the ashes on Cinderella’s face. In the character sketches in the prologue of “Cinderella,” Sexton references the clothing line Dior (Sexton 9) and department store Bonwit Teller (Sexton 20), and, later in the poem, says that the prince feels like a shoe salesman (Sexton 91) when traveling the kingdom

Cosgrove searching for his bride. In “Briar Rose,” Sexton alludes to The Scream, by Edvard Munch, the popular painting depicting screaming figure with wide eyes and hands on its


face. She also references cigarettes (Sexton 33), Bab-O (Sexton 61), cattle prods (Sexton 116), and Novocain (Sexton 129). There are also similarities in the poems in that they both lack female role models and portray fathers as evil, bringing in feminist principles. Cinderella’s mother is dead, and the only females that are in her life are her evil stepmother and sisters with hearts like blackjacks. In lines 33-35, Sexton says that Cinderella’s father brings home presents from town for his wife and stepdaughters, but only the twig of a tree for Cinderella. This is the only mention of Cinderella’s father in the entire poem. “Briar Rose” contains a similar omition of a parental figure, only Briar Rose’s mother is the parent only mentioned once. Since Briar Rose’s mother is strangely absent, the only other significant female figure is the evil thirteenth fairy that dooms Briar Rose to die on her fifteenth birthday. Similar to “Cinderella,” Briar Rose’s father is portrayed as evil because of his sexual abuse, which may indicate Sexton’s own abuse by her father (WagnerMartin). “Cinderella” and “Briar Rose” are similar in content, yet they are also linguistically similar in that both poems are told from multiple points of view. “Cinderella” starts in second person when Sexton says “You always read about it,” (Sexton 1), in reference to the character sketches, then progresses to the third person point of view for the rest of the poem. “Briar Rose” is told in three points of view, starting with second person when Sexton asks the reader to “Consider/ a girl who keeps slipping off,” (Sexton 1-2). Sexton then switches to first person, assuming the voice of



Briar Rose’s father, saying, “Come be my snooky/ and I will give you a root” (Sexton 2122). She then switches between the father’s voice in first person, and her own voice in third person throughout the rest of the poem. With her work Transformations, Anne Sexton joined the ranks of great poets of the twentieth century, often placed in the same category as Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, and Robert Lowell. Through her work, Sexton showed the world what could be possible when artists poured themselves fully into their work, sparing no detail, however unpleasant. With her dark commentary on the lighter side of life, like “happily ever after,” and often the darker side, like sexual abuse and incest, Sexton reached out to readers who wanted a down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to poetry. It can be safely said that those readers found exactly what they wanted in Anne Sexton. “Cinderella” and “Briar Rose” are primarily criticisms on beauty, happiness, and forbidden love, yet, when examined in a larger cultural context, these poems are quite possibly two of the greatest works of feminist literature in the American cannon.

Cosgrove Works Cited


Dhoot, Premdip and Steffanie Schaeffer. "Cinderella as Told by Group 2." Cinderella and Insight Into Physical Attraction. Spring 2003. Los Medanos College. 20 Nov. 2006 < GROUPPAG/Our%20Role.html>. Litz, A. Walton. American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1981. 689-691. Regel, Jody. The Subversive Value of Feminist Tales: Overthrowing Some Grimm Stereotypes. Ed. Gabeda Baderoon, Wittenburg, Hermann, and Chris Roper. Inter Act 4. Proceedings of the Fourth Postgraduate Conference, 1996, University of Western Cape. Bellville: University of Western Cape P, 1996. Sexton, Anne. Transformations. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1971. Skorczewski, Dawn. "What Prison is This? Literary Critics Cover Incest in Anne Sexton's 'Briar Rose'" Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 21 (1998): 309343. 20 Nov. 2006 < ? direct=true&db=f5h&AN=960220476>. Wagner-Martin, Linda. "Anne Sexton's Life." Modern American Poetry. 2002. Dept. of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 17 Nov. 2006 <>.

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