The poem “Aunt Jennifer's Tigers” by Adrienne Rich finds the main character, Aunt Jennifer, bound by her wedding ring. She, like the ring itself, is confined to a specific, limited space; Aunt Jennifer is a symbol of marriage, tightly wound around the circumference of her husband's universe. And her role as a devoted wife prevents Aunt Jennifer from really living.
As a result of male domination, Aunt Jennifer must fashion her own world. She needs a place in which she can express her feelings, celebrate her individuality, and construct her own dreams. However, there are only a few ways that Aunt Jennifer—uneducated, financially dependent, and most certainly a caregiver—can do this. The best way for her to dictate her own existence is through the art she creates. So Aunt Jennifer is able to transcend the burdens of her marriage by spending her days sewing.
But the “massive weight of Uncle's wedding band . . . sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.” Her ring keeps getting in the way of her needlepoint: the thread gets caught between the sliver of space between “sleek” skin and gold; the band makes faint clicking noises when it meets with the needle; and while her “fingers [flutter] through her wool . . . the ivory needle [is] hard to pull.” Nevertheless, Aunt Jennifer finds freedom and pride through her special craft. Time passes with every stitch-and with each new shape or color that appears on the canvas, she can see a bright part of herself coming to life.
Even after Aunt Jennifer has gone, her art will endure. This thought occurs to her while she designs a pack of tigers on the fabric. Strong, “chivalric,” haughty, “proud and unafraid,” the tigers represent for Aunt Jennifer a wild freedom that she has never experienced—and probably never will. Her womanhood will always prevent her from being a predator on earth. Aunt Jennifer won't explore dark caves and lush forests in search of food and sport; she will be minding the den and attending to her young while waiting for the male to bring home the goods.
Aunt Jennifer's “ordeals [by which] she was mastered” are many and will indeed multiply as the years move forward. But the tigers—“bright topaz denizens of a world of green“—will be forever fierce, even if they are fated to a still life on canvas. Like Aunt Jennifer, the tigers can't break free from their stitched patterns. Yet despite their position, “they do not fear the men beneath the tree”. Neither will Aunt Jennifer so long as she has her artistic talent.
In itself, “Aunt Jennifer's Tigers” is a tapestry rich with decoration and precision. The poem is divided into six sets of rhyming couplets that create a landscape reminiscent of sewing patterns. The steady rhythm of this compact poem evokes the sensation of weaving. Each stanza is carefully rendered, and the reader, like the thread, is guided by a literary tying of knots. The language gives rise to an emotionally complex character in the same way that a thin strand of thread can give life to tiger.