Critical Essay on "The Cinnamon Peeler"

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Author: Daniel Toronto
Editor: David A. Galens
Date: 2004
From: Poetry for Students(Vol. 19. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 1,879 words

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Ondaatje's "The Cinnamon Peeler" is a powerfully aesthetic portrayal of erotic love in which the transfer of scent, in this case that of a particularly potent spice, becomes a public and private declaration of union. The surface of the poem can hardly be scratched, however, before running into the signs of a clearly male-dominated society, with women being defined in terms of the males in their lives. The cinnamon peeler's wife is an obvious example, but there is also the lime burner's daughter and the grass cutter's wife. The woman referenced directly, not indirectly through a male, is the cinnamon peeler's mother-in-law, though her identity is still only gained through a woman who is already defined in terms of a man. If the cinnamon peeler were to 'touch' or make love to the lime burner's daughter, she would not be brought into the fold of cinnamon peelers but would remain in the lime burner caste.

The lack of distinct identities also quickly becomes apparent. The men in the poem are only identified through their occupations--the cinnamon peeler, the grass cutter, the lime burner. Again, there is only one occurrence, in the fourth stanza, of brothers being defined without occupational terms, and, as with the mother, they are only defined in terms that are relational, which lead back, through the wife, to the cinnamon peeler. With men only defined by what they do, women are even further removed from any sort of personal identity since they are only referenced through men.

These characteristics might well agitate readers within modern Western cultures. Yet, Western readers are the target audience of the poem, demonstrated by the fact that it has been published within a novel as well as two collections of poetry in England, Canada, and the United States. When the poem was first published in 1982, these three countries had already made great strides toward gender equality. Each had made strides toward increasing opportunities for women in the workforce, progressive equalization of pay, and even electing women rising to high political positions, as with Margaret Thatcher, who became Great Britain's first female prime minister in 1979. Great value was also placed on individuality. Pop psychologists Carl Rogers and Richard Farson had long since made their award-winning film, Journey into Self (1968). Self-help books already comprised a sizeable genre in the publishing market. The prevailing sentiments of the time seem quite contrary to those exhibited in "The Cinnamon Peeler." However, "The Cinnamon Peeler" is clearly not viewed so simplistically. Otherwise, it would not be nearly as well respected. Cultural context plays a large role in making the sexism and identity loss easier to tolerate. As it is examined, a subtext of community and tradition is discovered.

"The Cinnamon Peeler" appeared for the first time in Running in the Family, Ondaatje's semi-autobiographical novel about...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420052871