The poem tells the story of the lovers that starts just after the fairytale of their lives has ended. Actually, it reveals the continuation of relationship where fairytale usually cuts the story at the kisses and declaration of love followed by “The End” (a story of a Princess which has to wash dishes on a day after a romantic ball). It is important to point out that the speaker is not actually the woman spoken of in the poem. The narrator here depicts the events in this couple’s daily life.
Yet, it is obviously a woman, due to the tone of the poem: how she sees the careless husband and notices household disorder. Being in variance with many modern text analysts, I must say that the poem ‘Living in Sin’ is completely autobiographic. It has been written by Adrienne Rich during the first months of her own marriage and conveys her own disappointment in what is left after the romantic prelude. To understand the poem one must notice that it is wholly built on the contrasts the author uses from sentence to sentence.
The most evident contrast resides in the mood of the heroes: the indifferent, careless husband (‘he, with a yawn…’) who seems not to notice the miserable surroundings and only shrugs his shoulders at the mirror admitting the piano out of tune, and the pensive and sad wife who is distressed with the routine circle of everyday cleaning and watching the back of her lover leaving each morning for the trivial cigarettes: “ [he] rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes; while she, jeered by the minor demons, pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found a towel to dust the table-top…” .
Adrienne Rich has been influenced by the popular image contrast of artist and his woman (generally, a family). Their married life goes in the studio, a huge room without walls or borders, without anything to confirm one’s privacy. Here we obviously see a family of artists where the woman has to play the subordinate role imposed by the society. As means to manipulate women into submitting to housekeeping roles, society promotes a male-dominant view. Most traditional societies expect all women to feign fulfillment in this biological role of a domestic apparatus.
Therefore, like the woman in the poem, many women in society accept (although, quite reluctantly) this role of a home caretaker. The images of dusted furniture, dried cheese and empty bottles, overboiled pot etc. produce low, pessimistic tones of the poem – all these trifle seems to be powerful enough to spoil woman’s life and even to kill love: “By evening she was back in love again, though not so wholly but throughout the night she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming like a relentless milkman up the stairs”.
Here appears another pair of contrasting images: Day and Night that are parallel to Reality and Dream. This woman actually lives double life, enjoying night demonstrations of love and being not able to change the obtrusive tedium of the day which comes like the “relentless milkman” upon the creaking stair and ruins the fragile dreams of the romantic supper. The piano (summoned by him) seems to be out of tune just like their love. The grime at their window panes is as hard to remove as to bring back the brightness and romantics to the life.
Comparatively, each of the household items is dingy. Everything illuminated by the day is out of this light in a paradoxical way – on the contrary, it strives for the night unconsciousness and inempiricalness. So, now it is possible to explain the name of the poem. “Living in Sin” means to face the day and not to do anything about it, just to see the things go on and to be afraid to make any changes. The woman submits to this role of absolute responsibility without resistance, keeping her resentment and anger to herself.
Her constant expenditure of energy with no satisfactory results leads to disappointment. The heroine of the poem is completely unsatisfied but what with she is not quite sure… We, as a reader, can only guess what exactly bothers her: a bunch of disappointing details or the whole picture of their relationship. I think that the last thing does. Everyday dusting, which she has to take around the studio, symolizes the ‘dusting’ of the relationship that is also needed to keep the love alive.
Undoubtedly, family life needs refreshment not to be sepulchered by the lay of ‘dust’ and similar days. The woman’s futile efforts result in her “living in sin”. She sinfully accepts what society dictates and does not try to escape and improve her circumstances. By lettig this miserable life to continue, she denies herself and her individuality. And such self-sacrifice is the biggest sin for an artistic and thoughtful woman.