What Is the Central Theme of the Poem “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich?

The central theme of “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” by Adrienne Rich is how the power of the patriarchy controls women’s bodies but not their minds. The poem makes this point by presenting the wild, exotic, powerful tigers embroidered by Aunt Jennifer and contrasting them with Aunt Jennifer herself.

The first stanza of the poem characterizes the tigers as “topaz denizens of a world of green” who do not fear men and pace in “certainty” around their idealized world. The bright color words and confident verbs in the stanza are redolent of self-assured power. The second stanza shifts to Aunt Jennifer, who is embroidering this vivid picture on a screen. She does not seem powerful at all. Her fingers are “fluttering” through the wool, and she can barely pull the tiny needle because the “massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band / Sits heavily on Aunt Jennifer’s hand.” This image evokes something like a prisoner’s ball and chain, and very clearly symbolizes the dominating power of patriarchal institutions, such as marriage. The last stanza envisions the future. There is no hope for Aunt Jennifer: her bondage lasts until her death, when her “terrified hands” lie in a coffin, still dominated by men. Her tigers, however, remain unafraid on the screen she made. Although her body has died, still “mastered by” her ordeals, the tigers, the denizens of her imagination, persist, regal and powerful. This is a feminist twist on the classic theme of art’s ability to outlast human life.