Barry Ahearn: On "The Young Housewife"

The encounter between the passing doctor and the young housewife is scrupulously polite and legitimate. Yet the poem hints at potential sexual contact. We should remember that in the days when doctors made house calls it would have been no cause for public comment for Williams to drive freely about Rutherford.

. . .

The poem focuses attention on various tangible barriers and containers, as if the poet were mulling over the structures that physically restrain the young housewife. The "wooden walls," for example, "of her husband's house" are the major physical barriers that hide her from the view of patrolling males, though it seems that this doctor's view has the advantage of x-ray vision, for he discerns her moving "in negligee" behind those walls. When she finally emerges, further physical limitations appear. The "curb" seems to be one barrier that marks the boundary between herself and delivery men. Another constraint is prominent by virtue of its absence: she is "uncorseted." Furthermore, the adjective beginning line 8, "stray," suggests her possible predilection for escaping orderly confines, whether in terms of hair arrangement or in terms of more serious transgressions. The poet, too, exists in a physical container--his car.

More pressing than these tangible barriers, however, are the intangible taboos that keep the young housewife and a potential lover from casual consummations. The marriage vow and the doctor's professional code of ethics are the two strongest inhibitors. Yet it is a fact that they are sometimes violated, and the poem recognizes this. Williams surely knew the joke involving the cuckolding of the husband by the ice-man that ends with the punch line, "No dear, but he's coming now." Perhaps there is some slight emphasis on the notion of sexual coming when the young housewife "comes to the curb / to call the ice-man."

We should also note the way in which two line breaks in the poem reinforce the poem's concern with boundaries and the possibility of crossing them. The first line break of the second stanza ends with "curb," as if to emphasize the physical nature of the line between public and private property, between the rights of deliverymen and the provenance of a marriage. The transition from line 7 to line 8 ("shy, uncorseted, tucking in / stray ends of hair...") relies for its effect on the reader's assumption that what the young housewife would be "tucking in" would be some loose folds of a garment--her robe perhaps. Yet the next line reveals an element of vanity on her part. She wants to look attractive. The line break catches the tension between the housewife's wish--however unconscious or automatic--to appear desirable and the community's prescription that only her husband's desires should be accommodated.

That the doctor entertains thoughts about some sort of convergence with the young housewife appears in the parallels between the two of them. In the first stanza the state of the young housewife being left alone in "her husband's house" makes the poet aware of his similar position: "I pass solitary in my car." The housewife's self-consciousness about her appearance in the second stanza is echoed in the doctor's self-consciousness about his art: "I compare her...." There is outward turning in this poem--the woman leaves the house and encounters other males, the doctor frequently leaves his home to call on women who need his professional services--but there is also inward turning; the woman toward her appearance, the poet toward his art. (Note the parallelism of roles: she emerges as a housewife but also meets people at the curb as an object of desire; he passes by as a doctor, but also acts as a poet.) Finally, the meeting, of housewife and doctor is defused of sexual anxiety by the doctor's slightly pompous and ridiculous final act: "I bow and pass smiling." The courtly bow he exhibits at the close can only be executed with difficulty from the seat of a moving car.

If there is a balancing act in this poem between the mores of the present century and the behavior of the last one, there is also a balancing act in the poem between two tropes: carpe diem and memento mori. The former appears most vividly in the second stanza, with the desirable young housewife compared to "a fallen leaf." "Fallen," of course, is a term that evokes a number of sexual references--especially to ladies of easy virtue. And the suggestion that the housewife is a leaf carries with it the traditional references to the fleeting life of vegetation as an analogy for human life. But the appearance of "dried leaves" crushed by the"noiseless wheels" of the doctor's car equally as well suggest the noiseless wings of devouring Time and the ephemeral nature of the merely physical. The faint presence of the two contradictory traditions mingling in the poem reflects the contrary impulse (desire vs. fear of scandal) that move the poet.

By Barry Ahearn. From William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry. Copyright © 1994 Cambridge University Press.

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Criticism Overview
Title Barry Ahearn: On "The Young Housewife" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Barry Ahearn Criticism Target William Carlos Williams
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Oct 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication William Carlos Williams and Alterity: The Early Poetry
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