[Interpretive Question: Why does Adrienne Rich enjoy her moments with her lover when she seems to be against the practice of cohabitation?]
Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Living in Sin”, explores her viewpoints regarding cohabitation, or the mutual decision between lovers to share a single house even if they are not yet married. This poem is not only romance-based, but also suggests implications on the problems concerning cohabitation and having sex outside of marriage, more particularly from the side of a female lover. These conflicts involve the poet’s belief on society’s discrimination against cohabitation, her own sense of moral values involved in the sexual act outside of marriage, her male lover’s somewhat emotional reservation on attachment, and even her personal battles regarding the ethicality of her romantic relationship. However, all these mentioned conflicts being felt by the poet still would not stop her from having an affair outside of marriage, and that this is basically because of the sexual pleasure she feels during their moments of intimate happiness.
The very title of the poem itself has strong suggestions that the poet feels great conflict in having a romantic sexual affair outside of marriage. This is especially true with the use of the word ‘sin’, specifically because she seems to feel a desire to continue the relationship despite of being aware of its immorality. Hence, the title ‘Living in Sin’ is a short expression of the poet’s decision to continue with her premarital sexual affair even if she knows that it is immoral, in that she desires to continue ‘living’ her life committing the ‘sin’ of premarital sexual intercourse. In this respect, at the beginning part of the poem it can immediately be seen that the lines, “She had thought that the studio would keep itself; no dust upon the furniture of love” (Rich 1-2) tells of personal conflict. What is observable here are the words ‘studio’ which represents her sexual femininity and her failure to keep it without blemish, and ‘dust’ which in turn is symbolic of the immorality associated with having sex outside of marriage. Primarily, these opening lines discuss the poet’s initial belief that she can engage in sex outside of marriage without having to face moral conflicts within her, but apparently she eventually finds out that she is wrong.
The argument that it is because of sexual pleasure that the poet cannot seem to break free from immoral sex acts is expressed in the poem by using visual imagery. This is evidenced in the lines, “Not that at five each separate stair would writhe under the milkman’s tramp” (Rich 8-9). Here, the use of the word ‘writhe’ is especially interesting, given that this word implies visual imagery that when associated with the sexual theme of the poem suggests the poet’s intense pleasure in their sexual acts, and since this word when used in sexual theme also means wriggling in pleasure, most probable while lying in bed. More so, the addition of the word ‘tramp’, which pertains to her male lover’s strong and domineering steps, strongly suggest that this is not a literal step taken towards the stairs, but is symbolic of each thrust her lover makes while they are having sex. Hence, because the said lines connote intense sexual pleasure brought about by her male lover during their times of ecstasy, it can also be safely stated that this sexual satisfaction is the main reason why the poet cannot simply let go of her lover despite of the moral conflicts existing inside her.
Another evidence from the poem that points to sexual pleasure as the reason for the poet’s desire to continue living in sexual immorality can be seen in the use of the words ‘cheese’, ‘sepulchral bottles’ and ‘morning light’ and their connections with the accomplishment of their sexual desires the previous night. Such is the case in the lines, “that morning light so coldly would delineate the scraps of last night’s cheese and three sepulchral bottles” (Rich 9-11), wherein the symbol ‘cheese’ is relevant when considering that the poet identified her lover as a milkman. This makes the ‘cheese’ a visual symbol of milk’s end-product, wherein the process that allowed this to transform overnight is their sexual intercourse. In the same manner, the use of the words ‘three sepulchral bottles’ is aimed at forwarding a theme of sexual consummation, with the ‘bottle’ symbolizing the male sexual organ and ‘three’ meaning to imply the three sexual intercourse events that occurred the previous night. Moreover, the use of ‘sepulchral’ in the sentence, whether it means sorrow or funeral, strongly implies the poet’s sadness that the evening has passed, and she has to part ways again with her lover. This becomes even more significant when considering the words ‘morning light’ which signifies happiness and hope, and which clearly expresses the poet’s feeling of satisfaction from the previous night of three passionate sexual intercourses.
There are also evidences in the poem that suggests that the poet indeed feels and longs for the sexual pleasure her lover gives her in their times of sexual intimacy. This is seen in the lines “while she, jeered by minor demons, pulled back the sheets” (Rich 19-20), and its connection with the line “like a relentless milkman up the stairs” (Rich 26). In the first example stated, the poet’s decision to use the word ‘jeered’ suggests a naughty teasing of her sexual urge to be back in bed with her lover. In this respect, it also must be noted that the use of ‘minor demons’ to describe her lust implies her seemingly acceptance of her sexual activities outside of marriage, since she has already learned to treat this as a form of minor immorality. More so, the poet’s decision to use ‘relentless’, or non-stop, to describe her lover suggests a strong male sexual appeal, perhaps even of sexual endurance. From these arguments, it can be established that the poet herself feels a strong sexual urge towards her lover, and this is one of the reasons why she continues with her sexual relationship despite of conflicts.
Other than the internal moral conflicts that show on her poem, there is also a social aspect that seems to trouble the poet with regards to the immorality of her sexual actions. This can be seen in the lines, “a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own—envoy from some village in the moldings” (Rich 13-14). Here, it is observable that the poet is aware of the undignified way that society perceives sees sexual relations outside of marriage, as what is expressed by the use of ‘beetle-eyes’ in the poem. Perhaps this awareness or fear on how society perceives her is the reason why the poet has some reservations on her love for her man, as what can be evidenced in the lines “By evening she was back in love again, though not so wholly” (23-24), which suggests a somewhat laidback expectation on her part that her sexual relationship will eventually blossom into a lifetime commitment. Furthermore, the poem offers an idea that the poet herself is aware of making her sexual activities secret from the public as to not attract undue criticisms. This is most evident in the lines “pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found a towel to dust the table-top” (Rich 20-21). Here, what is obvious is the attempt to clean up her mess, or ‘to dust’ off whatever symbolic dirt has accumulated in the course of her sexual relationship with her lover. In all these arguments, it can be concluded that the poet knows that her sexual activities outside of marriage is unethical, yet somehow she still chooses to refuse to end her relationship because of the pleasure it brings her.
However, the poem also suggests that the feeling is mutual between the poet and her lover, in that he is likewise only after sexual intercourse and not on a deeper romantic relationship. This argument is especially evident in the lines after they have consummated their lust: “he, with a yawndeclared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror, rubbed his beard, went out for cigarettes” (Rich 15-17). As such, because the said lines connotes a general feeling of disconnection by the man, and that any form of protest from the poet is absent in the entirety of the poem suggest that the two lovers are not really emotionally attached, rather are just there to satisfy each of their sexual cravings.
Adrienne Rich’s poem reveals that it is only because of sexual pleasure that she and her lover continue to share intimate sexual moments despite of not being married. This is despite of the sense of immorality that the poet strongly feels, the societal factors that seem to restrict their movements and emotional attachment, and her lover’s seeming aloofness for deeper romantic commitment. In all of these, what becomes evident is the poet’s satisfaction in having a non-committal relationship because of the absence of any words of protest which would have shown that she aspires for a deeper or lasting romantic relationship. As it is, Rich is only content in satisfying her sexual needs, and indeed it seems that this for the meantime is enough for her.
Rich, Adrienne. Living in Sin. Best Poems Encyclopedia, 2014. Web. 12 June 2015.