Analysis of Williams' "A Young Housewife"
At ten A.M. the young housewife
moves about in negligee behind
the wooden walls of her husband's house.
I pass solitary in my car.
Then again she comes to the curb
to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands
shy, uncorseted, tucking in
stray ends of hair, and I compare her
to a fallen leaf.
The noiseless wheels of my car
rush with a crackling sound over
dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.
The first three lines of Williams’ poem are concrete and specific. We begin this poem at 10 am in the morning with a “young housewife.” Then, in lines 2 and 3 we find she is “behind/the wooden walls of her husband’s house.” We are not given much, be we are still able to make intelligent inferences about the character of this poem. Just by calling her a “young housewife” we know that she is bound to marriage, and her freedom is limited. Because she is depicted as “behind/wooden walls” we are hemmed in with her. The woman is trapped by walls of a house that is not even hers to own. Williams removes possession of the house and gives the ownership to her husband, and we sense that the she is without any authority. As for the physical aspects of the woman, we only know that she is moving “about in negligee…” The word “negligee” is usually used as a noun, but Williams turns it into more of a state of being. He does not state that she “moves about in a negligee” because if he had done that, he would have only defined the clothes the woman was wearing, opposed to this more kinetic description of her movements.
So far, the tone in these three lines has been one of constriction and a small hint at sexuality; the later originating from the situation: a young, bored woman in a negligee wandering about in her backyard. The last line of the stanza introduces a drastic change: the first-person narrator passes by “solitarily” in his car. The way Williams has devised the sentence structure, keeps this detail until the end, and when we discover it, we are shocked. We now feel that the narrator has been watching this woman, because it is the narrator who has been describing the scene to us. If this poem had been in third-person we would have felt that the passing by is more of a coincidence, but with the introduction of the “I” we are apprehensive of the narrator. As readers, we have moved from an initial feeling of constriction, to suspicion toward the narrator and his motives.
The next stanza begins with “Then again…” And this seems like a signal to a new incident, different from the one in the first stanza. We find that she is still confined to the house, as she “comes up to the curb.” After that, she begins to calls on to “ice-man” and the “fish-man” and then “stands/ shy, uncorseted…” We now have a different image of this woman. We find that she is testing her boundaries, and gives out slightly sexual hints. The way she “stands/shy, uncorseted tucking in…” is our hint to this. The juxtaposition of “shy” and “uncorseted” gives us a vivid mental picture of the nature of this woman. She is there on the curb trying to act innocent, but she is carefully giving out sexual suggestions. The line break here at “tucking in” makes us want to know, immediately, what she is tucking in. We follow the line to the next line and discover it is a “stray end of hair.” This is a completely innocent movement, but the way Williams chooses to reveal it to us, makes us anticipate each line with more enthusiasm.
The line breaks in lines 8 and 9 also keep us anticipating. The statement “I compare her/” makes us wonder what will he compare her to. This is the first time we are brought back to the narrator since his sudden involvement in live 4. We follow line 8 into 9 and discover that he compares her “to a fallen leaf.” This is the only comparison in the entire poem, and it appears weak. I was expecting something more liberating, something that made her more attractive for him. But after considering what words are associated with a “fallen leaf” it makes more sense. Words like alone, separated, and fragile. I think the narrator sees her as these things. The sound of the phrase “fallen leaf” is soft. There isn’t a harsh consonant in the phrase, and it starts and ends on the same soft “f” sound. This softens the tone of the narrator, and he is not as alarming as he was in the first stanza.
The tone in these last few lines is comparable to the first stanza. We still feel slightly repressed, and the narrator is still watching this woman from what seems to be a distance. In this stanza, however, the woman is trying to push her boundaries, by going up to the curb and calling to other men with sly hints at sexuality. With this last stanza, we are wondering if the man will make an advancement on the woman, and the atmosphere is one of curiosity and anxiousness.
In this last stanza, Williams gives us a sort of oxymoron with “The noiseless wheels of my car/rush with a crackling sound over/” The “noiseless wheels” seems to clash with “a crackling sound” and we are wondering why this is. We are also still waiting for the resolution between the housewife and the narrator. Because of the “noiseless wheels” we know that the man is still in the car, but the “crackling sound” is throwing us off, and it is in the last stanza where we discover the man’s true intentions. The poems states that the narrator “bow[s] and pass[es] smiling.” At first, this makes as much sense as the “fallen leaf” comparison. It is difficult to bow in a car, and we are still wondering about the “crackling sound over/dried leaves.” It is also a strange way to end this poem. It is almost disappointing, because we were ready for a stronger resolution. The best explanation, in light of this light-hearted ending, is that the narrator is imagining himself bowing and smiling at the woman. Now, we get the image of a man walking by the house were she lives and how he steps quietly on dried leaves, and her looking up at him. Then, he bows, gentlemanly, and gives her a smile and goes on his way. I think this makes more sense, especially with the comparison in the second stanza. He sees her as a lonely, but completely innocent, woman who is being neglected by her husband. He doesn’t feel that he should impose on her though. If he had, he would have imagined him doing something more drastic than just politely bowing and smiling at her.
This poem is simplistic, but its message is more subtle and complex than it appears to be. Because of the way Williams plays with his sentence structure, he can have fun with the narrator. He doesn’t introduce him until the end of the first stanza, and the way he adds him at the end of the stanza, makes him appear out of place and strangely distant. His comparison of her to a “fallen leaf” makes him less strange, and in the last stanza he seems to fit into the poem naturally, even though he is still distant from the woman.