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A work of artifice by Marge Piercy: Summary and Analysis

Summary and Analysis of Marge Piercy’s A work of Artifice

A work of artifice by Marge Piercy is about the social limitations of women. She shows how women are conditioned to live a limited life. The poem’s central theme is the oppression of women. She compares the lives of women in society with bonsai’s. The work speaks against the patriarchal system followed in most societies. The world has grown modern but those ancient customs still stop women from living a full and happy life. They are bound to live like caged birds. The bonsai tree in the poem is a potent symbol and represents several things. It represents the oppression of women, their inability to grow and how society has kept them tied to ancient customs. This hold of social customs on women is so strong that releasing them will require fierce force and empowerment. These enclosures have kept women from achieving their potential. The women have traditionally played only secondary roles in a patriarchal society. Not many centuries ago, they were not given opportunities to learn, educate themselves or grow as they have today. In this regard, Marge Piercy’s work strikes at the root of gender inequality prevalent in a male dominated world. However, the poem speaks more about the psychological degeneration that happens due to the clipping of wings. One notable feature of the poem is its use of free verse.

In the patriarchal system, they could only be mothers, housewives and child bearers. The title of the poem is sarcastic and the poem targets the chains that bind women. It deals with the biggest irony in a woman’s life. Artifice means cunning devices used for deception. The poem explains how the women are deceptively made to lead limited lives. The society deceives them of their liberty, clips their wings and keeps them inside cages to prevent them from flying. Most plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that their freedom becomes a challenge for the dominant male mindset prevalent in the society. However, it also suggests the moral degradation of this male dominated society which has always looked at women as inferior objects meant only for decoration.

“The bonsai tree
 in the attractive pot
could have grown eighty feet tall
on the side of a mountain
till split by lightning.
 But a gardener
carefully pruned it. 
It is nine inches high.”

Apart from everything they were considered materials for interior decoration like the bonsai trees are. Bonsais are good for decoration but they are still Bonsais that could have grown into strong trees. Why has the poet chosen the metaphor of a bonsai tree? Bonsai means a loss of growth and freedom. It also implies meaninglessness and life without space to grow. The poet questions of women are just materials of interior decoration. Women were expected to remain confined to the interiors and do the household tasks. They were expected to understand their limits and remain tightly tied to their responsibilities or their roots. A bonsai tree’s roots and branches are pruned and tightly tied so it does not grow to its real size.  The bondage used to keep the bonsai from growing is also found in women’s lives. Bonsai’s are miniature plants that do not need much watering and care. The women were also expected to love others but not expect care in return. A plant that could grow to become 90 feet tall, remained nine inches high.

“Every day as he
 whittles back the branches
the gardener croons,
It is your nature
 to be small and cozy,
domestic and weak;
how lucky, little tree,
to have a pot to grow in.”

The women were conditioned to live according to the customs and traditions. They were expected to feel good about the roles assigned to them. The gardener is a metaphor for the society and the male members of the family. It sets the rules for the plant. Every girl child is conditioned to understand the rules her society has set for her.  She is taught to feel cozy in the small space assigned to her and to be her husband’s shadow and act and feel like his servant. Wild women were not considered civilized and so had to be domesticated at a tender age. A girl’s society was not very large and in most cases limited to her family. It began from her father’s home and ended at her husband’s. The nature of a tree is to grow large but so it can be turned into an object of interior decoration, it is tied down and trimmed. These girls are also conditioned in a similar manner. Their wings are clipped so they cannot think of flying and can stay satisfied with their fate. Fundamentally, the poem is about gender bias and the resulting inequality which has always kept women from living their lives to the fullest.

“With living creatures
 one must begin very early 
to dwarf their growth:
 the bound feet,
the crippled brain,
the hair in curlers,
the hands you
love to touch.”

Does the society fear that someday its women would revolt?  The gardener is happy at what he is doing without thinking what injustice he has done to the plant. It could have grown 90 feet high by some hill’s side and kissed the clouds that float above. The gardener keeps its feet bound so it does not raise its head too high. The brain is crippled so it does not develop independent thoughts and start thinking of leaving its confines. The society has worshipped them as goddesses but also turned them into objects of beauty and love, who decorate the household and are bound by traditions. However, this trimming down or what the society considers appropriate conditioning for women begins at a tender age since once they have grown up, they may grow resistant against the social norms and try to fly above and beyond the walls stopping them. The poem records the pain in every woman’s life. Women are asking for more space and freedom to breath free.

Rhyming scheme: The poem is written in free verse or does not have a fixed rhyming scheme. However, that is effective at amplifying the meaning and tone of the poem.

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Written by Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.

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