The poem “Living in Sin” by Adrienne Rich depicts a woman’s recounting of her short but emotionally exhausting affair with the milkman in the early morning, seemingly after her husband has left for work. Rich’s meticulous portrayal of the events in the poem enables readers to comprehend the level of anguish and bewilderment that accompany infidelity towards one’s partner. Through various figurative and symbolic elements, Rich emphasizes how the woman must endure the consequences of her sinful act, as well as briefly touching upon the milkman’s perspective on the affair.
The poem titled “Living in Sin” provides an initial indication of its content. Subsequently, it is revealed that the title can be interpreted both literally, with the house she lives in symbolizing her sin, and figuratively, as her life becomes consumed by sin due to this occurrence.
The woman initially believed that her marriage would require minimal effort and would be self-sustaining, as indicated by her belief that her “studio would keep itself.” This metaphor suggests that she saw her marriage as a place of refuge, with the implication that it would naturally thrive without intervention. Furthermore, the woman believed that their love would never fade, as she hoped for “no dust on the furniture of love.” Here, Rich equates love with furniture, symbolizing that if love becomes tarnished with symbolic “dust,” it loses its purity and becomes tainted.
The dust symbolism presents the repeated turmoil in her marriage. Both the line about dust and the reference to the “furniture of love” can be interpreted literally. If dust accumulates on the “furniture of love,” it suggests a lack of use and therefore a lack of intimacy. When there is a deficiency of intimacy in a marriage, it may lead her to develop feelings for another man. In the first sentence, this woman seems to be in denial about the realities of marriage. She believes that the marriage will “keep itself,” assuming it requires minimal effort, and even if she neglects it, no “dust would settle” or it would not age or deteriorate. However, anything left unattended will inevitably gather dust. This woman’s initial perspective on marriage does not foster a healthy relationship. Rich offers insight into the type of person who would be unfaithful to their spouse.
The woman’s thoughts are considered “half heresy,” meaning they go against socially acceptable behavior. The repetition of the letter “h” in this phrase suggests that the woman is daydreaming or desiring something. She may be in a catatonic state due to recent events. The woman hopes that the bugle sound signaling the end of the day, known as “taps,” would be less pronounced. This means she doesn’t want to celebrate the end of the day, as she knows she will have to confront her sins with the milkman the next day. Symbolically, “taps” may represent the extinguishing of light in their marriage.
The woman desires that the signs indicating her marriage is over were not so loud, suggesting her wish to still be in the marriage despite being unable to ignore the signs.
Additionally, she wishes for the “panes to be relieved of grime,” implying her desire to see clearly through her window. The term “grime” refers to dust and dirt accumulation specifically on a window. Previously, Rich used the analogy of dust buildup on furniture to represent the deterioration of love. Similarly, by using the analogy of grime on a window pane, the woman expresses her longing to undo the mistakes she has made in her marriage, particularly regretting her affair with the milkman. While she knows it is impossible to simply erase the affair, she yearns to return to her previous self without it—like having a “clear window.” Even though she may be enjoying the affair, this line suggests that she wishes it had never occurred.
The third sentence begins by describing the woman’s house, specifically her studio, using two statements that create a picturesque scene. Additionally, the sentence mentions a cat and a mouse. The cat is described as “stalking the picturesque amusing mouse.” Symbolically, the cat represents the woman and the mouse represents the man.
This is the first line that describes the relationship between the woman and the milkman. The cat is depicted as a stalker and the mouse as an antagonist. The cat embodies a domesticated animal while the mouse symbolizes an outsider. The woman finds amusement in the milkman’s advances and reciprocates his desires. Rich portrays the man as the pursuer of the woman who boldly puts himself out there for her, satisfying her cravings. As a result, the woman, who spends her days alone in the house, had been admiring the milkman!
All the man had to do was take action and she was prepared. This statement details their encounter and highlights how the woman appeared eager to demonstrate her dissatisfaction in her marriage upon the arrival of the milkman. The sentence utilizes alliteration effectively to emphasize the picturesque setting in which she resides, as well as the additional picturesque element of the mouse.
In this passage, the author delves further into the details of the affair. Initially, it is described how the sound of the milkman’s footsteps on each individual step becomes magnified in the woman’s mind. This highlights the purity of the milkman’s profession, as even a seemingly insignificant sound like this becomes significant to her. Additionally, the use of the word “writhe” illustrates how the sound of the milkman’s footsteps is almost agonizing to the woman, as she is aware of her own actions and intentions towards him.
The following lines describe how the morning light reveals the remnants in a cold and straightforward manner. This refers to how the light exposes the events that occurred between the woman and her husband the previous night, such as the cheese they ate and the milk they drank. The milkman witnesses all of this in the morning light and continues his wrongdoing. The word “coldly” describes how the light’s illumination of the scraps depicts a negative image of the relationship between the husband and wife.
In the following lines, Rich illustrates how the house in which the woman resides symbolizes her consistent engagement in sinful activities. One particular line describes how the “beetle-eyes would fix her own,” effectively conveying the distress and anguish that the woman has brought upon herself as a result of her wrongdoing. It is evident that no one has witnessed her committing this sin and it can be assumed that she has confided in no one. However, the only other entities aware of her transgression are the eyes of the house. These beetle-like eyes, fixed upon hers, symbolize the presence of the judgmental village that resides within her dwelling. Rich raises a daunting concept – the fear of someone being aware of one’s sins. It is clear that the woman carries guilt for her actions, and her everyday living situation serves as a constant reminder of her wrongdoing.
Meanwhile, while the woman is battling inside her head, it is a reminder that the man is also involved in this adulterous relationship. The man yawns, indicating that he is not as affected by the relationship. Even though the woman is haunted by the sin she has created and is constantly reminded of it in her house, the man is relaxed enough to yawn in her presence. The man metaphorically ends the relationship by “sounding a dozen notes upon the keyboard” and declaring it out of tune. Rich uses music to describe their adulterous relationship, comparing a good marriage to beautiful music that is in tune. Therefore, an adulterous relationship can be described as out of tune. The fact that the man realizes this after only a few encounters with the woman suggests maturity on his part.
Either he knew it wouldn’t work or he noticed that the woman was becoming too attached. The man considered this relationship to be insignificant and was able to brush it off and continue with his life effortlessly. (Discuss how he shrugged it off and moved on)
Rich uses a harsh tone to depict the woman’s response to rejection. She is depicted as being mocked by her self-inflicted demons. The woman interprets this as a form of divine retribution, believing that it is a consequence for her adultery with another man, resulting in her being abandoned by him. The “minor demons” mentioned by Rich are symbolic of the consequences she has brought upon herself. She feels mocked because she believes she is receiving what she deserves for her actions and must endure it. The woman experiences the breakup much more intensely than the man.
In the following line, it appears that the man ended the relationship right after having sex with the woman. She is removing the sheets to tidy up the bed, presumably after they had been lying in it. This also relates back to the previous line.
Referring to the man, it mentions him going out for cigarettes after sex, which is a common practice. The fact that he broke up with her immediately after sex is even more difficult for the woman to accept.
While she is pulling back the sheets to make the bed, she “found a towel to dust the table-top.” Symbolically using dust and furniture seems to be a recurring theme in this poem by Rich. The fact that she needs to dust the furniture indicates that there is dust on the furniture, which contradicts her initial expectations at the beginning of the poem. The presence of the milkman literally created dust on the furniture and symbolically created dust on her love life. The final part of the sentence, “the coffee-pot boils over on the stove,” illustrates that she is so shaken by the events of the day that she can no longer focus on ordinary tasks.
The author highlights the significance of the last sentence, which emphasizes that the woman is back in love again by evening. This timing coincides with her husband’s return home, and now that she has ended her affair with the milkman, she believes she can fully commit to her husband and rekindle her feelings for him. The woman’s character is illuminated by her ability to experience devastation earlier in the day and then quickly transition back to love. Even though she may not be in love with the milkman and their relationship was limited, the affair itself is a constant reminder of her sinful act, particularly each morning when daylight arrives. Rich describes how the woman wakes up and is reminded of the relentless presence of the milkman ascending the stairs. This moment, along with other symbols, serves as a constant reminder of her sin. Regardless of her efforts, she cannot escape waking up and facing this reality every day, which prevents her from fully experiencing and embracing love.
As a result, she is unable to be completely “wholly” in love.