Anne Sexton’s Twisted Version of Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty’s Sexual Scars in Anne Sexton’s “Briar Rose”
Parents often use fairytales as bedtime stories for their children. Anne Sexton takes these often light-hearted and whimsical tales and spins them into a creation of her own. According to Diana Hume George in “An Overview of Sexton’s Canon,” Sexton, “updated their contexts and language to point out their applications to and parallels with modern life, and she exposed the dark psychic core of each tale in ways that inverted or even reversed their normative meanings.” The poem “Briar Rose (Sleeping Beauty),” begins with a girl in a hypnotic state, sitting on her father’s lap. The stanza is ominous and uncomfortable to read, setting the tone for the rest of the poem. In the following stanzas, the traditional fairytale plays out but as it continues, Briar Rose’s happy ending is nowhere to be seen. Sexton focuses on pivotal events in the story and twists them in a way that recreates the original fairytale and exposes its darker undertones that are otherwise overlooked in the original story.
Sexton begins the first stanza in third person and describes a girl in a hypnotic trance in order to establish the unsettling tone for the rest of the poem. The speaker states that, “She is stuck in the time machine, / suddenly two years old sucking her thumb” (l. 7-8). The girl regresses to a younger age, making her more childlike and vulnerable. The speaker goes on to state that the girl struggles to find her mother but instead, her father is the one to hold her. Whilst on his lap, he tells her, “Come be my snooky / and I will give you a root” (l. 21-22). Snooky is slang for ones romantic partner and a root is phallic in shape. For the father to tell his daughter this immediately signals the incestual undertones that will be present later on.
Over the course of the poem, Briar Rose’s life is marked by unfortunate events. The first one occurs when she is only a baby. Her father held a christening for her but he only owned twelve gold plates and therefore only invited twelve fairies. The thirteenth fairy, feeling spurned, prophesizes that
“The princess shall prick herself
on a spinning wheel in her fifteenth year
and then fall down dead.
Kaputt!” (l. 37-40).
The use of a silly phrase such as “Kaputt!” contrasts greatly to the grave tone of the situation. It highlights the intended lethalness of the curse, which is otherwise glossed over in the watered-down, bedtime version of the fairytale.
In response to the curse, the king becomes overbearing in his need to protect his daughter. He orders every spindle in the kingdom to be destroyed. This makes sense in regards to the prophecy but the king’s orders eventually become more extreme. The speaker states that, “He forced every male in the court / to scour his tongue with Bab-o / lest they poison the air she dwelt in” (l. 60-62) By having the men clean themselves with a modern-day product containing bleach, it is as if the king wants the men to purify themselves so that they will not corrupt his daughter. The curse said nothing of specifically men doing harm to Briar Rose though, so the king’s need to protect her becomes obsession-like. The king’s obsession over his own daughter’s purity is the beginning of the incestual undertones that subverts the original tale’s message of sefless love.
Try as he might, the king’s precautions to keep Briar Rose safe from both men and the curse are thwarted, resulting in the second pivotal moment within the story. Inevitably, Briar rose pricks her finger on a spinning wheel, sending both her and the inhabitants of the kingdom into a deep slumber. The speaker describes the sleeping inhabitants in terms of modern-day parallels, such as comparing the frogs to zombies and the trees to metal. By doing so, the slumbering kingdom’s fate becomes more sinister, as if the inhabitants are petrified instead of simply sleeping. Over the years, many princes try to break the curse but they, “had not scoured their tongues / so they were held by the thorns / and thus were crucified” (l. 86-88). The princes dying show the king’s control over Briar Rose, even while she sleeps. Ultimately, they cannot rescue her because they had not scoured their tongues as the men of the court had done and thus were deemed unfit in the father’s eyes.
A hundred years pass and a prince finally breaks the curse, although everything is not what it seems. In the third pivotal event, when the prince kisses Briar Rose awake, she cries, “Daddy! Daddy!” (l. 96). After being awakened after such a frightful occurrence, it would only make sense for a girl to cry out for her father, but Briar Rose was specifically awakened by a kiss. This implicates that the father has kissed Briar Rose as well, giving the reader a glimpse of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child.
At this point, the original fairytale ends with Briar Rose living happily ever after with her prince. In Sexton’s version of the story, Briar Rose awakening marks the beginning of her downward spiral. Although Briar Rose marries the prince, she becomes an insomniac, still haunted by the memories of her father’s sexual abuse. She becomes dependent on drugs and cannot sleep, “without the court chemist / mixing her some knock-out drops / and never in the prince’s presence” (l. 106-108). Briar Rose becomes more and more disturbed by the memories her father’s sexual abuse but refuses to let her spouse know. Briar Rose’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father results in the overall deterioration of both her mental and physical health.
Briar Rose’s health steadily worsens until she descends into a state of delirium. The speaker switches from that of third person to first and says, “I must not sleep / for while asleep I’m ninety / and think I’m dying” (l. 120-122). Briar Rose goes back and forth between different points of her life, from when she was a small child at the hands of her father to when she was in the hundred-year slumber. Because of this, Briar Rose becomes even more dependent on drugs, similarly to how real-life victims of sexual abuse can fall victim to drug usage in order to cope with their past.
In the following stanza, it becomes evident that the girl in the beginning of the poem is the modern-day parallel to Sexton’s recreated version of Sleeping Beauty. In the first stanza, the little girl is just “learning to talk again” (l. 10). She lost her will to talk after being sexually abused but slowly starts to come forth with what happened, just as Briar Rose begins to do. The speaker says, “I was forced backward. / I was forced forward” (l. 145-146). The movements mimic the sexual positions that her father forced her into when she was younger. Although older and now married, Briar Rose still feels like a prisoner to her father. This directly subverts the wholesome image of the king in the original tale. In Anne Sexton’s version of Sleeping Beauty’s, the king is the true villain of the story because of what he did to his daughter. By raping her as a child, he ensures a lifetime of unhappiness to follow.
In the traditional fairytale, a prince eventually thwarts the thirteenth fairy’s curse and awakens the princess with true love’s kiss. It embodies a wholesome message of good conquering evil. Sexton twisted the fairytale and utilized specific themes within it – such as a father’s love – in order to give voice to victims of incest and sexual abuse. In reality, many victims do not lead a happy life because of the memories of abuse that stay with them, long after it ends. By doing the same to Briar Rose, Sexton shows that not everyone can live a happily ever after.
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Sleeping Beauty’s Sexual Scars in Anne Sexton’s “Briar Rose” Parents often use fairytales as bedtime stories for their children. Anne Sexton takes these often light-hearted and whimsical tales and spins […]