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Hypocrisy in E.E. Cummings’ the Cambridge Ladies

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The Hypocrisy of Communal Identity in cummings' the Cambridge ladies  

E.E. Cummings’ [the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls] is an enigmatic, ironic and sarcastic poem which reveals the unreal, fraudulent lives that the Cambridge ladies live. The poetic speaker’s tone is filled with sarcasm and irony to show the contradiction between the Cambridge ladies’ actions and beliefs. This discriminating voice is used when speaking of the Cambridge ladies’ Christianity, their communal identity, and when speaking of their frivolous concerns. Depth and empathy, both of which the ladies lack, are juxtaposed against the women’s emptiness and indifference. Collectively, the Cambridge ladies share the inability to connect to their religion and to the exterior world that surrounds them. In addition, Cummings contrasts nature imagery against the material and socially based Cambridge Ladies. Because these ladies are well endowed and isolated from the outside world, they are not able to fully comprehend the reality of issues.

Through this comparing and contrasting, E.E. Cummings is able to show the superficial and fabricated world that the Cambridge ladies have created. Although these women claim to be strict Protestants, their unsympathetic behavior proves to be less than holy. The Cambridge ladies are not able to fully understand the harsh reality of a world that lies beyond their trifle lives. Because they have already been given everything they need in life without working for it, the women are content with their set ways and have “comfortable minds” ([the Cambridge] ln. 2). These women have never known anything other than luxury and happiness. Thus, the ladies have no reason to challenge their church’s or society’s customs.

The Cambridge ladies cannot comprehend hardships and therefore cannot internalize or empathize with the outside world’s problems. Illustrating this lack of knowledge, the Cambridge ladies cannot even recall who or what they are knitting for: “delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?/perhaps.” ([the Cambridge] lns. 8-9). Since the cause for which the women are knitting is possibly war or for some other seemingly desperate situation, the adjective “delighted” used to describe the ladies’ hands is quite ironic. If the Cambridge ladies were truly able to absorb the reason as to why they were knitting, they would be sorrowful and compassionate. Their hands would not be “delighted” and they would not have “comfortable minds.” They would be very disturbed and would probably end up questioning Christianity as well as their society’s practices. The consensus answer to the question of whether or not they’re knitting for the “Poles” ends up being “perhaps,” exposing the apathy the Cambridge ladies conjointly share about their volunteer work. Even though they have the “church’s protestant blessings” ([the Cambridge] ln. 3), E.E. Cummings states that “the Cambridge ladies do not care” ([the Cambridge] ln. 11) about anything other than themselves. The word “protestant” is not capitalized, infering that their Christianity is merely an undertone in their lives. If the ladies were to be good, genuine Christians, they wouldn’t care about the “scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D” ([the Cambridge] ln. 10) or about fitting into an idealized role. In effect, religion becomes a trend rather than a belief for the Cambridge ladies.

    In response to the Cambridge ladies’ trends, E.E. Cummings alludes to both Christ and Longfellow. By doing so, the women look and become more erroneous in the reader’s eye. Christ, a martyr for his devout beliefs, and Longfellow, who was famous for not only his translation of Dante’s Inferno but for his simple poetic style, are “both dead” ([the Cambridge] ln. 5). “Both dead” is a spondee which makes their deaths seem just as immutable as the Cambridge ladies’ old-fashioned ways. Instead of believing in these men’s convictions, the women ascribe to Longfellow and Christ because they are accepted, popular and well-known idols. The Cambridge ladies only enjoy Longfellow’s poetry and Christ’s teachings because they are socially accepted names; reading and believing in both helps these ladies to gain status within their clique. Following the statement that they have faith in Longfellow and Christ, Cummings’ indicates their insincerity by mimicking the Cambridge ladies’ speech: “are invariably interested in so many things--/at the present writing” ([the Cambridge] ln. 6-7). These lines mirror the way that the Cambridge Ladies talk to each other as well as show their constantly changing interests; for the Cambridge ladies, Longfellow and Christ are mere pastimes just like “writing” and “knitting.” Longfellow’s poetry was thought to be simple, positive and easy to understand which may be another explanation as to why the ladies enjoyed his works. However, the effect of Christ’s enlightenment upon the fickle Cambridge ladies is very hard to understand because they appear to be incapable of introspectively and contemplative thought. Therefore, their beliefs in these two icons can only be attributed to their need to gain social acceptance.

    The Cambridge ladies are confined by a close, strict and conforming social sphere which influences their selfhood as well as their children’s personas. Through this selective group, they are able to reaffirm themselves. Instead of confronting issues that arise when attempting to form a unique and independent identity, these women simply formulate themselves through others. To form their personalities, they look to other women, to the church, and to their society to give them definition. As a result, their lives and selfhood’s center exclusively around living for the other. Their faulty beliefs create a flawed collective persona and rob the ladies of their individuality. To display this deficiency, E.E. Cummings decides not to single out any of the women by using one binding name: “the Cambridge ladies” ([the Cambridge] ln. 1). While it is evident that the ladies have had little or no schooling, the adjective “Cambridge,” which is suggestive of higher education, is sarcastically used by Cummings. Even if they were to try to establish an identity separate from others, they probably would not have enough knowledge to do so. Because they are not autonomous, they are described as “unbeautiful” ([the Cambridge] ln. 2) and as having “furnished souls” ([the Cambridge] ln. 1). They are “unbeautiful” because they have no definition and no shape. The Cambridge ladies’ souls’ are “furnished” literally and metaphorically. Mirroring the way one decorates a room, their souls are described as “furnished” because society has basically ornamented them with expected beliefs and traits. As traditional Protestant women, they are also confined within their household because they must serve their children and husband. Dually, the Cambridge Ladies’ “daughters” ([the Cambridge] ln. 3) are slowly adopting these standards; they are depicted as being “...unscented shapeless spirited” ([the Cambridge] ln. 3), indicating that they too are conforming. The word “spirited” is juxtaposed against the adjectives “unscented” and “shapeless.” E.E. Cummings does this to question how they can be “spirited” and how their mothers’ hands can be “delighted” in doing work that has no relation to their own interests. Consequently, the women become apathetic as well as cold because they cannot follow their repressed dreams.

    As a result of being restricted to certain roles in their society, the Cambridge ladies develop negative traits such as indifference and insensitivity. Imitating this lack of sentiment, the poem’s structure is one basic shape. Just like the Cambridge women, the poem is plain, unintrusive and doesn’t stray exceedingly from the norm. The Cambridge ladies detach themselves from the external world’s uncertainties and find an apathetic medium in their traditional ways. Their “permanent faces” ([the Cambridge] ln. 9) exhibit their fixed ways; they are close-minded and are not open to anything new or unknown. “Faces,” which is plural, insinuates the assimilation that the women have gone through in order to adapt to their society’s principles. Without any inhibitions and without taking into consideration who they could possibly hurt, they “coyly bandy” ([the Cambridge] ln. 9) the “scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D” ([the Cambridge] ln. 10). After they do so, E.E. Cummings indicates a pause in the poem with multiple periods to make the reader and the poetic speaker reflect on what was just said. The poetic speaker comes up with the mournful conclusion that the Cambridge ladies “do not care” ([the Cambridge] ln. 11) about anything. They don’t care about other people’s feelings and only care about what the church and what their society thinks. Robbing themselves of all hope and individuality, the Cambridge ladies cannot see the liberation that lies within an open-mind.

    Nature is juxtaposed against the Cambridge ladies’ close-mindedness; nature is a freeing agent which is crying out to be seen by these blind women. The Cambridge women are enclosed in a “box of/sky lavender and cornerless” ([the Cambridge] lns. 12-13). The box is symbolic of the women’s minds; it’s like a perfectly assembled package that’s beautiful to look but when opened, is empty. A box is hollow, self-contained and closed. Inside the box is “sky lavender” which is insinuative of a vast, blank sky. The color lavender is a bland and dull form of purple, implicating that this sky doesn’t have much depth to it. Lavendar is also the hue of bruises which the women’s minds may have suffered through the limiting of their thoughts and closing of their minds. Instead of being clear blue, the sky is lavendar. This implies that mankind has even taken control of nature and manipulated it to fit their needs. The box is also “cornerless,” indicating that the Cambridge ladies have nowhere to store their own reflections because their community is so encompassing. Nature is frustrated by man’s disregard of natural beauty and wishes to be seen. The Cambridge ladies are not able to see past themselves and because of this, the “moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy” ([the Cambridge] ln. 14). With descriptive words such as “rattles” and “candy,” this simile seems childlike and innocent. Just like a child, the moon is crying out and waiting for someone to respond to it. When children want attention, they often shake a “rattle.” This produces a loud noise and forces their parents notice them. The word “candy” is similar to the phrase “eye-candy;” it is possible that the moon is frustrated by people looking at it for their own intentions. It is almost impossible for people to grasp the size and magnitude of the moon. This inability to wholly understand the moon mirrors the women’s incapacity to understand Longfellow, Christ and the external world. To emphasize this lack of understanding and how insignificant the moon is to others, it is only a “fragment” of candy rather. Candy is also a temptation to many people and the moon is an equal attraction. The “moon” is personified and seems more human than the Cambridge ladies. Unlike the moon who is demanding to be received, the ladies have no cares and no causes to fight for. Contrary to the Cambridge ladies, the moon is active (“rattles”) , can show emotion (“angry”), and is passionate. The moon is shaking with anger and passion, overwhelmed with the emotion that

    This poem reveals the hypocrisy of people who confine themselves to a limited sphere of knowledge and a confined group of peers. Rather than looking towards the outside world and into the unknown, these women commit themselves to spreading rumors, being “loyal” Christians, and being socially adept. By sharing a communal identity, they give up all individual freedoms. The Cambridge ladies forget to see and understand the individual beauties in life such as the moon. Everything they believe is internalized by their social doctrines; they leave no room for change or for new ideals. Therefore, they are unable to associate with the serenity of nature or with a world separate from themselves. Because they are assigned to a societal doctrine in which they have no control or say over, they become apathetic to its causes. They no longer concern themselves over problems and “do not care” about anything at all. 

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