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General Douglas Macarthur said that "the best time to meet the threat [of war] is in the beginning. It is easier to put out a fire in the beginning when it is small than after it has become a roaring blaze" (qtd. in Urofsky, part 9). The mother in Sharon Olds' "The Possessive" undoubtedly feels the same way. War is a terrible time between two or more nations that fight to part from each other or for some other reason; nations fight over property rights and independence. In "The Possessive," Olds uses powerful images of war, such as helmets, blades, and fires to show how her daughter is similar to a warring country that has pulled away from her.
Sharon Olds states "In her bright helmet / she looks at me as if across a great distance" (Olds, 506). The helmet exemplifies the imagery that Olds uses to show the warlike tone in her poem. In modern day wars people see pictures of Cruise missiles and Stealth Bombers on CNN. However, when asked what they envision when they think about war, some will talk about guns, knives, helmets, and fires. As Olds talks about her daughter, she realizes that there is an impending battle yet to come. This battle, too, will be about possession. When her daughter sits in the barber's chair, Olds realizes that her daughter will soon reach her teens. The teenage years are a time when parents battle over cars, boys, and other rights with there children. The children and parents will fight over haircutting rights. As Olds reports, her daughter "has been to the barber, that knife grinder, / and had the edge of her hair sharpened" (506). Knife grinding and sharp objects are another image of war. Soldiers must be sure that their instruments are perfectly sharp if they want to win the war. The first time Olds things about the upcoming battle occurs during the warlike image of the haircut. These first warlike images set the tone of the rest of the piece.
The most vivid and important warlike image that Olds uses in "The Possessive" is the image of fire. The fire imagery appears more than once in the piece. Olds writes that "Distant fires can be / glimpsed in the resin light of her eyes" (506).
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General Macarthur went on in his speech to say that "the best way to meet the threat of aggression is for the peace-loving nations to act together. If they don't act together, they are likely to be picked off, one by one" (qtd. in Urofsky, part 9). Through the warlike images of this piece, readers see that the mother realizes that a battle is likely to occur between her and her daughter. Similar to many wars, theirs' will be a battle over possession. The vivid warlike images that reappear time and again in "The Possessive" help to set the tone of the piece. They also help concrete the seriousness of the battle that will soon occur between the mother and daughter. Olds leaves readers with some hope that maybe they can work together to alleviate problems "before / the war starts" (506).
Olds, Sharon. "The Possessive." Discovering Literature: Stories, Poems, Plays. 2nd ed. Eds. Hans P. Guth and Gabriele L. Rico. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice, 1997. 506.
Urofsky, Melvin I. "Recall of General Douglas Macarthur." Civnet: International Resource for Civic Education and Civic Society. United States Information Agency. 11 Apr. 1999. <http://www.civnet.org/resources/teach/basic/part9/58.htm>.