I first read this poem in my sophmore English class, and I have to say: I still can’t read it without getting chills.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. 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. 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.
Primarily, the entire poem is a representation of the predicament of women in society. The bonsai tree is a symbol for women, and the gardener is not only men, but also women who submit to these unequal gender roles. The tree has unbelievable potential to grow into this powerful force of nature.
“I’m not a woman, I’m a force of nature” -Courtney Love
I love this poem, but I also absolutely can’t stand it. There are some things that have zero horror factor, but they terrify me.
Examples: the future and the fact that, as a woman, I’ll have an opinion worth less
I think I’ll go more in depth with it line by line below.
“The bonsai tree..”
This, as I stated earlier, is a comparison to the modern-day women in society.
“..in the attractive pot..”
From my perspective, the attractive pot is the visually appealing appearance that women are expected to have.
I think Tina Fey sums it up quite nicely.
Each woman is her own woman, and no one ever looks exactly the same or perfect. When you can learn to respect a woman’s body as her own, you can be worthy of her love.
“..could have grown eighty feet tall..”
This is, in my opinion, a literal representation of all the potential a single woman can have. There is no dearth of things a woman can do, and I daresay, very truthfully, that they can do more than men. Every woman can do everything a man can do, plus create life. Even if a woman can’t lift five pounds, which I can’t, she has the ability to squeeze a living, breathing human being which generally weigh the same as lighter bowling balls, out of a hole that expands no more than ten centimeters. Last time I checked, men couldn’t do that.
“..on the side of a mountain..”
I don’t really know if this line has any specific meaning, but it must, or it wouldn’t be in the poem. Comment your ideas for the deeper significance of this line below.
“..till split by lightning.”
I think this is the first hard blow; the first time after receiving criticism that a woman thinks she’s not good enough to be all that she wants to be. This, to me, is the most heartbreaking moment in a woman’s life. For the first time in her life, a woman begins to doubt herself. She thinks other peoples’ opinion of herself matter more than her own. This is a very dangerous mistake. The only opinions that matter in your life are your own. Other people might disapprove, and if you truly value their opinion and they truly care about you, keep it in mind, but always, ALWAYS, do what feels right for you. No one else can completely understand what you feel and what choice is right for you, but you.
“But a gardener..”
This, we have already established, is a singular, lighter representation of the groups of people that try to shove women into molds and negative uniformities. It also shows a bit of bias. In the media, one of the more famous bonsai farmers is Mr. Miyagi. Who doesn’t love Mr. Miyagi? He’s the bomb. In this way, Piercy tries show the mindset of those doing the conforming, as they feel it is for the best, and they are improving the lives of young women. (Spoiler Alert: they’re not.)
“..carefully pruned it..”
I really like the choice of words here. “Carefully pruned” gives you a sort of positive connotation, and in this context, it’s almost ironic. Generally, gardeners are people who like nature and know it’s behavior. They know how bring out the best in it, but do this through manipulation or through actual molds. I’ll give you a little gardening knowledge. Topiary, by definition, is “the art or practice of clipping shrubs or trees into ornamental shapes”.
I mean, yeah, at the end, it’ll look nice and cute and beautiful, and personally I appreciate this type of nature art, but it doesn’t change that fact, that, despite being nature, it’s not natural. It’s a mold, and the plant has been modified in order to be appealing. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But human topiaries don’t sound so tempting. The words themselves sound repulsive, so why do we do it?
“It is nine inches high.”
Just imagine for a moment 80 feet tall. For me, it’s like 16 times my height now. It’s a little more than three two-story houses stacked on top of each other. Now imagine nine inches. That’s less than a foot. Imagine an actual foot stepping on this plant that stands less than a foot tall; an actual foot crushing this small plants hopes and dreams, for no other reason than it’s own ego and pride.
“Every day as he whittles back the branches..”
Okay, I know this is actually two lines, but “every day as he” has no huge remarkable meaning, except that women are kept basically under lock and key and are trained every day to act, or dress, or talk a certain way.
I think the word “whittles” is very precise here. Like earlier, it denotes a more tender meaning. Like whittling corn into dolls or something, one must be very careful and use a more gentle hand. Piercy again uses very specific word choice to show the deliberate manipulation and control over women.
“..the gardener croons..”
Alright, who else is totally creeped out by the word “croons”? I don’t know why, it just gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Anyway, back to “croons”. It just reminds me, for some odd reason, the way Jafar talks to Princess Jasmine. I swear, that guy is the world’s biggest perv. Jasmine is seriously like 15 years old, and he’s almost 40 and he dresses her up in that red outfit and gets totally seduced by her.
If Jafar isn’t crooning, I have no idea what he’s doing. I can just imagine this gardener patronizing the plant, in and out of symbolism, basically harassing it until it wears away in submission. This happens to actual women in actual, real life, and if it ever happened to me, I’d probably never leave my house again out of terror.
“..It is in your nature..”
I hate that this is an actual thing. How can someone, anyone, tell someone that they are naturally different than how they actually are. That makes zero sense to me, and it just blows my mind that people fall for that type of rubbish. If it is not something that you are 100% comfortable with, it is not in your nature. Don’t twist this into me saying not to try new things. But if it goes against your values and your beliefs, it is not in your nature. It is not something that you need to change about yourself. It’s just something stupid that people say to gain power over you. No one should have power over you.
“..to be small and cozy, domestic and weak;..”
Again, I know it’s two lines, but they have pretty much the same meaning. This is where we first get the inkling that they are talking about women. Women have had a sole responsibility in past societies: to have babies. They are motherly and warm; they do household chores and never leave, except to buy groceries; they listen to their fathers and brothers, then to their husbands, then to their sons. This has been the women’s only role in most olden civilizations. Of course, they used to have much more respect for their hard jobs, like in Ancient Sparta and Greece. Then people realized the function of male reproductive parts, and slowly the reverence for women began to deteriorate, until they had none. Women cannot be confined to a kitchen, or a bedroom, or even a mansion. Women are.. larger than life.
“..how lucky, little tree..”
And now we see women going from being inferior, to being a burden. “How fortunate you are, wife or daughter or sister, that you have me to guide to being proper”.
How right of them to use the word “paternalistic”, since any woman’s opinion is obviously tainted and wrong, no matter the circumstances. Is this really what’s happening to women? You tell me if that’s okay.
“..to have a pot to grow in.”
Stop. Think of everyone who’s ever told you to be more like this or more like that. Think of everyone who’s ever made you feel worth less than you are. Now, say thank you for those because you are so lucky to have people around you that can show you how to be acceptable, and desirable. I think this section speaks for itself.
“With living creatures..”
I think it’s very important that we go back to vague speech in this line. Either Piercy is calling women creatures, like how they are impure and gross and “ew, periods”, or she’s talking about how both men and women are forced to live up to certain expectations in modern society. Either way, it’s a powerful phrase. Especially using the word “living”, it makes you feel like the only time you’ll really be free.. is when you’re dead.
“..one must begin very early..”
Look at this little girl. Look at how happy she is. Are you really going to tell her that what ever is making her happy is wrong? That the world thinks it’s wrong, so she can’t like it? Unless she’s hurting people, I could not rip that smile off her face.
“..to dwarf their growth:the bound feet, the crippled brain, the hair in curlers, the hands you love to touch.”
These are really the ways that different cultures have tried to conform women, or “dwarf their growth”. It’s really just taking away their potential to be a force or power to be reckoned with. With softer, cuter features, no one takes you seriously. In ancient China, small feet were highly coveted, so they were bound with rope or other material. The crippled brain, I’m thinking is because it’s a popular opinion that men didn’t like women who were more knowledgeable than they were. The hair in curlers is pretty self-explanatory: curls are a symbol of delicacy. They are fragile, and in times without hairspray, if you touched them, they’d fall out. I’m not sure exactly what or whose the hands are, but I remember reading in “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Muñoz Ryan that after working in the fields for so long, Esperanza had these hard, calloused hands. She kept trying to soften them with an avocado scrub, but it wouldn’t work. No one really likes hard hands on women. They’re supposed to be soft, in all aspects. All of these methods are really just ways to show women as delicate, and fragile, and gentle. Women are none of these things; women will take you by a storm.
I honestly cannot even begin to tell you how much this poem means to me.
It just opens up a whole new world of the conformity that our society puts women in. As a young woman myself, it really places me in a difficult situation because I don’t want those restrictions. I want the whole world at my feet; I want to ability to do anything and everything my heart desires without feeling like other people will be intimidated by me or say that I’m driving away my marriage prospects. (Yes, unfortunately, this happens due to the huge male ego. They do not appreciate it when women show them up. I can’t really be sorry if this offends you.)
Also, unfortunately, these female uniforms are not only assigned by men. There are so many orthodox women that are constantly trying to make young girls more feminine, or conventional.
It’s wrong. They’re wrong.
If there is something that makes you happy, and doesn’t hurt other people, you’re meant to be doing it. And you should be doing it. So go do it. Be happy, and live you life. Don’t stop to look behind you, and to please others, because they’ll never have enough. At the end of the day, it’s you, and your happiness that counts.