Robert Hayden’s "The Whipping" poem’s analysis will take a personal tone. This is because being whipped is a relative feeling that most children feel when they were young. This isn’t significant to only abusive fathers and mothers but also to parents who feel that the best way to reprove a child is by whipping him.
Robert Hayden’s "The Whipping" poem opens with a woman who is described to be flogging a boy over again. This signifies that the whipping isn’t novel. The narrative continues as the woman screams that he is wrong, and she is right (which tells why the boy is in the position of being beaten by the woman).
As she beats him, the stick breaks and this interlude triggered a flashback on the narrator. From a personal encounter, I experienced my father beating me in my childhood days. He would wait for me to prostrate on the warm carpet floor before he whipped me. He often whipped somewhere on my back where my frail, shaky hands could not reach. Then, my body bore thick stretch marks, you would think I had just left an abusive correctional facility.
So when the stick breaks and it triggered a flashback for the narrator, I connected with it as if I am the narrator. The narrator tells of being beaten by someone who he now hates. This is to tell the reader that sometimes beating a child –which is meant to be a correctional activity– becomes abuse and such a child hates the architect of the beating he receives. The narrator is brought back into the present, and he realizes it's over now.
It isn’t exactly over. The boy who had been beaten is retired to his room, crying while the woman who offered the beating leans by a tree, exhausted of her youthful body as if she was the one who received the beating. This tells the readers that even while the victim of abuse tries to console himself or herself, the initiator of the abuse also attempts to gather herself and ease herself of all the anger he or she has expressed.
The narrator writes that the woman mutters and feels as if her action has salved the revenge of the pain she has kept many years ago.
Stanza by stanza analysis of Robert Hayden’s The Whipping poem
Robert Hayden's “The Whipping” is written in six stanzas. Each stanza has four lines and they are all rhymed. A style which permitted the free flow of thought by both the author and the narrator. The narrator reports observation of the brutal beating of a child.
“The old woman across the way
is whipping the boy again
and shouting to the neighborhood
her goodness and his wrongs.”
The speaker appears on the street. He finds himself in an event that disturbed the environment. An event about a woman “across the way” who seem to routinely whip a boy. This sets the discomforting aura which sets the whole neighborhood reverberating with the boy’s screams (line 3). While beating this boy, the screams of the woman’s goodness while the condemnation of the boy’s offense and wrongdoing is heard.
As it appears, the relationship between the old woman and the boy hasn’t been defined. However, we find an insight from the narrator that this event is a recurrent action. Therefore, the boy could be one of the supposed loyal boys to the old woman in the neighborhood of the old woman who is the boy's guardian. Either way, the boy has poked the woman, and he is being punished for it.
“Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,
pleads in dusty zinnias,
while she in spite of crippling fat
pursues and corners him.”
The violence and horror which started in stanza 1 continue in stanza 2. The boy seeks to escape through the elephant ears and zinnias, and he must have thought that the woman would stop whipping him because she would not pursue him. Contrary to his thought, the “crippling fat” woman was able to wind through the plants in pursuit of the boy.
Here, the woman becomes a hunter who hunts a boy who runs away from him. Although the woman is fat, and she is supposed to be wary, she didn’t stop. This shows how offensive the boy must have paraded himself to deserve such whipping.
“She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling
boy till the stick breaks
in her hand. His tears are rainy weather
to woundlike memories:”
In this stanza, we realize that the situation is out of control as it seems that the woman has caught the boy. The woman thus kept whipping him, striking him repeatedly while the boy lets out a cry. The woman kept on whipping him till the stick breaks.
In the penultimate line, however, there is a trigger. A metaphor that connects the narrator to his “woundlike memories” which appears as his dose of abuse when he was much younger. With this line, we see how important it is for the speaker to narrate this aching event of whipping. The narrator is taken into a flashback by the tears of the boy.
“My head gripped in bony vise
of knees, the writhing struggle
to wrench free, the blows, the fear
worse than blows that hateful.”
“Words could bring, the face that I
no longer knew or loved. . .
Well, it is over now, it is over,
and the boy sobs in his room,”
Stanza 4 opens with the narrator recounting the memory of being held between someone’s knees. “Bony wise” is a metaphor to express the knee as a powerful and strong tool which didn’t permit any room for escape. He says that he gave a “writhing struggle” but all his struggles met blows which compounded the fear in him.
At the end of the stanza, an effect called enjambment or run on line is used to connect us with the next stanza. At this, the narrator expresses that the blows which compounded his fear was worse than the blows and hurt hateful words could bring.
The passion of the narrator is seen here. If he could avoid being beaten and be insulted by his abuser in any hateful way instead, he would make peace with it. This shows the horror of been beaten, it portrays being beaten as an unbearable activity of violence.
The narrator recounts that his abuser is a face he no longer knows or love which tells us that after abuse, we can hate our abuser. Stanza five concludes with the dawning of the phase of pain. The boy is now seen in his room sobbing after being beaten.
“And the woman leans muttering against
a tree, exhausted, purged—
avenged in part for lifelong hidings
she has had to bear.”
The boy is in his room while the woman leans against a tree muttering to herself. One would, of course, expect a woman who is “crippling fat” to be very exhausted after such an activity. The woman, however, feels purged and avenged for all the pain she has perhaps bottled overtime.
This tells us two things: either the boy has been a pain in the ass of the old woman for a while now or that the old woman had to be a recipient of abuse when she was young, and she is now expressing that anger on a boy. Either way, the poem ends resolving the conflict, although with scars, as the narrator also connects with the pain that lies in being punished or whipped for alleged wrongdoing.
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