Saturday, April 19, 2008

Close Reading: "Paper Matches" by Paulette Jiles

"Written on me was a message,
'At Your Service' like a book of
paper matches. One by one we were
taken out and struck.
We come bearing supper,
our heads on fire."
(lines 9-15)

Jiles uses the simile-turned-metaphor of a match to convey the anger and self-defeating nature of the gender roles enforced when she was a child. Matches are small, relatively insignificant items that are sold in packages, and one is indistinguishable from another. They're nothing except when they're in use, and from the very nature of the job they're put to--being burned down to nothing--they're only good for one flame. These connotations brutally pare down what Jiles saw as woman's status in society when she was growing up. It seemed to her that women were hardly more than servants and not allowed much individuality--they all had one function, one appearance, etc. Another facet of the match-comparison is that matches are passive. Someone strikes up a flame with it, but matches can't do anything of their own decision.

Jiles' anger is conveyed by the final two lines, "We come bearing supper, / our heads on fire." This continues the match-metaphor, but also implies anger directly resulting from the servitude involved in bringing in supper. If someone's angry, they might be called "hot-headed,"--Jiles' women's heads are figuratively on fire, they're so incensed at their position.

Something slightly ironic in the image is that the match's/women's usefulness starts at their heads. In the male-dominated society Jiles describes, women's heads--brains--wouldn't be very valued. That their heads are on fire in the end suggests that their anger at their position is borne out of the fact that they can think, reason and realize the limitations being placed on them, and this in turn suggests a basis for women's equality and the injustice of their situation in this poem.

Jiles, Paulette. "Paper Matches." The Norton Introduction to Poetry. J. Paul Hunter, Alison Booth, and Kelly J. Mays. 9th edition. New York: Norton, 2007. 333.


Melissa Kerrigan said...

I like your interpretation of the matches representing women; I did not think of it that way. Your explination of the small excerpt helped me understand where the entire poem was coming from and attempting to symbolize.

jgchurch111 said...

I really liked your interpretation as well. What was with the part about them being taken out and struck? I dont have any background info on Paullette Jiles, but it lead me to believe that maybe she was beaten as a child. "Bearing supper" is another stereotype of what women's roles usually are. Like you said, the speaker has been made to feel like she should be passive and submissive.

Desiree Goodwin said...

Great interpretation! I would have never believed the women to be represented as matches! I agree with you guys when you say that the speaker of the poem has been made to feel like she should be submissive. After reading your interpretation of the poem I really understood what the speaker was trying to convey! The first couple times I read it over I didn't understand the part about them being taken out and struck, was the speaker using that as a metaphor? Great poem!