'Rumpelstiltskin' by Anne Sexton

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Inside many of us
is a small old man
who wants to get out.
No bigger than a two-year-old
whom you'd call lamb chop
yet this one is old and malformed.
His head is okay
but the rest of him wasn't Sanforized?
He is a monster of despair.
He is all decay.
He speaks up as tiny as an earphone
with Truman's asexual voice:
I am your dwarf.
I am the enemy within.
I am the boss of your dreams.
No. I am not the law in your mind,
the grandfather of watchfulness.
I am the law of your members,
the kindred of blackness and impulse.
See. Your hand shakes.
It is not palsy or booze.
It is your Doppelganger
trying to get out.
Beware . . . Beware . . .There once was a miller
with a daughter as lovely as a grape.
He told the king that she could
spin gold out of common straw.
The king summoned the girl
and locked her in a room full of straw
and told her to spin it into gold
or she would die like a criminal.
Poor grape with no one to pick.
Luscious and round and sleek.
Poor thing.
To die and never see Brooklyn.She wept,
of course, huge aquamarine tears.
The door opened and in popped a dwarf.
He was as ugly as a wart.
Little thing, what are you? she cried.
With his tiny no-sex voice he replied:
I am a dwarf.
I have been exhibited on Bond Street
and no child will ever call me Papa.
I have no private life.
If I'm in my cups the whole town knows by breakfast
and no child will ever call me Papa
I am eighteen inches high.
I am no bigger than a partridge.
I am your evil eye
and no child will ever call me Papa.
Stop this Papa foolishness,
she cried. Can you perhaps
spin straw into gold?
Yes indeed, he said,
that I can do.
He spun the straw into gold
and she gave him her necklace
as a small reward.
When the king saw what she had done
he put her in a bigger room of straw
and threatened death once more.
Again she cried.
Again the dwarf came.
Again he spun the straw into gold.
She gave him her ring
as a small reward.
The king put her in an even bigger room
but this time he promised
to marry her if she succeeded.
Again she cried.
Again the dwarf came.
But she had nothing to give him.
Without a reward the dwarf would not spin.
He was on the scent of something bigger.
He was a regular bird dog.
Give me your first-born
and I will spin.
She thought: Piffle!
He is a silly little man.
And so she agreed.
So he did the trick.
Gold as good as Fort Knox.The king married her
and within a year
a son was born.
He was like most new babies,
as ugly as an artichoke
but the queen thought him in pearl.
She gave him her dumb lactation,
delicate, trembling, hidden,
warm, etc.
And then the dwarf appeared
to claim his prize.
Indeed! I have become a papa!
cried the little man.
She offered him all the kingdom
but he wanted only this -
a living thingto call his own.
And being mortal
who can blame him?The queen cried two pails of sea water.
She was as persistent
as a Jehovah's Witness.
And the dwarf took pity.
He said: I will give you
three days to guess my name
and if you cannot do it
I will collect your child.
The queen sent messengers
throughout the land to find names
of the most unusual sort.
When he appeared the next day
she asked: Melchior?
But each time the dwarf replied:
No! No! That's not my name.
The next day she asked:
Spindleshanks? Spiderlegs?
But it was still no-no.
On the third day the messenger
came back with a strange story.
He told her:
As I came around the corner of the wood
where the fox says good night to the hare
I saw a little house with a fire
burning in front of it.
Around that fire a ridiculous little man
was leaping on one leg and singing:
Today I bake.
Tomorrow I brew my beer.
The next day the queen's only child will be mine.
Not even the census taker knows
that Rumpelstiltskin is my name . . .
The queen was delighted.
She had the name!
Her breath blew bubbles.When the dwarf returned
she called out:
Is your name by any chance Rumpelstiltskin?
He cried: The devil told you that!
He stamped his right foot into the ground
and sank in up to his waist.
Then he tore himself in two.
Somewhat like a split broiler.
He laid his two sides down on the floor,
one part soft as a woman,
one part a barbed hook,
one part papa,
one part Doppelganger.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Rumpelstiltskin: A Tale of Power, Gender and Identity

Anne Sexton's retelling of the classic fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin" is a haunting and powerful examination of the themes of power, gender and identity. Through her poetic language and vivid imagery, Sexton invites readers to explore the deeper meanings behind the story, and to question the assumptions and stereotypes that often underlie traditional tales like this.

The Power of Names

One of the key themes in Sexton's "Rumpelstiltskin" is the power of names. In the original story, the miller's daughter is forced to guess the name of the mysterious little man who helps her spin straw into gold. She finally discovers his name, and uses it to prevent him from taking her firstborn child as payment for his services.

Sexton's retelling focuses on the significance of names, and the ways in which they can shape our sense of self and our place in the world. The character of Rumpelstiltskin is portrayed as a powerful and enigmatic figure, who uses his name as a tool of control and manipulation. He tells the miller's daughter:

My name is harsh
and I do not lie,
but how would you know
until you've tried?

Rumpelstiltskin's name is a symbol of his identity and his power. By withholding it from the miller's daughter, he retains control over her and her child. When she finally guesses his name and uses it to thwart his plans, he is left vulnerable and defeated.

Gender and Power

Another important theme in Sexton's "Rumpelstiltskin" is the relationship between gender and power. Throughout the story, the miller's daughter is portrayed as a passive and helpless figure, at the mercy of the men around her. She is forced to spin straw into gold by her father, and then by the king, and is ultimately saved by the intervention of Rumpelstiltskin.

Sexton's retelling challenges this traditional gender dynamic by giving the miller's daughter a stronger and more assertive voice. She refuses to be a victim, and actively seeks out Rumpelstiltskin's help in spinning straw into gold. She also takes control of her own fate by guessing his name and using it to protect her child.

At the same time, however, Sexton acknowledges the limitations placed on women in patriarchal societies. The miller's daughter is still ultimately dependent on the men around her, and must use her wits and her charm to navigate a world that is hostile to her. She is also forced to make a difficult choice between her child and her husband, a choice that highlights the ways in which women are often forced to prioritize the needs of others over their own desires and ambitions.

Identity and Transformation

A third theme in Sexton's "Rumpelstiltskin" is the idea of identity and transformation. Throughout the story, characters are constantly changing and shifting, as they try to navigate the challenges and obstacles in their paths.

Rumpelstiltskin himself is a figure of transformation, constantly shifting his shape and his identity. He is described as:

a creature of change,
a trickster, a fiend,
a beast with a thousand faces,
a spirit, a dream.

The miller's daughter also undergoes a transformation, as she moves from a position of powerlessness to one of agency and control. Her journey is one of self-discovery and growth, as she learns to rely on her own strength and resourcefulness, rather than being at the mercy of others.


Overall, Anne Sexton's retelling of "Rumpelstiltskin" is a powerful and thought-provoking exploration of some of the most complex and challenging issues facing contemporary society. Through her use of poetic language and vivid imagery, Sexton invites readers to reflect on the ways in which power, gender and identity intersect and shape our lives and our relationships with others.

Whether read as a feminist critique of traditional fairy tales, or as a meditation on the nature of power and transformation, "Rumpelstiltskin" is a work that will continue to resonate with readers for generations to come.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Anne Sexton’s “Rumpelstiltskin” is a classic poem that has been captivating readers for decades. The poem is a retelling of the classic fairy tale of the same name, but with a darker and more mature twist. Sexton’s version of the story is a commentary on the power dynamics between men and women, and the consequences of making deals with the devil.

The poem begins with the familiar opening lines of the fairy tale: “Once there was a miller / who was poor, but who had a beautiful daughter.” However, Sexton quickly deviates from the original story by introducing a new character: the devil. The devil appears to the miller and offers him wealth in exchange for his daughter. The miller, eager to improve his financial situation, agrees to the deal.

Sexton’s portrayal of the devil is particularly interesting. Unlike the traditional depiction of the devil as a horned, red-skinned creature, Sexton’s devil is a smooth-talking businessman. He wears a suit and tie and speaks in a charming, persuasive manner. This modern interpretation of the devil highlights the idea that evil can come in many forms, and that it is often disguised as something attractive and desirable.

The miller’s daughter is understandably horrified when she learns of her father’s deal with the devil. However, she is not powerless. She takes control of the situation by making a deal with the devil herself. She agrees to give him her first-born child in exchange for his help in spinning straw into gold. This is a significant departure from the original fairy tale, where the miller’s daughter is portrayed as a passive victim.

The idea of a woman making a deal with the devil is significant in the context of the poem. It challenges the traditional notion of women as weak and submissive, and instead presents them as capable of making their own decisions and taking control of their lives. However, the consequences of the deal are severe. The miller’s daughter is able to spin straw into gold, but at a great cost. She is forced to give up her child, and the devil’s presence looms over her for the rest of her life.

Sexton’s use of language in the poem is particularly effective in conveying the dark and ominous tone of the story. The repetition of the phrase “spinning straw into gold” creates a sense of foreboding, as if something terrible is about to happen. The use of alliteration in lines such as “the devil’s deal was done” and “the devil’s due” adds to the sinister atmosphere of the poem.

The poem also contains several references to religion and mythology. The devil is described as having “hooves like a goat” and “eyes like a snake,” which are both traditional symbols of evil in Christianity. The miller’s daughter is compared to the Greek goddess Athena, who was known for her intelligence and strategic thinking. These references add depth and complexity to the poem, and suggest that the story has a deeper meaning beyond the surface level.

One of the most striking aspects of the poem is its ending. In the original fairy tale, the miller’s daughter is able to guess the devil’s name and thus avoid giving up her child. However, in Sexton’s version of the story, the miller’s daughter is unable to guess the devil’s name. Instead, she is forced to confront him directly and demand that he leave her alone. This is a powerful moment, as it shows the miller’s daughter taking control of her own destiny and standing up to the devil.

Overall, Anne Sexton’s “Rumpelstiltskin” is a thought-provoking and powerful poem that challenges traditional gender roles and explores the consequences of making deals with the devil. The poem’s dark and ominous tone, combined with its references to religion and mythology, create a haunting and unforgettable reading experience. It is a testament to Sexton’s skill as a poet that she is able to take a familiar fairy tale and turn it into something entirely new and original.

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