In Anne Sexton’s poem “Red Roses,” the author employs threatening yet hushed tones to describe the abusive plight of a boy.
The author’s diction choices carry with them a sense of secrecy yet reveal the mother’s harsh intentions. She forces Tommy to tell the doctors “you fell” after she “throws” her son everywhere, “[squashing]” him every time. These words are embedded into the cruel intentions of the mother, who abuses her three-year-old son without remorse, and therefore develop a vile air that she adds to her son’s poor fate. The reader can get a feeling for how Tommy was thrashed all over the house and repeatedly threatened to lie for her. Also, his injuries are described as if “a diamond had bitten it,” as a “broken scarecrow,” and as sounding “like fruit.” Here, the boy pairs harsh words with childish descriptions to soften the description of such horrific happenings. He does this to stay out of trouble with his mother, acting as if it’s all fun and games when she throws him across the room so that she won’t have to threaten do it again. This child’s every action is being controlled by his mother.
Sexton uses several details with hushed meanings to give the reader a better feel for how Tommy is forced to act by his mother. Tommy “dances” with his mother and receives “red roses” all over his body, including a wound that twisted his leg “like a licorice stick.” The childish descriptions represent a need to hide his pain from society because he fears more beatings. Because he feels threatened, he chooses to hide some of the meanings of the words with seemingly playful details so that he won’t completely expose the abusive nature of his relationship with his threatening mother. Also, Tommy “loves Blue Lady” and, fearing he’ll “be sent away,” tells the doctors his injuries occur because he “[falls].” The abused child is forced to keep the abuse hush-hush for fear of being taken away from his mother. Despite their terrible relationship, Tommy still loves his mother and concedes to her orders by continuing to deal with her beatings. He can’t escape from them, but knows that, because of his love for her, he wouldn’t if he could.
The author’s sentence structure matches the two tones used throughout the essay. The author refrains from using commas in “Tommy is three and when he’s bad/his mother dances with him,” bluntly states “You fell, she said, just remember you fell,” and simply adds “He pretends he is her ball.” The contriteness of these sentences reflects the boy’s need to say little about his abuse in fear of his mother. This structure can be difficult to interpret at first, but, after analyzing the poem as a whole, can contribute to bringing out the feeling of repression. However, the boy includes longer, more descriptive sentences in the middle, such as “…in different places, the head, that time he was sleepy as a river, the back, that time he was a broken scarecrow…”, “A nice lady came…but because he didn’t want to be sent away he said, I fell,” and “He never told about the music or how she’d sing and shout holding him up and throwing him.” Although these sentences seem to be structured in a strictly objective manner, they represent more complete and detailed thoughts and events that the boy goes through. These sentences tell of what the child has been through and what he must continue to go through in order to stay with his mother and avoid beatings. The run-on sentences are representative of his desperate thoughts of how, no matter what, he must stay with his mother because he loves her. The sentences reflect the tones by providing a unique structure to complement the diction and detail.
In this tragic poem, a three-year-old child’s abuse and struggle can be empathized from the structure of the work as a whole. By identifying the hushed and threatening tones of its contents, the readers may better understand and analyze Sexton’s piece.