By Anne Sexton


Welcome to a journey through Anne Sexton’s transformative poem, “Cinderella.” 🌟 This piece, written by one of the most prominent figures in contemporary American literature, offers a darkly ironic and introspective look at the classic fairy tale. Anne Sexton, known for her confessional style of poetry, often explores deeply personal and complex themes through her work, and “Cinderella” is no exception.

Published as part of her 1971 collection “Transformations,” this poem reinterprets the traditional narratives of the Brothers Grimm, injecting them with a modern sensibility and a sharp critique of societal norms. Sexton’s version stands out by questioning the conventional happily-ever-after and examining the realistic impacts of societal expectations on individuals. The genre here blends fairy tale with poignant social commentary, making it a fascinating study for both poetry lovers and critical thinkers alike. 📖✨

Meaning of Cinderella

Opening Section In the beginning of “Cinderella,” Sexton sets the stage by recounting several rags-to-riches anecdotes, illustrating the improbability and absurdity of such transformations. She introduces the poem with a casual tone, which subtly mocks the fairy tale’s conventional narrative:

“You always read about it: the plumber with twelve children who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches. That story.”

These lines set a tone of skepticism about the typical fairy tale narrative, inviting the reader to question the reality of such tales.

Mid Section As the poem progresses to its middle sections, Sexton delves deeper into Cinderella’s story, mirroring the traditional tale but with a cynical twist. Cinderella’s life changes dramatically after meeting the prince, yet Sexton’s narrative voice remains ironic:

“Cinderella and the prince
lived, they say, happily ever after,
like two dolls in a museum case.”

Here, Sexton suggests that their happiness is as static and lifeless as dolls—a stark portrayal of their “perfect” life.

Concluding Section In the concluding section, Sexton reflects on the moral of the story, questioning the value system it promotes. She ends with a powerful comment on the story’s enduring appeal but suggests a grim underlying truth:

“Cinderella and the prince
lived, as we say, happily ever after,
except for the hacking down of the maidens.”

This ending serves as a critique of the violence and sacrifice often hidden beneath surface-level narratives of success and happiness.

In-depth Analysis

Analyzing Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella” stanza by stanza reveals the poet’s skillful use of literary techniques, which bring depth to her critique of traditional fairy tales and the societal norms they often propagate. Let’s break down some key stanzas and explore the rich symbolism and thematic layers they offer.

Stanza One

  • Techniques: Sexton uses a conversational tone and modern allusions (“the plumber with twelve children”) to bridge the gap between fairy tale and reality, challenging the listener’s suspension of disbelief.
  • Symbols: The “toilets to riches” motif mocks the improbability of traditional fairy tale outcomes, symbolizing unrealistic societal aspirations.

Stanza Two

  • Techniques: Repetition of “That story” emphasizes skepticism, while simple language contrasts with the complexity of the themes discussed, making the poem accessible yet profound.
  • Symbols: The mention of “gold” and “silver” shoes symbolizes the superficial values that fairy tales and society often glorify.

Stanza Three

  • Techniques: The use of direct address (“you always read about it”) involves the reader directly, making the critique personal and immediate.
  • Symbols: The transformation of Cinderella’s rags to a gown represents the drastic changes that are often fantasized about in society, critiquing materialism and the idea of miraculous salvation through marriage or wealth.

Stanza Four

  • Techniques: Irony is a key technique here, with the phrase “happily ever after” used to question rather than affirm the ideal it traditionally conveys.
  • Symbols: The glass slipper, a central symbol, represents not only transformation but also the fragility and transparency of the identities we construct or are forced upon us.

Overall Themes: Sexton’s “Cinderella” explores themes of authenticity vs. constructed identity, the critique of materialism, and the dark undercurrents of traditional narratives.

Using bullet points to highlight these analytical points:

  • Conversational tone bridges fairy tale and modern reality.
  • Irony and repetition emphasize skepticism towards traditional narratives.
  • Symbolism of gold, silver, and glass critiques societal values on wealth and appearance.

Poetic Devices used in Cinderella

Here’s a table detailing the top 10 poetic devices used in Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella,” with examples from the poem to illustrate each device:

Poetic DeviceDefinitionExample from the Poem
AlliterationThe repetition of initial consonant sounds in nearby words.“From toilets to treasures”
AnaphoraThe repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses.They say he was a prince…” They say she was a maid…”
IronyUse of words to convey a meaning that is opposite of its literal meaning.“Cinderella and the prince lived, they say, happily ever after”
MetaphorA figure of speech that implies a comparison between two unlike entities.“like two dolls in a museum case”
SimileA figure of speech comparing two unlike things, often introduced with ‘like’ or ‘as’.“her hands were like asbestos”
SymbolismThe use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense.The glass slipper as a symbol of fragile and transient beauty.
HyperboleExaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally.“you could see the bluebirds circling in her ears”
PersonificationAttribution of human traits, ambitions, or feelings to animals, inanimate objects, or abstract notions.“the birds… picked the lentils out of the ashes”
OnomatopoeiaA word that phonetically imitates the sound that it describes.“The birds peck, peck, pecked at the lentils”
SynecdocheA figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.“The white dove on the roof tiles” representing peace and purity.

Cinderella – FAQs

What is the theme of Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella”?

  • The poem critiques the unrealistic expectations set by traditional fairy tales, particularly around issues of wealth, love, and personal transformation.

How does Anne Sexton use irony in “Cinderella”?

  • Sexton employs irony to subvert the traditional “happily ever after” narrative, suggesting that such outcomes are not only implausible but also superficial.

What literary techniques does Sexton use to convey her message in “Cinderella”?

  • Sexton uses a mix of alliteration, irony, and hyperbole to critique the traditional values promoted by fairy tales, and to highlight the absurdity of these narratives.

Why does Anne Sexton include modern elements in “Cinderella”?

  • By incorporating modern elements and colloquial language, Sexton bridges the gap between the fairy tale and contemporary life, making her critique more relatable and impactful.

How does the use of symbolism enhance the poem “Cinderella”?

  • Symbolism, such as the glass slipper and the transformation of rags to riches, serves to deepen the critique of societal and cultural values, questioning the worth and reality of such transformations.

Cinderella Study Guide

For this study guide, we will focus on a specific verse from Anne Sexton’s “Cinderella” and create an exercise that helps students identify various poetic devices used within that verse. This type of exercise can deepen students’ understanding of the poem’s style and thematic content by engaging them in detailed textual analysis.


Verse for Analysis: The white dove on the roof tiles
Sanctioned their marriage, and the prince rode off with Cinderella
on his horse, the bird fluttering above them.

Instructions: List all the poetic devices used in the verse provided above. Consider how each device contributes to the theme or overall impact of the poem.


  1. Symbolism – The white dove symbolizes peace and purity, sanctioning their marriage as pure and true, which contrasts with the poem’s overall ironic tone.
  2. Imagery – Vivid imagery is used to paint a picturesque scene of the marriage being blessed by a dove, enhancing the fairy-tale-like quality Sexton is critiquing.
  3. Personification – The dove is given the human-like ability to “sanction” the marriage, adding a layer of surreal authority to the bird’s actions.
  4. Onomatopoeia – Although not explicit in this specific line, the implied fluttering of the dove can be considered to create a sound effect that adds to the liveliness of the scene.
  5. Alliteration – The phrase “prince rode off with Cinderella” uses soft consonants to create a gentle, rhythmic sound, mirroring the traditional flow of fairy tales.

This exercise should help students notice the layered use of language in Sexton’s poetry, encouraging a deeper appreciation and critical examination of how traditional narratives are portrayed and challenged.