“1954” by Sharon Olds is a poem displaying the horrors of an instance of rape and murder of a young girl by a man named Burton Abbott in 1954. Olds uses a frantic and horrified tone highlighted by a careful choice of diction to express her messages that any ordinary-looking person can disguise evil and the current justice system has a hypocritical eye-for-an-eye mindset that only ends up destroying human life.
The structure of “1954” is built on enjambment and broken sentences. This helps the reader understand fear the speaker feels, as if words are simply pouring out, developing the frantic and horrified tone of the poem. This fear builds as the speaker begins to make connections between the victim and herself. The author uses clear imagery in phrases like “…I feared the word eczema, like my acne and like the X in the paper which marked her body…” to help make these connections. The speaker relates the victim’s eczema with her own acne, and recognizes how an innocent, little girl has been reduced to nothing but an X that marked where her lifeless body was left. Now that the speaker can relate to the victim in a clear way, she begins to realize how ordinary the murderer was.
The author uses simple, ordinary diction to describe him. Phrases like “as if he were not someone specific,” “his face was dull and ordinary,” and “he looked almost humble” are examples of the author’s use of ordinary diction that make the killer seem normal. The speaker then says the killer went against “what I’d thought I could count on about evil.” This helps support the message that evil can be disguised in anyone because by making the murderer seem ordinary, the author forces the speaker and the reader to begin to question the people around them.
A definite shift occurs in line 22 of the poem. The author shifts from using the word “fear” to the word “pity” when referring to the crime, and begins to use “fear” to describe how the speaker feels towards consequences the murderer, Burton Abbott must face. The speaker realizes that “the good people, the parents” were going to fry Mr. Abbott on the electric chair for his crime. The author deliberately used the word fry to express that the parents of the victim did not just believe that Abbott should receive capital punishment, but they wanted him to suffer; they wanted to watch him writhe in pain for what he did to their daughter. As a result, the speaker begins to fear electricity, and her mother’s electric blanket. The author uses this and other carefully chosen phrases like “death to the person, death to the home planet” to demonstrate the hypocrisy that exists in the justice system’s eye-for-an-eye mentality when it comes to capital punishment. When someone commits a murder, they are sentenced to death, simply resulting in further loss of human life. People who see these crimes in the news not only fear the murderer; they fear the brutal punishment just as much, demonstrated by the speaker’s new fear of electricity.
The author uses carefully chosen diction and tone to communicate two completely different messages to the reader. Both of these messages come together at the end of the poem to pose a single, lingering question to the reader: Who should we fear more? The murderer, or our own justice system?