“There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable” quote by Mark Twain. Michael Ondaatje feels similarly in his poem “The Cinnamon Peeler” because he longs to be with his beloved but this is not possible. We infer that Ondaatje is in a lower caste than his love because he hypothetically states “If I were a cinnamon peeler…” (1). The idea of them being together is what sets off this love poem. He goes on a type of role-playing game in which he and his wife are such passionate lovers that their desire leaves a scent that others can notice.
In this dramatic monologue, Ondaatje explores the theme of bold love with his wife. He wishes to be free with his lover, having his ideal marriage. It was not possible for them to be together before marriage because everyone would smell the cinnamon scent off of her, “You will be known among strangers as the cinnamon peeler’s wife” (17-18). The speaker gets carried away and seduced by the idea of forbidden love. The author reveals the true situation when explaining that he could never look at her before marriage because of her brother’s and mother. The speaker longs for his beloved but knows they can never be together.
Individuality and male dominance are also prominent themes in this poem. Individuality is expressed through the speaker’s description of their relationship. Their need to sneak around with each other causes them to go against their familial and cultural values which grant them independence. There is clear evidence of a male dominated society. The cinnamon peelers wife, lime burner daughter, and grass cutter wife are great examples of where a woman is defined by either her father or husband. Every woman in this poem has been directly referred to through the men in their lives.
The male dominant theme is seen in every aspect of the poem, from the leaving of bark dust on pillows to “my fingers floating over you” (7-8). The female character questions his commitment to her; since they cannot be together all the time she wonders if he is faithful to her. Then she realizes “what good is it to be the lime burner’s daughter left with no trace as if not spoken to in the act of love” (37-40). She knows that this erotic love is something that only they share. When one first reads Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler,” it is clear that the poem is about sex, specifically, the speaker’s sexual desire for his wife.
The speaker and his wife are therefore marked physically by the scent of his occupation. This cinnamon scent takes on very sexual overtones as the poem progresses and shape the way the poem is interpreted. Smell is the sense most closely tied to memory – and Ondaatje is is using it to evoke both an imagined future. Cinnamon is a very strong scent, while grass and lime are less erotic. He uses olfactory imagery to manifest the theme of possessiveness, “You will be known among strangers as the cinnamon peeler’s wife” (17). Symbolism is also apparent.
Cinnamon is very luxurious, connotes passion, and is very economically beneficial in Ondaatje’s home town of Sri Lanka. The cinnamon peeler in some cases throughout the poem uses the cinnamon smell as a metaphor for his sexual desire. Ondaatje uses the mark of the cinnamon peelers profession to create intense imagery. The strong use of the cinnamon smell to display the women’s sexuality allows Ondaatje to provoke intense images of lust and sexuality. The poem allows the reader to imagine all the ideas because Ondaatje describes the concepts well, through metaphor.
The stories and situations are very simple, easy to quickly imagine and the emotion are very basic. The imagery is enforced by the way the poem applies to the senses. The poem talks about touch and smell which aids the imagination visualize the poem. The cinnamon peeler displays his ownership of his wife in the poem on many occasions, especially in the second stanza of the poem, “[y]our breasts and shoulders would reek” (5). He declares that wherever she went, everyone would know that she was his. Even “[t]he blind would stumble certain of whom they approached” (8-9).
This imagery allows the reader to picture the speaker’s wife walking through the streets as she left a trail of the cinnamon scent. This poem serves as a dramatic monologue because it has a silent audience, there is no dialogue, and can be described as a character study. Because “The Cinnamon Peeler” is one person’s speech, and provides no analysis, it places emphasis on the speaker’s thoughts and emotions and allows the audience to create their own interpretation. “The Cinnamon Peeler” is very sensual, focused on emotional and both physical and psychological experiences of the speaker.
Such poems reveal not the poet’s own thoughts but the mind of the character, whose personality is revealed quite quickly; thus distinguishing it as a dramatic monologue. The entire poem is simply the speaker’s perspective, not once do we enter the thoughts of the female character, and that is also an element for this type of poetic genre. Ondaatje wisely chose this form, allowing the audience to go deeply into the speaker’s thoughts and visions and feelings. One is left to wonder how his beloved feels. We only get a short part of her side in the last few lines “I am the cinnamon peeler’s wife.
Smell me” (45-46). The cinnamon smell, and its constant use, can be interpreted more closely to his passion for her, his lust for her. At the end of the poem, she touches him finally and embraces the scent. This only strengthens their connection. Situations similar to the speakers are ongoing today. The caste system is still relevant in many cultures, where one is unable to marry, or even associate with someone in a lower division. Rarely is this tradition broken, this is because those of different birth circumstances are inherently unequal and are avoided.
Courtney from Study Moose
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