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Use of extended metaphors, and symbols to represent internal feelings and states of being are techniques Margaret Atwood utilizes in her poem “The Interior Decorator.” The poet attempts to describe an intrinsic struggle to hide and veil painful emotions through the art of interior decoration. It describes aspects of personality used to cover these feelings and the overall failure of it do so.
When one examines the title “The Interior Decorator” one may think of a career which involves garnishing one’s home in style to make for a more pleasant atmosphere or an atmosphere that is conducive to the personality of the person living within that home.
However, upon closer examination, one may realize another meaning. “Interior decorator” is a term which is more symbolic and describes an “art”of personality. The first stanza holds clues. “..but under/These ornate surfaces, the hard/Naked wood is still there.” Two symbols are introduced here. The ornate surfaces describe a pleasant and cheerful countenance while under this image a hardened spirit lies underneath.
Stanza four reaffirms this position.
Stanza two develops the poet’s ability to shelter her pain. “I am industrious and clever” Here she states plainly that she is gifted at hiding her true feelings. She paints “Landscapes on door panels and screens.” Here symbolism is developed further as door panels may represent doors to her heart or other aspects of her being. In parallel, the screens she paints provide illusion to the way she feels. By painting the “the doors and screens” she hopes others will follow the illusion instead of looking at what she really experiences.
The introduction of the lemon tree in stanza three gives one clues about her pain. Here the symbol of pain is the bitter lemon rind. She states, “It is prudent to thus restrain one’s eden/Indoors.” Here she suggests that it is vital to sustain a sense of order within so that emotions don’t get the best of oneself. This is supported by the line, “And everything remains in it’s own spot.” “I never eat my bitter lemons” is her way of saying that she doesn’t process her emotions, therefore she successfully represses them and maintains a sense of control.
But she is not successful. The devil introduced in stanza four represents the aspect of the poet that cannot avoid the pain-it sucks the unavoidable bitter lemon rinds. She states that she cannot make Him blend in with her flowery personality no matter what she displays (roses) to offset it. In other words, she states that she is unsuccessful in hiding her pain despite her charming personality and displays of laughter. Pain will exist until she goes through the process of grief and recognizes the “Devil” within. One may conclude that the interior decorator will have to step aside in order for a sense of peace to return.
“The Interior Decorator” by Margaret Atwood is a powerful poem that uses distinct symbols to express her feelings and frustrations about life’s pain. It could be written about the loss of a loved one or friend, a disappointment with way life has turned out, or any tragic incident. She expresses her frustrations effectively about the pressure to cover one’s feelings and appear okay instead of processing them through grieving or a period of inner silence and honesty. The poet suggests that no matter how long one holds the emotions at bay they will prevail and one will have to address them. She is imparting a gift to the readership in a similar circumstance; set the interior decorator aside and be authentic, thereby allowing oneself to address the pain and move beyond it.
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