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The Survivor by Marilyn Chin

“The Survivor” is written by the Chinese American feminist poet Marilyn Chon. It appears in her 1994 poetry collection The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty. This piece reflects a firm female voice subdued by the conventions of patriarchal society. She highlights the wide array of prescriptions that a girl has to follow from her birth. It makes her angry to think that she has to step on the path shown by other conventional women as she was not a “boychild” but a girl. Her ironic remark at the end of the poem poses another question to readers. Does getting past her infancy really mean she has survived? It is a question that readers have to answer after reading the poem.

The Survivor by Marilyn Chin


Summary

Marilyn Chin’s poem “The Survivor” begins with a series of prohibitions beginning with the imperative term “Don’t”. This list includes what a girl needs to follow due to her gender. She is destined not to:

  1. Tap chopsticks against her bowl
  2. Throw her teacup against the wall in anger
  3. Show her true emotions or crying for her favorite things
  4. Tarry around the place not meant for girls

However, after hearing all such negations, she only thinks that one day the mental suffering of women will end. Those patriarchal voices will surrender.

In the next part, Chin talks about why society tells girls to follow the rules chalked by them. According to her, a girl needs to follow the rules because she is born to be subjugated. She is not a girl of any developed nation. Most importantly, she was born a girl, not a boy. Thus she must stay within the limits.

In the last section of the poem, Chin pointedly remarks that a survivor is not the strongest or cleverest of all. The person is almost the youngest who, being a girl, fortunately, lives past her infancy. She has to relinquish the fact of being a survivor as society does not allow her any freedom in the later stages.

Meaning

The overall idea of “The Survivor” deals with how a girl is subjected to a phallogocentric society. From her childhood, she needs to follow orders only. There is no scope of speaking up against the meaningless rules that keep a girl behind boys. This piece is centered on the mindset of Asian countries where still girls are regarded as weaker than boys. A girl is seen as a liability that her parents need to protect and guide until the age of her maturity or before her marriage. Through this piece, Chin shows how the issues related to gender bias, social stereotypes, and patriarchy oozes the last drop of hope out from a girl’s mind.

Structure & Form

This piece consists of two parts. In each section, there are two stanzas. The first section begins with a stanza containing the list of restrictions and concludes with the poet’s hope for the future. The next stanza contains another list containing the reasons for such prohibitions. This section ends with a three-line stanza that contrasts the idea of the speaker in the second stanza. The poem is written in free-verse. Chin uses the second-person point of view in order to communicate directly with her female readers. There is only a single instance that is present in the words “anger” and “danger”. Regarding the meter, it is mostly composed of the iambic meter.

Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

Chin uses the following poetic devices in “The Survivor.

  • Anaphora: The first and third stanzas of the poem contain this device. Chin uses the term “Don’t” at the beginning of all the lines of the first stanza. The third stanza contains a repetition of the word “that” at the beginning of all the lines. It is used for the sake of emphasis.
  • Metaphor: The line “Don’t suck on your long black braid and weep” contains a metaphorical reference to the things a girl likes to have. In the second stanza, the poet metaphorically compares the “tempests” and the roaring of the sea to the social stereotypes.
  • Repetition: This piece contains a repetition of the terms related to negation such as “not” and “no”. It is used to resonate with a girl’s mind who is used to listening “no” every time she wants to do something. 
  • Alliteration: It occurs in “black braid”, “puce-pink”, etc.
  • Enjambment: It occurs in the second and fourth stanzas. Chin uses this device to internally connect the lines.
  • Epigram: The last three lines of the poem contain an epigram. Here, the poet refers to the fact a person who has survived is not the cleverest or strongest one. It is a little girl who endures all the negations and still moves on.


Line-by-Line Analysis

Lines 1-4

Don’t tap your chopsticks …

… the big red sign that says “danger!”

“The Survivor” begins with a series of imperatives. Each line starts with the term “Don’t” which sounds like some authoritative person giving commands to the speaker. This “you” refers to the members of a patriarchal society. Whereas Chin’s speaker represents girls who are part of a male-dominated social structure. The poet highlights how their voice is subdued and compressed.

The first stanza explores a series of prohibitions that the speaker had to follow from her childhood. At her home, her parents raised her to follow the rules. They monitored the little acts of the girl such as how she eats or how she holds her chopsticks while eating. Her parents warned her not to make sounds with her chopsticks.

She is also told that showing her true emotions is also in the list of “don’ts”. For example, she is ordered not to throw her teacup against the wall in anger. It means no matter what the other person tells her. She should not show her anger to the opposite gender.

Not only that, she is destined to be detached from the things she wants to have. She cannot even keep her long braid loose. In the Asian countries from where the speaker belongs, a girl always has to keep her hair tied. If she weeps for a thing she wants, her desperation and frustration are also ignored.

The last line of this stanza presents an image of a “big red sign” saying “danger!”. It is a symbol of prohibition that a girl needs to respect throughout her life. This sign is created by the stereotype society. Besides, the last line also refers to the places where a girl cannot tarry around. 

Lines 5-6

All the tempests will render still; seas will calm,

horses will retreat, voices to surrender.

The last two lines of the first section highlight the speaker’s hope regarding her future. Chin compares the rule made by society to the sea “tempests”. According to her, one day, her suffering is going to end. The metaphorical horses (symbolizing war) against the female gender would end. The voices that kept them in subjugation will surrender. This wish of the speaker sounds radical. She is hopeful of the future when a girl can explore herself without any restrictions. For getting there, the girls gave to speak up. Unless they firmly voice their opinion, the “voices” will not surrender.

Lines 7-10

That you have bloomed …

… forever puce-pink are just as well.

The next section of “The Survivor” highlights why a girl is not allowed to do things that she wants. Chin uses a similar scheme as she has used in the first stanza. According to her, she has to follow what others say as she has “bloomed” into a girl. Here, the poet uses a metaphor. She compares the blooming of a flower to the birth of a girl child. The term “bloomed” here is used to depict the weak side of girls and how sensitive they are.

In the second line, the speaker describes how colorism is part of gender bias. According to her, being a “yellow” girl, she is not allowed to be free like other girls (whites or blacks) living in developed nations such as America. The color yellow refers to the poet’s Chinese identity.

Besides, she is held back due to her gender. She was born a girl and she needs to remember it. So, the term “girl” is associated with social restriction, subjugation, and lack of freedom. She contrasts the idea of being a girl with the freedom a boy child enjoys.

They try to impose the fact that her world is going to be “puce-pink” forever. The term “puce-pink” symbolically portrays the idea of menstruation. It is also a reference to the conventional behaviors of a girl. She has to be like other conventional girls and should like to have things that others let her like. This concept highlights the idea of gender bias.

Lines 11-13

Remember, the survivor is not …

… that title before long.

The last three lines of the poem are crucial regarding the overall idea revolving around the term “survivor”. According to Chin, one who survives is not always that courageous or clever. The idea of surviving the harsh battles of life is not always that gratifying or inspirational. If readers think from the perspective of the girl who lives in a patriarchal society, she is also a survivor. She survived the social pressure and the suffocation of unending restrictions due to her forbearance and tolerance, not for her courage and intellect. That girl who remained subjugated throughout her life somehow learns the art of remaining silent.

According to the poet, the survivor is always the youngest one. Here, she is referring to a girl who survives past her infancy and grows up amidst restrictions. For this reason, in the last line, the poet says that a girl has to relinquish the title “survivor” long before she realizes the real meaning of it. It means that she is also a survivor but from a different perspective. She does not survive by negating the stereotypes. Rather, she has to accept her gender role and move on. She can only survive by adopting this measure.

Themes

Marilyn Chin’s poem “The Survivor” taps on the themes of social stereotypes, gender bias and gender role, and subjugation of women. The main theme of this piece deals with how a female voice is crushed at an early age. She is restricted in each sphere of her life, be it in her family or outside. A girl, born and brought up in a patriarchal society, is meant to follow the rules and put on her gender role like others. Through this poem, Chin highlights how a girl faces challenges both in and out of her family. Nobody ever listens to what they want. She survives this harsh battle of her life through silence and tolerance.

Tone

The tone of this piece is filled with anger, grief, and the agony of subjugation. Chin’s poetic persona keeps protesting. She bitterly remembers how she was meant to follow the rules chalked by the conventional, patriarchal society. The tone changes a bit in the second stanza where she is hopeful regarding her future. In the following sections, she talks about why girls are literally forced to remain silent. The last section reveals the true sense behind the word “survivor”. Here, the speaker’s tone is ironic at the same time despairing.

Context

“The Survivor” was published in Marilyn Chin’s second volume of poetry, The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty. It was published in 1994. Marilyn Chin is a modern Chinese American poet. She is also an activist and feminist. Most of her poems focus on the issues related to Asian American feminism and bicultural identity. In “The Survivor”, Chin also taps on similar themes. She highlights how a female voice remains unheard in Asian countries. Her idea is to reveal how a girl is treated in a country the poet hails from.

FAQs

What is the poem “The Survivor” by Marilyn Chin about?

The poem centers on the Asian American feminism and bicultural identity of a speaker. It is about how an Asian girl faces a lot of restrictions from an early stage of her life. Each of her steps is monitored. Her parents make her take up the gender role and follow the path shown by others. Chin is protesting against such stereotypes in “The Survivor”.

What is the tone of “The Survivor”?

The tone of this piece is protesting at the same time despairing. It is filled with the anger and agony of the speaker.

How does the tone of the poem change?

The tone of the poem changes in the second stanza of each section. For example, in the first section, the despairing tone of the speaker changes to a hopeful one in the second stanza. In the last stanza, her tone is ironic and critical regarding the term “survivor”.

When was the poem “The Survivor” written?

The poem was first published in 1994 in Marilyn Chin’s poetry collection The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty.

Who is the speaker of the poem?

The speaker of this piece is none other than the poet Marilyn Chin. She uses the second-person point of view to present her point.


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