Symbolism and Destructive Attitudes in “Genus Narcissus”
Finding and picking a flower may be a plain and straightforward task for many, but Natasha Trethewey suggests a deeper consequence in her poem “Genus Narcissus.” Trethewey employs the many different metaphors of a daffodil in tracking the development of a girl through her childish beliefs and into adulthood. Trethewey describes the delusional foolishness of the narrator as a child by using an optimistic, lively, and clueless tone, and later her realization of her past narcissism through a pessimistic and gloomy tone. By creating a symbolic story about capturing daffodils, she asserts that the narrator was selfish towards her mother and only felt self-pride, and ultimately depicts the destructive nature of a narcissistic attitude.
Trethewey begins by establishing the daffodils as vibrant and attractive, a contrast to the stark environment that it is found in. The narrator begins by describing the environment as “dense with trees and shadow, creek-side.” The precise diction of “dense” refers not only to the sheer volume of trees that are on the road but also adds meaning to the tone of the first stanza overall. As dense also means physically heavy, it sets the preliminary tone of the poem as one that is heavy, gloomy, and somber. The usage of “shadow” as a singular instead of a plural noun reinforces this by mimicking a collective noun. In this sense, the entire scenery that is “creek-side” is viewed to be dark and overcast completely, not just fragmented areas of the ground that a plural noun “shadows” would refer to. In complete contrast to this darkness is the “yellow daffodils” that “lit” up the road, clearly referencing the idea of brightness and light, giving the daffodils an optimistic quality. The flowers are inviting, not only because of its light, but also due to the structure of the word itself. The softness of the semivowels in “yellow daffodils” from the “y,” “l,” “f,” “l,” and “s” consonants describe the flowers as less harsh and therefore more approachable than the shadowy road itself. Tretheway then strengthens this juxtaposition by utilizing a line break after introducing the daffodils. The next stanza begins with “bright against winter’s last gray days.” The assonance of the “ay” sound and its relative closeness to the “a” in “last” elongate the last three words of the line. As a result, they phonetically envelop the opening image, and therefore physically encompass the scene as a whole, illustrating its overall gloominess. The daffodils, now established as the sole, concentrated, bright object of the image, then have added attention and importance when placed in front of a somber tone in the background.
The narrator herself is characterized as unaware and selfish by collecting the daffodils, and Tretheway hints at an inauspicious tone that may stem from this behavior. Even though the narrator concludes that she “must have known they grew wild,” she still decides to take the daffodils because she “thought no harm in taking them.” The usage of “thought” instead of “was” implies an inherent conflict between the narrator’s belief and the actual being, and is an ominous foreshadowing for the later “harm” that will arise in taking the flowers. Evidently, the narrator is unaware of the consequences of taking the daffodil. Furthermore, the increase of syllables in the next two lines—a shift from lines with 8-9 syllables to lines with 11-12 syllables—reinforces the statement that she took “as many as [she] could hold.” She clearly takes a substantial amount of flowers. The narrator describes this endeavor as a simple “gathering” of objects, as if she were gathering branches or seashells. But she does not realize the true meaning behind her actions: she is killing flowers. By placing them “in a jar” afterwards, she artificially confines the flowers in an unnatural enclosure, stripping the flowers of their “wild” quality unknowingly. The overall tone of the section is matter-of-fact and tracks the narrator action by action, but the innate meaning of her behavior draws attention to an underlying tone of foreboding.
Tretheway furthers the narrator’s tone of admiration towards the flowers through figurative language and an allusion to Narcissus. The narrator’s attitude is depicted in watching the flowers that her mother placed “on the sill.” The narrator idolizes and looks up to the flowers as indicated by its physical elevation. She is not appreciative of the flowers’ beauty or elegance, but instead “proud of [her]self” for giving them to her mother. The narrator’s faulty perception is depicted by the “light bend[ing] through the glass” and onto the flower. The light that shines on the flower is reshaped and off-set by the glass to be imperfect. Similarly, the narrator herself obscures her own viewpoint with her pride and narcissism, and merely views the flower as an extension of her own pride. She then draws a connection between the flowers and herself by stating she “must have seen in the some measure of [herself].” Like the flower’s “slender stems,” it can be inferred that the narrator has a slender physique due to her age. The slenderness of the narrator also suggests a undeveloped and naive mentality; she only follows her primal instincts of feeling proud and chasing “toward praise” from her mother. In doing so, she is “bow[ing] to meet its reflection,” like both Narcissus the flower and Narcissus the greek demigod. She shows complete disregard for the outside meanings of her actions. Analogous to the way Narcissus stares at his reflection, the narrator stares at the mimicking flower. The allusion to Narcissus and the personification of the daffodil, and furthermore the adoring tone of the narrator, serve to solidify the narrator as narcissistic and naive.
But the ultimate demise of Narcissus and the daffodil serve to reflect the narrator’s own realization and loss of childhood ignorance. The pessimistic and bleak tone of the narrator when describing the flower’s eventual end is a sharp turn away from the previous tone of admiration. The daffodil, while lively and vibrant when it was discovered, is now withered and dead. The narrator describes it as having a “short spring—” to illustrate its ultimate downfall. By using two one-syllable words to conclude the line and a caesura, she conveys how the quick lifespan of the flower is cut off. Similarly, Narcissus stares at his own reflection until he himself dies. This termination of life serves to signify the narrator’s realization of the foolishness behind her actions; even though the daffodil is visually appealing when artificially removed from its habitat, its quick transformation into “graveside flowers” mirrors the narrator’s disgust her previous naivete. Because the flower is an extension of her own pride, its “treacherous” whisper is also viewed as the narrator’s own treachery to her mother, telling her to “die early.” Throughout the poem, the narrator acts with disregard towards her mother, feeling “proud of [her]self” instead of affectionate to her mother when “giving [her] mother” something. The mother only serves to elevate the narrator’s own pride for herself. But this desire for solely pride—which, like the flowers, is so attractive initially—is eventually expunged by the narrator, marking her transition from childish ignorance to maturity. The narrator now describes the daffodils like “graveside flowers” to communicate that the narcissistic aspect of her childhood is now dead. Only now, with her matured awareness, does she know that the daffodil was a symbol of death she unwittingly gave to her mother. Her tone of both clarity and bleakness is a reflection of her views regarding her childish vanity: she demonstrates the eventual destructive nature—even if she didn’t notice at the time—of narcissism and her sadness at this fact.
Thus, Trethewey utilizes the daffodils as an allusion to Narcissus, a metaphor for the narrator’s own narcissism, and also its relation to death in order to delineate the narrator’s destructive childish ignorance and her eventual progression away from this ignorance. The daffodils, carrying a prominent and attention-grabbing tone to start, are reduced to something dreary and decaying at the end, mirroring the narrator’s recognition of her own narcissism. Ultimately, this juxtaposition of tone, the multiple symbolic meanings of the daffodil, and the narrator’s own metaphorical actions all contribute to Trethewey’s powerful image of the destructive nature of narcissism.