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Critical Analysis of Robert Hayden's Poem "The Whipping"

I'm a Literature student. I enjoy learning English Literature while studying the deep and hidden meaning of the text.


Robert Hayden was an African-American poet and professor who is best known as the author of poems, including “Those Winter Sundays” and “The Middle Passage.”

His parents died during his childhood. Hayden spent the majority of his childhood in the foster care system.He grew as a noticeably small child with poor vision, Hayden often found himself socially isolated. He found refuge in literature, developing interests in fiction and poetry.There’s a constant attention to the burdens of history in Robert Hayden’s poems. Even amid the beauties of life, the ghosts of the past linger.


The Whipping by Robert Hayden

The old woman across the way

is whipping the boy again

and shouting to the neighborhood

her goodness and his wrongs.

Wildly he crashes through elephant ears,

pleads in dusty zinnias,

while she in spite of crippling fat

pursues and corners him.

She strikes and strikes the shrilly circling

boy till the stick breaks

in her hand. His tears are rainy weather

to woundlike memories:

My head gripped in bony vise

of knees, the writhing struggle

to wrench free, the blows, the fear

worse than blows that hateful

Words could bring, the face that I

no longer knew or loved . . .

Well, it is over now, it is over,

and the boy sobs in his room,

And the woman leans muttering against

a tree, exhausted, purged--

avenged in part for lifelong hidings

she has had to bear.

Critical Analysis of the Poem

The poem opens with a description of a woman whipping a boy—yet again. She screams at him, tells him he's wrong and she's right, chases him all over the place, and hits him so violently that the stick she uses breaks. This whole scene triggers a flashback of somebody (either the speaker or the woman) getting beaten by somebody else whom they now hate. After the flashback is over, the speaker brings us back to the present and tells us that the boy is now sobbing in his room and the woman is resting against a tree. She is muttering and feels as if she has somehow taken revenge on whoever caused her all that pain so many years ago.

The Sobbing Boy


Where is the Speaker in the Scene?

A fly on the wall—that's the best way to describe the speaker of this poem. Okay, he's not literally a fly, but he's like a fly on the wall because he's watching this whipping unfold and, it seems, the woman and the boy have no idea that he's watching.

If we had to guess, we would say that the speaker lives near the woman and the boy, perhaps in an apartment across the way, from which he can see everything that happens. He obviously is familiar with the vegetation in the other place (he describes elephant ears and zinnias) and knows which room belongs to the boy.

More than just a nearby, casual observer, fly-on-the-wall-type dude, the speaker of "The Whipping" has a knack for psychology and definitely understands how the cycle of violence and abuse works. In the last stanza, for example, the speaker suggests that the woman whips the boy because of the pain, suffering, and abuse she endured in her past—she is "avenged in part for lifelong hidings." She beats the boy as a way to cope with her own pain, to "purge" or eliminates it from her life. In fact, this guy is so good, he can practically read the woman's mind. Just look at that bizarre little stream of consciousness interlude in stanzas four and five, where a series of painful, violent memories are vividly described. Yep, it sure sounds like he could give our boy Sigmund Freud a run for his money.

Speaker's Own Recollections

Now, there's one last little thing we need to cover. We've been talking about how the speaker understands violence and might as well be a therapist. Those fourth and fifth stanzas are a little confusing, and it's possible that the memories vividly described there are the speaker's own recollections. He too could be a victim of abuse, and perhaps the scene he watches unfold reminds him of his own violent childhood. Perhaps this is why he understands the cycle of violence and abuse so well (just sayin').

The Whipping in Robert Hayden's Voice

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