The Effects of Gender Norms In “Diving into the Wreck”

Upon my first readings, I find myself drawing towards the mirroring of its first and last stanzas. Most interestingly, it begins and ends with the mention of “the book of myths” (1, 92). I question what this book could be and what the wreck could mean. Ultimately, I believe “Diving into the Wreck” by Adriene Rich is a commentary about gender norms and their effects on gender identity.

The “book of myths” is what pushes the speaker into this journey and what disappoints them in the end. I believe that the “book of myths” is a metaphor for the history of gender norms. The word “myth” indicates a false belief, a tale that has been passed down culturally. Gender and how it is perceived, is subjected to history and culture. Therefore, it is possible that upon reading and familiarizing themself with this notion, the speaker begins to believe that they must act a certain way to be accepted by the culture. In relation, they would be allowed to travel to and into the wreck. 

The wreck is a representation of society, it is the world where gender norms dictate who is ‘normal.’ In the first stanza, the speaker gets ready to go out into the world. They describe that in order to do so, “[they must] put on / the body-armor… the absurd flippers / the grave and awkward mask” (4-7). They speak of “having to do this” in order to be accepted (8). These lines allude to the idea that the speaker must prepare in order to exist in this society. The words “body-armor” and “mask” support this idea, as the speaker must cover themself before they leave. In addition, the words “absurd,” “grave,” and “awkward” connotes that these actions are not voluntary. The anaphora in lines 5-7 indicates that it is a routine, as it elicits a feeling of familiarity with the task. The first stanza highlights that in order for the speaker to travel to the wreck, they must not be themself.

In the last stanza, the speaker finds themself in the wreck. By the end, it is unclear if the speaker chose to live as themself or as how society wants them to be. The words “cowardice” and “courage” paired with the enjambed line “the one who find our way / back to this scene” does not make a clear distinction (88-90).  The first part of the enjambed line seems to indicate that the speaker chose to live as their true self. The words “find our way” heavily implies it. However, the line continues with “back to this scene” indicating that they did not. Either way, despite having lived a life – true or pretend – the speaker and others like them find that “[their] names do not appear” in the “book of myths.” (94, 92). It relays a discouraging message, even if the speaker chose to live as their truth or not, they’re still erased from history – their identity is not acknowledged.

“Diving into the Wreck” may be disheartening in its message, but in it there also exists bitter-sweetness. The first stanza emotes a feeling of isolation, referring to a singular “I” and ends with the word “alone” (1, 8, 12). It indicates that in the society they live in, one must face the disappointments by themselves. Whereas, the last stanza talks of “we,” “you,” and “our” (87, 89, 94). This alludes to the idea that the speaker is not alone, that there are others like them. There is solidarity in this ending, despite the discouraging message.

3 thoughts on “The Effects of Gender Norms In “Diving into the Wreck””

  1. I also wrote in my blog post about what the “wreck” means in Rich’s poem. After reading your post I had wished that I mentioned how the wreck also can “represent society in a world where gender norms dictate which is ‘normal’”. Diving into the Wreck was published at a time when there was a cultural change and women movements were influencing society. Since the focus of the story is diving into a wreck my so what question is what is the wreck if we were to disconnect it from the story? Would we still interpret this experience the same way if one was diving into the ocean with nothing to search for?

  2. I think it’s really interesting how you conceive of the shipwreck itself as society, rather than a metaphor for introspection. Most of the blog posts about this poem, including my own, perceive it that way, so I really like the unique perspective this brings. This reading of the poem does make the message more disheartening; through this lens the decision of not writing the names in the “book of myths” is not a triumphant departure from the internalized coercions of society, but rather a resigned acceptance that whether this person chooses to express their true selves or not, they will be shunned and forgotten. It’s a more depressing message for sure, but it’s just as powerful.

  3. The “book of myths” neglecting to mention their names is certainly a disheartening message and it’s one I also talked about in my own post. I think it’s very interesting that you also talk about the progression of the poem where the speaker finds others to relate to by the end of it even though they were going through things on their own in the beginning. I think it’s an important message that while we might be alone in the beginning of our journey, we won’t be by the end, and I wish I thought of mentioning that in my own blog post.

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