Throughout ‘Gretel in Darkness’, Louise Gluck employs the medium of poetry to describe the intense emotional turmoil that a survivor of traumatic experiences can go through, weaving the audience through the flashbacks of a distressing experience and interjecting the all too real alienation that one can feel when recovering. The author’s expert word choice and rhetorical questioning invites the audience to explore trauma through themes of memory and isolation.
The imagery of the witch’s house and the forest is recalled and retold by Gretel throughout the poem, serving the audience as a window into her processing the event. Gluck ensures that the vivid and confronting aspect of a flashback is conveyed artfully, creating lines that provide a contrast of surreal beauty, “I hear the witch’s cry / break in the moonlight through a sheet of sugar” (line 3-4), and grotesque body horror, “Her tongue shrivels into gas…” (line 6). Both quotes explore the memory Gretel seeks to forget, as seen when she asks, “Why do I not forget?” (line 10). Gretel is experiencing within these lines a flashback of her traumatic experience. This is seen in many trauma victims, where the brain uses flashbacks to process the memory after the incident, due to the distressing nature of the experience disrupting memory association (Bisby 987). Although Gretel is “far from… / memory of women” (line 8-9), she must relive her experience in order to heal and move past it, a process that Gluck eloquently recreates in her poem.
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As the reader delves into Gretel’s perspective and longing for connection, it is clear that the emotional distance between her and her family, “Nights I turn to you… / but you are not there. “ (line 19-20), incites pain and self doubt. She wonders, “Am I alone?” (line 21). With the second rhetorical question, the audience can clearly discern that Gretel not only struggles with reliving her trauma, but also with her diminished self-confidence attributed to her perceived lack of a support network. In using Gretel’s perspective as the conveyor of information, it is not certain that her family is, in fact, distant or isolating. The reader notes her “father bars the door, bars harm” (line 11), indicating care and love for his children. Her brother is seen as distant too, although he was a victim of the same event that affects Gretel in this poem, and holds trauma of his own. As PTSD is more likely to develop in girls as opposed to boys (Digitale par. 5), symptoms such as “flashbacks, withdrawal from people…problems sleeping and concentrating” (Preidt par. 8) have affected Gretel more than her brother. Gretel’s inclination towards feeling alienated and alone is encouraged by the lack of awareness to her emotional needs. The resulting consequences see a father and a brother unable to understand the needs of their suffering relative. These subtle, yet impactful, details come together to express the complexity of family, and finding support when one’s self worth is diminished.
Through the vivid imagery created by the poet’s word choice, as well as the pointed rhetorical questions, the poem transforms into a visceral, emotional text exploring trauma and the internal struggles of a person in the process of recovery.