Sharon Olds poem, The Victims, deals with an underlying theme of abuse. Olds illustrates this theme through the tone of the poem, which is achieved by imagistic language, rhyme and rhythm. In this poem the speaker is illustrated through two points of view, first as a child then as an adult reflecting back on a troublesome childhood experience. As the speakers point of view changes so does the use of poetic devices.
The poem opens with the speaker remembering the behaviors of an abusive father when she was a child. The tone at this point was one of disgust, hatred, spite, and taking joy in her fathers failures. This was due to the fact that she was taught to feel this way by her mother. As a child she was not aware of this. It was not until adulthood that she realized her feeling of resentment towards her father were evoked by her mother. The speaker, herself, was not the victim of her fathers abusive behavior nonetheless she still hated him because thats the only way she knew how to feel. These feelings are shown through the imagistic language used to reveal the acts of revenge on the father. When the mother finally divorced the father, her kids loved it (3-4). When the father was fired from his job, we grinned inside (5-6). The pleasure that the entire family took watching their fathers demise was quite vivid. We were tickled to think of your office taken away, youre secretaries taken away (7-9). The finality of the fathers loses was shown by the taking away of his pencils and reams of paper at his job (11). The images used in the first 16 lines are very dark and gloomy and are associated with death. This is as if to represent the familys way of killing him through his loses. The suits that belonged to the father were depicted as dark carcasses that hung in your closet (13) and Olds specifically pointed out that even the noses of his shoes were black (14). After the first 16 lines of the poem, the feelings of hated by the speaker towards her father begins to change.
This drastic change begins in line seventeen, but is preceded by clues in the previous lines when the speaker says, She the mother had taught us to take it, to hate you and take it until we pricked for your annihilation (15-17). The speaker has finally realized that she only hated her father because thats what her mother taught her to do. The speaker understands that not only was her mother a victim, but her father was one as well. Her transition is seen most easily through her shift in tone. This tone is illustrated through her change in language. She starts first by addressing this man who she has despised her entire life as father (17) instead of using the word you (1). She begins to sympathize with her father, when she sees bums along the street that have been stripped of everything and feels sorry for them, the white slugs of their bodies gleam through slits in their suits of compressed silk (18-20). They had nothing. At this point the speaker realized that this same tragedy had happened to her father. He too, had nothing left and was a victim as well. Notice the speakers use of the word slugs, bodies, slits, suits, compressed, and silk in lines 18-20. The harsh tone of the first half of the poem is now replaced by softer, soothing, S sounds.
Her shift in tone also illustrated her shift in images. The dark, gloomy images used in the first half of the poem have become colorful and bright. She uses references to fire, the underwater fire if their the bums eyes (22) and the brightness of, ships gone down with lit lanterns. (23). While these lines describe the downfall of the bums, they emphasize light at the same time. The speaker has seen the light and realized the plight of her father. The color black (13) has been replaced with the color white (18). The color white stands for purity, rebirth, and peace. The speaker has undergone a rebirth in her attitude towards her father. She has finally made peace with him and their past.
The speakers change of attitude was also evident through the change of rhyme and rhythm as the poem progresses. Olds chose to use repetition of words to emphasize her point. The phase took it and took it is repeated three times in the poem (2, 15, 23) and is used to emphasize lose and revenge evoked on the father. With the shift in line 17, the pattern diminishes. In line 23, the phrase was used sympathetically to describe the troubled life of the bums and was not used as spiteful words. The rhythm during the last ten lines of the poem also takes a dramatic change. The first sixteen lines are filled with uses of punctuation. This put many pauses and stops in the middle of, and in between lines, preventing the poem from flowing. Lines 1, 4, and 7 all contain a period in the middle of the line. Line 14 ends with a question mark causing the reader to stop and think about what the speaker is thinking about. The unevenness of the first part of the poem reflects the speakers dissent and hatred of her father. She was expressing her anger, and when one is angered they tend to speak abruptly and choppy. As the speakers attitude towards her father changes, so does the punctuation in the poem. From line seventeen until the end of the poem there are no stops. There is only one period and that occurs in line 26. The poem definitely proceeds at a smoother pace. It shows that the speaker is calmer, and more relaxed. Her words flow together. Her feelings of rage and resentment to her father have subsided and feelings of sympathy and remorse have taken over.
During the course of this poem the speaker has done a complete turnaround. The point of view she once held as a child has given way to a different one later in life. Her anger and hatred have turned into sympathy and regret. Olds effectively uses imagistic language and rhyme and rhythm to portray the speakers shift in tone. What she was taught as a child was not who she truly felt inside. Not only was her mother a victim, but her father was as well. She is able to overcome her hatred, and find her true feelings for her father later in life.