She fans herself whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.
These lines in the poem highlight the disparity in wealth between the women. The mistress tries to keep cool by fanning herself, while her maid works and uses her own heat to add luster to the pearls. This image is a cliche, what one might picture when thinking of a mistress and her servant. What makes this part of the poem notable is the knowledge that the speaker works willingly and has no second thoughts about the fairness of wealth disparity, nor about her mistress's laziness. The line "Slack on my neck, her rope" calls to mind the image of a horse or a cow, some domesticated animal, and by mentioning the slackness of the "rope," this poem gives the rope the potential to tighten. While the maid works willingly now, this moment hints at a future in which the maid will not be so willing to work but will have no choice.
And I lie here awake, knowing the pearls are cooling even now in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night I feel their absence and I burn.
These final lines of the poem reveal the transactional nature of the pearls, which in turn reveals the hopelessness of the speaker's desire. As she falls asleep, she imagines the pearls cooling in the same room as her mistress's naked form, and she burns with even more heat for the pearls to transfer to her mistress. The dissipating heat mirrors the way the speaker's desire dissipates after it leaves her, and may have no effect on the object of her attraction. This moment also reveals the speaker's possessiveness and her expectations. She does not imagine that her mistress would allow one of the men she dances with to come home with her; she does not imagine that her mistress would learn any man's name. With these expectations, the speaker sets herself up for disappointment.
I dream about her in my attic bed; picture her dancing with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.
Here, the French perfume that the mistress wears contrasts with the "faint, persistent" scent of the speaker. This moment exemplifies the class disparity between the characters, as do the characters' locations; the speaker is in the attic, while her mistress attends an elegant ball. However, this moment also throws into sharp relief the speaker's possessiveness of her mistress. The speaker imagines that her mistress's suitors, the men who appear as a blurry, unimportant collective, are "puzzled" by her own scent on her mistress.
By describing the pearl necklace as "milky stones," the speaker assigns them a feminine quality. By describing them as "stones" the speaker also likens the pearls to something earthy. This connects back to the mention of the speaker's faint, natural scent and the rabbit foot that becomes significant later in the poem. By aligning her mistress with nature, the speaker aligns her mistress more closely with herself. However, this connection can only extend so far; it cannot penetrate the class divide that separates them.
In her looking-glass my red lips part as though I want to speak.
This moment reflects the solipsistic nature of the speaker's desire. In the looking-glass, she observes herself, not her mistress. Her lips are red as if in response to her mistress's blush, but that blush is in response to the physical sensation of being stroked by a rabbit's foot, not by the mistress's arousal. The selfish nature of the speaker's desire reveals how her attraction has devolved into obsession; she focuses more on her own act of desiring than she does on the wishes of her mistress. This suggests one of two things. Possibly the speaker is aware that this relationship will never go beyond hints of eroticism, and with this knowledge, she is sated by the limited physical connection they have. The other possibility is that the speaker is oblivious to how her mistress will surely one day let her down by choosing to marry one of her suitors. This scenario, though darker, feels more likely; the speaker appears blinded by the strength of her attraction.
The speaker says here that her lips part "as though" she wants to speak; clearly she does not intend to speak, instead desiring to act sexually. This use of language distances the speaker from herself. This distance hints at the lack of control the speaker has over her sexual impulses.
The looking-glass, like the pearls, symbolizes the class gulf between the two characters. The mirror, like the pearls and the perfume, will never belong to the speaker.
Undressing, taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way she always does....
This part of the poem occurs in the speaker's imagination, but it suggests that she has familiarity with her mistress's night routine and has seen her slip naked into bed before. The speaker's longing is apparent, and the way she thinks about her mistress is tender and reverent, even though she does not imagine her mistress thinking about her in return. Here her devotion feels complete and enduring, and she seems not to need her mistress to return her sentiments.
All day I think of her, resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk or taffeta, which gown tonight?
This quote appears in the first and second stanzas of "Warming Her Pearls." Here the speaker considers her mistress's thoughts and thinks of her resting in the Yellow Room, presumably while the speaker works elsewhere. Nota,bly she does not imagine her mistress thinking about her; her slight obsessiveness has not caused her to leave the realm of reality. She does not resent her mistress for her luxurious lifestyle; the speaker's love seems unconditional. This part of the poem suggests that the speaker wants to be so close to her mistress that she becomes part of her. She superimposes her mistress's thoughts over her own, and she does so without judgment.
This very lack of judgment reveals how intrinsic the speaker's position has become to her identity. Her devotion and obsession are believable, but are they sustainable? Could a woman live her life in servitude without ever questioning her mistress's power or her own place in society? Such a task seems nearly impossible, but the speaker's love seems intense enough to sustain her for a long time.
Warming Her Pearls Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Warming Her Pearls is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.