This poem reveals the very different ways the two women live due to their social classes, and despite their physical proximity. The speaker works, while turning her mistress over and over in her mind. Meanwhile, her mistress relaxes and considers what dress to wear. At night, the speaker goes to her attic bedroom, while her mistress goes dancing with suitors. At this point in time, the speaker does not seem to resent her mistress's experiences, but she does seem to feel a strange mixture of envy and desire. What does the speaker want: to be with her mistress, to be close to her—or to be her? Though this is a classic question in the world of love and desire, in this poem it resonates more strongly, because the speaker is poor, while her mistress is rich. It seems impossible to dissociate the speaker's desire for her mistress from her desire for her things. The pearls, in turn, come to embody and represent this mixture of desire. Pearls are incredibly expensive and thus they denote wealth, but these pearls also embodying the sensual connection that the speaker feels with her mistress.
The speaker of this poem feels possessive of her mistress, to the point that she imagines her own scent left on the pearls chasing off suitors. This idea comes across as almost delusional, and the speaker speaks with more certainty than wistfulness. This character, perhaps in part due to her physical proximity to her mistress, feels as if she is courting her mistress; indeed, if intimacy is what counts, she may share more intimacy with her mistress than any of her mistress's suitors do.
The definition of "unrequited" is "unreturned or unrewarded." This poem does not make it clear that the love the speaker has for her mistress goes unreturned, but the possibility remains, and it casts the shadow of potential future pain over this poem's rapturous tone.
Failure is built into this poem; the relationship it describes seems unlikely to flourish. Because its roots are in servitude, and because neither character desires to break away from that structure, there seems to be no way forward. A homosexual relationship between women in the Victorian era would have been relegated to the shadows.
Proximity vs. distance
This poem explores the way physical proximity and emotional intimacy can coexist with distance. The two characters exist almost on top of one another, their boundaries overlapping. In the beginning of the poem, the mistress relaxes in the Yellow Room while the maid works around the house. Later, the maid sleeps in the attic above her mistress; this detail is somewhat ironic, for it places the speaker literally above her mistress. The proximity that allows intimacy to grow between them is due to the speaker's position as a servant, and that position creates a social distance between the women that physical proximity cannot negate.
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.