It is possible to read Marge Piercy’s poem “A Work of Artifice” as a meditation on how women are subjugated in a patriarchal society, in so far as the symbol of the bonsai tree corresponds to the status of the female within the context of male hegemony. Namely, Piercy’s imagery of the bonsai tree evokes themes of limitation, restriction and manipulation: all these correspond to the manner in which women are placed in very specific gender roles within a male-dominated social order, such as “mother”, “wife”, and “lover.”
Accordingly, for Piercy, the bonsai tree is “domestic and weak”, the aim being to limit the bonsai tree and »dwarf its growth.« There are clear analogies, therefore, between the domestication of the bonsai tree and the domestication of women: the bonsai tree, although a living plant, which could grow limitlessly, to paraphrase Piercy, finds that its potential is constricted by the gardener. The female, in much the same manner, is reduced to very specific gender roles. At the same time, the male-dominated discourse tells the woman that this is what is best for her, as Piercy states how lucky, little tree, to have a pot to grow in. The limitation of the female by patriarchic society is maintained by perpetuating the lie that this is what is best for women. They should appreciate their being stereotyped. Piercy attempts to critique the limitation of potential of women and the perpetuation of this same limiting function.
In this light, Ibsen’s »A Doll’s House« can be read as a continuation of Piercy’s poem: in Ibsen’s work, the bonsai plant, in a sense, decides to break its limitations. When Ibsen’s Nora decides to leave behind her role as a mother and wife, she is leaving behind precisely the gender roles that are assigned to her by the hegemony of male patriarchy, so as to discover new potentials which are not defined by the male conception of what the female should be. The violent reaction to Nora’s decision is precisely the threat it poses to the patriarchy’s distribution of gender roles and its limitation of what women can or should be. This radical break with the patriarchy enacted by Nora is equivalent to the »what if« scenario contained wtihin Piercy’s poem: what if the bonsai tree broke through its constraints and »could have grown eighty feet tall on the side of a mountain«? This would be the assertion of an autonomy that simultaneously would overturn the patriarchal order and its domination over women.
In Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter”, this overturning of the patriarchal order is taken to brutal extremes. Mary murders her husband and serves the body to police detectives who have come to investigate the murder. On the one hand, this may be read as an attempt at shock fiction. On the other hand, the story may be interpreted as demonstrating the power of patriarchy and the aggressive means which females must use to overcome this social discourse. This recalls what Piercy says about the perpetuation of male-dominated accounts of female gender roles: the female is told that this is what is best for them. This brainwashing requires revolutionary acts to overcome and this is one sense in which we can understand Dahl’s violent narrative.
All three works, in this light, demonstrate how females are limited by patriarchy into particular gender roles. At the same time, they demonstrate the effects of these limits, but also assert alternatives. The hegemonic and violent nature of this limitation is clear in all three of the works, and, accordingly, all three call for radical breaks from the patriarchic discourse so as to assert a new vision of female autonomy. These works are not only descriptions of the subjugation of women, but calls to overthrow this state.