10

Maya Angelou's "They Went Home" opens like this:

They went home and told their wives,
that never once in all their lives,
had they known a girl like me,
But... They went home.

The end of the second verse also ends "But... They went home", and the third ends "But...", clearly hinting the same thing - they went home.

What does this mean "they went home", though? What's the significance that these "they" obviously think of the narrator as something special, but go home? What's this implying?

15

The speaker in the poem is a single woman who entertains married men. Comparing her position as "the other woman" to the men's domestic life, the speaker imagines that they probably praise her to their wives.

This praise could be the men's justification for their affair, claiming that they were carried away by the speaker's charms and also denigrating their wives' housekeeping in comparison to hers:

They said my house was licking clean,
no word I spoke was ever mean,
I had an air of mystery,
But... They went home.

Alternatively, they might not be admitting to the affair but just praising the speaker as a double bluff to deflect suspicion. In either case, while the men are happy to have a fling with her, they ultimately return to their wives:

they liked my smile, my wit, my hips,
they'd spend one night, or two or three.
But ...

The poem is a commentary on the asymmetrical power relations between the sexes. On the one hand, as "the other woman," the speaker has no claim on the men: "They went home." On the other hand, the wives they go home to either have no idea that their husbands are breaking their marriage vows, or have to deal with the knowledge that their husbands find them inadequate and the fallout of the affair.

The shift in the addressees of the men's words also show that Angelou does not pit mistress against wife, but rather sees them both as situated within these asymmetric gender relations. In the first verse, the men are praising the mistress to their wives. The second verse is ambiguous; the men could be either praising the speaker to their wives, or complimenting her directly. In the third verse, the addressee is the mistress as they praise her hips while spending a couple nights with her. This skillfully handled shift, where both the wives and the mistress are spoken to by the men, places the women in solidarity with each other even as their relationship is not direct, but mediated through the speaking men.

Whether as wife or as mistress, then, the women Angelou depicts in this poem find their social and self-worth dependent on their relationship to unreliable men. The poem thus critiques social norms that evaluate women largely, if not solely, in terms of whether they have a man, while simultaneously allowing men to treat the women as disposable.

3
  • 3
    This interpretation seems to me to be reading a lot deeper into the poem's meaning than can really be justified. You could just as easily say that it's an indictment of women who have affairs with married men, since no matter how good or praiseworthy they are, they'll never stack up to the woman their partner is married to. – nick012000 Mar 15 at 6:56
  • 1
    @nick012000 feel free to write an answer with that alternative interpretation! – verbose Mar 15 at 6:58
  • @nick012000 I'm somewhere in the middle. I read the poem as a sad tale of a woman who does everything she can and still does not get what she wants. That's the beauty of literature - there isn't a right and a wrong way to read it. – xLeitix Mar 15 at 13:50
12

The narrator of he poem seems to be a mistress to married men. Since it's unusual for a mistress to have multiple lovers at the same time, I think she's figuratively representing most mistresses, not just one woman.

She gives the men sexual pleasure greater than they get from their wives, and she maintains her home cleaner than their homes, and she doesn't ever complain or argue as a wife often does.

Yet despite all the ways in which she is superficially nicer than their wives, the men still consider her just a dalliance. Their time with her is just an interlude, they still go home to their wives and families -- that's their real lives.

Mistresses (and less so, prostitutes) may sometimes have dreams of stealing men away from their wives, and sometimes men will even claim that they will leave their wives, but these are usually not realized. Hence, "they went home."

3
  • 2
    I'm not sure I agree with you about the speaker being a prostitute; I don't get the sense that these men are paying her for her company. – Michael Seifert Mar 15 at 2:50
  • 3
    You're right. I got confused because she references multiple men, but now I think she's speaking on behalf of all mistresses. I'll revise my answer when I get a chance. – Barmar Mar 15 at 2:56
  • @MichaelSeifert I've update the answer to reflect this realization. – Barmar Mar 15 at 15:29
3

It is pointing out that whatever they say, they value something else greater than the sum of all of the qualities they praise. What that is, either isn’t known or isn’t acknowledged, but it must exist.

This makes the praise a consolation prize at best, and active disrespect at worst (as a distraction from the truth, which is that they don’t really appreciate the praised attributes at all).

After praising her, they left her and went home. Their praise is false and worthless, as they are false and worthless.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.