“Good Bones” by Maggie Smith Poem Analysis: Exploring the Theme of Realism

How do you tell your children about life and all its realities? How do you explain the fact that life is as evil as it is good? In Maggie Smith’s 2016 viral poem “Good Bones” the speaker resolves to keep the terrible part from her children and offer hope of making the world beautiful instead. The poem is a parent’s reflection of the real world and how they wish their children could perceive it. Taking a closer look, the poem is also the speaker’s effort to convince herself too that maybe the world could be beautiful; that she could make the world beautiful. Smith applies a realist literary style that effectively relays her message and enhances the theme of life’s reality.

Realism inclines on truth by narrating situations as they are to help people manage them accordingly. Realists write from a vantage point of experience and knowledge as opposed to imagination. In the poem, Smith identifies herself in the first line, which makes readers identify with her view of the world. She says, “Life is short, though I keep this from my children.” (Line 1). From this opening, it is clear that she is a parent and thus, has lived in the world for quite a long time to understand its reality. The speaker also mentions some of the life experiences she has had and how they have shortened her life, even though she does not suggest regret. Smith continues, “and I’ve shortened mine in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways.” (Line 2-3). This display of knowledge and true life experiences as she narrates them can be viewed as realism literature.

Similar to real life, the speaker’s choices are guided by social pressures and conditioning. In an ideal world, a parent would wish that their children understand both the good and evil part of the world. This would be done with the wishful thinking that children can understand and balance both views. However, the need to protect their child forces the speaker to hide the half terrible part of life. The use of repetition as a poetic device throughout the poem “I keep this from my children ” constantly shifts the reader’s mind to the reality of the world and seemingly justifies the speaker’s decision to keep some things away from her children. More often than not, parents can avoid or leave out world problems such as war, hunger, and poverty, so as not to dampen their children’s view of the world, and in the hope that they’ll form their own worldview when they’re old enough.

Additionally, realism explores and accepts the duality of life. Characters and events in realism literature are painted as both good and evil, just like in real life. In the 2019 research study, The Realistic Genre and its Development in World Literature,  Zarnigor affirms that “In order to make a true and effective portrayal of life, it needs to be comprehensive. To do this, you must show life with all its contradictions. Therefore, a straightforward description of life’s conflicts is one of the main requirements of realism literature.” Throughout the poem, Smith ties every good thing with a bad on the other side, balancing the realistic perception of the world. She says, “For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird… and for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you.” (Line 8-12). This balance supports the view held by realist literature that even when writing fiction, the world has to be represented in its truest form. Smith lessens this near-pessimistic view through their clever choice of words like “The world is at least fifty percent terrible” which makes the reader think about the other half that is not terrible (Line 5-6). 

Finally, the realist style uses a simple language and style to avoid distractions from real-life. The poem is in a free-verse form that is not limited to any rhyme or meter but still maintains its artistic connotations. This allows a reader to channel all their focus on the poem’s emphasis on life’s reality. The poet uses simple language and does not utilize a complex vocabulary that would otherwise distract a reader from what is important; reality. Finally, Smith likens the poem’s primary aim with simplistic ideas that are easy to resonate with. “Any decent realtor, walking you through a real shithole, chirps on about good bones.” (Line 14-16). While the tone of the poem at this point is sober, the analogy applied here is simple enough for anyone to understand the speaker’s choice not to tell her children about the terrible parts of life.

Maggie Smith’s 2016 viral poem Good Bones employs several techniques of realism as a literature genre. The speaker describes the world from a point of knowledgeable experiences because she is a parent and has had her share of bittersweet life experiences. The events discussed throughout the poem are also a complex mixture of good and evil, which satisfies the duality of life in realistic literature. The free-verse form and simple language further make it easy to relate to the real life experiences that the speaker mentions. 

Do you have any literary analysis questions for your essay writing or just loved reading ‘Good Bones’ by Maggie Smith and wanna start a conversation? Let me know in the comment section below! 🙂

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