In Adrienne Rich's poem, "Living in Sin," a woman, entering a life full of hope and promises with her lover, assumes that "no dust" will fall upon her home, nor her perfect relationship. Her life, however, does not fit this ideal. Both a deteriorating home and relationship afflict her life; these unexpected results of her efforts in addition to the lack of her lover's efforts lead to resentful feelings. Because of society's expectations, the woman accepts her unbearable role. Rich reveals the woman's attempts to improve her physical environment and emotional life, and her ultimate acceptance of both situations.
The woman's and her lover's responses to living in a run-down home contrast sharply. The "dust[y]" atmosphere creates an aura of decay. The reality of the woman's broken dreams is inescapable. The home, in disrepair, has roaches coming out of their colonies in the moldings and grimy window panes. Society dictates that she must take on the domestic drudgeries of life. In the male dominant society, she alone must fulfill the role of housekeeper. With the absence of her lover, the woman takes sole responsibility for maintaining a pleasant household; she alone makes the bed, dusts the tabletop, and sets the coffee on the stove. The portrait of her miserable life contrasts sharply with that of her lover. While she struggles with the endless monotony of house chores, he loafs around, carefree and relaxed. During her monotonous morning routine, the man flippantly goes "out for cigarettes." Although he too notices the problems in the house, he satisfies himself with merely complaining. Rather than taking action and tuning the piano, the man merely "declare[s] it out of tune, [and] shrug[s]" indifferently. The woman does not even control her home's furnishings. The food and painting are both results of the man's whimsical desires. In order to maintain some semblance of order, she sacrifices her environmental preferences by accepting the situation.
Because the man lacks commitment, the woman takes the burden for both housecleaning as well as improving the couple's relationship. A problematic relationship requires much "dusting." She solely contributes the energy that is constantly necessary to create and maintain a pleasant relationship. She submits to this role of absolute responsibility without resistance, keeping her resentment and anger to herself. Her constant expenditure of energy with no satisfactory results leads to disappointment. As she feels the "daylight coming " while lying beside her sleeping lover, the woman dreads the life she must face the next day. The coming of the daylight illuminates the harsh reality of her life. Both her surroundings and her lover ultimately fail her.
Rather than escape her dismal life, the woman stubbornly continues to bear her burdens and live as she feels obligated to. Although she resents her situation, she takes no action to liberate herself and embrace individual pursuits. She feels any efforts to change her environment are futile. Submitting without resistance, the woman must keep her anger inside. Her futile efforts result in her "living in sin." She sinfully accepts what society dictates and does not try to escape and improve her circumstances. By allowing this dismal life to continue, she denies herself and her individuality. This self-sacrifice is the greatest sin of all.
Society uses various ploys to achieve conformity. As a means to manipulate women into conforming and submitting to housekeeping roles, society promotes a male-dominant view. Society further expects all women to feign fulfillment in this "natural," biological role. By demanding conformity to expectations and customs, society conspires to minimize a woman's satisfaction. Thus, like the woman in the poem, many women in society accept this homemaking role. Although an individual must accept her unchangeable circumstances, she should renounce her society-given role.