Diving into the Wreck

What can tales of myth tell us about our society? Who do those myths represent (or not represent at all)? These are questions that Adrienne Rich addresses in her 1973 poem, “Diving into the Wreck.” The poem was published as part of a collection in 1973 of the same name, detailing women’s experiences of the patriarchy in an accessible, relatable way.

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Table of contents
    Poem“Diving into the Wreck”
    Publication Date1973, Diving Into the Wreck poetry collection
    StructureTen stanzas of varying length, from seven to twelve lines.
    MeterNo formal meter
    RhymeNo formal rhyme scheme
    ToneCasual, detached tone
    ThemesWomen’s oppression, mythology and truth-seeking, self-discovery
    Literary DevicesSymbolism, metaphor, tone, Allusion

    “Diving into the Wreck” Summary

    The poem, written from a first-person perspective, describes an underwater exploration of a shipwreck. It begins with the diver “having read the book of myths”1 donning all of the gear necessary to dive deep into the water. The gear is described as though they are donning armor. The diver makes the journey alone.

    Diving into the Wreck, Giant Wave Shipwreck, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The diver explores the underwater remains of a shipwreck.

    The diver descends the ladder that has always been there, used by those who have made this journey in the past. The diver continues to descend the ladder and is hindered by the awkward equipment and the lack of direction, as there is no one there to direct them. The diver describes the changing color of the water and how they came close to passing out before the mask and its oxygen gives them enough strength to power through alone.

    The diver reminds themselves not to get distracted, as it is easy to be distracted by all of the marine life and oddities of the creatures. The diver states their purpose: “I came to explore the wreck” (52). Words are what directed them to the wreck and gave them the purpose to come to examine it. The diver wants to see for themselves the damage and the potential treasures of the shipwreck and notes the permanence of the shipwreck when compared to the transience of the marine life.

    They state that they came to examine the shipwreck, not the story people tell about the shipwreck. The diver examines the rotted, worn-down state of the once-beautiful ship. Finally, at the wreck, the diver becomes both a mermaid and a merman. They swim into the shipwreck, seeing all of the once-functioning tools that now lay useless and waterlogged below the sea. Whether through “cowardice or courage” (88), the diver states that “we” (87) have made it here to the wreck only to find that the book of myths does not contain our names.

    Interpretation and Meaning of “Diving into the Wreck”

    It is possible to interpret “Diving into the Wreck” within the context of Rich’s career and personal life as well as within a broader sense. Rich was a famed poet of the twentieth century for her literary career, activist work, and nonfiction essays on feminism. “Diving into the Wreck” is a defining poem of her career that came at a turning point. Rich had just separated from her husband, who subsequently took his own life, and she had begun rejecting the roles impressed upon her by society due to her status as a woman. She also began to accept her own identity as a lesbian. “Diving into the Wreck”can be seen as an exploration of each of these concepts.

    Diving into the Wreck, Adrienne Rich Photo, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Adrienne Rich was well known for her career as a poet, essayist, and activist.

    The wreck that the diver in the poem explores can thus be seen as the past. The diver swims into the deep to “see the damage that was done” (55), which represents the damage that has been done to women in the past as a result of oppressive patriarchal structures in society. The repeated reference to the “book of myths” (1, 92) refers to the mythology that places men in a superior societal position to women. The diver, “having read the book of myths” (1), meaning that they have understood past myths of the superiority of men, goes to explore this wreck. In doing so, they reveal the “damage” (55) and the “treasures” (56). This implies that even though the wreck shows the damage done to women and their history, there are still treasures to be had from that history that just haven’t been told. Thus, the diver notes that in the book of myths, “our names do not appear” (94), meaning that women’s stories have historically been erased from the predominant historical narratives.

    Some of the aspects of society that Rich and her feminist compatriots sought to change involved issues of women’s rights in the workplace, such as discrimination based on gender and unequal pay norms.

    This interpretation is in line with Rich’s own personal history and political orientation. At this point in her life, she was becoming entrenched in the world of New Left progressive politics, and she became an outspoken advocate for women’s liberation. It is also possible to read the poem without the historical context and interpret it, instead, as a poem of self-discovery. In this case, the wreck is the self. The diver is going on a journey of self-exploration, heading into the deep to understand themselves better.

    The New Left was a political movement of the 1960s and 70s in Western politics, including the United States, in which supporters advocated for progressive civil rights and issues such as environmentalism, gay rights, feminism, drug reform, and antiracism.

    Analysis of themes in “Diving into the Wreck”

    Let’s dive into the poem’s main themes, symbolism, form, and poetic devices and below are the major themes of the poem.

    Women’s Oppression

    Women’s oppression is a constant theme throughout “Diving into the Wreck.” The wreck of the poem refers to a past in which women have been subjugated and oppressed. The journey that the diver makes into the deep is to expose the obscured stories of women throughout history.

    The “book of myths” (1) is the myth-making and stories that are told in society to create an environment where women are seen as less. The diver rejects this myth as truth and goes on a journey to discover the truth for themselves. In doing so, they encounter the ladder that “is always there” (14) and whose purpose is known to “we who have used it” (18), implying that there are others who have made this exact journey and discovered the same truth.

    The diver, however, must go alone. When diving deep they note that “the sea is another story” (39) and Rich refers to it as “the deep element” (43). These descriptions imply that the sea can also represent the untold elements of women’s histories and that another story exists surrounding the diver. At the wreck, the diver says that “I am she: I am he” (77) – an assertion of an ultimate equality between male and female.

    Diver underwater, Diving into the Wreck, StudySmarterFig. 3 - A diver descends underwater like the narrator of the poem.

    Mythology and Truth-Seeking

    Much of the poem concerns the nature of truth and mythology. Myths are generally considered as stories meant to explain an unexplained phenomenon or a widely-held false belief. The “book of myths” (1, 92) is what the diver sets off to investigate at the heart of the poem. The myths touted in this book are the oppressive societal standards pushed on women. The diver, recognizing that this may not be the truth of the matter, dives into the ocean to discover for themselves what the truth is.

    The diver notes that they came to explore the wreck and discovered “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (62-63). In this way, the diver notes an important difference: There is the story of the wreck and there is what the wreck actually is. There is the story of what the past was like, and there is the reality of the past that is obscured by the story. The diver is on a journey to discover what is true and learns that the book of myths is just that: false.

    Not only is the book of myths discovered to be false by the diver, but it is also incomplete. The stories of women and their histories don’t even appear within the written record. “A book of myths/in which/our names do not appear” (92-94) is how the poem ends. These myths that structure society favorably toward men do not even mention the stories, struggles, and histories of women themselves. Thus, the diver was on a journey to discover the truth about these myths and what stories were left out.


    In a broader sense, the poem also thematically concerns self-discovery. While it can be read in the context of Rich’s life and work, it is also possible to read it and see the diver as exploring their own mind. The diver must go in “alone” (12), as “there is no one/to tell me when the ocean/will begin” (31-33). Just as there is no one who is able to peer inside a person’s mind but the person themselves, the diver must go and explore the wreck alone. The diver’s journey mimics the journey of a person attempting to discover more about themselves – a solitary, potentially vulnerable journey of discovering the truth that may have been masqueraded.

    Symbolism in “Diving into the Wreck”

    Rich employs many symbols throughout the poem to detail the diver’s journey into the deep. The wreck itself is a symbol of women’s history. A wreck is inherently a disaster, and Rich uses it as a symbol to comment on the destruction of women’s narratives and place in society. The diver goes to explore and expose the true histories and stories of women that are obscured by the existence of the book of myths.

    Diving into the Wreck, Washed-up Wreckage, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Rich uses the shipwreck to comment on the destruction of women's narratives and place in society.

    In that vein, the book of myths is a symbol for the dominant societal narratives. In the context of the poem, that narrative is one of women’s oppression and patriarchal supremacy. These are the myths that the diver recognizes as false, and thus embarks on their journey to discover the reality. By the end of the poem, the diver has come to recognize that the book of myths is, in fact, myths and falsehoods, and is therefore incomplete.

    Metaphor in “Diving into the Wreck”

    The entire poem can be read as an extended metaphor. In this case, the diver goes underwater to explore a shipwreck, and this image is used as a metaphor for Rich diving into the past to examine women’s history and treatment. The diver must go alone, as it is a solitary endeavor to try to understand and unearth the unheard, untold stories of women. The diver is trying to find the true wreck, which is distinct from the story or myths of the wreck. The metaphor shows Rich trying to find the truth of women’s status in society, as they're distinct from the myths that posit women’s inferiority to men.

    Tone of “Diving into the Wreck”

    Rich purposely writes in a casual tone throughout the poem. The journey of the diver is told in a detached, explanatory way as the narrator details the steps taken to reach and explore the wreck: preparing for the journey, donning the gear, descending the ladder, and swimming through the water. At the beginning of the poem, this narration is almost scientific in its description. By the end, the same casual tone is used, but the vocabulary has switched to stronger, more evocative words, wringing out the emotion in both the diver and the reader.

    Form in “Diving into the Wreck”

    “Diving into the Wreck” is written in free verse. It does not have a set meter or rhyme scheme. Rich does, however, make use of enjambment. Enjambment is when lines of poetry run directly into one another without punctuation. Rich immediately introduces the reader to her enjambment style in the first stanza as seen in lines 4–7 and 8–12. Her use of enjambment is seen repeatedly throughout the rest of the poem.

    Allusion in “Diving into the Wreck”

    Early in the poem, Rich alludes to “Cousteau” (9) and his “assiduous team” (10). This serves to undercut the central metaphor of the poem and reinforce the underwater imagery. Jacques Cousteau was a French marine explorer. Rich draws a distinction between Cousteau, with his team and his equipment, and the solitary diver, who must equip themselves. The diver embarks on a solitary journey to discover the truth and examine the destruction of the past in terms of women’s history and treatment.

    What is important about this distinction? What differences are there between Cousteau’s team and the diver in the poem?

    Diving into the Wreck (1973) - Key takeaways

    • “Diving into the Wreck” is a poem by American poet Adrienne Rich. It was published as part of a poetry collection of the same title in 1973.
    • Rich was an American poet, essayist, and activist known for her feminist and antiracist work.
    • “Diving into the Wreck” is a 94-line poem that utilizes the central metaphor of a diver exploring a shipwreck to detail how Rich explored the past as a way to look at the truth of women’s treatment in the historical record.
    • The poem explores themes of women’s oppression, self-discovery, and the nature of truth and storytelling.
    • Rich illuminates these themes through the use of metaphor, symbolism, and allusion.


    1. Fig. 2 - Adrienne Rich Photo (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Adrienne_Rich_1980_(820298895)_(cropped).jpg) by K. Kendall (https://www.flickr.com/people/42401725@N00) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Diving into the Wreck

    What is the tone of “Diving into the Wreck?” 

    “Diving into the Wreck” adopts a very casual, detached tone of the diver explaining the intricacies of reaching the wreck. It starts with a scientific tone, in which the diver is going to explore and determine a certain truth. By the end, the tone remains the same while the descriptive words employed by the diver become stronger.

    What does the wreck symbolize in “Diving into the Wreck?” 

    The wreck is a symbol of the past. The diver is going to explore the past and examine the prevailing narratives. It can also be seen as a symbol of the self, in an interpretation that leaves out Rich’s own personal context and instead reads the poem as a journey to self-discovery.

    What is the conclusion of the poem “Diving into the Wreck?” 

    The conclusion of “Diving into the Wreck” is that the “book of myths,” which is a symbol of the societal standards in which women are inferior to men, is wrong and incomplete. It excludes the reality of women’s inherent equality and also fails to include women’s narratives. Rich is commenting on the historical narratives that exclude women’s voices.

    What is the purpose of  “Diving into the Wreck?” 

    The purpose of “Diving into the Wreck” is that it serves as an extended metaphor by which Rich examines prevailing societal narratives about women’s position in society. The diver is going underwater to examine a shipwreck, which is used as a metaphor for Rich examining the past of women’s history. She notes that the reality is different from the story and that women’s voices, stories, and histories have all been eliminated from the prevailing narrative.

    What is the theme of “Diving into the Wreck?” 

     “Diving into the Wreck” contains themes of women’s oppression and position in society, the nature of truth and storytelling, and self-discovery. Each of these is explored through a central metaphor in which the wreck alternately stands for the past of women’s history or the self. 

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