18 pages 36 minutes read

Wisława Szymborska

A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


In Wisława Szymborska’s “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth,” the poet portrays a toddler doing what toddlers do: transgressing. From her 2006 collection Monologue of a Dog: New Poems, the poem’s title explains all the action of the poem, in which a little girl clutches the edge of a tablecloth and pulls. Point-of-view takes a pivotal role in this poem’s narrative. While the speaker’s voice originates external to the little girl of the title, the voice speaks alongside and for the little girl. Because the little girl is “over a year” (Line 1) but not yet two years old, this indicates she might not speak in full sentences. However, the speaker’s narrative delivers a proposal: that critical thinking can precede speech and argument, and that children harbor a capacity for curiosity, judgment, and imagination as great as, if not at times greater than, an adult’s range. In a broad sense, the poem asks readers to question their understanding of motive, intent, and control in the world.

Poet Biography

Szymborska won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996, the highest international award for a writer. Born in 1923, she lived almost all of her life in Kraków, Poland, where she worked as an illustrator for textbooks during World War II while finishing her education. Around that time, she met Czesław Miłosz and became involved in the intellectual and artistic culture of postwar Kraków. Szymborska supported the Communist Party in the decades after the war, and some of her writing through the 1950s expresses her solidarity with the ruling government.

By the late 1960s, Szymborska left partisanship out of her writing and her life. Her work from then on focused more on the small realities of everyday life, approached with a sense of wonder and often from unusual points of view, like the speaker in “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth.” As a child, Szymborska wrote lighthearted poems to please her father, who would give her coins for each poem. That impulse to delight the reader infuses her work, along with an adult eye for hypocrisy and irony.

After a brief marriage in her youth, Szymborska lived alone. She maintained strong friendships with other writers and creatives, sending them cards with collages and putting together prize lotteries where they could win small gifts, sometimes objects Szymborska herself received as presents. She was fascinated with material culture without being attached to it, and her work reflects a love that admires without interference.

Poem Text

Szymborska, Wisława. “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth.” 2006. Library of Congress.


A little girl who has “been in this world for over a year” (Line 1) engages in a systematic inventory of the world’s many features. This experimental journey continues, as “not everything’s been examined” (Line 2). This poem represents an episode in which the toddler discovers aspects of physics: “things that don’t move by themselves” (Line 5).

Some things prove to be “unyielding” (Line 10), such as furniture and walls that won’t move, even when “helped along” (Line 6). When the child gets hold of the tablecloth edges, however, she finds an object with “a willingness to travel” (Line 13), and with this new information, proceeds to shake the rest of the objects on the table as she continues exploring the potential of the tablecloth.

The speaker imagines the child’s perspective in her explorations, wondering at “what form of motion” (Line 18) various household objects might take. Through the child’s eyes, the speaker (and the poet) create a world without the habits of rules or expectations. The last two lines of the poem bring back some reality, as the speaker and the reader know what will happen as the “experiment must be completed” (Line 25): The tablecloth will be pulled until it falls, and the explorations of childhood lead us to adult understanding.