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Discussing The Poems Of Carol Ann Duffy

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Published: Fri, 12 May 2017

Throughout the poems of Carol Ann Duffy there is an intense focus on the female stereotype: Duffy provides various voices for different characters, reflects on time, change and loss and embraces all emotions as she contrasts and contradicts the stereotypical concept of the female position. Gaining momentum in the 1960s, the feminist movement made way for a significant change in the way women and the female position was understood. Duffy reveals characters that both support and reject the stereotypical representations of women, contrasting the standard portrayal of women as being innocent, naïve and essentially helpless, with the unexpected, powerful and dominant female figure.

Duffy’s poem Havisham, written in 1993, presents a monologue spoken by the voice of Miss Havisham, a character from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. Jilted by a scheming fiancé, she continues to wear her wedding dress as she plots revenge on all men. Duffy starts with an oxymoron to present a contrasted view of the fiancé, describing him as a “Beloved sweetheart bastard”. This contradiction in term immediately creates a sense of ambiguity as to who the narrator is referring to and suggests that she may be experiencing conflicting feelings towards the cause of her troubles. However, Havisham makes her intentions clear as she reveals that “not a day” goes by where she hasn’t “wished him dead”. Duffy presents this female narrator as a very violent and demonic character as she seems to resist the urge to succumb to stereotypical representations of feminine characters, who appear naïve and innocent, and instead presents a figure that is strong minded and vicious.

Suggesting that Havisham would “strangle”, “bite” and “stab”, Duffy highlights the narrator’s murderous wish for revenge. She opposes the traditional notion of women being inferior to men, lower in status and essentially powerless, and instead promotes Havisham’s anger and hatred towards men, while revealing a disturbing plot to take revenge.

Duffy does, however, seem to draw attention to what the narrator used to be. Contrasting a “white veil”, connoting the idea of purity and virginity, with the image of “a red balloon bursting”, implies that Havisham may have once been the innocent and pure female, until she met her fiancé and became the scorned “Spinster”. The male figure is presented in a negative light having degraded and exploited Havisham, suggesting that he is the only reason why she is now troubled and vows revenge on mankind. The idea of being a “Spinster” could also relate to the title of the poem; Duffy entitles the poem as simply Havisham with no title such as ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’. While this may identify her as a spinster, a woman who has remained unmarried beyond the “usual age”, it could also suggest that the identity of a person depends on their marital status. The fact that the word “Spinster” is a one word sentence, as if to be spat out in distaste, highlights her disgust and dissatisfaction at such a status. Essentially, Duffy reveals a female character who may have once been dependant upon her fiancé, and in having Havisham written on its own suggests that the narrator is singled out as being unmarried and so has no identity. The male figure could be seen as the distributor of power over the narrator as Duffy presents the familiar social and cultural stereotypes where women were subservient to men, and ultimately lost all belonging if they were not. However, you could also interpret Duffy’s choice to title the poem as simply Havisham to promote an identity completely dependent of any male association, and thus to promote Havisham’s independent and liberated character.

In contrast to Havisham, Anne Hathaway shows Duffy adopt the persona of William Shakespeare’s widow to reveal the tale of a woman who remembers her husband in a wonderful, loving way with no hint of sorrow. Duffy uses the sonnet form, although does not follow all the conventions of rhyme or metre and so presents a variation on Shakespeare’s favoured form. Throughout the poem Duffy exposes Ann Hathaway in a very feminine yet erotic and sexual way; describing her body as a “softer rhyme” where their relationship is a “romance and drama played by touch, by scent, by taste” the narrator appears very sensual yet amorous, captivated by the more delicate and refined senses in a somewhat feminine and beautiful way. Duffy includes erotic yet ethereal images of “a spinning world of forests, castles, torchlight, clifftops, seas…” to describe, with a fairytale quality, her physical and sexual contact with her husband. It could be that Duffy is discussing the relationship between sex and power, by which the standard portrayal would show male distribution of power over a female partner, perhaps mirroring the distribution of power between males and females in society as a whole. However, throughout Anne Hathaway Duffy seems to promote an equal sense of affection and power between Anne Hathaway and her husband; Duffy does not seem to reflect continued social and cultural domination of males where they are seen as being superior, and in turn reflects upon the romantic and unworldly qualities to their relationship. Ending the poem with a rhyming couplet, similar to the way a Shakespearean sonnet would end, Duffy ends the poem with a sense of unity and entirety between Anne Hathaway and her husband.

The real story behind Duffy’s poem Salome can be found in the New Testament books of Mathew where Salome, the daughter or Herodias and Philip, orders the head of John the Baptist, who at once was executed. The poem reveals Salome as a serial executioner as she claims to have “done it before (and doubtless [she’ll] do it again…)”, immediately presenting a murderous and gruesome female character. Duffy contrasts Salome with the “innocent clatter” of a “maid” as she serves to explore the misogynistic views of the many that placed females at a lower social status when compared with males. The reference to a “maid” highlights the typical gender roles and themes that would have surrounded the female position, while also the “innocent clatter” promotes the image of a traditional working class, repressed female, which explicitly contrasts with the bold and vicious character of Salome. Duffy continues to present Salome in a negative light in which she vows to “cut out the booze and the fags and the sex.” Salome, as a female character, is here presented as having many negative vices; she appears corrupt as Duffy draws attention to more contemporary ideas, such as smoking and drinking, that in turn challenges the traditional understanding of what women should do.

In the last stanza, Duffy reveals the gruesome image of a “head on a platter”. While the description of Salome pulling back “the sticky red sheets” may at first seem to link directly with the execution, it may also be an implicit reference to the idea of female menstruation and possibly the traditional ideas of childbearing. However, the colour “red” also connotes both danger and passion. Duffy is exploring intricate contradictions that reveal contrasted notions of relationships and stereotypical representations of women who provide both passion and love, with danger and violence.

Throughout the poems of Carol Ann Duffy, including Havisham, Anne Hathaway and Salome, stereotypical representations and views of women are highlighted and contrasted with the more contemporary and extrovert qualities of the female position. Duffy presents a range of characters that both support and contradict the feminine stereotypes that are associated with the portrayal of women and female characters. Duffy emphasises the traditional and widely repeated views of women as naïve, innocent and in some sense unworldly, and contrasts this with the unexpected figures of violent and liberated female characters.


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