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Many of the poems in Philip Larkin’s ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ are concerned with themes such as disillusionment, isolation and the passage of time. However, one common factor that connects the majority of his work in this collection is Larkin’s seemingly contradictory attitude towards women. Although in many of these poems it can be claimed that Larkin ‘dismisses’ women as ‘insignificant’, there is also sufficient evidence to suggest that his portrayal of them is in fact indicative of their desirability and power, particularly over the male gender.
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In ‘Afternoons,’ Larkin seems to directly disregard women in a variety of ways, beginning with the suggestion that they are inferior to men – their husbands are occupied in ‘skilled trades’ whereas the sole function of the women is to produce and bring up their children. The first stanza paints a particularly dreary picture of the routine lives of the mothers, with the gloomy opening ‘summer is fading’ quickly followed by references to leaves falling and the ‘hollows of afternoons’ which connote the melancholy image of youth passing. Considering these are ‘young’ women, however, may suggest that Larkin feels a degree of sympathy towards their plight of gradually being replaced by a new generation as they ‘set free’ their children. The idea that this change is an inevitable process, indicated by natural words such as ‘wind,’ ‘thickened,’ and ‘leaves fall’ may further imply that the speaker’s feelings are not as harsh as they initially appear. The symbolism of time passing present in the title is carried through the entire poem, ending in the rather ambiguous ‘something is pushing them/ to the side of their own lives,’ to add to the sense that the women are continually taken for granted and have no control over the direction of their lives. They are thus rendered insignificant both in the eyes of the speaker, who sees them as inferior to men – standing ‘behind them’ for support – and with regard to life: they are gradually upbraided, have no control over the passage of time and the only imprint they leave on the world is their impatient and expectant children.
However, in both ‘Afternoons’ and other poems such as ‘Self’s the Man’ and ‘Love Songs in Age’ it becomes clear that rather than simply dismissing women, Larkin is actually struggling to separate his attitude towards women with his perception of marriage – a constant dichotomy for Larkin, who Nicholas Marsh describes as being ‘terrified of marrying, and incapable of committing himself,’ mainly due to witnessing the ‘horror’ of his own parents’ marriage. This fear and negative attitude is reflected in the language he uses to depict marriage and weddings, such as ‘farcical’ and the oxymoronic ‘happy funeral’ in ‘The Whitsun Weddings.’ Similarly, the disdain he feels for the routine of domesticity is apparent in ‘Self’s the Man,’ in which the woman is depicted as a persistent nag: ‘he has no time at all’, ‘now she’s there all day.’ In ‘Love Songs,’ Larkin’s combination of triviality – ‘the covers pleased her’ – and poetic diction -‘frank submissive chord’ – depict the life of a woman who has been left deeply unfulfilled in her widowhood. Like ‘Afternoons,’ there is a clear sense of domesticity leaching away the individuality, and thus the human significance, perhaps, of the woman as time passes – there is no longer the ‘certainty of time’ that is present in youth; instead only ‘tidy fits’ and an ‘estateful of washing’ remain.
Interestingly, there is a sharp contrast between the relatively mature viewpoints in the aforementioned poems, which offer a more sedate commentary on the perceived role of women, and the blatant objectification present in others, most notably ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ and ‘Sunny Prestatyn.’ Although the latter could be seen as a commentary on the false, idealised images sold to us by the advertising industry, and social reaction to it, the imagery and language used can alternatively be interpreted as a crude portrayal of archetypal male attitudes towards women. Marsh states that Larkin himself was ‘abusive and contemptuous of women,’ and the poet was widely known for his view that ‘all women are stupid beings’ -both statements clearly demonstrated in ‘Prestatyn.’ The fact that the girl consistently has things done to her – ‘she was slapped up’ and ‘set…astride’ – rather than being in control of her actions perhaps indicates a dismissal of women as static beings , yet the coarse and somewhat disturbing language offers a darker perception of women. Similar to in ‘Afternoons’, a ‘hunk of coast’ stands ‘behind her’ as if for support, but as the poem progresses from the subservient image of the girl ‘kneeling’ (the use of ‘girl’ itself suggesting inferiority) the stanzas quickly give way to darker male humour: obscenities such as ‘huge tits’ and a ‘fissured crotch’ used to deface her image, until eventually she is ‘stabbed’ and torn apart.
On the other hand, the satirical tone present in the final stanza of ‘Prestatyn’ (‘she was too good for this life’) could allow readers to make an alternative judgement. In the first stanza, the girl on the poster seems shallow and trite: ‘laughing’ on the sand in virginal ‘white satin.’ This image of youth seems hardly likely to provoke such a despicable attack, but the words ‘kneeling’ and ‘tautened’ also connote sexual provocativeness. In light of this, the girl seems to bring the victimisation upon herself – ‘figuratively prostituting herself’ as it were. The end of the final stanza, however, subtly seems to mock those (assumedly men) who attempted to “punish” her (either for her contributions to the idealised images of the advertisement or for her unattainable sexual innuendo) – in the end all they had in their power was the ability to ‘tear’ a picture. The replacement image of ‘Fight Cancer’ illustrates this futility, and a degree of sympathy is present in the tender observation of a vulnerable ‘hand’ left behind – a body part also focused on in ‘Broadcast.’
Another poem which deals explicitly with Larkin’s attitude towards women is ‘A Study of Reading Habits.’ The language is quite childish, with its simplistic, colloquial vocabulary and references to comic books -the alliterative ‘dirty dogs,’ or clichéd ‘old right hook.’ This idea is continued in the structure: the excitement conveyed in the repetition of ‘and’ in ‘me and my cloak and fangs’ is also present in the irregular rhyme scheme, but the initial shock comes in the second stanza with the introduction of rather sadistic sexual fantasies and violent behaviour towards women. This derogatory portrayal of women – ‘ripping times,’ ‘clubbed with sex,’ ‘broke them up’- seems to suggest that women are solely there for the pleasure of men, sweet ‘meringue’-like objects to be enjoyed and consumed without regard to their individuality: the women are turned into mere objects ‘deprived of character or humanity.’
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Moreover, distinct patterns throughout the collection can be seen to emerge. Although a number of the male characters in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ have names (Mr Bleaney, Arnold, Dockery and a poem dedicated to Sidney Bechet), women are unfailingly dismissed as insignificant through their lack of them – they are only vaguely recognised as ‘her,’ ‘she,’ and ‘girl.’ At best, in ‘Wild Oats,’ they are titled ‘bosomy’ and ‘the friend,’ but that hardly shows a sensitivity towards these women – rather, it further degrades them by acknowledging only their physical attributes. Indeed, this poem only briefly (and awkwardly) refers to the ‘friend in specs’ as someone to talk to, whereas reference to ‘beautiful’ as the ‘bosomy English rose’ is rhythmic, lilting and positive. Furthermore, the last stanza of this poem mentions ‘two snaps’ of the beautiful woman kept in the speaker’s wallet – such static images of women can also be seen in poems including ‘Broadcast’ and ‘Sunny Prestatyn,’ again reducing women to objects rather than living, breathing, accessible people.
However, one must also take into account the social conventions of the time in which Larkin lived. He comments in ‘Wild Oats’ that ‘in those days’ it was faces that ‘sparked/ the whole shooting-match off,’ indicating the restrictions and emphasis placed on courting. This consolidates the tone of sexual frustration that is implied in many of Larkin’s poems – particularly the darker ones with their emphasis on male domination and female subservience. When viewed in this way, the collection as a whole- with its subtle emphasis on self-discovery and journeys through life – seems to provide a parallel to Larkin’s experiences with women. One of Larkin’s lovers, Maeve Brennan, commented that, for Larkin at least, ‘romantic distance is…the most desirable relationship one can have with a woman.’ Alternatively, therefore, the static photographs and freeze-frames referenced in a number of the poems could symbolise either, in Rossen’s words ‘a metaphor for not being able to communicate with or touch a woman,’ or even simply Larkin’s way of demonstrating and dealing with his affections.
Therefore, Larkin’s portrayal of women in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is complex and nuanced. On one hand, Larkin is often dismissive, even derisive at times, of women, characterising them as insignificant and inferior to men. This can clearly be seen in many of the poems in this collection, significantly in ‘Afternoons,’ and ‘Broadcast.’ At times, this dismissal moves into more blatant objectification and sadistic fantasy at the expense of the woman, although often with a slight hint of satire and self-parody, such as in ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ and ‘A Study of Reading Habits.’ However, we must also take into account the fact that women feature prominently in a variety of his works, becoming the centre of his focus. Very often, there will be tender details which indicate a more sensitive side of the poet, such as the ‘tiny’ hands, ‘gloves’ and ‘shoes’ in ‘Broadcast.’ In this manner, the reader is shown that although Larkin can present a crude and unpalatable depiction of the female gender, equally he is able to present his underlying emotions in a stark, yet understated, way unique to himself.
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