Men, Women, and Representation in Duffy’s ‘the World’s Wife’

October 14, 2021 by Essay Writer

Carol Ann Duffy wrote ‘The World’s Wife’ in order to scrutinize the representation of both men and women, inspired by her strong feminist views — reconstructing, for example, many of the ‘voiceless women’ from throughout history. As Duffy expressed it; ‘like sand and the oyster it’s a creative irritant. In each poem, I’m trying to reveal a truth, so it can’t have a fictional beginning’ [1]. Her aim was to show that oppression within society towards the genders is a consistent battle, and she presents these views through the use of traditional fairy-tale events. Duffy challenges notions surrounding the representation of women in literature; through this project, she subverts the traditional stereotypes and representations of both genders as shown in the poems ‘Little Red-Cap’, ‘The Devil’s Wife’, and ‘Anne Hathaway’.

With each one of her creations, Duffy successfully confronts traditional representations of men and women, particularly as she shows many frequently misrepresented females within literature, portraying them as newly powerful and prevailing. For example, in the poem ‘Little Red- Cap’, inspired by the traditional fairy tale ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, the narrator initiates the danger for herself as she ‘made quite sure he spotted me’. This move denotes a sense of dominance, as it could expose her vulnerability; however, the term ‘made quite sure’ implies that she intends to be noticed, enticing the wolf to her and therefore subjecting herself to potential danger. The reader gains a sense of power from the narration, as the narrator controls the predicted events and establishes her intellect, supported by ‘I knew he would lead me deep into the woods’, profoundly subverting the ignorant fairy tale character. Normally, Red Riding Hood is na?ve and requires a classically robust male character to defend her.

‘Little Red- Cap’ also ‘examine[s] power relations which obtain in texts and in life'[2]. In this poem, the narrator returns — ‘out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone’ — signaling that the narrator is happier ‘all alone’ and without a male figure in her life, as she is ‘singing’ as a result of her empowerment. Compare this to ‘The Devil’s Wife’, which ends with ‘When morning comes’, reflecting a metaphor for moral enlightenment without a man. Such strategies could be considered effective in portraying Duffy’s feminist views, as she both subverts the traditional representation of women and renders other figures in these narratives relatively unimportant. Therefore, to a feminist reader, the poem illustrates men as unimportant to a female’s success. Red Cap’s abilities are then furthered, as only ‘one chop’ kills The Wolf, conveying again that she is superior over The Wolf and his abilities, challenging the representation of both men and women. Duffy purposefully modifies the outcome to depict the literal assumption that women are happier without men, inspired by her personal life which, in fact, is jubilant without a man.

‘The Devil’s Wife’ delves into female supremacy as it presumes men and women to be ‘socially constructed as different'[3]. The speaker is presented as having a ‘tongue of stone’, creating unfavorable serpent imagery but also linking to the context of the poem: how Myra Hindley tailored her language to lure children. However, it could be argued that the lover is poisonous to Myra as ‘he made her [me] bury a doll’; the word ‘made’ suggests that she had no choice in the action, as if a human would have no choice in reaction to a venomous bite from a snake. Additionally, there is a shift in power, since ‘he made me’, shows a victimized and typically ‘timid’ woman, implying that the genders are ‘socially constructed as different’ as males are deemed to overrule females. This perception can also be established when she recalls her lover to have ‘held my heart in his fist and he squeezed it dry’, illustrating the perception that Ian Brady has possession over Hindley physically and emotionally. Apparently, it is harder for society to accept a demonic female than it would be to accept a male one. This may be because women are expected to have more maternal instinct than their male counterparts; the events would therefore be seen as more barbaric if a female were involved.

Despite such apparent biases, the collection at other times does not ‘switch its focus from attacking male versions’ [7], as many of Duffy’s poems portray men in a negative light, since the men are mostly the subjects of the ‘female language'[8]. Carol Ann Duffy regularly degrades men into voiceless, weak characters, as seen in ‘Standing Female Nude’ (1985) where the ‘little man’ and the phrase ‘they tell me he’s a genius’ indicate that men are rather underdeveloped. Men are consistently shamed throughout ‘The World’s Wife’: ‘chimpanzee'[9], ‘he went to whores’ [10], and other insults. Thus, in her attempt to restore the traditional representation of men and women in a more equitable way, perhaps Duffy has gone too far in her own biases. Therefore it can be argued that she creates a modern systematic way to pigeonhole the genders, just according to a non-traditional system.

Yet there are more harmonious depictions, too. ‘Anne Hathaway’ is presented in a sonnet form, with a standard fourteen line structure. Duffy convincingly expresses the voice of an amorous wife, who can be found in Shakespeare’s shadow as she realistically explores the love between the couple. The poem as a whole is a metaphor for the couple’s lovemaking and compares it to the art of poetry, which Shakespeare explored in his written works. The poem successfully ‘challenges representations of women as ‘other’ in literature'[11]: as it celebrates the love between the couple, each partner is presented in a lucidly generous manner. The use of alliteration, for example, ‘Living laughing love’ presents a positive description of the husband, suggesting a respectful and honoring perspective of him. This also implies the abounding nature of the couple’s love as the alliteration aids the sensual essence of the poem, displaying Duffy’s successful restoration of an equitable view towards men and women.

Ultimately, Duffy does provide a substantial number of distinct feminist views aimed at challenging the perception of men and women. However, some of her success can be questionable, especially on the question of whether she fully creates humanistic representations or whether she just creates a modern adaptation of traditional stereotypes. Yet at the very least, her collection leads to personal reflection on the treatment of the genders within contemporary society, and is hence a successful attempt at challenging ‘traditional representations of men and women’.

[1] Anderson, Hephzibah. Christmas Carol, The Observer, 4 December 2005.
[2] Barry, P. (2002). Beginning Theory (2nd Edition), (p134), Manchester University Press.
[3] Barry, P. (2002). Beginning Theory (2nd Edition), (p134), Manchester University Press.
[4] Bertens, H. (2001) Literary Theory: The Basics, (The Politics of Class: Marxism), (pp 94-5, 97-99), Abingdon: Routledge.
[5] Bertens, H. (2001) Literary Theory: The Basics, (The Politics of Class: Marxism), (pp 94-5, 97-99), Abingdon: Routledge.
[6] Amanda Williams (2013), ‘’I was more culpable because I knew better’: Moors murderer Myra Hindley admitted she was worse than Ian Brady because she understood right from wrong’, The Daily Mail
[7] Barry, P. (2002). Beginning Theory (2nd Edition), (p 121-123), Manchester University Press.
[8] Barry, P. (2002). Beginning Theory (2nd Edition), (p134), Manchester University Press.
[9] Mrs Darwin, The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy
[10] Mrs Faust, The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy
[11] Barry, P. (2002). Beginning Theory (2nd Edition), (p134), Manchester University Press

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