"What's a Man Without a Woman …?" - Gender Constructions in Carol Ann Duffy's "The World's Wife"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 23 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature




The Laughing Medusa

Mothers & Daughters

Masquerades or How to be a Wo/man




History has always been a space of male deeds, male achievements, male gain or loss. Or so one is made to believe in retrospection. Of course women were not absent from history but they certainly are to a great extent from historical representations. According to Foucault historiography or knowledge in general is closely connected to power. Truth/knowledge is nothing anybody can objectively recognize or bring forth but it is produced within certain power relations.1 Patriarchy dominated Western culture for more than two thousand years and supplied the framework for what is to be known and how, i.e. in which contexts, it is to be known. Historical material has always been scarce but in regard to women it is almost non- existent. So women rightfully started to ask where their part in history was or why they have been consequently written out of history instead of being included. A necessity arose to deconstruct certain historical "truths" and to make women visible in and show their relevance to our past to build up strength and to obtain a voice or rather voices in order to question the present and the past systems.

In the following paper I am going to examine Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife2, whose poetry runs very much in above line. The title already hints at the main perspective of the poems. Like most of the poems included in this volume the title carries an ironic implication. The "World" displays what is generally taken as important, as historically, scientifically, and culturally relevant. It is a cross-section of key male figures from mythology (e.g. Sisyphus, Midas), religion (e.g. Lazarus, Jesus, the Devil), sciences (e.g. Darwin, Freud), history (e.g. Pilates, Herod), literature (e.g. Faust), pop culture (e.g. Elvis), and others. These figures are deep-rooted in western culture and thinking and often enough they not only have heroic but also revolutionary character. The World's Wife presents a possible "other" side of the story. Apart from some exceptions like Pope Joan or Demeter, who are nobody's wives, the poems are mainly written from the perspectives of imaginary or real wives, lovers, or counterparts to aforesaid "heroes". Their voices undermine and question these figures, the importance of their deeds and the contents of their/our wisdom and knowledge. To a great extent this is done by an ironic and mocking undertone, which reveals some male achievements and experiences as being utterly ridiculous. But they also voice anger, desire, despair and fear. Their tales are clearly directed towards a female audience, thus creating a web that connects the poems with each other and that also reaches out to the female reader to share the experiences, to maybe identify with them and learn a different part of history. At the same time they pose the question of what defines "woman" or femininity in general.

In my paper I will concentrate on the gender constructions established within The World's Wife. Even though Duffy questions traditional conceptions of men and women and their relationships with each other, she maintains a binary gender structure. The first chapter therefore deals with a general overview of gender conceptions constructed in and through the poems. The second and third chapter will take a closer look at certain poems. As already mentioned, I think the poems weave their own web of femininity. In a circular movement they refer to past and future thus describing a female/feminist tradition. Accordingly the first and the last poem, Little Red Cap and Demeter, form the outline of the circle, not only in regard to their position but also by implicitly refering to each other. My third chapter will extend the question of wo/manhood. As extreme picture inspired by psychoanalytical gender definitions Queen Kong presents an excellent farce of cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity. Mrs. Teresisas likewise undermines biological essentialisms. Within the volume it is the most explicit voicing of gender constructions and differences.3 For my analysis I will rely mainly on psychoanalytical theories, and here especially on Jacques Lacan and Hélèn Cixous.

The Laughing Medusa

Public opinion, whicK >«@ DOZD\V NQHZ ZKDW WR WKLQN >«@ LV DOZD\V RI WKH IHPLQLQH JHQGHU ± not the world, but the world's wife.4

In George Eliot's Mill on the Floss the phrase "world's wife" refers to an area traditionally ascribed to women: Gossip. Mean and far from the truth Eliot's gossiping women pass harsh moral judgements mixed with other trivial bits of information, backed up by their own (safe) social standing of matrimony. The (unmarried) heroine, however, remains silent. "Silence is golden" or according to Aristotle: "silence is a woman's [not a man's] glory".5 Gossip, as Eliot defines it, and silence are not opposed but rather serve similar purposes. Silence of course means for women to remain uncritical towards male power, to be obedient, to accept inferiority. Gossip6 is a means of control, of upholding the patriarchal system by putting the other in her place. It does not allow for individual feelings or thoughts but echoes conventional standards of behaviour.

Duffy's poems deconstruct traditional perceptions and clichés of women and men. The same happens with the "world's wife" in Eliot's sense. Duffy is using Eliot's bitter classification of female spite, ignorance and superficiality and turns it into something positive. In The World's Wife we have an assembly of poems, of which each contains certain experiences made by women. The volume creates an atmosphere of a female gathering, which is reminiscent of former meeting places like the spinning room, where women used to pass their time with storytelling while spinning wool.7 Frequent addressing of outside people by protagonists of the poems marks their stories as part of an extensive conversation. "Ladies" (p.55), "Girls" (pp.58ff.), "daughters or brides of the Lord" (p.68), "love" (p.72), "nereids and nymphs" (p.47) are some terms of address. More recurrent is the explicit and implicit use of "you": "You might ask why" (p.3), "Do you know" (p.12), "You see" (pp.12,31), "Get this" (p.39), "Look at me" (p.41), "Imagine me" (p.58), etc.. The female reader8 becomes a part of this exchange. The women relating their histories speak to each other and to her ± "you" might be a general reference but also a direct address to each other and to the reader.

The objects of their poetical discourse are men, their relation to them, their self- reflection and self-discovery through experiences with them. As discursive objects men are excluded from this confined circle, but not only because they are talked about but also because of the way they are talked about. The majority of poems maintains a binary structure of which the "negative" part is male. Men are possessive (Thetis), dangerous and violent (Queen Herod, The Devil's Wife), stupid and ego-centric (Mrs. Midas, Mrs. Sisyphus, Mrs. Icarus), not quite as cunning as women (Mrs. Darwin, Mrs. Faust, Eurydice), lascivious (Mrs. Quasimodo, Pygmalion's Bride), victims (Salome, Circe). The language the women use in talking about their husbands and lovers is often very coarse and derogatory, which reinforces the aspect of gossip. Duffy creates a female space of which male is the Other - the outside, the strange and irrational being. It is a reverse of traditional hierarchical gender constructions, where woman now presents the qualitative superior being. To question general conceptions of men and women Duffy uses myths, literary figures, legends etc. because they inhabit public , they are commonly known, i.e. they are easily accessible by any reader, they are culturally important and each of them is a kind of meeting point of a variety of idealistic features applied to the two genders.

It can be said that two significant features in regard to gender shape the poems. The first is the feminist striving for emancipation, for showing women's strengths and power, but also their being subject to male violence, abuse and their exclusion from or mere attachment to "The World".9 The assembly of many female voices accusing and making fun of men is, as said before, reminiscent of gossip. The anthropologist Robert Paine describes gossip as "powerful social instrument"10. Consequently gossiping women were "the focus of much male anxiety"11. Gossiping, voicing an opinion, criticising thus present a threat to patriarchy. The reasons are quite obvious. An exchange of experiences might induce identification and in this way create a common ground. Something like a challenging power might arise from that to question the current hegemony of a certain power or certain powers.12 The feminist movement is such a power13, and Duffy is far from declaring it dead. This is a point I will come back to in the following chapter. It should not be forgotten that the bad connotation which today clings to the term gossip springs to a large extend from male fear of female power. Initially gossip refered to female friends and helpers at the christening of another woman's child.14 It not only involved an exchange of experiences but also a counselling, which plays a role in The World's Wife as well.

The feature of feminist strive undermines patriarchal dichotomy as far as it reassesses certain gender attributes. Some qualities, traditionally attributed to men, turn out to be no qualities at all. Their inventive and scientific genius, for example, appears to be after all quite questionable:

I'm not the first or the last to stand on a hillock, the man she married prove to the world he's a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock. (Mrs. Icarus, p.54)

7 April 1852 Went to the Zoo. I said to Him -

Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you." (Mrs. Darwin, p.20)

Not only is woman depicted as more rational part of the relationship (the same as in for example Mrs. Midas and Mrs. Sisyphus) but in case of Darwin's groundbreaking evolution theory she is also revealed as the initiator, since her joking remark is dated five years ahead of the appearance of his theory.15 Another quality attributed to man is physical strength, which in Duffy's reassessment is of lower worth than the feminine ability to care, because it is deficient, it lacks sensitivity:


I cannot be gentle, or loving, or tender. I have to be strong.

What is the cure?

>«@ (Delilah, p.28)

This poem also marks to some extent the threshold to the second feature of gender deconstruction. Whereas the first feature encompassed the feminist strive for equality, presupposing a stable sex binary (only with modified contents), the second feature points to a destabilization of this binary. Most poems in the volume question the representation of men and women as well as a number of male deeds which have advanced to beacons of western culture, but some others go even a step further to question the assumption of there being natural male and female subjects. Samson asking Delilah to teach him how to care does not only point towards the apparent lack entailed by ideas of masculinity, but it confirms that caring can be learned, which means that it is not necessarily or naturally attached to women or unattainable by men. The epitome of gender confusion and deconstruction represents Mrs. Teresias where sex and gender seem to be entirely disconnected.

The first feature, though, is predominant in Duffy's poems. Deryn Rees-Jones sees Duffy even returning to the "politicized writing of the Women's Movement in the 1970's"16. This notion of Duffy's poetry, which I agree on along with Rees-Jones, led me to head this chapter "The Laughing Medusa" which of course follows Hélèn Cixous famous essay The

Laugh of the Medusa17. Cixous' idea is that women have been alienated from themselves, that they have been kind of brainwashed by patriarchal ideology and have also been fixed within psychoanalytical (likewise patriarchal) fantasies. They therefore need to recognize themselves:

Wouldn't the worst be, isn't the worst, in truth, that women aren't castrated, that they only have to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing.18

The image of the laughing and beautiful Medusa counteracts the traditional Greek myth of the ugly and destructive Gorgon, which needed to be destroyed. Medusa was in fact the goddess of the Libyan Amazons and symbolized feminine wisdom. She was believed to be the mother of all gods and her blood (standing for menstruation blood) had the power to create as well as destroy.19 Cixous reaches back to this myth because Medusa stands for a feminine past full of knowledge and wisdom. Her story, however, has been completely altered and made her the horror she today symbolizes. Cixous sees in her the representation of femininity, which has likewise been suppressed, lied about and killed/or rather fossilized.20 Medusa laughing symbolizes women acknowledging their femininity without fear and without much respect for patriarchy. At this point Cixous' theory and Duffy's poetry run together. Not only do they fall back on old myths which obviously need a redo from women's perspective but both see the need for women to speak in order to change their situation and to refuse subjection21. Duffy may not share Cixous' romantic vision of a "dark continent" called femininity that needs and wants to be explored22 but her poetry clearly shows that women, even now in an era which has overhastily been declared as postfeminism23, need to get together, need to change the past in order to change the present and the future and need to speak.

The following chapter will take up this thought and explore the special mother- daughter-relationship indicated in certain poems, which refers to a feminist/feminine tradition of mutual protection and passing on of wisdom and knowledge.


1 Michel Foucault: "Truth and Power," in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), pp. 51 ff..

2 Carol Ann Duffy: The World's Wife. (London et al.: Macmillan,1999).

3 Cf.: Deryn Rees-Jones: Carol Ann Duffy, (Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers Ltd., 1999), p. 27.

4 George Eliot: The Mill on the Floss. (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1993), p. 461. Or: http://www.bibliomania.com/0/0/21/48/12374/1/frameset.html

5 Marina Warner: From the Beast to the Blonde. On Fairy Tales and their Tellers, (London: Vintage, 1995), p. 29.

6 Cf.: Warner, p. 34.

7 Cf.: Warner, p. 34.

8 Due to its structure (only female monologues) and men-discriminating contents the volume especially aims at a female audience.

9 Rees-Jones, p. 3.

10 Warner, p. 35.

11 Warner, p. 35.

12 Cf.: Michel Foucault: Der Wille zum Wissen: Sexualität und Wahrheit 1, (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1998), pp. 113ff.. Foucault's idea of power is that it is not primarily repressive (that being only its most obvious and recognizable form) but that it is also productive (in creating subjects). It cannot be possessed by an individual but is bound to institutions. Each group getting together on some common ground (be it to counteract discrimination,

or to finance a war) presents a "Kräfteverhältnis" that can challenge and question existing and hegemonic "Kräfteverhältnisse". Power is thus more flexible and not a static distinguishing device that divides (and fixes) humanity in perpetrators and victims.

13 Which does not mean that gossip represents the preliminary to the feminist movement, although it might have taken some part in it as far as it denotes a gathering of women which did not serve the judgement of the own sex but the formation of a vocal power against oppression.

14 Warner, p. 33.

15 Britannica 2001, "Darwin, Charles".

16 Deryn-Rees, p. 26.

17 Hélèn Cixous: "The Laugh of the Medusa," in New French Feminisms, ed. Elaine Marks & Isabelle de Courtivron, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), 245-264.

18 Cixous, p. 255.

19 Barbara G. Walker: Das Geheime Wissen der Frauen. (München: dtv, 19963), p. 691.

20 Cixous, p. 254.

21 Warner, p. 30.

22 Cixous., p. 255.

23 Coppock, Vicki et al.: The Illusions of "Post-Feminism". New Women. Old Myths, (London: Taylor and Francis, 1995), p. 3.


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Carol Ann Duffy Poems British literature Gender Myths



Title: "What's a Man Without a Woman …?" - Gender Constructions in Carol Ann Duffy's "The World's Wife"