The World's Wife. Carol Ann Duffy

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Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common. (Dorothy Parker)

Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife (1999) takes a very common relationship – that of man and wife – and presents a collection of poetic monologues from the perspective of the wife. Written on the pretext, ‘If his wife could speak, what would she say’, Duffy’s monologues gives a voice to women who are usually defined by their men. Thus we hear from the wives of famous, and infamous, men such as Mrs Darwin, Pilate’s wife, Mrs Aesop, Queen Herod and Frau Freud. Many of the poems in this collection offer an insight into heterosexual relationships often exposing the abusiveness (‘Mrs Quasimodo’), emotional aridity (‘Delilah’), cruelty (‘Mrs Pilate’), sexual immaturity (‘Pygmalion’s Bride’) and infidelity (‘Medusa’). With close reference to two poems from this collection; ‘Mrs Van Winkle’ and ‘Mrs Faust’, this seminar aims to explore how heterosexuality is represented by Duffy.

Before we discuss how heterosexuality is presented it is imperative to offer a definition. Heterosexuality is sexual orientation or activity to persons of the opposite sex. It is a category divided by gender and that the roles of each gender are socially constructed and dictated. Of course, this is somewhat simplistic and generalized but nevertheless it provides a useful starting point to analyzing Duffy’s attitude and her representation of heterosexuality. Without a doubt The World’s Wife presents a break from conventional attitudes toward heterosexuality. Indeed, both of the poems I will discuss celebrate emotions that Avril Homer coined ‘outlaw emotions’ . ‘Outlaw emotions’ being defined as those emotions which are distinguished by their incompatibility with the dominant perceptions and values of society.

Sexual enjoyment and companionship are generally considered important cornerstones of a heterosexual relationship. However, in the poem ‘Mrs Van Winkle’ male companionship is seen to thwart the wife’s freedom (remember, it is only while he is asleep does Mrs Van Winkle engage in life with a passion) and desire for heterosexual lovemaking is non- existent. At the beginning of Mrs Rip Van Winkle, Duffy shows the female to be extremely upset and depressed. The first line states, ‘I sank like a stone’. She uses this metaphor because a stone is an inanimate object that will undoubtedly sink; it shows her pessimistic attitude towards life. But the tone changes when she talks about what she did while her husband slept:

‘And while he slept
I found some hobbies for myself.
Painting. Seeing the sights I’d always dreamed about”

The Leaning Tower.
The Pyramids. The Taj Mahal.” (ll 7-11)

Rip Van Winkle’s sleep in Duffy’s hand becomes his wife’s liberation. When one thinks of sleep one thinks of inactivity, however in the case of Mrs Van Winkle the silence and stillness that her husband undergoes awakens the opportunity to break away to seize life and all its wonders. She paints and travels taking in each new sight with a new lease of life; she is able to breathe freely and see the sights she had always ‘dreamed about’ no longer within the clutches of a man. She has moved on, she is an independent woman embracing and enjoying life – her enjoyment comes from her lack of a heterosexual relationship rather than because of a heterosexual relationship.

It is noteworthy that Duffy writes about Mrs Van Winkle seeing the pyramids and the Taj Mahal on her travels, perhaps two symbols of her relationship. The pyramids are ancient tombs that are symbolic of her relationship with her husband. The Taj Mahal a symbol of her love of her new lifestyle and because she has no demands from her husband she is able to enjoy life. She takes up food, gives up exercise and admits ‘it did me good.’ This is a reversal of what one would associate as being ‘good’ or in the eyes of her husband being seen as an attractive woman. The fact that her self worth in this heterosexual relationship...
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