A Feminist critique of historical construction of female subjectivity through Revisionism and Remythologisation in the poems of Carol Ann Duffy
The paper sheds light on marginalization as well as suppressed voices of women from history and mythology which has been projected by Carol Ann Duffy through her poems. The researcher wants to enlighten that the problem of male dominance and female subordination is not recent or new but it finds its roots in the very ancient times. The paper reflects how through precise and condensed use of language Duffy has given voice to the life-long suppressed women who have not been acknowledged, and have been silenced not to be on the foreground of history.
Key Words: Female subjectivity, Revisionism, Remythologisation, Female Stereotype.
Born on 23rd December 1955 in Glasgow, Scotland to Roman Catholic parents, Carol Ann Duffy, rejects Catholicism and pronounces herself an atheist. As she herself has experienced controversy and been barred to have the position as Poet Laureate, through her poems she has been able to do justice to her task of giving voice to suppressed women of history. She lost out on the position as Poet Laureate because of her public image as a woman from Scottish working class background, a lesbian with a black partner and a single parent with a daughter. But finally she was appointed to this position which has traditionally been a male-only preserve in May 2009.
Published in 1999, Duffy’s first ‘themed’ collection of 30 poems, The World’s Wife, explores what it is to be a woman using the pre-eminent Victorian poetic genre of “dramatic monologue” (a form perfected by the Victorian poet Robert Browning). The volume is having all female speakers who have been excluded from myth and history, and who are mostly defined by their men and obscured behind them.
Written in the form of a diary as indicated by the date, month and year in the beginning, the poem, “Mrs Darwin”, in a condensed style mimics Charles Darwin’s habit of writing a diary which was also his scientific notes and records of his observation and subsequent classification of anyone and plant species. In this poem, on a visit to the zoo with her husband, Mrs Darwin observes that the zoo’s chimpanzee reminds her of her husband. The comparison of the chimpanzee with Darwin satirizes the eminent Victorian naturalist which makes the poem a four-liner joke and also an insult-poem that makes fun of Darwin the husband through his wife’s comment.
Duffy has made Mrs. Darwin instrumental in Darwin’s theory of evolution proposed by him in his major works The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). The central argument of his theory was that humans had evolved from animals, namely apes, and due to natural selection. A great controversy surrounded his theory because it contradicted the accepted religious beliefs, set down in the Book of Genesis, that God had created the world and man was made by God in his own image. Through this poem, Duffy has depicted Mrs Darwin as the real force behind the evolution theory because it is she (Mrs Darwin) who observes the likeness between the chimpanzee (an ape) and her husband (the man). Not only that, the date, month and year in the very beginning of the poem prove that she was years ahead of her husband’s theory as she anticipated it years before her husband proposed it, and that is why, Duffy points that Mrs Darwin should be given credit for this theory and not her husband.
Furthermore, the existing notions of masculinity and femininity, that woman is associated with instinct and man is with reason and intellect, have been undermined by Duffy when she capitalizes on these stereotypes pointing out that unlike Darwin who arrived at this premise only after a laborious process of rationalization based on the study of scientific data, Mrs Darwin intuitively came to this observation in a passing experience. This is how Duffy ascribes Darwin’s theory to Mrs Darwin because she makes the imaginative leap to identify the affinity between humans and apes.
Similarly, the poem Mrs Icarus, the protagonist, Mrs Icarus observes and recounts her husband Icarus’s attempt at flight, anticipating his subsequent failure and death. The roots of Icarus are found in Greek mythology according to which Daedelus, the great artificer, was employed by Minos, the king of Crete, to furnish the labyrinth. Once it was created, Minos confined Daedelus and his son Icarus in this escape-proof labyrinth. To escape from this Daedelus made artificial wings out of feathers and wax and they flew out of the labyrinth. But in spite of his father’s warning, Icarus went near the sun due to which the wax holding the feathers melted which caused Icarus’s fall to his death in the sea Aegean. The traditional image of Icarus as a symbol of human aspiration in the face of difficulty and failure is subverted by Duffy by retelling his story from his wife’s perspective who suffered the life of a widow owing to the reckless act of her husband. The image of Icarus taking to the air from a hill can be identified by the many eccentric attempts at flight by humans. Icarus ignores the dangers of pride by challenging the mighty nature as reflected in the proverb: “Pride comes before the fall”. It can be deduced through the tone of the poem that Mrs Icarus has foreseen the future of her husband but she is helpless because she was sure that her husband will not pay heed to her advice. The plight of Mrs Icarus points to numerous wives in general who are hapless victims to endure their husband’s hobbies and mania because of their male ego and the notion of masculinity.
In her poems, by giving voice to these repressed and marginalized women, Duffy examines the socio-cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity from the feminine perspective by posting them on the foreground from the background. Duffy problematizes gender, sex, female embodiment and female subjectivity by revising the major events of history and myth from the feminist perspective. Duffy takes such suppressed women from their original position in history, myth and fiction and projects their voices with a new life by recontextualizing them in a modern setting.
- Duffy Carol Ann, The World’s Wife, Faber and Faber, ed. 2001.
- Darwin, Charles, The Decent of Man, Wordsworth Editions, ed. 2013.