Mythology to Expand on Reality

We’ve already acknowledge Carol Ann Duffy’s poems for their ability to give voice to the otherwise unheard women married to recognizable men of myth and history.  She examines the famously impossible situations of these men from a new angle, often altering the way we may perceive a certain myth or biblical occurrence.  Her poems certainly accomplish their objective to animate these women, attributing to them their own specific character, and in doing so expanding upon the one dimensional figure as they exist in the original texts.  That is, if they are even present in the original text.  In my last post, I commented on Duffy’s ability to elicit humor, by bringing outlandish mythological circumstances into the modern context.  Example of this are when Mrs. Darwin comments on how a chimpanzee reminds her of her husband, or when Mrs. Aesop proclaims her sexual frustration as her husband continues to formulate his proverbs and craft his fables.  But one element of “The World’s Wife” that I had overlooked until reading Taylor’s blog post last week, was the metaphorical value of many of the poems.

Yes, Duffy is trying to give voice to silenced women throughout history and myth, but what would this mean if she did not extend it into modern commentary.  Once you overlook the face values and techniques at work in the poem, you can recognize that many of them are in fact meant to illustrate actual contemporary relationships, not just offer sarcastic insights into mythological stories.  In many of the poems, Duffy uses the myth or story being referenced as a framing technique to make a statement about real-life relationships that seem comparable to that of the legend.  She uses the often impossible or supernatural scenarios of these various figures as a metaphor for actual issues that can often exist between husband and wife.

For example, “Mrs. Quasimodo” is loaded with societal implications as it illustrates a relationship between husband and wife in which all passion and attraction has faded.  While the poem is grounded in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” story, the conflict of a couple whose love has dissipated is a very real story.  In this case, the poem first portrays Quasimodo in his wife in the throes of passion, depicting the intimacy between them as Quasimodo “swung an epithalamium for [Mrs. Quasimodo], embossed it on the fragrant air, long, sexy chimes” (35).  But there is an abrupt shift in the poem as the passion and romance seems to fade away.  Mrs. Quasimodo states that “Something had changed, or never been.  Soon enough he started to find fault.  Why did I this? How could I that?” (36).  I find these lines especially potent because if read apart from the poem, they seem to characterize a very familiar kind of relationship, more embedded in reality that fairy tale.  The dissolution of the love in the marriage has Mrs. Quasimodo questioning if it ever really exists.  This is a very realistic detail that Duffy includes.  The poem continues to portray Mrs. Quasimodo questioning her appearance as the reason behind Quasimodo’s sudden lack of interest.  She asks, “Because it’s better, isn’t it, to be well formed.  Better to be slim, be slight…and beautiful, with creamy skin, and tumbling auburn hair” (37).  The sentiments expressed in this passage are also very real.  Mrs. Quasimodo has become insecure about her appearance due to her husband’s lack of attention.  In this case, the speaker is actually deformed, not merely overweight or somehow unattractive, and Duffy uses the reader’s knowledge of her deformity in order to introduce her commentary on societal perceptions of beauty.  This poem is one of the most interesting examples of Duffy utilizing a fictitious story in order to integrate and develop her critique of actual society and real relationships.

Many of her poems do similar things, like “Medusa” which illustrates a once beautiful woman turned venomous by love that is not reciprocated, or in “Mrs. Icarus” which shows a woman embarrassed by the public humiliation of her husband.  The list continues, but the important thing to recognize is that many of the poems and the book in general take on entirely new dimensions when you consider their allegorical connotations, and their possible applications to real relationships.

One Comment on “Mythology to Expand on Reality”

  1. Brian Croxall says:

    I think you’re right, Zach, that Duffy is encouraging us to see that the myths and stories she is drawing on do not simply serve to explain nature but also to explain human behavior.