Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Carol Ann Duffy - Havisham (Overview - Part 2)

This is the second part of the overview to Carol Ann Duffy's poem "Havisham" which covers stanzas one and two of the poem in terms of content. 
Read part 1 which gives a brief biography, discusses the poem's structure (meter and rhymes), the sounds present in the poem and analyzes the persona of Miss Havisham (what is known about her from Great Expectations and how Duffy treats her case) here.

For more literary analyses, click on the image below.

 Carol Ann Duffy - Havisham


  • stanza 1
    • starts off as if she were writing a love letter (“Beloved sweetheart”), then comes “bastard” and we know it’s not going to be a pretty poem
    • full stops in the middle of lines and enjambment at the end of lines shows her choppy & racing thoughts disturbed state of mind
    • inability to escape / disassociate her mind from him
      • beginning with the thought of him, she reverts to herself (“Not a day since then I haven’t wished him dead.”)
      • the tragedy of this woman is that though he has ruined her (socially, emotionally, mentally) she cannot be rid of him -- mentioning him entails mentioning herself
      • she cannot help but think of herself and the state she’s in when she thinks of him
      • she is caught in a vicious cycle of love and hatred
      • this strange union is present throughout the poem & culminates in necrophilic fantasies
    • another factor in the tragedy is time:
      • “Not a day since then …” is the second thought she has after her beloved bastard comes to mind
      • for Miss Havisham, time has ravaged her as much as her memories have
      • her eyes have turned to stone (“pebbles”), her hands are ropey (tough, wrinkled as rope, veins protruding from ageing in transparent flesh)
    • thoughts of killing him or wishing him dead
      • although this might at first be the result of understandable wrath or a desire for vengeance, when we read the last stanza, her motives might seem more logical than previously expected
      • Miss Havisham knows she has grown frigid after being jilted, she is dead to the world, has a cold heart: who but a “male corpse” could be a suitable mate for her?
      • by killing her former fiancé, she would not only guarantee his faithfulness or his permanent presence by her side, but also full compatibility vis-à-vis  her present state of mind (the dead go with the dead, so to speak)
    • dichotomy / juxtaposition
      • opposites prevail in the entire poem
      • love – hate
      • she addresses him directly – refers to him in the 3rd person
      • she prays – she wants to kill him (i.e. she is acknowledges God by praying and embraces the devil in her thoughts)
    • dark green pebbles for eyes
      • her eyes (often called ‘the windows to the soul’) have turned to stone: the experience of betrayal has left Miss Havisham with a soul, heart, mind, and eyes made of stone, all emotion and warmth gone from them
      • if we relate the stone eyes to the myth of Medusa (the Gorgon capable of turning men to stone if looked upon), the motive for vengeance intensifies
        • Medusa, as described by Ovid in Metamorphoses, was a beautiful woman:

Beyond all others she
was famed for beauty, and the envious hope
of many suitors. Words would fail to tell
the glory of her hair, most wonderful
of all her charms
green is the color of money, greed, envy

·          she was raped by Zeus in Athena’s temple and for this insult, Athena replaced her fine locks with snakes and cursed her with a stare that would turn all who looked upon her to stone

·          Medusa was punished for having been a victim, in other words: she was violated by a god, then made to suffer for having been a ravishing beauty, never being able to look at a human being again in her life (all men would  become as dead as the wall she cries ‘Noooo’ to in stanza 2)
      • dark green: the color of money, envy, greed, ambition
    • ropes on the back of her hands
      • as mentioned earlier, the nature of twisted fibers reminds one of the fine lines ageing skin presents, so Miss Havisham is aware of her decaying body alongside her decaying mind, dead social life, disintegrating existence
      • rope is connected to binding, restricting, imprisonment which is what Miss Havisham’s torment all these years has been
      • she is unable to rid her mind of her longing for Compeyson and his betrayal (she is bound to her thoughts, so to speak) therefore turns those cords on her hands to a weapon to try to end this bondage (by killing him, she frees herself or obtains a dead man for her lover)

  • stanza 2
    • while at the start of the 1st stanza reference is made to him, the 2nd stanza begins with a reference to herself: what she says about herself places her in a pigeon hole (how others would classify her)
    • the concept of the spinster:
      • like all classifications, it robs you of your rounded personality, limiting you to one characteristic
      • in Miss Havisham’s case, she is seen (and sees herself) only through the prism of marital status:
        • women can either be married or not; there is no other plane of existence for them
        • she sees herself trapped in this classification that others have imposed on her
      • the term ‘spinster’ most importantly ties marital status to age:
        • women seen as spinsters were older than what was deemed the appropriate age to marry
        • Miss Havisham again highlights her age as yet another destructive force in her life alongside her former fiancé’s betrayal
        • therefore, not only is she doomed by a society that confines her to a one-sided existence (married/unmarried), but also by time (society sees her as too old to have any chances of marrying, which she herself sees as she looks at herself in the slewed mirror)
      • note that the connotation linked to the word ‘spinster’ is negative vs. the male equivalent of ‘bachelor’
      • connection of the word ‘spinster’ to spinning (wool spun to produce yarn for looms):
        • tied to the needlework/weaving/embroidery skills unmarried women had to learn
        • women would spend years preparing their trousseau as part of their dowry
        • therefore the idea of a spinster is one of a woman who stays hours at home sewing as she waits for a marriage offer (image of domestication)
        • allusion to Penelope who wove a burial shroud as she waited for Odysseus to return from the Trojan War is evident (though Penelope wasn’t a spinster): such women are faithful but ultimately betrayed by someone (Penelope was delaying a betrothal to the suitors present at the palace as she waited for her husband to return from the war by undoing the work done on the shroud. She was betrayed by Melantho, one of her favored maids) as Miss Havisham was betrayed by Compeyson
    • imagery connected to the senses of smell, touch, sound: “stink”, “trembling”, “cawing”
      • all connected to ageing:
        • smell of older people: due to an increase in 2-Nonenal, a substance found in body odor that produces a greasy odor; Miss Havisham must stink profusely as she doesn’t wash daily
        • shaking (medically termed ‘essential tremor’) may develop after the age of 40
        • vocal cords weaken: for women, the hormonal changes that accompany menopause cause the vocal folds to become stiffer, while fewer glands produce the mucus that lubricates them, meaning they experience dryness resulting in a rougher voice
    • objects present in this stanza: bed, wall, dress, wardrobe, mirror
      • these are the implements of torture in her prison, as it were: they all remind her of a part of her life that is dead
      • her world  is reduced to a room with 4 walls (in fact, not even 4 walls as only one is mentioned), a bed, a wardrobe, her dress and a mirror
      • each object carries implied suffering with it
        • bed:
          • it is not a place of rest: she spends “whole days” cawing “Nooooo”, and in stanza 3 her nights are tormented by thoughts of her fiancé instead of sleep
          • it is not a place of love-making: it is an empty bed without a spouse
          • it is a constant reminder of the loveless life she leads
        • wall:
          • the only roommate with whom she communicates
          • a stony interlocutor who simply echoes her sorrow (brings back the sound of the “Nooooo” she cries to her ears)
          • it is a reminder of the absence of interaction, human companionship and a reflection of herself
        • dress:
          • her wedding dress: she doesn’t say it’s a wedding dress, but we know this from Dicken’s description of her in Great Expectations, and because of the definite article used in the poem it’s “the” dress, not “my” dress or “a dress”
          • it is a constant reminder of what she went through: the betrayal, lost joy, lost love, public humiliation
          • “yellowing”: color of sickness  & madness (cf. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”), cowardice, betrayal
          • a reminder of the once white dress that represented innocence, purity, chastity, goodness, a life that could have been spent together with a spouse/companion
        • wardrobe:
          • it is the place we visit every day to dress before we leave the house to show ourselves to the world: it carries social significance in that it is the keeper of our social trappings (as Shakespeare would put it)
          • from what we know of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, she doesn’t remove her wedding dress, so the wardrobe is an entirely useless piece of furniture in her life, much like social gatherings she would need to dress for have become
          • the wardrobe is therefore yet another reminder of a defunct social life
          • Note: in the poem, it is ambiguous whether she is wearing the dress or it is hanging in the wardrobe and trembles when she opens the door
        • mirror:
          • is present inside the wardrobe:
            • if Miss Havisham never takes off her wedding dress, why would she need to open her wardrobe door?
            • her need to look at herself in the mirror seems to be the plausible answer to this question
            • i.e. Miss Havisham is driven to look at herself, strives to scrutinize herself “full-length”
            • her preoccupation with herself (her shattered existence, ageing) is evident in her description of her physical characteristics (eyes, hands, stench) and thoughts throughout the poem
            • this preoccupation with herself is the result of being a recluse but also feeds her mental illness
          • is an ultimate symbol of introspection (cf. Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mirror”, the evil queen’s “Mirror, mirror on the wall” query in the fairy tale Snow White) and self-awareness: she is looking for answers how all this came about (hence the split question at the end of stanza 2 + beginning of stanza 3 – “who did this / to me?”)
          • what does the mirror tell her:
            • being “slewed”, it gives her a slewed image of who she is
            • Note: interesting is also the fact that “slew” is the past of “slay”, therefore the image the mirror shows is of a ‘slain’, dead person (killed by betrayal), if we concede that whatever characteristics the mirror has are a reflection of the person looking at it
            • being a full-length mirror, it enables her to see a full picture of herself
            • she sees “her, myself”: she sees her disassociation, mental illness, her shattered being, a person torn between love and hate, life and death
          • key word = “who” at the end of this stanza
            • if “who” is a question word: then she is honestly trying to understand who could have done this to her, a reasonable sentiment felt by those who grieve after being dealt an unfortunate hand in life
            • if “who” is a relative pronoun: she is blaming herself for having brought about this fate = it is myself who did this to me (but with a question mark at the end betraying her confusion and ambivalence about where to place the blame)

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