World’s Wife Collection by Carol Ann Duffy: Retelling of World’s Myths to Create Space for Women
Written by the British poet Carol Ann Duffy, World’s Wife collection presents the reader with many familiar characters from famous stories, myths and fairy tales. The collection reimagines and retells the stories of women from famous historical tales and mythology with a modern feminist twist.
Exploring the Feminist Narratives: Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy provides these famous women with a newly found voice, perhaps that was present before but silenced by the main heroes of the stories; she illustrates a perspective of previously overlooked women in a man’s story. Through this collection of poems, Duffy explores the lives of wives, partners and female figures associated with well-known male characters, offering a feminist reinterpretation of those stories.
This article will specifically focus on her work of Medusa and Penelope as they portray two sides of women’s stories: one being destroyed by men’s deeds and the other flourishing in her creativity in the absence of men.
Medusa the Monster Woman
One of Carol Ann Duffy’s modern interpretations of these stories is unravelled in her poem on Medusa. The poem is a simple retelling of the classic Ancient Greek story of the infamous monster who turns whoever gazes into her eyes into stone. She is a symbol of temptation and the consequences of it. Her crime is tempting a powerful man, punished by a woman, to be slain by another man, a hero. Athena punished her for disrespecting the Goddess of Wisdom with her affair with Poseidon in Athena’s temple.
However, as women started to reclaim literature and historical figures, there was a new interpretation of Medusa from the modern feminist standpoint. She is a hero of her own tragic story, being forced by a powerful man (Poseidon) and punished for his crimes for simply being beautiful. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem portrays Medusa as the embodşment of misogyny and female suffering. Duffy’s Medusa is a symbol of gender-related violence.
She offers a unique perspective on the myth and, upon deeper analysis, extends sympathy to the character traditionally painted as a monster. By narrating the story from Medusa’s viewpoint, the poem challenges misogynistic tropes associated with women, particularly jealousy and rage.
Despite being portrayed as a monster, the poem suggests that Medusa’s transformation is a consequence of her husband’s betrayal, redirecting blame towards the male character for her monstrous state. This narrative choice underscores a broader commentary on how men exploit and discard women, ultimately leading to the destruction of the latter.
The poem cleverly critiques societal expectations imposed on women by exploring the binary distinctions forced upon them. The abrupt transformation from a bride to a monster serves as a commentary on the limitations placed on women by societal norms. The poem suggests that women are often confined to narrow roles – either as brides or monsters, virgins or whores – highlighting the lack of complexity allowed in the portrayal of female characters.
Penelope, Creativity of Women in the Absence of Patriarchy
“Penelope,” a reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey, the poem explores the theme that women’s creativity, expressed through art, can serve as a potent source of power, freedom, and joy. Carol Ann Duffy transforms the traditional narrative of Penelope’s loyalty into a tale of artistic independence, challenging societal expectations and showcasing the liberating potential of women’s creativity.
Penelope uses her weaving skills in the original Odyssey to delay choosing a new husband until Odysseus returns. However, Carol Ann Duffy’s Penelope embroiders not out of duty but because she discovers a genuine love for the art form. This shift in motivation is crucial as it transforms the narrative from wifely fidelity to a story of artistic passion and personal fulfilment.
As the poem unfolds, Penelope becomes deeply engrossed in her embroidery, finding meaning, freedom, and joy in her artistic expression. The act of creating art becomes a source of solace and a way for her to process her emotions. Through her needle and thread, she recreates scenes from her past, such as a depiction of a “maiden in a deep embrace / with heroism’s boy,” allowing her to mourn her husband’s disappearance.
Moreover, Penelope’s art becomes a vehicle for her to exercise control and agency. She not only uses her creative process to express her feelings but also to construct an entirely new world where she can decide the placement of the “sun,” “moon,” and “rivers.” This act of world-building empowers her, illustrating how creativity allows women to assert control over their narratives and decisions.
Penelope’s artistic pursuits serve a dual purpose. While she continues to ward off unwanted suitors by playing for time, her primary motivation is not to remain loyal to Odysseus but to protect her newfound independence and devotion to her craft. The poem depicts her as “self-contained, absorbed, content,” emphasizing that she is no longer passively waiting for her husband but actively living her own life.
In a striking moment, when Odysseus finally returns, Penelope remains focused on her stitching, symbolizing her transformation into her own hero. The image of aiming her thread “surely at the middle of the needle’s eye once more” echoes the Odyssean episode where Odysseus blinds the Cyclops with a well-aimed spear. This allusion underscores Penelope’s newfound agency and heroic status, challenging the conventional role of the loyal wife as a supporting character.
Penelope and Medusa are only two of the many examples of Carol Ann Duffy’s many poems telling the story of female figures in history. The female characters of famous myths being rewritten by female authors in a more authentic and complex way are not restricted to Duffy.
Books like Circe by Madeline Miller provide an increasing trend in female authors reclaiming characters in history to reflect the complex inner turmoil that women experience and continue to empower them by providing these traditionally only supporting characters with an authentic voice of their own.