‘Medusa’ in ‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

‘Medusa’ in ‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy

Oleh: Ruthvika Jayanthi

Everyone has heard of the Medusa, a character from Greek mythology well known for having hair made of snakes. Everyone has heard of Medusa’s vile ability of turning anyone she saw into stone. In many adaptations of this character, Medusa has always been portrayed as a heartless and evil individual, who’s purpose seems to be seeking revenge for her unfortunate fate.

However, the book ‘The World’s Wife’ by Carol Ann Duffy begs to differ and brings to the table a new perspective of Medusa’s story. ‘The World’s Wife,’ published in 1999, is a collection of poetry based on 30 characters, who are either well known female figures (such as Medusa and Eurydice) or fictional counterparts to well known male figures (such as Mrs Midas). Carol’s poems revolve around the themes of gender relations and the roles of women in patriarchal societies, particularly focusing on the mistreatment of women through fictional, biblical, mythical, and historical contexts. Carol also makes modern-day references in her poems to connect the different historical settings, making it more relatable to younger audiences. She also highlights how gender disparity towards women has endured through various contexts and into the modern era.

Following the pattern of her book, in her poem ‘Medusa,’ she retells the story from Medusa’s point of view and depicts her rage, resentment, and regret. This strong retelling, with the display of Medusa’s thought process and feelings, serves to make us feel sympathy towards Medea and humnise her character. In the original Greek myth and in the stories many of us have heard, Medusa is portrayed as a vile creature who turns people into stone for her benefit. In this retelling, however, Carol writes in a way that makes us feel sympathy for Medusa – we understand how miserable she feels about her circumstances.

Carol uses repetition, metaphors, and other stylistic devices to portray this. Some of these phrases include “my thoughts hissed”, Carol uses “hissed” not only in a literal manner to depict the snakes on her head, but indicating that her thoughts hissed like ‘filthy snakes’ shows us that she is having resentful thoughts. Another line that is impactful is “My bride’s breath soured,” which could be used to portray how she deteriorated from a beautiful young woman – a bride – to someone ‘sour’ – again portraying her rage. In Carol’s mission to humanise the character Mesuda, she writes “So better by far for me if you were stone”, which gives us context about why she may feel such strong negative emotions. In this stanza, Carol writes about how Medusa’s lover may have abandoned her as she is no longer an attractive woman and is now an unappealing creature. Carol gives us the context behind Medusa’s rage, allowing us to sympathise with her and understand why she may wish her lover to be turned into stone.

Perhaps the most touching part of the poem in my opinion is stanzas 4-6. Carol’s use of repetition in the phrases “I glanced”, “I looked”, and “I stared” in the first and third lines of each stanza respectively serve to emphasise one point – the fact that Medusa cannot enjoy the finer and more beautiful things in life anymore. Upon staring at a bee, a bird, a cat, a pig, and a dragon all these animals get turned into stone. It is obvious that Medusa does not want to turn these creatures into stone, but those are the consequences of her curse. Not being able to even see animals and enjoy nature would make someone miserable. To make matters worse, staring at the mirror showed not the once beautiful woman she was, but instead showed a hideous creature.

While the poem up to this point depicts her rage and resentment, there is a mood change in the last stanza, which sounds quite regretful. One of the lines “Love gone bad” shows how she may wish that she hadn’t fallen in love too hard – as she now has to face the consequences. Meanwhile, her lover, as shown in the last stanza came with a “shield for a heart”, “sword for a tongue”, and his girls, which indicates that he may have forgotten her feelings for her and moved on to love other women. She looks at the other girls with envy and regret. “Wasn’t I beautiful?” and “Wasn’t I fragrant and young?” she asks herself as she reminisces on her past. The last line of the poem “Look at me now” shows Medusa may be confronting her lover over her circumstances.

This poem, like the many others in the book ‘The World’s Wife’, allows the voices and perspectives of famous female characters and even the voices of those who are overshadowed by their male counterparts to be heard. A lot of the time, even in modern society, women’s voices are not heard, so these retellings by Carol Ann Duffy have a meaning and theme that is very much applicable to current real-world situations and global issues relating to feminism. Her work challenges the notions that we currently have and urges us to always look at both sides of the coin before judging a situation. Thus, ‘The World’s Wife’ is an excellent choice for readers looking for a simple yet meaningful book, enriched with deep social commentary.

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