Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy

Our (on-line book club) Literary Wives’ August read is Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection, The World’s Wife.

In The World’s Wife we are introduced to the women – lovers, partners, sisters and wives – of some of the most well-known men in Greek mythology, the Bible, history, literature and pop culture. We hear from the women themselves, from Mrs. Faust to Frau Freud to Medusa, and the voices are often surprising. They’re irreverent, sarcastic, angry, sad, triumphant, bawdy, spiteful and, not infrequently, laugh-aloud funny. Here are my responses to the two questions we explore with each of our Literary Wives reads:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Being a wife is not a happy thing. In these poems, it is about putting up with egos, living in shadows, being neglected. Through the fictional voices we are imagining what it might feel like to be the wife of one of these famous men. Mrs. Aesop is tired of her husband’s moralizing; the loyal Mrs. Quasimodo, Quasimodo’s physical equal, is betrayed by her husband when he falls in love with someone more attractive; and even Eurydice, whose husband Orpheus loves her and tries to get her out of the underworld, prefers to stay in Hades, apart from him. She would rather be dead than to not have a voice, to live in her husband’s artistic shadow:

Big O was the boy. Legendary.
The blurb on the back of his books claimed
that animals . . .
flocked to his side when he sang . . .
 
Bollocks. (I’d done all the typing myself,
I should know.)
And given my time all over again, 
rest assured that I’d rather speak for myself
than be Dearest, Beloved, Dark Lady, White Goddess,
      etc. etc.
 
In fact, girls, I’d rather be dead.

 (page 59)

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

The women in the book grasp for power where they can within the confines of their relationships. To continue with Eurydice, she ends up appealing to Orpheus’ ego, in order to trick him into turning around to look at her, an act which causes him to lose her back to the underworld. Mrs. Midas, tired of her husband’s obsession with material wealth and his thoughtlessness toward her, eventually leaves him. Mrs. Icarus and Mrs. Aesop view their husbands with scorn and condescension. About their disappointing sex life, Mrs. Aesop says, “I gave him a fable one night / about a little cock that wouldn’t crow, a razor-sharp axe with a heart blacker than the pot that called the kettle. / I’ll cut off your tail all right, I said, to save my face. / That shut him up. I laughed last, longest.” (page 11)

The poem in which I found a defining message about wifehood, though, is Mrs. Beast. Here she warns about princesses and princes and happily ever after:

 . . . The Little Mermaid slit
her shining, silver tail in two, rubbed salt
into that stinking wound, got up and walked,
in agony, in fishnet tights, stood up and smiled, waltzed,
all for a Prince, a pretty boy, a charming one
who’d dump her in the end, chuck her, throw her overboard.
I could have told her – look, love, I should know,
they’re bastards when they’re Princes.
What you want to do is find yourself a Beast. The sex
is better. 

(page 72)

A celebration of love and partnership these poems are not. But I did find The World’s Wife a sharp, clever and witty read. Though many of the women were cattier than my preferred tastes in women’s voices (many of the poems reminded me of the darker side of female conversations bashing boyfriends and husbands), I read this collection for what it is. I enjoyed the modern and feminist twists on traditional and historical stories as well as the opportunity to revisit various cultural and historical references. (I kept my iPhone by my side to look things up while reading.) As a novice poetry reader, I also found this collection very accessible. My favorite Literary Wives read so far!

……………….

Please also check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library (she will post in a couple of weeks)

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

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22 comments on “Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy

  1. Emily J. says:

    I agree that many of them were more negative than positive about marriage, but I also think they were varied in their experiences, perceptions of those experiences, and their voices. I think you summed it up in the beginning of your post when you listed all of the traits: irreverent, sarcastic, etc. They seem to represent a whole spectrum of human experience.

  2. Ngan R. says:

    What an interesting book of poetry. I’m not sure if this is something I would have ever sought out or picked up because I don’t read much poetry. But it seems to be a fun read based on the excerpts you’ve presented and if you say this is your favorite Literary Wives selection, then I should check it out!

    • Cecilia says:

      I know what you mean, Ngan. I’ve never read poetry except for the required reading in school. But recently I’ve begun looking for poetry that would hit the right note for me, as I do love the way that poets handle language. I really enjoyed this volume, as the poems felt lyrical and entertaining and yet were quite accessible!

  3. Naomi says:

    This book sounds like a lot of fun! I love that last quote you put up from Mrs. Beast. Interesting that the poetry collection is your favourite so far! I must go see what everyone else thought of it.

  4. Carolyn O says:

    I am so pleased that you liked this book! i wonder if some of the negativity stems from celebrity; perhaps those of us in partnerships with non-famous people have less to be resentful about.

    • Cecilia says:

      I thought of that too – I remember flashing back to one of the Literary Wives reviews before I had joined…I think it was The Aviator’s Wife, maybe? You guys were discussing what life must have been like to have been married to a HIGHLY accomplished (i.e., big ego) man.

  5. Lynn says:

    Wow, Cecilia! You really did love this one! Good for you! Like someone else commented, I really liked your listing of the various emotions and traits depicted! They were each unique. Nice review!

  6. whatmeread says:

    I like how you concentrated on some of the more dramatic poems, while I stuck with the comedy!

  7. Denise says:

    I like the Orpheus myth because it has so many different readings. Plato argued (I think, I am not sure) something like: Eurydice was *never* going to come back from the dead because it was not possible and that Orpheus was deceiving himself all the way. That forms part of the theme of the Arcade Fire album Reflektor. It’s interesting to see a totally different reading here.

    • Cecilia says:

      I hadn’t realized there were so many versions of the story, but I began to see that when I started looking up the different characters from the poems. So many Greek myths have different retellings. I am not familiar with that album, but it’s cool how stories transcend the written word.

      • Denise says:

        Isn’t it amazing just how different these two readings are! Greek society was complex too, with women’s status being higher or lower depending on where in history and geography you were.

  8. rudrip says:

    I am not familiar with this work, but from your review the premise sounds intriguing. Encapsulating these themes in poetry is an interesting way to explore various definitions of wife.

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