Female Oppression And Traditional Concepts Of Gender In The Works Of Sylvia Plath And Carol Ann Duffy
Modern poets have pushed past societal norms, and have given themselves the platform to conquer and challenge topics and issues in regards to racism, class division and sexuality. Two poets who have interrogated traditional concepts of gender, include Sylvia Plath and Carol Ann Duffy. Their questioning of female/male relationships, and the misogyny involved challenges society’s patriarch structure, and showcase the female thought process. This essay will analyse Plath’s poem ‘Daddy’, and Duffy’s poem ‘Standing Female Nude’, and their success in interrogating traditional concepts to gender.
Firstly, Plath’s quintin poem ‘Daddy’, highlights the suffocation females have been subjected to in the patriarch society, allowing the female perspective to be heard. In stanza one the reader is first introduced to who the speaker is talking about, and how this speaker ‘father figure’ is dead. The reader is shown through Plath’s use of repetition when she writes ‘You do not do, you do not do’ (line 1, Daddy), that her father does nothing ‘you don’t do’, because he is dead. The reader becomes aware of this tense father-daughter relationship, when Plath writes ‘black shoe’ (line 2, Daddy), which is then further extended when Plath writes ‘I have lived like a foot’ (line 3, Daddy), her use of the metaphoric ‘black shoe’, and the simile ‘like a foot’ to display how she feels like a foot, captures how she has felt trapped and suffocated in that shoe. The extent of the captured feeling, is extended when Plath writes ‘thirty years, poor and white/ (line 4, Daddy), the speaker feels suffocated with no escape, by this black shoe, which is metaphor for her father. The black shoe metaphor, could also be in reference to the overall suffocation of females in a male dominated society, feeling repressed and not being heard. The speaker’s feelings of suffocation and repression, are intensified in the final line of stanza one, when Plath writes ‘…breathe or Achoo’ (line 5, Daddy) her use of onomatopoeic language, creates a sensory image for the reader, that effectively portrays how the speaker was also, too afraid to sneeze near her father. Stanza one creates an opening for the one, that sets up an intense, fearful relationship between the speaker and her father, which symbolises traditional gender inequality concepts. This adheres to Sharma’s idea that;
‘Plath’s poem Daddy expresses her feelings of oppression from her childhood and conjures the struggle many women face in a male-dominated society. The conflict of this poem is male authority versus the right of a female to control her own life and be free from male domination…. Plath may not only be talking story of her father but of the patriarchal society in which she lives’. (Sharma, 2014:142)
Furthermore, in stanza two, the reader is made aware of how fearful the speaker was of her father, as she admits to wanting to kill him, ‘I have had to kill you’, (line 6, Daddy), but her father died before she could kill him. Plath’s inclusion of the speakers most inner thoughts, shows the effects of suffocation, and abuse and treated insignificant; controversially, perhaps women who were repressed, often thought these thoughts too, that to kill they would finally be free from their abusers. Her cold and non-remorseful feelings towards wanting to kill her father, are echoed when she compares her father to ‘a bag full of God/ ghastly statue with one gray toe/ Big as Frisco sea!’ (lines 8,9,10, Daddy) her metaphoric comparison of her father to a statue, suggests how he had no capacity to feel, hard and empty like a statue and was a large figure looming over her life.
In addition, stanza four and five is based around where the speakers father is from and how his hometown suffered ‘wars, wars, wars’(line18, Daddy), perhaps the fathers coldness is a condition for the horror he may have seen; which is a traditional gendered concept, that men become withdrawn and cold. The speaker’s tense relationship with her father is further emphasised when Plath writes, ‘I could never talk to you’ (line 24, Daddy), she couldn’t speak to him as ‘The tongue stuck in my jaw’ (line 25, Daddy). Plath’s use of physical visual imagery, displays how the speaker’s fear would physically not allow her to speak, which also resembles how women felt in the 60s; too scared to speak out. In stanza seven, the speaker begins her metaphoric description of her father, when she compares him to German father, not unlike Hitler. The speaker feels that she is like a Jew, ‘Chuffing me off like a Jew/ I began to talk like a Jew/ I think I may well be a Jew’ (lines 32,34,35, Daddy) through Plath’s similes, the speaker feels like she is being oppressed just as the Jews were during the Holocaust; she compares her life under suffocation, like Jews in Auschwitz. In this stanza, Plath also uses an end rhyme scheme, when she writes ‘true/Jew’, there is no fixed rhyme scheme in this poem, apart from this.
In addition, in stanza ten, the speaker compares her father to a ‘swastika so black no sky could squeak through’ (line 46, 47, Daddy) Plath’s metaphor suggests the speaker’s father’s darkness or controlling suffocation acts even cover the sky, smothering her from above. This could be symbolic of how a male dominated society has infiltrated the world, covering the sky could equate to the world, and all women over the world are being oppressed. The speaker’s dark portrayal of her father is further expanded when Plath writes ‘a cleft in your chin instead of your foot’ (line 53, Daddy), a cleft foot is usually associated when describing the devil; she views her father as the devil, and his darkness is further explored when Plath ‘the black man’, which refers to his moral and attitudes as being dark, not his race.
In stanza twelve, the speaker admits to trying to take her own life, when Plath writes, ‘At twenty I tried to die/ And get back, back, back to you’ (lines 58, 59, Daddy) her use of repetition, juxtaposes, previous ideas, as she wanted to die to be with her father again. This creates a three-dimensional speaker for the reader, as she may be scared and hate her father, but once loved him and is sad about his passing. When Plath writes, ‘I made a model of you/ A man in black with a Meinkampf look’ (lines 64, 65, Daddy), the speakers direct address to her father, displays that because she survived, she is going reanimate her father in a partner. Somebody who is Hitler like, and has similar toxic traits of her father. In the next stanza when Plath writes, ‘I have killed one man, I’ve killed two’ (line 71, Daddy) the speaker didn’t kill her father, but she is considering killing her husband, who is like her father; in sense killing two men. The speaker refers to her husband as ‘the vampire who said he was you/ and drank my blood for a year’ (lines 72, 73, Daddy) Plath’s metaphor, describes the speaker’s husband as an energy draining, abusive vampire who is worse than her father. Throughout the poem, Plath has used metaphorical language to describe the speaker’s father and now husband, which is also symbolic of female oppression in a male dominated society.
In the final stanza, the reader is made aware that the speaker’s father now lives on in the speaker’s husband as energy draining, immortal vampire. When Plath writes, ‘a stake through your fat black heart/ And the villagers never liked you. They are stamping o you/ they always knew it was you’ (lines 76,77,78,79, Daddy)
Her use of violent imagery, suggests how the speaker may have to kill her father like how a vampire may be killed. Referring to the villagers, the speaker suggests the people around her and her family may have suspected he was a Nazi or vampire. In the final line Plath writes, ‘Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through’ (line 80, Daddy), her repetitive use of ‘daddy’ creates a tonal shift where the speaker concludes that she accepts her father was a ‘bastard’, and can let go of him, and finally be ‘through’ with his toxic memory. The overall concept of Plath’s poem can be argued to be symbolic of female oppression, and the toxicity a male dominated society in which Plath was present for.
Similarly, Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’, also interrogates traditional gender concepts, in regards to representations of women, and also displays the inequalities of class division. The poem is about a young female model, and how modelling nude is how she can only make money. The speaker displays how she knows she is being used just for money for the painter, that she is being objectified. Duffy includes some historical references when she refers to ‘Georges’ (line 15, Standing Female Nude), which was inspired by Georges Braques’ 1908 ‘Big Nude’ painting.
Moreover, in stanza one, Duffy creates a contemptuous, cynical tone when she writes, ‘Six hours…for a few francs’ (line one, Standing Female Nude) the use of ‘francs’ displays the historical period in which this poem is set in, and also the speaker makes it known to the reader, through her conversational language that she acts as a nude model, not for art, but as a means to survive. The means for survival is echoed in the final stanza, when the speaker asks the artist, ‘why do you do this? Because I have to’ (line 22,23, Standing Female Nude). Duffy’s use of conversational language, creates a space where the speaker and artist discuss why they both are used for the creation of ‘art’, and both are similar that it is for survival. Furthermore, when Duffy writes ‘Belly nipple arse in the window light, he drains the colour from me’ (lines 2,3 Standing Female Nude) her use of present, continuous writing, creates a live flow to the poem, as the painter metaphorically drains the colour from the speaker, onto the canvas. However, Duffy is eluding that the painter holds more power over the speaker, in terms of traditional gender concepts; he holds the power and is slowly draining her of her power, reducing her to nothing more than a ‘river whore’. The speaker then tries to somewhat make herself feel better, from the ‘to be still’, comment form the painter, which reminds her the lengths she’s going to for money. When Duffy writes ‘I shall be represented analytically and hung in great museums/ The bourgeoise will coo’ (lines 5,6, Standing Female Nude), the speaker is making reference to how the rich will just ‘coo’ at the art and move on, without appreciation the hardship that artists have gone through. Duffy’s use of the word ‘bourgeoise’ reflects to the reader, Karl Marx’s dedication to the works of class divisions, and how many artists were of lower-class divisions, who were unrecognised in their present time, but people made millions of their work, after they died. The rich are represented as not understanding art, but yet having the power to ironically ‘call it Art’, because of their wealth and stature, they have the ability to make something popular. By Duffy mentioning the Queen of England, she is symbolically referencing the highest level of rich and bourgeoise. The speaker laughs at the idea of the Queen making remarks on the painter’s art, which is her nude body. Not only is she objectified in terms of being a woman, she is only objectified because she is poor, and doesn’t have the comfort of money like the Queen.
Furthermore, the speaker is presented as being vulnerable when Duffy writes, ‘He is concerned with volume, space/ I with the next meal. You’re getting thin, Madame… breasts hang slightly low, the studio is cold’ (lines 8,9,10, 11 Standing Female Nude)
Duffy uses the speaker and painter relationship here, to emphasises the unbalanced power; the painter doesn’t view her as a person, only as a mean for money. The painter mentions she has lost weight, which reflects that this isn’t the first time she has stood nude for him. The painter simply uses her as an object for art and only cares she has lost weight as it distorts his idea of ‘art’. Duffy evokes a great sense of pity and sadness within the reader, as if the speaker is thinner, it implies she isn’t getting money for food. The power imbalance is further explored when Duffy writes ‘and stiffens for my warmth’ (line 17, Standing Female Nude), her use of double entendre, implies that the painter loses concentrations and is sexually stimulated by her figure; this presents him as solely not an artist, that is purely painting for art. However, in the final stanza, the speaker regains some of her power when Duffy writes ‘Little man, you’ve not got the money for the arts I sell’, (lines 19, 20, Standing Female Nude) her use of a belittling tonal shift, implies that the speaker feels she is better than the painter, as she has the figure that sells paintings making the money; without her the painter has no muse and poorer than her. Danette Dimarco writes,
‘The sexual metaphors invoke the tradition whereby it was common for the male artist to take his model for a mistress, but the model then enlists eco- nomics to preclude such a ‘free ride.’ Moreover, although her own financial situation might require that she be ‘possessed’ on canvas, she knows that she cannot be physically conquered, and to this effect she also cleverly invokes the Freudian Oedipal taboo – ‘Men think of their mothers.’ In a final turn of sorts, she then assumes authority by telling Georges that ultimately, he is poorer than she, reminding us that both she and the artist depend on her modelling for survival, be it aesthetic or economic’ (DIMARCO, DANETTE. 1998)
The speaker now sees that her and the painter are equally poor, and working for money which does not make the male painter more powerful than her. She reflects her new found power, when Duffy writes ‘My smile confuses him….with wine and dance around the bars ’ (line 24,26 Standing Female Nude) her use of frequent caesural pauses in the final stanza, and in this sentence, helps to display the contrast between the artist who takes himself too seriously, and the speaker who has fun in her life; she regains more power, which empowers her nude painting, this interrogating traditional concepts of gender.
However, the speaker’s feelings of power, are reversed in the final line when Duffy writes, ‘It does not look like me’ (line 28, Standing Female Nude) her use of syntax, adds a sharpness and coldness, as the speaker realises the painter hasn’t painted her at all, but painted what he wanted from her. It leaves the speaker exposed and vulnerable. Duffy crated this final tonal shift, at the end of the poem, to perhaps reflect the danger with a power imbalance in different gender relationships and could be using this as symbolic of females of her time, who felt used and distorted by males who held the power.
In conclusion, Plath’s ‘Daddy’ and Duffy’s ‘Standing Female Nude’, showcase female suppression and objectification through the use of poetic techniques, and using their own personal lives to draw from. By displaying so bluntly, the outdated view of the place of a woman in this world, they leave room for the reader to question and interrogate the traditional concepts of gender.
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