Hypothesis how their female characters fight against the restrictions

Hypothesis – Both Duffy and Atwood present female
characters who are both fighting against and are subservient to the constraints
that society places on them, however never reach equality. This may undermine
the writers’ feminist angle, or perhaps is a message to demonstrate how
equality cannot be achieved in our own society currently and so society itself
must change in order to facilitate this.

Carol Ann Duffy and Margaret Atwood are 20th Century writers
who comment on how society views and treats women. ‘The World’s Wife’ (Duffy)
is a collection of 30 poems that are feminist retellings of the stories of
famous figures from history, fairy tales and myths from the point of view of
the women involved. Through the personas she adopts, Duffy explores power,
independence, love, sex, motherhood, youth and poetry, taking a somewhat
biographical approach by “finding a personal connection”1  in order to gain a female perspective. ‘The
Handmaid’s Tale’ (Atwood) is a dystopian novel set in a puritanical Theocracy
in which reproduction and sex is controlled by the state through religious
ideology. Atwood was writing in West Berlin in 1984, five years before the fall
of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany, and travelled beyond the
Iron Curtain to visit countries under Soviet influence. Here she saw the effects
of living under a totalitarian regime and was inspired to write based on what
she had seen. Atwood also explores ideas of love, sex and motherhood, as well
as freedom and how women can be subjugated in our society. Both writers explore
how their female characters fight against the restrictions that society places
on them, some characters actively rebelling, some remaining passive in the face
of adversity.

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way in which both Duffy and Atwood present women’s freedom within society is
through sexuality and sexual expression. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Offred’s
attitude towards sex has become repressed, desiring freedom. This is clearly a
result of the Gileadean society in which she has become indoctrinated. For
example, this is made clear to the reader through Offred’s sexual encounters
with Nick; whilst initially she visits him after being instructed to do so by
Serena Joy, Offred finds herself returning, frequently. Despite this, when
describing the first night, Offred informs us that the thundering scene she has
set is false – she “added that in” “to cover up the sounds, which she is
ashamed of making”.

also explores how women act during and around sex. In the poem ‘Pygmalion’s
Bride’, she writes about the ancient Greek myth in which the sculptor,
Pygmalion, falls in love with one of his creations, who then comes to life. As
a feminist retelling, Duffy adopts the persona of the sculpture, who recounts
Pygmalion’s endless pursuit of her and her attempts to reject his persistent
advances. Duffy uses the idea of a statue as a metaphor – commenting on how
women are pressured into acting a certain way by society. For example, the
opening line demonstrates her attitude towards Pygmalion – “Cold, I was, like
ivory.” Structurally, this sentence calls attention to her attitude towards him,
the adjective placed at the beginning, creating a definitive and tangible idea
for the reader to picture. She remains passive as he kisses her; she lies
“still/ as though she’d died”. The poem continues in this way, each stanza
representing how she resists him and how he persists. This escalates to the
point of suggested sexual violence, as he “presses”, “squeezes” and uses
his nails as “claws”, “propping her up on pillows”.

difference between these two explorations of sexual expression is the motive
behind them. Initially, Offred finds her own sexual experience shameful –  she is “ashamed” of enjoying having sex with
Nick, and finds herself acting as her own censor, clouding her own memories and
the story she tells. Meanwhile, Pygmalion’s Bride is unresponsive, like a
statue, not because she is not embracing her sexuality, but to repel the
advances of Pygmalion; both women are acting as their society has conditioned
them to in their given situation.

 The key change for both these characters comes
when they act upon sexuality – in returning to Nick, Offred begins to
rediscover her sexuality, identity and self-worth. She does however find her
ego involved in the relationship – Offred worries that he might one day turn
her away, the worst reason she can think of for him rejecting her being
“telling her he is no longer interested”. Potentially this could compromise
the message Atwood is trying to convey to her readers, suggesting that Offred
is no longer acting as an independent woman and is relying on Nick for support
or personal validation. However it can be argued that, from a feminist point of
view, Offred is making her own decision in continuing to see Nick and
disobeying Gilead’s regime. After all, she even tells the readers that she does
it simply because she wants to. This act is a direct defiance of the
restrictions which Offred’s society has placed on her, and so, from a psychoanalytical
point of view, represents how she gains strength from freeing her sexuality
rather than repressing it. For Pygmalion’s Bride, her embracing and taking
control of her sexuality is what allows her to assert herself and scare away
Pygmalion. Where she once was “Cold .. like ivory”, she is now “warm, like
candlewax”. The penultimate stanza is the antithesis to the stanzas that came
before it, in that all the previously used adjectives, similes and metaphors
are flipped, and Duffy writes the opposites. As the statue-woman embraces her
sexuality and demonstrates it, rather obviously, getting “hot” and “wild”,
“kissing back” and “screaming”, Pygmalion flees, never to be seen again. Author
Antje Peukert argues that, in writing from the female perspective, Duffy gives
power to her characters as “silence of course means for
women to remain uncritical towards male power, to be obedient, to accept
This is certainly the case for Pygmalion’s Bride, who begins statuesque
and a victim, and becomes vocal and empowered. Both writers explore how women
have been conditioned over generations by society not to enjoy or to be ashamed
of sex – that the enjoyment of sex is a purely masculine trait. In either
enjoying or appearing to enjoy sex these characters gain more freedom,
independence and self-worth than they had before.


and Atwood both touch on education and access to information – for the women in
these stories it is empowering. Duffy explores this within the first poem of
the collection, ‘Little Red Cap’, based on the fairy tale of Little Red Riding
Hood. Here she subverts the genre, the speaker a self-assured and assertive young
woman rather than a helpless little girl, who pursues an older “wolf” poet.
Contextually, it is important to note that this poem has clear biographical references,
Duffy also engaging in a relationship with an older poet, Adrian Henri, when
she was just sixteen. In the poem, Little Red Cap “makes quite sure he
spots her” and makes sure he takes her home. The poet suggests that Little
Red Cap uses her sexuality to get what she wants – “poetry”. Duffy describes poetry
in a vivid way to demonstrate the speaker’s excitement and enthusiasm for the
words – a “crimson, gold” wall of books filled with words “alive on the tongue,
in the head, warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood”.  Duffy personifies the poetry, using a
semantic field that connotes vitality, suggesting its live nature and freedom.
The use of the nouns “music and blood” demonstrate how, for her, the words are figuratively
alive. Duffy’s description of poetry and the freedom it gives the speaker,
although coming from the persona of Little Red Cap, also come from Duffy and
her own experience as a poet and a woman. Little Red Cap, like Duffy, finds
herself with the wolf for “ten years” (Duffy and Henri were together from around
1972 to 1982) and in that time realises that “a mushroom stoppers the mouth of
a buried corpse” – Duffy uses symbolism, comparing Little Red Cap to a “buried
corpse”, smothered in the relationship, the mushrooms growing from the corpse
demonstrating her decaying. Biographically, this could refer to Duffy’s
relationship with Henri decaying, as well as her struggling to find recognition
as a poet (“a mushroom stoppers the mouth”) due to colleagues such as poet Roger
McGough assuming “she
was under Adrian’s influence”3. Towards the end of the poem, Little Red Cap “takes
an axe to the wolf” and kills him with “one chop, scrotum to throat”. Duffy further
subverts the genre as Little Red Cap kills the wolf herself, fighting against
the restrictions placed on her as a female poet by men, cutting the wolf from
the “scrotum”. Duffy is suggesting that, while it may be difficult for women to
gain recognition within a creative field such as poetry, with enough passion, a
woman can make her mark and overcome societal restrictions.

Offred’s hunger for words results simply because of her being starved of
writing – the state’s attempt to prevent women from exercising their minds.
When the Commander asks Offred to play scrabble with him, Offred relishes the
opportunity. The words she uses are complex and intelligent plays: “Larynx”, “Zygote”. Atwood, like Duffy,
suggests that words and writing are “freedom” – the women in these works appreciate
the value words can have. Offred spells “Gorge”
which has two meanings, both reflecting Offred’s situation. She ‘gorges’ on the
game of scrabble – the counters are even compared to “candies” and Offred
thinks of their taste “on the tongue”. At the same time, Offred is symbolically
in a gorge – she has entered the Commander’s study – a small, secluded room
with restricted access – it is tucked away and holds secrets like scrabble and
Vogue magazines. As a dystopian novel, the theme of withholding information is
characteristic of the genre – an influential example that would have inspired
Atwood is George Orwell’s “Nineteen-Eighty-Four”, in which the protagonist,
Winston, lives with the knowledge that any information he receives will have
passed through the censorship of the state. The key difference between these
two novels is that Atwood specifically considers the subjugation of women. While
in Orwell’s work, Winston still has access to writing, in Atwood’s Gilead,
women have been forbidden from reading to stop them thinking. Offred’s display
of intelligence through skilful plays in scrabble demonstrate how she is
fighting the restrictions Gilead has placed on her, however she is only able to
do this because the commander has allowed her to. Here Atwood shows how in
society, the intelligence and skill of a woman can be undermined by a
patriarchal system.


Both writers create characters who struggle against
the restrictions placed on them, Atwood characterising Offred as simultaneously
of the regime and against it, and Duffy using the persona of Thetis, whose
attempts at freedom are thwarted. Offred’s state of indoctrination in Gilead fluctuates
throughout the novel – she is a divided character, and we as the readers are
given insight into this. For example, she has moments of rebellion, obvious and
life-threatening like visiting Nick and talking with Ofglen, and minute,
rebelling only in thought. In one instance she is served egg for breakfast. She
admires the eggcup, considering it “like a woman’s torso, in a skirt”. This
simile could suggest how her mind is fighting back against the regime, as she
sees the form of a woman in inanimate objects, despite all women being forced
to wear garments which obscure their forms. Conversely, the ‘torso-eggcup’
houses eggs; eggs, representing fertility and childbearing and, as a handmaid,
Offred instantly associates these.

Offred’s indoctrination is clear as she describes her
thoughts and feelings. The treatment of Janine at the centre during confession
is cruel – the handmaids are instructed to blame her for being gangraped,
however Offred admits that in that moment they “despised her”, calling her a
“cry-baby” and really “meant it”. This hatred has been drilled into the
handmaids by the state. Offred’s hatred for Janine is complex – she believes Janine
thinks “of nothing” and is compliant; however, she also calls her a “whiny
bitch” and took part in blaming Janine for being raped – in this sense, Offred
is compliant and acts following the regime. It could be inferred from this that
Offred is projecting onto her – she sees the part of herself that is a slave to
Gilead reflected in Janine and thus loathes her while, in reality, Janine is trying
to survive within their broken society as much as Offred herself. Offred’s
contradicting thoughts and emotions show how she is attempting to fight Gilead’s
regime, however is struggling against a world which has conditioned her to
think in a certain way. Atwood’s personal view of Offred helps shed some light
on Offred’s behaviour – she describes Offred as “an
ordinary more-or-less cowardly woman”4,
which, given her situation, is understandable – she is one person. For
her, fighting the regime is an impossible task.

Thetis, on the other hand, is not subject to a regime influencing
her thoughts, but very much a physical male threat. In the original ancient
Greek (and then Roman) myth of Thetis, written in ‘Ovid’s Metamorphoses’,
Thetis is prophesised to have a son who will be mightier than his father, and
so her lovers Zeus and Poseidon gave her to the mortal king Peleus. Thetis was
unwilling to marry a mortal man so transformed into many forms to fight Peleus
but was eventually caught and married by him. She becomes pregnant with Peleus’
son, Achilles. In the original tale Thetis is treated as property, given away
by the gods and caught by Peleus to be married, like a prize. Duffy tells the
tale from Thetis’ perspective as she attempts to fend him off, but is continually
bested. For example, Thetis begins as a “bird”, harmless, singing a “sweet …
small song”. Duffy chooses Thetis to take the form of a small “bird” initially,
suggesting Thetis to be unthreatening, and free. The use of sibilant
alliteration in this stanza to bring this image to life, words like “sweet”, “song”,
“sang” and “squeeze” evoking birdsong. Her sweetness and freedom are snuffed
out by “the squeeze of his fist”. This process repeats throughout the entire
poem each stanza escalating; Thetis transforms, becoming more dangerous animals
and then natural forces (“snake”, “hot air”) , but is countered over and over
by Peleus, whose weapons become more sophisticated (“gun”, “fighter plane”). Duffy
uses symbolism as Thetis transforms into natural symbols, while Peleus defeats
her with manmade, mechanical creations – a contrast between the feminine purity
of nature and the violent, mechanical, masculine world. In the final stanza,
Thetis is finally caught and wed. Peleus defeats her at their wedding as “the
groom wearing asbestos”.  The use of
the noun asbestos suggests suffocation as Thetis finds herself stuck in a
relationship which she has not chosen. She, like Offred, is “changed” and must “learn”
to live under new circumstances, Offred conforming to the regime, and Thetis submitting
to Peleus.   


Atwood uses the character of Moira to represent the
pursuit of feminist goals and the dream of a society where men and women can
live as truly equal, whilst Duffy uses her fictionalised version of the Kray
twins – The Kray Sisters – to explore an alternate feminist past. When the
readers are first officially introduced to Moira, Offred describes her as being
“in her purple overalls, one dangly earring, the gold fingernail she wore to be
eccentric, a cigarette between her stubby yellow – ended fingers”. The
presentation of Moira demonstrates her character. It is through her clothing (“one
dangly earring”, “the gold fingernail”) that she is shown to be someone who
doesn’t necessarily follow social convention, especially in terms of what women
would be expected to wear at the time. Even the act of simply wearing a single
earring rather than two demonstrates how Moira will defy convention. Like
Moira, the Kray Sisters defy the social conventions of the time in terms of
women’s clothing and wear “Savile Row whistle and flutes, tailored to flatter
their thr’penny bits”. From a feminist perspective, Savile Row suits would be
symbols of masculine tradition and convention, which the Kray Sisters have
adopted and made their own, flattering their bosoms, emphasising their
femininity; the sisters are taking ownership of a traditionally male symbol. Feminist
critic Victoria Smith argues “All too often, to count
as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes
them other – disregarded. The same is not true in relation to maleness”5,
and in the case of Moira, while she certainly does not dress in an entirely
male fashion, her attire is not specifically female either. Duffy’s choice to
put the Kray Sisters in suits could support this point, as the sisters must
adopt male clothing to have some form of power or significance. However, the
sisters are – like their real life counterparts – from a poorer, East End
background and will have had to make enough money to afford the suits; them acquiring
the clothing is more symbolic of their rise in social class. The colloquialisms
used by Duffy (“thr’penny bits”, “whistle and flutes”) further illustrate this.
In terms of how the sisters present themselves as women, the suits are tailored
specially to flatter their feminine forms and so are used to amplify their femaleness,
rather than disguise it. Notably, both Moira and the Kray sisters are defeated
by their societies. In Offred’s final meeting with Moira she comments that “what
she hears in Moira’s voice is indifference, a lack of volition”. Moira, who
Offred has put on a pedestal as a hero, who “set herself loose” and escaped the
Red Centre, has been reduced to “indifference”, making do with working as a prostitute
at Jezebel’s. Similarly, the Kray Sisters have since fallen from the height of
their power. In the final stanza the speaker asks the listener to “remember us
at our peak, in our prime”. This suggests that their glory days and influence
on society have passed. Both Atwood and Duffy are suggesting that even women
who fight against restrictions within society successfully can eventually be broken.


Both Duffy and Atwood present female characters who
fight the systems which oppress them, some more actively than others. None of
these characters, however passive or rebellious, are able to live in a society where
women are equal with men. As these works offer parallels to our own society,
the writers are attempting to convey to their readers that our society is not
that different from the societies portrayed. Therefore, if women are to be
treated equally within modern society, society itself must undergo great change;
society must adapt and mature to allow women to express themselves through education
and literature, sex, art, and their own appearance – a new concept of
femininity which encompasses all types of women and allows them to choose who
they want to be.




1 Barry Wood, Carol Ann Duffy, The World’s Wife: A conversation recorded in
Manchester 2005 – Available from


2 Antje Peukert,
What’s a Man Without a Woman …? – Gender
Constructions in Carol Ann Duffy’s “The World’s Wife”


Peter Forbes, The Guardian, Profile: Carol
Ann Duffy, available from < https://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/aug/31/featuresreviews.guardianreview8>

4 Allan Weiss, University of York, Studies of Canadian Literature,
Volume 34, Number 1 (2009), Offred’s Complicity and the Dystopian
Tradition in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale


5 Victoria
Smith, New Statesman, Why is the Handmaid’s Tale claimed as feminist, when it’s
deeply ambivalent about the movement?