SERIES: Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife Carnivalesque and Grotesque / ‘Angels’ and ‘Monsters’ – PYGMALION’S BRIDE

‘Women were not only writing, they were conceiving fictional worlds in which patriarchal images and conventions were severely, radically revised’ (Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar) 

pygmalion


‘PYGMALION’S BRIDE’

Gilbert and Gubar argue that women must simultaneously kill the ‘aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been “killed” into art. And… the angel’s necessary opposite and double, the “monster”’.[1] Both the ideal, classical body and its un-desirable opposite must be destroyed. This process of self-definition by the female artist, however, ‘is complicated by all those patriarchal definitions that intervene between herself and herself’ (Madwoman 812-3), that is, the self that is presented within society, and that is susceptible to patriarchal discourses, and that self which is her own. Bakhtin’s carnivalesque can be used to subvert the motions through which society complicates female self-definition as ‘the grotesque is counter-posed to the classical aesthetic of ready-made, completed being… [t]he carnivalesque body… [expresses]… ideas of simultaneous death and rebirth’.[2] The introduction of the carnivalesque disrupts that which has been socially prescribed as the appropriate and classical body.

The speaker of Duffy’s ‘Pygmalion’s Bride’, a ‘cold’ statue,[3] appears to be anything but Bakhtin’s grotesque body and, instead, emulates the image of a classical ‘angel’. As this classical figure, the speaker is alienated ‘from ordinary fleshy life… not just a memento of otherness but actually a memento mori’ (Madwoman 817). The classical ‘angel’ embodies a passive existence akin to death, and is further marginalised from life (‘flesh’) as she is, quite literally, fleshless, constructed from stone:

He kissed my stone-cool lips.

I lay still
as though I’d died.
He stayed.
He thumbed my marbled eyes
(World’s Wife 51)

To be a statue built from stone, the physical frame, or body, of the female speaker is built from the hands of another and thus implicates the processes by which a woman’s self-identity can be, and in this case, is quite literally, constructed by another. Her own self-identity is thus is displaced in that she is firstly built by another and is then subjected to a male suitor. I use to term subjected as, lying still, as if dead, the interaction between the two, the ‘I’ and the ‘he’ are anything but an equal relationship. The statue’s ‘marbled eyes’ also serve to obscure the gaze of the woman, while the male suitor is free to thumb her eyes in a rather forceful gesture that also further serves to obscure, or even completely blind the woman speaker’s gaze. The woman is not, quite literally, made to be a subjective individual, but is purely subjected to the whims of the male observer, whose gaze and movements are left unhindered. Duffy presents an image of the perfectly aesthetic ‘angel’; a woman with no individuated self-identity and no flesh, but is made of stone.

Unlike the unresponsive, ‘still’, and classical body of the ‘angel’, the carnival body is neither smooth nor physically passive. Instead, the Bakhtinian ‘grotesque image ignores the closed, smooth, and impenetrable surface of the body and retains only its excrescences… and orifices’.[4] ‘Pygmalion’s Bride’ represents the classical opposition to the grotesque:

He let his fingers sink into my flesh,
he squeezed, he pressed.
I would not bruise.
(World’s Wife 52)

Unlike the grotesque body where ‘[t]he outward and inward features are often merged into one’[5] the classical body is closed for biologically, at the very least, there is no blood.

Duffy, however, goes on to effectively kill the ‘angel’ that has been crafted by patriarchal hands, as the speaker, in order to get rid of her unwanted suitor, ‘changed tack’ and ‘grew warm, like candle wax, / kissed back’ (World’s Wife 52). The speaker is no longer passive but begins to participate in the sexual activity and, in doing so, reciprocates his actions. The statue becomes human and mouldable, ‘like candle wax’, and, most specifically, re-moulds herself and is thus ‘reborn for new, purely human relations’.[6] The Bakhtinian carnivalesque is further implicated where, for Bakhtin, ‘[t]he people’s laughter… was linked with the bodily lower stratum. Laughter degrades and materializes’ (Rabelais 688). This laughter is perhaps embodied where, no longer silent, the speaker:

began to moan,
got hot, got wild,
arched, coiled, writhed
(World’s Wife 52)

And, ‘at the climax screamed my head off’ (World’s Wife 52). Duffy forces the silent ‘angel’ out of the female figure as she becomes ‘hot’ flesh. The speaker becomes an active and vocal participant during the pair’s sexual activity, synonymous with laughter as a means of vocalising identity, and, better yet self-identity, further implicated by the relationship of sexual activity to the lower strata. The female speaker bodily participates in acts of degradation while she literally screams her humanity.


[1] Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, ‘The Madwoman in the Attic’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p.812

[2]Andrew Robinson, ‘In Theory Bakhtin: Carnival against Capital, Carnival against Power’, in Ceasefire, Friday, September 9, 2011, <http://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-bakhtin-2/> [accessed on 29/3/12]

[3] Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Pygmalion’s Bride’, in The World’s Wife (Basingstoke and Oxford: Picador, 1999), p.51

[4] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (USA: Indiana University Press, 1984), pp.317-8

[5] Ibid, p.318

[6] Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Rabelais and His World’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p.687

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About Rachel Fox

I am currently a PhD candidate at Lancaster University, having completed a BA in English Literature and an MA in Contemporary Literary Studies. My provisional thesis title is: Voicing and Visualising Identity: The Discursive Figure of ‘Woman’ in Contemporary Poetical and Polemical works of Literature arising from Western Asia
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