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

‘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) 



Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar conceptualise the female figure, represented in literature as ‘angel’ and ‘monster’. The ‘woman writer must examine, assimilate, and transcend the extreme images of “angel” and “monster” which male authors have generated for her’.[1]

The ‘angel’ and ‘monster’ serve to either subvert or obvert Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of grotesque realism; the ‘bodily element’[2] of carnival. Carnival, as ‘temporary liberation from… established order’ (Rabelais 686), signifies the suspension of hierarchy through ‘numerous parodies… humiliations, profanations, comic crowning and uncrownings’ (Rabelais 687).

Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife becomes that which Bakhtin observes in Renaissance folk culture: a ‘feast of becoming, change, and renewal’ (Rabelais 686). The Bakhtinian grotesque, with ‘images of the human body with its food, drink, defecation, and sexual life’ (Rabelais 687), is particularly significant in Duffy’s poetry and these images of consumption, bodily processes and sexuality are subject to carnivalesque ‘[e]xaggeration, hyperbolism, [and] excessiveness’.[3] As both a process of renewal and ‘a form of transgression’,[4] the carnival body provides Duffy’s female speakers with the opportunity to reclaim their bodies by re-defining the images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’.

‘The grotesque body… becomes a body of resistance and subversion… [and]… offer[s] new avenues for identity making’[5]. The grotesque body provides a platform in which to subvert and revise the images of ‘angel’ and ‘monster’ and this process can be identified in Duffy’s poetry as she reclaims and re-defines the female body and, therefore, female identity.


[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] 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

[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (USA: Indiana University Press, 1984), p.302

[4] Paul Allen Miller, ‘The Otherness of History in Rabelais’ Carnival and Juvenal’s Satire, or why Bakhtin got it Right the First Time’, in Carnivalizing Difference: Bakhtin and the Other, ed. by Peter I. Barta, Paul Allen Miller, Charles Platter and David Shepherd (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p.149

[5] Cristie March, ‘Bella and the Beast (And a few dragons too): Alasdair Gray and the Social Resistance of the Grotesque’, in Critique, 43:4 (Jan 2002) 323-346 (323-4)

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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