Duffy’s Delilah explores constructs of gender identity in an intimate contemporary setting between two lovers. Samson, famed for his strength, confides in Delilah about his lack of emotional depth and as a result, she cuts his hair while he sleeps – symbolically cutting away his concepts of what it means to be a man. Through transforming the biblical story of Delilah with a range of intertextual references, Duffy deconstructs the trope of the treacherous femme fatale, instead depicting Samson, the archetype of masculine identity, searching for typically feminine tenderness and vulnerability.
Duffy illustrates the constraints from socially constructed ideas of masculinity through portraying contrasting aspects of Samson’s character. Initially focusing on his physical strength, Duffy depicts Samson as able to ‘flay the bellowing fur / from a bear / all for a dare’. The rhyme in ‘bear’ and ‘dare’, which is coupled with pararhyme throughout the stanza, links the demonstrations of Samson’s raw strength and creates rhythm, characterising Samson as the personification of masculinity. The irregular form and lineation of the stanza add to the synthesis of his identity, creating a fluid, mercurial flow and presenting him as an alpha male. Samson appears almost inhuman with these extreme descriptions; reinforced by his claim that ‘there’s nothing [he] fears.’ In the following stanza, Samson’s exaggerated masculine identity is emphasised by his inability to be emotionally vulnerable. However, he seeks to change, and guides Delilah ‘over the scar / over his heart / a four-medal wound from the war’. Duffy’s use of ‘war’ is likely metaphorical, pointing to an internal struggle which left him with a metaphorical scar to symbolise his strength – and connoting aggression and dominance, usually associated with both war and masculinity. Samson then explains he ‘cannot be gentle, or loving, or tender / I have to be strong.’ This implies that by being strong, Samson inherently lacks the ability to be gentle, rejecting effeminate behaviour. The tricolon and parallelism in ‘gentle, or loving, or tender’ slows the pace, emphasising these unobtrusive feminine traits. It is contrasted by his simple claim ‘I have to be strong.’ where Duffy’s use of endstop shows Samson’s certainty in this statement. He then asks Delilah for ‘the cure’ – as she is a woman and therefore must be gentle, loving and tender – which indicates that despite his need to conform, Samson sees his plight as something to be fixed; perhaps even a disease. The polyvocal voices of the couple create a sense of intimacy which leaves a poignancy and pathos at Samson’s attempts to be emotionally vulnerable for Delilah. Despite this, Duffy maintains contemporary relevance by not glamorising the relationship; even using the expletive when Delilah recalls ‘he fucked [her]’ instead of using a euphemistic alternative. This diction is juxtaposed by the previous stanza and reiterates Samson’s virility and shallow emotional capacity: the sex is consensual, but it is presented as a physical need to be fulfilled on Samson’s part – demonstrating once again his conformity to the role of men. The juxtaposed aspects of Samson’s identity reveals his adherence to social norms but also his desire to change, demonstrating the social constraints on his identity.