Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife explores female identity and the transformative experiences of women through a form of intertextuality. Her reconstruction of male-focused myths with a female voice effectively depicts women who are often silenced or not present in traditional tales. Little Red-Cap, a parody of the traditional Little Red Riding-Hood folktale, illustrates a young girl’s transformation into maturity alongside a ‘wolf’ – who represents predatory aspects of masculinity. Similarly, Thetis, based on the Greek myth, portrays a strong woman who transforms her shape through metamorphosis to escape a construct of the predatory male identity.
In Little Red-Cap, Duffy explores female sexuality in order to explore Red-Cap’s transformation. The anthropomorphic wolf itself is a construct of masculinity; he represents danger and the maturity of an older man. He is a temptation, but it is clear that she actively desires him: she “made quite sure he spotted [her]”, demonstrating that she is not being taken advantage of, but rather is attracted to the wolf and what he represents. Duffy’s acknowledgement of Red-Cap’s desire could reflect the beginning of her sexual journey; contrasting the description of her as “sweet sixteen, never been”, implying that she is untouched – a virgin. The exclamatory language when she describes “What big eyes he had! What teeth!” emphasises the sexual attraction and temptation with shorter, punchier phrases. At the same time, however, we can see Red-Cap’s innocence in her search for “a living bird – white dove”. White is often associated with purity and virginity; and given this bird flies “straight, from [her] hands to his open mouth”, Duffy suggests that her innocence is consumed by the wolf – and is no longer hers. Moreover, the wolf responds with “how nice, breakfast in bed,” insinuating that it was insignificant for him. Ironically, the emphasis on Red-Cap’s innocence reinforces the significance of her sexual awakening. With this dual focus, Duffy not only illustrates the transformation of her identity, but also hints that this side of her has always been there – and perhaps the transformation is not the expected ‘naivety’ to ‘sexual awakening’, but rather, one about growth and being comfortable with one’s sexuality.
Duffy observes the journey into womanhood alongside the wolf as a transformation as well. The first stanza describes Red-Cap “at childhood’s end”, hinting that a new journey into adulthood is beginning. The structure reinforces this idea: the free verse and irregular lineation reflect her journey, and the enjambment transcends stanzas which creates a fluidity to reinforce the complex transformation. It starts with Red-Cap losing “both shoes / but got there, wolf’s lair, better beware.” Duffy’s use of internal rhyme draws attention to the word ‘lair’, which has a villainous connotation – and ‘beware’, which emphasises a sense of danger. The woods are a symbol for this and the mysterious unknown. The ominous diction makes Red-Cap seem vulnerable, but her voice is not panicked. She notes that she knew the wolf “would lead [her] deep into the woods, away from home” – and away from safety. It appears that Red-Cap seeks transformation, and the depiction of “scraps of red from [her] blazer snagged on twig and branch,” suggests that somewhere in her search for excitement, she left parts of her previous identity behind, marking the start of her transformation – especially as the red cape symbolises her youth. After ten years, however, Red-Cap realises she has lost her identity; and after the metaphorical killing of the wolf, she emerges “out of the forest … with [her] flowers, singing, all alone.” She reclaims her identity, and the final image refers back to the first image of Red-Cap as a young girl. Duffy examines Red-Cap’s transformation – but also the lack of the wolf’s transformation in the explanation that “a greying wolf howls the same old song at the moon”. Through the wolf’s unchanging identity, Red-Cap’s transformation into maturity is highlighted.
Duffy depicts poetry as part of Red-Cap’s identity. Originally, she is attracted to the wolf “reading his verse out loud / in his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw / red wine staining his bearded jaw.” The assonance in ‘drawl’, ‘paw’, and ‘jaw’ accentuates his appeal, but also the fact that he is a wolf. The reader can see Red-Cap’s fascination with poetry when Duffy explicitly explains “Here’s why. Poetry.” The wolf teaches her a “love poem” in “lesson one”, demonstrating that in part, she was attracted to his words. She compares the poetry to “a dark tangled thorny place”, which is rich and complex. This transformation of Red-Cap’s passion for poetry is reflected in the poetic form which immediately places emphasis on “lesson one that night” and “aglow with books”. The form reflects the importance of Red-Cap’s fascination with poetry; as the wolf gives her poetry which becomes a significant part of her identity. On the first night, he teaches her a ‘love poem’ – connecting Red-Cap’s love of poetry to the exploration of her sexuality. Duffy’s imagery when Red-Cap describes words as “warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood” illustrates how poetry is a huge part of her identity – she even compares it to breathing through the use of the words “beating” and “blood”. Through this depiction, Duffy demonstrates another aspect of Red-Cap’s identity transforming and evolving as her passion for poetry grows.
In Thetis, Duffy explores freedom and conformity through Thetis’ different shapes, each putting different constraints on Thetis’ freedom. The poem’s eight sestets have irregular lineation, with alternation between longer and shorter lines. This poetic form puts emphasis on the shifting line shape which could reflect Thetis’ shifting shape too. Additionally, the enjambment and run-on sentences as she describes how she “changed [her] tune / to racoon,” creates a fluidity to the poem and highlights female adaptability, which could be seen as ‘social conformity’. In the third stanza, Thetis “shopped for a suitable shape. / Size 8.” The word ‘shape’ is a double entendre: it’s a new transformation for Thetis, but also a commentary on modern society’s fascination with body ideals. The word “shop” and “size 8” support this theory and critique the modern obsession with consumerism and body shape. But even when Thetis sits “coiled in [her] charmer’s lap” and conforms to social expectations, it’s not enough. She can feel “the grasp of his strangler’s clasp”. There is pressure to conform, but conformity is limiting – and Duffy’s use of the word ‘strangler’ connotes this restriction, further enhanced by the sibilance and internal rhyme in ‘grasp’ and ‘clasp’. But there are other limits on Thetis’ freedom. She “shouldered the cross of an albatross”, which is a biblical reference to the Cross and to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These references imply that while Thetis follows “the hill of the sky” and pursues her goals, she carries a burden which makes it challenging. This is reiterated when Thetis “felt [her] wings / clipped,” which is also an idiomatic expression. Through this, Duffy explores female identity and the struggles for freedom.
Duffy also portrays the vulnerability of women in Thetis’ various transformations. The antagonist in the poem is an unnamed male – and he is an ever-present threat that encroaches in every shape Thetis takes. This anonymity gives the poem a wider meaning; as it is not limited to a single example of ‘male pursuit’. Instead, the antagonist acts as a metaphor of the more general threat towards women. However, the progression of the stanzas shows Thetis’ gradual transformation of capability through her individual transformations. She becomes more aggressive – even turning into “roar, claw, 50 lb paw, / jungle-floored, meat-eater, raw”. Duffy’s use of internal rhyme emphasises her power and sheer size; but also adds to the speed of the poem, creating an urgent tone. This is juxtaposed with the description of “the guy in the grass with the gun” – her greatest weakness, highlighting that despite strength, women remain socially vulnerable. Throughout the poem, Thetis’ voice is modern and powerful, illustrating her independence as she searches for freedom – but the persistence of Thetis’ pursuer is a reminder of her vulnerability due to her gender. She eventually loses control, as the repetition of the personal pronoun at the start of each stanza demonstrates her decisions; but the final stanza breaks this pattern, signifying her loss of control as she is forced into her final transformation into motherhood; and the shift from her decision to something happening to her in ‘then my’. With this, we can see Duffy’s clear exploration of the vulnerability of women due to social constructs of ideal gender roles.
Duffy also explores Thetis’ journey into motherhood as a final transformation of her identity. Becoming a mother “turned [her] inside out”, which is arguably the most significant transformation Thetis had undergone. Her loss of freedom is concrete now, and as “the child burst out”, the reader gets a sense of rupture and violence – suggesting that Thetis is now at the mercy of her child. There is someone else who holds her back. But Duffy purposefully leaves this ambiguous, and it can be interpreted in two ways. In the final stanza, Thetis’ “tongue was flame / and [her] kisses burned”, in which the fire could signify anger and unyielding resistance – or resignation, demonstrated by Thetis taking control of the situation herself: “I changed, I learned,”. One interpretation of this is that motherhood positively transforms her and she accepts what happens. Equally, it could be interpreted that the ‘flame’ mentioned in the final stanza symbolises Thetis’ remaining resistance and that while she changes and adapts to the situation, she remains unyielding. Whether this final change is taken as a positive or a negative for Thetis, it is clear that Duffy effectively observes the monumental transformation of motherhood.
Both Thetis and Little Red-Cap look at the female voice and the transformative experiences of women. Little Red-Cap experiences a transformation into a young woman alongside the antagonist wolf; a construct of predatory masculinity. In contrast, Thetis’ transformation is both literal and metaphorical; but it is grounded in experiences, and the antagonist is an unnamed manifestation of the hunt. By transforming myths about male figures, Duffy explores unheard female voices. In both poems, the women are defined by their relation to men: Thetis as a mother, and Red-Cap as a lover and sexual partner. The critique of the socially constructed female identity as defined by their relationship men is what makes both Thetis and Little Red-Cap a true exploration of social pressures shaping our personal views of identity and self-worth.