Literary Wives: The World’s Wife

The World’s Wife (1999) by Carol Ann Duffy is the first poetry collection to be included in the Literary Wives Series, during which we explore the following questions:

  1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
  2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Please visit the sites of the other bloggers participating in this series.

Ariel of One Little Library

Carolyn O. of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Cecilia of Only You

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Kay of What Me Read

the world's wife cover


This collection of poems has a distinct feminist bent, although in many different ways.  The very project of the poems, to write about the perspectives of the wives and sisters of famous figures, is part of the feminist project to recognize invisible women of the past (see a specific post on this here.). The poems are written from the perspectives of Mrs. Rip Van Winkle, Mrs. Icarus, Mrs. Darwin, Mrs. Midas, and Queen Herod, among others.  They are mostly fictional or Biblical characters, and one must be familiar with cultural figures and legends in order to understand the poems.

Additionally, and in contrast, an angry feminist theme emerges, with the women often decrying their husbands or making fun of them.  The undertone is that of women’s wit and intelligence pitted against men’s.  While this isn’t my particular brand of feminism, I found much of it funny nevertheless.  In these women, we see the figure of the trickster personified, and she is much like Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath in her critique of men.  Mrs. Icarus tells us she isn’t the first or last woman to watch “the man she married / prove to the world / he’s a total, utter, absolute, Grade A pillock” (p. 54).

Of the role of wife, we learn that it is often a role that requires women to be silent and forgotten.  These women are Simone de Beauvoir’s “second sex” come to life, yet their outspoken debuts show that much more is going on for them than subservience or submission.  They seem to hold power, not through their voices, but through their relationships and their ability to communicate with the men they know and love. For example, Mrs. Darwin claims responsibility for the theory of evolution, in a humorous way. She tells us that they went to the zoo, where she said to Charles, “Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of you” (p. 20).  Other women seem to do just fine without their husbands, such as Mrs. Rip Van Winkle, while others lament their husband’s downfall, pride, or death.  Mrs. Van Winkle “found some hobbies for myself” while he was busy sleeping (p. 53).  Many of the women show their control over the men in their lives, whether through sex or persuasion.  Eurydice is a prime example of this type of wife.

I think we learn that wives and women are varied.  While they all might feel somewhat marginalized or forgotten, they all tend to deal with that in their own ways, and Duffy cleverly depicts this through the contexts of their lives. Mrs. Midas faces different concerns than Pope Joan, but they both share the female experience in a way that I identified with.

We even see the subverting of fairy tales and myth, by hearing from figures like Medusa and the Devil’s wife.  In the poem Mrs. Beast, we learn that “they’re bastards when they’re Princes / What you want to do is find yourself a Beast” (p. 72).  My favorite reference to this, from a poem about Red Riding Hood, is the idea of “what little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?” (p. 3).  Yes, what girl doesn’t?

I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s imaginary Judith Shakespeare, who, if given the same opportunities and education as her famous brother William, might have produced drama as great.  We see this same sentiment in “Elvis’s Twin Sister,” in which we learn she’s “alive and well” and that she moves her hips “just like my brother” (p. 66-67).  I see a metaphor for the abilities that women have that are often overlooked simply because of their gender.  During the World Cup, I heard controversy over the statistics and accomplishments many sportscasters attributed to men while ignoring more successful and decorated female players and their teams. This poem, and the entire collection, seems to be arguing that women can be just like their brothers.

I liked how Mrs. Tiresias made a big deal of women’s biological functions as important if a man were to experience them.  This is a current argument with many unnecessary male medications approved by insurance companies and employers, while women’s issues are constantly up for debate or considered unnecessary.  Mrs. Tiresias tells us that her husband, upon experiencing female biology, issued a letter “demanding full-paid menstrual leave twelve weeks per year” (p. 16).  Yes, all men would be more sympathetic if they experienced what women do.

And yet we find a new perception of what it means to kill through Queen Herod.  Apparently, she issued the order to kill all male babies as a way to protect her new born daughter.  She explains, “We wade through blood / for our sleeping girls. / We have daggers for eyes” (p. 10). Women and parents are protective of daughters (and sons), and this spin on Herod’s massacre of the infants struck me as clever and interesting.  It again punctuates the idea that history might be different through women’s eyes and experiences,

Overall, this was an enjoyable collection.  It did have more sex and swearing than I appreciate in a book, but the themes and clever presentations of familiar stories tickled my feminist and reading sensibilities.


25 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The World’s Wife

Add yours

  1. Emily, interesting post. This quote resonated with me, “I think we learn that wives and women are varied. While they all might feel somewhat marginalized or forgotten, they all tend to deal with that in their own ways,…” I feel the culture or mores of the times and communities would determine how much a woman might want to rebel against convention. Going from western civilization to Middle East to Asia-Pacific, these conventions could prove to overwhelming to combat and create a frustrating subservience. As a male, how women were and are treated like assets rather than people, supported by religious texts, is something that we must all battle. I hope these poems have a galvanizing effect. Thanks, BTG

    1. Thanks for the comment, BTG. You’re right that it differs from culture to culture and woman to woman. Some are seemingly happy with the status quo.

      1. Emily, I keep thinking of the time Gloria Steinem was on Larry King and woman called in. She told Steinem that “she hoped Steinem would rot in hell” for what she has done to women. King was flabbergasted, but Steinem said that was not unusual. Again, great post, BTG

        1. Oh my goodness! I can’t say I’m surprised, but I can say that I’m disappointed. Sometime we women are so mean to each other. I’m experiencing a little of this in my neighborhood. It is hard to be ignored and rejected. Steinem has probably had more than her fair share.

          1. Sorry about the latter. At my age, I worry less about what a people I don’t know well think of me. Just be true to yourself and treat others like you want to be treated. From where I sit, I think you have a lot to offer. Have a great week. BTG

  2. Thanks for sharing, it sounds like an interesting book. The Wife of Bath tale is one of my favorites from Chaucer’s Canterbuy Tales. I just feel that there is so much in her story. I am going to add this book to my list. Thanks again!!

  3. I haven’t read much of Carol Ann Duffy’s work but I was going to mention her poem, Mrs. Icarus, although I see you have already discovered it.

    Its silliness always makes me smile, even though it isn’t technically accurate to the Greek myth (Icarus was just a boy when he disobeyed his father, Daedalus, and flew too close to the sun).

  4. Thanks for mentioning this: “Additionally, and in contrast, an angry feminist theme emerges, with the women often decrying their husbands or making fun of them. The undertone is that of women’s wit and intelligence pitted against men’s. While this isn’t my particular brand of feminism, I found much of it funny nevertheless.”

    I felt the same way. I read this as a feminist (who has dated inconsiderate men) and as a wife (married to a good man) and while I enjoyed the voices and laughed along with many of the women, I did have to separate myself from their voices a little bit. Many of the poems reminded me of conversations I have been in with girlfriends who were angry with their husbands. All in all though, I thought it was a great read and a great introduction to poetry for me.

    1. I’m glad you picked up on it too, but I wanted to make it clear that not all feminism is like this! In fact, I would say feminism is largely unlike this today. However, there’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of anger that can spur productive action if needed. 🙂 Introduction to poetry? Surely you’ve read other poets?

      1. I would argue that NO feminism is like this; feminism is a movement dedicated to equality, not promoting one sex or gender above the others. Certainly some women who call themselves feminists are also misandrists, but I don’t think we should conflate the two positions. Similarly, angry women (or these poem’s angry female characters) are simply angry women, NOT angry feminists.

        And yes, for the record, I’m a feminist too. 🙂

        I’m glad almost everyone liked this book!

        1. Well said, Carolyn. I do think there are some who think this way, given the reading I did on different feminist movements last semester. A few thinkers and writers from the second wave talked about doing away with men by making reproduction possible without them, and others saying that lesbian relationships are the only egalitarian ones because all heterosexual sex is violent, BUT these ideas certainly do not represent the majority, nor do they represent what we are thinking and talking about now. I think these were mostly radical feminist ideas, but I liked their thoughts on other issues, like pornography… So it is hard to just label an idea from one person as representing an entire movement. Like you said, we can conflate these ideas with the basic “feminism,” which they don’t necessarily represent. Anyway, you get it. I just wanted to chime in because you reminded me of that class I took.

  5. This book sounds like fun! Especially the historical aspect and seeing history through the eyes of the wives and sisters of famous men. What a good idea! And, the fact that they are angry probably made it more fun for the author to write, as well as to read.

  6. I fell in love with Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry when I studied it at GCSE (it forms a considerable part of the anthology which all 15/16 year olds study in the UK), I loved ‘Anne Hathaway’, which I think is from this collection originally. I’ve not read the whole collection (although this review has made me think I very much need to!) but I feel like ‘Anne Hathaway’ is a contrast to many of the others in that it’s the most beautiful poem of love and devotion, my favourite love poem by far I think!

    1. Yes, that one is in this collection. It is a beautiful one, and heartbreaking. You definitely need to read this collection since you have already learned to love Duffy’s work! 🙂

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