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.