Havisham – The Theme of Conflict
Carol Ann Duffy’s sinister dramatic monologue, Havisham, is a skillful interpretation of one of literature’s most infamous women. Throughout the text, Duffy deals with the idea of conflict – both in Havisham’s relationship with men and with herself as we are invited to witness the inner turmoil from which she suffers. Herein, this essay will explore how Duffy creates an appropriate mood for her subject matter through expert use of language, imagery and structure and how effective this mood is to our understanding of the central idea as a whole.
From the poem’s outset we are made aware that the speaker is one who is in the midst of great turmoil – she is suffering from conflicting emotions, as is made clear from the uneasy “Beloved sweetheart bastard” of the first line. Such adept use of oxymoron immediately creates a bitter mood: we are at once aware that Havisham is a creature who is capable of great love, yet great hatred at the same time. As readers, we are unsure what to make of the speaker at this point – she appears to are someone who cannot make up her mind about her own feelings, having been scarred by the ghosts of her past. From this bitter opening, the idea of conflict is evident as we see that Havisham cannot think of the man who hurt her without acrimony, yet she will never be able to forget the egret love she once felt for him. Without love, such a a level of hatred would be impossible, thus we understand the conflict within Havisham from the very beginning.
In addition to the conflict Havisham has with the man of her past, and indeed all of mankind, the speaker suffers from an inner conflict which once again, through the skillful use of language, is highlighted in the poem’s bitter mood. The opening of the second stanza demonstrates this idea as we see Havisham’s view of herself:
“Spinster. I stink and remember.”
Havisham, once the hopeful young bride, now sees herself as a “spinster”, a role which she believes society has forced upon her. The bitter mood of this short, blunt sentence reflects the conflict within Havisham’s mind between what she could have been and what she actually is. The emotive lexical choice of “stink” suggests that Havisham has decayed in both body and spirit, hinting at the conflict once more as we see that the speaker exists in a state of living death – a contradictory situation that emphasizes the bitterness in where heart as she tries two come to terms with the cruel hand which fate has dealt her.
Duffy skilfully continues this idea with the symbolic mirror of stanza three. Havisham cannot equate the woman she has become with the girl that she used to be. As she stares at the reflection in front of her, we sense a further surge in the bitter mood which has pervaded the poem until this point:
“The slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did this To me?”
The conflict which Havisham is experiencing here is almost pitiful – despite the bitter tone of her monologue, we can still understand her pain. However, the conflict arises from the fact that she is in denial about the part she has played in her own downfall. Duffy’s use of the word “slewed” highlights the idea that the speaker has a warped view of herself; she questions us, enquiring as to who is responsible for such a change, never considering the possibility that she is the perpetrator. Furthermore, Duffy’s use of the pronouns “her, myself” placed side by side emphasize the fact that Havisham does not believe that the image in the mirror is her own – her sense of self is in conflict. In this way, Duffy is suggesting that there is some element of a split personality, that Havisham has a doppelgänger within herself causing her to feel such conflict. This idea is continued with the dream that is later described to the reader:
“Some nights better, the lost body over me,
My fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
Then down till I suddenly bite awake.”
From this, we can see Havisham’s vulnerability, giving us a glimpse off the untainted girl who was jilted at the altar. Another aspect of the conflict is demonstrated expertly here by Duffy as We become aware, for the first time, of the sorrow that Havisham harbors. At this point the bitterness is absent and our sympathy builds for this woman. While asleep, Havisham is a girl again, yet Duffy reminds us that this person does not exist any longer, it is “lost” and in conflict with the bitter spinster she has become. The personification of “fluent tongue” alludes to the fact that, when with her lover, Havisham was confident and secure in herself; additionally this sensuous dream hints at an intimacy which is in conflict with her life now. The bitter mood, however, returns when she “bites” awake and serves as a sharp reminder that the past is gone and that she will always be in conflict with the memories that seem to live on only to torment her.
As the poem moves towards its climax, the violent motif that is evident throughout the poem continues the idea of conflict: Havisham cannot mention her wedding day without the bitterness that has been present throughout the text:
“Love’s hate behind a white veil… …I stabbed at a wedding cake.”
The violence here, coupled with references to marriage (“white veil…wedding cake”) once again convey the deep conflict between love and hate within Havisham’s psyche. The sinister references to death and violence are evidence of her bitterness which has, ultimately, been her undoing. Further to this, the oxymoron of “Love’s hate” continues the conflict between these extreme emotions, emphasizing once more the great hurt that has influenced Havisham’s life and the bitterness that has eaten away at her as a result of this.
As the poem draws to a close, however, it is the reader who is left conflicted as Duffy adeptly makes use of ambiguity to draw attention to this central concern one more time:
“Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.”
On the one hand, this can be read as a reference to Havisham’s vulnerability as she lets her bitter mask finally slip and the woman that was glimpsed in the dream is allowed to have the final say in the poem. However, the bitter mood has pervaded the poem from the oxymoronic beginning, suggesting that the final line is a sinister threat of revenge, aimed at the man who jilted her. In this way, we can see that the conflict that has haunted Havisham from her wedding day has changed her irrevocably and left her in this state, “cawing Nooo at the wall” like a wild animal.
Overall, Carol Ann Duffy has presented the idea of conflict in a very skillful manner in her infamous dramatic monologue. The issue is presented at many levels within the poem, all of which are brought to life by the bitter mood in which Havisham tells her sorry tale. It is clear that the speaker is a haunted creature, tortured by conflict with her past, her present and, perhaps most tragically of all, a future which will provide her with no comfort and no peace of mind. Duffy has taken the formidable Dickensian villain and given her more depth by allowing us an insight into her tortured state of mind where conflict and bitterness reign supreme.
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Carol Ann Duffy’s sinister dramatic monologue, Havisham, is a skillful interpretation of one of literature’s most infamous women. Throughout the text, Duffy deals with the idea of conflict – both […]