The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy Analysis

By subverting male dominance in “The World’s Wife”, Duffy challenges gender conventions and ultimately transcends them, however women are still trapped by predetermined societal constructs. In this presentation, attack will be defined as the assertion of power over someone and in the world’s wife, it shall be defined as the subversion of male dominance by the female. Transgression will be defined as going beyond what society deems as conventional/normal. Therefore I will be focusing on the ways in which Duffy establishes female dominance and how she ultimately transcends gender conventions.

It is important to differentiate sex and gender. Provisionally: ‘sex’ denotes human females and males depending on biological features ‘gender’ denotes women and men depending on social factors. Feminism seeks to overcome/challenge the conventional socially constructed notions of ‘gender’. One way to do this is to assert the female’s dominance over men, which is seen in “The World’s Wife”.

Conventionally, throughout history, males have dominated the literary cannon and women have been absent to a great extent from historical representations.

However, in “The World’s Wife”, the title already hints at the main perspective of the collection and with the assembly of poems, of which each contains certain experiences made by women, it creates an atmosphere of a female gathering. This creation of a female space is a reversal of conventional gender constructions in which the male voice dominates the literary cannon. Within “The World’s Wife”, Duffy moves away from the gender convention of males dominating the literary voice.

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In the poem, “Delilah”, which is a retelling of the biblical story of Samson, an unrivalled hero of Israel famed for his strength which was attributed to his long mane of hair and his lover Delilah who, when offered payment by his enemies, cut off Samson’s hair while he slept, severing the source of his power. In this poem: Samson asks Delilah to ‘teach him how to care’ and as a result, she cuts off his hair to remove his strength in order to allow him to feel emotions.

Delilah questions Samson and adopts an imperative tone, ‘Tell me more’ indicating the power she has over him, she seems to be dominating over him and this foreshadows the ending. Furthermore Duffy uses “I” and “Me”, indicating that Delilah has now taken charge of the way the poem is being told. The final imperative and concluding dash ‘Put your hand here -‘ marks the transition back to Delilah’s point of view, ‘he guided my fingers’. further emphasizing how she holds the power over the way the story progresses. Moreover, she also claims responsibility for her actions, actively asserting herself as the one who has done the deed to Samson, she is the dominant voice in the poem.

The female literary dominance is also extended to Mrs Beast which is a retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast story in which a beautiful human girl is forced to live with a beast and they eventually fall in love. Mrs Beast showcases a different relationship in which the female actively seeks out the beast. Females have taken on an assertive role in their relationship with males. This is seen through her assertion of her literary voice as the poem is told through her perspective.

Throughout the poem, the female voice is harsh and blunt, demonstrating her apparent strength and rejection of the stereotypically weak nature associated with females. For example, “I should know, they’re bastards when they’re princes” establishes her confrontational attitude towards men. Additionally, in “I had the language girls”, she addresses the female gender as one collective unit. This makes it sound as if she is preparing an army for a battle for those lost to the suffocation of the male species. It further shows how Duffy establishes the female as possessing the language and thus establishes them within the literary cannon.

The venomous tone in “all of them…with those piggy eyes” generalizes that all men are the same and deserve to be punished this way. Thus, there is a strong sense of hatred towards men where girls are encouraged to fight back. Furthermore, “boiled”, “scraped” and “mash” are violent images that suggest brutally punishing men. Circe is also described as taking the pig’s ‘sweetmeats slipped from the slit, bulging, vulnerable bag of balls.” This aggressiveness strengthens the superiority of the female voice and subverts existing male power. Moreover, in the last stanza, she makes an effort to threaten and display aggression by wanting to “baste that sizzling pig on the spit once again”. This vicious display of aggressively cooking the men shows how she refuses to return to her naïve self who had once “hoped for men”.

Mrs Beast continues to consciously reverse gender roles in order to overthrow male dominance. Hence, She is in complete control over the Beast and pulls the strings in their relationship. Duffy further strips the male of his power by portraying the female in a dominant position in their sexual relationship. For example, “The lady says that’s not what I meant” undermines the Beast’s sexual performance, and we see her forcibly ordering him around. In fact, ensuring she is sexually fulfilled is the priority, not the desires of the beast. “The pig in my bed was invited” emphasizes that it is a privilege for the Beast that she has allowed him to be in her presence, reinforcing his subordinate position next to her.

“The Beast kept out of sight,” tells us that he had to give her space when required, but still had to serve them at the poker game. He has become her servant, obeying every command and she controls when she wants him near her or not. Hence, she adopts this active role to overturn male dominance by belittling him –– an act of aggression as she forcibly takes action to oppress him.

Duffy establishes conventional gender roles within “Delilah” in order to actively move away from them. The poem begins with an imperative, ‘Teach me’, reflecting Samson’s strong, dominant character. The second stanza depicts Samson speaking directly, in first person; the tone is boastful and the language violent ‘rip’, ‘roar’, ‘fire’, and ‘flay’. Samson relates his accomplishments in declaratives: ‘There’s nothing I fear.’ His speech emphasizes his dominant and strong personality, conventional traits of the masculine gender.

Duffy deconstructs the gender convention of male strength and power. She ‘let him slip and slide and sprawl’ to the floor suggesting an air of weakness within Samson and request that Delilah teach him ‘how to care’ suggests that he desires emotional intimacy, which undermines his masculine identity. He laments ‘I cannot be gentle, or loving, or tender’. The tripling of modifiers connotes femininity and intimacy, attributes not associated with warriors, again undermining his masculine identity.

By contrast, afterwards ‘he lay with his head on my lap’, a gesture both childlike, intimate and trusting, it further enforces the power Delilah has over him in the relationship. She also says ‘My warrior’, of which is a rather possessive tone, again reversing the conventional roles of which women seem to be possessed by men.

The line ‘I have to be strong’ suggests that Samson feels he has no choice, a reflection of how the perception of specific gender roles are so deeply rooted within society and the interrogative ‘What is the cure?’ implies that he sees his condition as a sickness, which could represent Duffy’s view of masculine dominance as a disease. The end focus on the question reflects the changing balance of power between the couple as he now questions her. The line ‘snipping first at the black and biblical air’ is very knowing – as well as cutting her lover’s hair, the speaker is attempting to shred her reputation as a femme fatale, which originated in the biblical account. She actively tries to reverse the conventional role placed upon her by society.

She compares men to pigs, implying that they are lazy and in the case of “the tusker”, aggressive, and women should therefore take action against such unruliness. Furthermore, she also points out the male’s skill to deceive women, “to lick, to lap, to loosen, lubricate, to lie.” And the very fact that Circe is instructing the women around her on how to cook pigs, Duffy places her in a domestic setting, traditionally reserved for women.

However, the dominance of the female is particularly evident in this poem. She is putting them on a lower level in comparison to her. For instance, “all pigs have been mine – under my thumb” reinforces her domineering role over them. Also, the poem is structured in the form of a recipe for cooking men. This shows how men have become a consumable commodity to her and are of lesser importance.

The idea of dominance is also prevalent in Mrs Beast, she is also the one who holds the real power, and her relationship with the beast is that of a dominatrix to a subservient male. Female empowerment is of intrinsic quality to Mrs Beast, especially when the poem opens with the listing of females, ascending in terms of empowerment, “Helen’s Face, Cleopatra’s, Queen of Sheba’s, Juliet’s ”. Furthermore, the reverse is also seen in the line, “And if his snout and trotters fouled my damask sheets…he’d wash them. Twice”, here Duffy has placed the male beast into a domestic role, a position traditionally reserved for women. This maintenance of power over men is a conscious effort, from the line from Mrs Beast, “Let the less-loving one be me”, because she forces herself to be less loving, as part of a rather feminist vow to never be trampled on by men. Furthermore, the line also seems to be mocking the lack of male emotional attachment. The Beast also seems to have accepted his submissive role in their relationship, as he would “pick my nose, if I wanted that”. Mrs Beast continues to consciously reverse gender roles in order to overthrow male dominance.

The very notion of Samson being a masculine symbol of power and strength but yet still being able to desire to be emotionally vulnerable indicates a mix of the two gender conventions. Even Delilah herself, Then with deliberate, passionate hands/ I cut every lock of his hair”. Although she is ready to carry out this aggressive act which will assert her dominance over Samson, she does not allow herself to be completely removed from the act, instead her emotions have seemingly taken over, through the word “passionate”.

She does not completely deviate from female gender conventions by asserting her dominance; instead there is evidence of feminine emotional vulnerability. Through Delilah, Duffy hints at the weakness of emotion; a traditional female trait, but she still asserts the female’s dominance by having her deconstruct masculine power, transgressing gender conventions.

However, in Circe, in the midst of describing her culinary attack on men, she slips into a state of emotional vulnerability and recalls a time when she was young and ‘hoping for men’. This indicates that despite the dominant and aggressive role Circe seems to take on, she is still prone to emotional weakness, a conventional female trait.

However, it seems that there can be no complete role reversal, instead, by asserting dominance over men, she seems to have taken on the traits commonly associated with the male gender, Furthermore, it seems as though Mrs Beast cannot be entirely independent, instead she actively seeks out a male presence and is satisfied co-existing with the Beast.

Therefore, we can see that although Duffy seeks to establish female dominance through moving away from conventional gender roles within the poems, she also shows that these roles are so deeply rooted within society and it is impossible for the female voice to be completely removed from such stereotypes.


In conclusion, Duffy challenges male power and the notion of male dominance in society by consciously asserting the female gender in The World’s Wife. Duffy establishes various ways of transgressing gender roles like through the establishment of the female literary voice and the aggressive actions taken by them, they result in the subversion of male dominance and power. Although Duffy tries to move past gender constructs, she still showcases that such societal notions are inevitable and women in “The World’s Wife” are unable to completely remove themselves from such structures.

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The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy Analysis. (2019, Jan 10). Retrieved from

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy Analysis
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