Essay Question Set:
Explore how relationships are presented in Havisham.
In Havisham, we see love gone wrong. Carol Ann Duffy re-imagines Dicken’s eternal Spinster in this dramatic first person monologue where Miss Havisham makes exclamations – ‘bastard’ and demands – ‘Give me’ to no one in particular. If this is a relationship, she’s racked by violent emotion, but no one is listening.

The first oxymoron, violently expressed, sets the tone of the poem: ‘beloved sweetheart bastard’. Duffy exploits the plosive ‘b’ sound, luxurious long-syllables ‘beloved’ ‘sweetheart’ then short, violent sound of ‘bastard’ to create an abrupt and shocking start. The rhythm of the poem is insistent, forceful, beginning with the quick-paced iambs [di-dah sounds], and the long series of monosyllables (one-beat words) pick up the pace even more on lines 2-4. In places, longer syllables vary the tone: ‘remember’ evokes the luxuriance of memory, whereas the colloquial ‘Nooooo’, gives an almost comical, demented edge that seems disturbingly modern. Havisham paints herself onomatopoeically as a mourning carrion bird ‘cawing’, but what is she mourning? The man she’s lost, or herself?

At the end of the second stanza, pronouns multiply wildly from ‘her’ and ‘myself’ to ‘who’. It’s as if her sense of self is fracturing. The pronouns run over the line break into the next stanza transforming the apparent sentence: ‘myself who did this’ into a question ‘who did this to me?’  In other words, we think, at first, she’s aware that her ‘cawing’ is self-inflicted. But then we realise she’s actually asking ‘who did this to me?’ The final pronoun, in the object position (‘me’) transforms her from perpetrator [cause] of the suffering into its victim. The bulk of the poem is not about the relationship with the absent ‘sweetheart’ but of Havisham with herself and her own suffering: the ‘mirror’ shown in the ‘yellowing dress’ ‘slewed’ – or twisted.

‘Spinster’ sits fearfully alone, one word in an incomplete sentence, just as Havisham believes she is incomplete without her ‘beloved’. Longer, jolting fragments like ‘Whole days in bed cawing…’ ‘the dress yellowing’ and ‘puce curses’ use sensory language, like stream of consciousness to bring us intimately, dangerously close to the broken up emotions of her thoughts. At the end of the poem this is made explicit in the address (to no one in particular) ‘Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks’: her mind is fractured in the fractured plosive ‘b’.

The imagery the narrator creates is disjointed and disturbing: ‘a red balloon bursting in my face’ – evoking children’s parties, love gifts, weddings, blood. The semantic fields are of decay, and murder ‘stabbed at’ and ‘corpse’ – but worse – she demands ‘Give me a male corpse’ suggesting her desire is for him dead, with disturbing hints at necrophilia as she wants it ‘for a long honeymoon’. She’s mad. This relationship is one of a broken mind with the suffering that distorts it. Whatever relationship was there once, bears little relationship to this virulent, swelling disease of the: ‘lost body’ ‘mouth in its ear’ and the nightmares from which she says, ‘I suddenly bite awake’. Waking, the nightmare continues.
In this essay, I’ve deliberately focussed on rhythms, sounds and punctuation, and haven’t really said anything about the structure.

The essay is 513 words long and was done in thirty minutes. Once again, please do not cut and paste this and hand it in to your teacher. Unless you’re a top grade student it will be immediately obvious you didn’t write it yourself!