‘Miss Havisham’ is a bitter and twisted character from the novel ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens. Carol Ann Duffy takes this character and explores her tragic life in the poem ‘Havisham’. Duffy uses Dark themes, structure, symbolism and other poetic techniques to express Havisham’s hatred for men after her tragic wedding when she was rejected by her fiancé. Duffy’s use of these poetic techniques create a sinister character and makes Havisham feel real to the reader.
To begin the poem Duffy uses a shocking short sentence, which contains contrasting word choice to convey an ironic tone from Havisham. The contradictory oxymoron also startles the reader and grasps our attention as we do not expect this beginning. ‘Beloved sweetheart bastard.’ This contrasting word choice grasps the reader as it suggests a menacing narrative voice. The plosive ‘b’ sound repeated throughout the sentence creates a sinister mood as it is aggressive and sounds explosive and angry. This also suggests that she is writing a twister love letter to her past lover expressing her hatred toward him. This menacing narrative voice and dark atmosphere created makes the reader think that Havisham is a very sinister character and Duffy’s use of narrative voice and tone makes Havisham feel real.
Following this Havisham begins to show more of her self-pity and self-disgust as she feels she is an in-complete woman, un-wanted and left abandoned. She shows this to the reader when she reveals her disgust with her marital status. ‘Spinster.’ Duffy’s use of a menacing narrative voice suggests that she is spitting this word out and the reader, we can hear that she loathes her loneliness and her isolated life. This one word sentence is used not only to startle the reader but to emphasis Havisham’s bitter tone. The sharp hissing ‘s’ sound creates a sinister mood as it conveys feelings of hatred, anger and revenge from Havisham. This clear display of self-loathing makes Havisham a very sinister character and the menacing narrative voice makes Havisham feel real to the reader.
As the poem continues Havisham starts to show her mental decay as her language degrades down to sounds that only she can understand. She even begins to make animalistic screams which are symbolic of darkness and death. ‘cawing nooooo’ this neologism of ‘no’ suggests an animalistic persona where her sense of language has broken down to a series of noises which highlight her extreme mental decay. This also suggests her self-pity but makes the reader feel sympathy for the narrator as she desperately screams at the wall showing how lost and pathetic she has become over time. The ‘cawing’ is also symbolic of death and darkness as it is resembling a crow which the reader links with death, darkness and the devil. This combination of neologism and symbolism creates a sinister mood. Duffy’s use of neologism to emphasis Havisham’s mental decay makes her feel real to the reader and her animalistic person adds to her sinister character.
Duffy goes on to show Havisham’s layers of feelings as she expresses her exterior feelings of hatred, anger and revenge which contrast with her true feelings of love for her past lover. It is the rejection from her lover which sends her into this downward spiral which eventually results in her feelings of hatred for all men and desperate want for revenge. ‘love’s hate behind a white veil’ This oxymoron places love and hate side by side and conceals both emotions behind a symbolic white bridal veil, which is ironically white and contrasts with her hatful state. The veil also conceals her face, emotions and both her mental and physical decay which adds to the sinister mood. This menacing narrative voice continues to add to the sinister mood and Duffy’s use of the combination of symbolism and an oxymoron create a sinister character. The depth of feeling from Havisham through the use of this oxymoron also makes Havisham feel real to the reader.
Eventually Havisham’s self-pity combined with her mental decay makes for a dramatic conclusion to the poem as her emotions collapse and she is un-able to contain her feelings. She leaves the reader on an anti-climax as we are left wondering what happened to her in her vulnerable helpless state. ‘Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.’ Duffy uses ambiguity to give several interpretations of the ending as we are un-sure as to how Havisham finishes. The repeated ‘b’ sound could be the last beats of her breaking
heart, it could be her voice breaking as she remembers her fate, it could be her last words as she finally emotionally and physically breaks down. It is the uncertainty of Havisham’s end that creates a sinister mood and makes her feel real to the reader.
In conclusion, ‘Miss Havisham’ a character from the novel ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens is further explored in the poem ‘Havisham’ by Carol Ann Duffy. In the poem Duffy reveals Havisham’s sinister character and makes her feel real to the reader. Duffy accomplishes this through the use dark themes to express Havisham’s sinister character and a menacing narrative voice is used to make Havisham feel real to the reader. Duffy also uses symbolism, word choice and other poetic techniques to emphasis Havisham’s bitter and twisted character. The sinister mood is created throughout the poem as Havisham exposes her hatred for men and shows her physical and mental decay as she has been isolated from the world for so long.
Carol Ann Duffy is a famous and iconic poet born in Glasgow, Scotland and raised in England. She is a prestigious poet who obtained the honour of becoming poet laureate. She was the first female to receive this prestigious honour that is chosen by the monarch. Duffy often writes poems in the first person and takes on the voice of characters that are misunderstood, perhaps because in her early life she lived in an impoverished city. She is pro-feminism and that is reflected in this poem which tells the story of a character from the Charles Dicken’s novel “great expectations” Although interestingly the poem refers to the character as Havisham rather than Miss Havisham. This is conjuncture, but perhaps that is supposed to symbolise the character trying to rid herself of that moniker as it is a reminder of how she was jilted?
Form and Tone
Havisham is told from the perspective of Miss Havisham, a bitter and twisted character from the novel Great Expectations. Duffy created a series of poems told from the perspective of female characters from literature and mythology, although this poem does not come from that collection. The poem is presented in four stanzas and is written in free-verse with no rhyming pattern. The poem is dark and angry in tone and contains explicit language which helps to emphasise the anger that Miss Havisham’s character probably felt.
Beloved sweetheart bastard. Not a day since then
I haven’t wished him dead. Prayed for it
so hard I’ve dark green pebbles for eyes,
ropes on the back of my hands I could strangle with.
The very first line is immediately impactful, using a sentence constructed of three nouns with no commas to separate it. It is also an oxymoronic sentence as you wouldn’t associate the words beloved and sweetheart with the word bastard. This is striking as right from the off it shows Miss Havisham’s conflicting feelings towards her former lover. (in case you aren’t familiar with Miss Havisham’s story she was jilted at the altar). She then reveals her strong feelings of hatred, but is this sentiments undone by the preceding statement’s mixed message? We see in the end part of this stanza that holding on to this animosity is starting to take its toll on miss Havisham in a very physical way.
Spinster. I stink and remember. Whole days
in bed cawing Nooooo at the wall; the dress
yellowing, trembling if I open the wardrobe;
the slewed mirror, full-length, her, myself, who did this
This stanza helps us to develop a level of sympathy for the narrator. The first two sentences are short and snappy, perhaps mirroring the personality of Miss Havisham herself. She reflects on what she has become and clearly can’t bear the sight of her own reflection. She evidently feels disempowered as she is yelling, seemingly at nobody. The dress she refers to is a wedding dress that Miss Havisham wore at all times. She even goes so far as to fail to recognise the person standing in front of her in the mirror. Referring to herself in the third person suggests she has become dissociative as if she no longer wants anything to do with the person she has become and it is clear from the final three words she wants to blame somebody for how she feels.
to me? Puce curses that are sounds not words.
Some nights better, the lost body over me,
my fluent tongue in its mouth in its ear
then down till I suddenly bite awake. Love’s
A lot of sentences in this poem run over into a new stanza. This gives the poem a very stuttering feel and is a nice way to emphasise the tension and anger that this poem is trying to evoke. Puce is another word for a brownish/red colour, the etymology of the word is from the French word for flea and the colour is often likened to the dead remains of a flea. When Miss Havisham talks of the “lost body over her(me)” she is presumably talking about her lover. She imagines him and clearly she still sexualises him as in the next line she talks about using her tongue in his mouth and ear. Although interestingly she does not describe him as a him, but as an “it”, objectifying her former lover somehow demonises him. She says she “goes down” and then “bite awake” could this be a polite way of describing her performing fellatio and then biting? There is a link too with the act of biting and the use of the word Puce, it almost gives her former lover a vampiric like quality. I think Miss Havisham is describing her former squeeze as a blood sucker probably because she feels he sucked the life out of her.
hate behind a white veil; a red balloon bursting
in my face. Bang. I stabbed at a wedding cake.
Give me a male corpse for a long slow honeymoon.
Don’t think it’s only the heart that b-b-b-breaks.
I think that the word hate being carried on from the previous stanza is not coincidental it makes it emphatic and again Duffy makes the nod to the wedding dress in this stanza. She uses onamatepia for dramatic effect with the “bang” is that bang the sound of the balloon bursting or the stabbing of the wedding cake? These are both violent images and the fact that the word is a sentence all by itself means that you cannot tell to which sentence the bang attributes itself. Yet more graphic imagery is used by Miss Havisham’s character as she requests a corpse for a honeymoon. I think the suggestion being that if she can’t marry her partner that she may as well kill him. With the final line adding credence to that disturbing notion when she suggests it isn’t just hearts that break (perhaps meaning you can break bones as well!) The crass image of necrophilia suggested in the penultimate line is probably enough to make any sympathy for Miss Havisham subside. Whilst a person may have been understanding up until a point it is clear that Miss Havisham is a vile creature and whilst she has been scorned terribly it truly has left her a fiendish woman.
This poem is full of violence and gives a chilling insight into the mind of Miss Havisham. It helps the reader empathise with the character whilst still giving her the cold, hard edge that she is famed for. Colours are used throughout the poem which gives it a very visual, very visceral feel. With the descriptions so vivid you can almost feel the character carrying out the deeds she describes. The sex scenes and the implied violent acts. What Duffy managed to achieve in this poem is to take an existing character and imitate their inner voice. Unlike her usual work this character does not address the reader directly but instead this is a monologue where Miss Havisham is probably thinking out loud. It creates an element of understanding for the character and then destroys it by letting the reader see just how twisted she has become. What we see in this poem is a very sudden descent into madness.