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Duffy explores ideas, thoughts and feelings about love in Valentine and Havisham by commenting on societal expectations of the outcomes and portraying love as unstable, dangerous and likely to cause hurt.
Firstly, Duffy explores the expectation of marriage following a relationship in both poems, ‘the platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring, // if you like.’ The onion ‘shrinking’ implies that is it diminishing, losing part of itself, triggered by the proposal – this may be Duffy showing her beliefs that people change themselves for love, they try to make themselves more appealing to their partner, eventually whittling themselves down into smaller pieces of themselves. On the contrary, the ‘platinum’ ring suggests that marriage is valuable and something to be treasured – alternatively, this could be implying that people spend lots of money unnecessarily on materialistic items. The addition of ‘if you like’ in a casual tone suggests fear of rejection – if turned down, they will have to endure society’s constant questioning of what went wrong, however if the speaker doesn’t get married, they will have to tolerate being asked why they aren’t married.
The idea of weddings being an expectation is also featured in Havisham – the poem features several motifs of a wedding, such as ‘a wedding cake’ that the speaker stabs. Duffy shows her anger towards these expectations through the speaker stabbing the cake – the jilted speaker is rebelling against the stereotype of women being mild-tempered and living only to be subservient to men with her fury. The word ‘spinster’ forms one short sentence. This can be interpreted as the speaker saying this to herself in a bout of self hatred, or (repeating?) what other people have said about her. This shows that women had to get married, or they would become a pathetic, lonely spinster, a symbol of misery. Although the speaker is heartbroken, she is clearly shattered by the loss of her ex-fianc?, rather than the status; Duffy is displaying marriage as nonessential to relationships.
Duffy also shows love as dangerous in Valentine and Havisham. In Valentine, words from the lexical field of violence, such as ‘blind’ and ‘lethal’ are used after mentioning the possibility of marriage – this could be either Duffy hinting that marriage is a deadly trap, that will end in pain – either they will divorce, or even if they stay together, one will die and leave the other alone. Alternatively, this could just be a reference to the marriage vows ‘in death do us part,’ showing that it could be true love, lasting until they physically can’t love anymore. However, other lines in the poem indicate the dangers of love – ‘cling to your knife.’ The material verb ‘cling’ suggests desperation and trying desperately to hold onto the relationship or the other partner, regardless of what is right – this line could imply an abusive relationship that the speaker refuses to leave, as they think their partner loves them.
Havisham also portrays love as dangerous. In the ‘red balloon bursting’, the plosive ‘b’ sound can be interpreted as unstable and turbulent, like a banging noise (the red of the balloon connotes either love, passion or danger/death – all of which could apply to the tragic speaker); although it could be interpreted as an ugly blubbering kind of crying, especially when linked to ‘b-b-b-breaks’, which creates an image of the devastated speaker sobbing. This leaves the reader wondering, who is the dangerous one in the relationships, and questioning the power balance – both partners have the power to completely break the other, with little effort.
Finally, Valentine shows signs of hope about the feature relationship. The onion, which is a metaphor for love, ‘promises light.’ The promise implies trust and faith, loyalty to their partner and the light is a sign of optimism, that the relationship could be healthy and happy. A metaphor used to describe the onion is a moon, which suggests he start of a new day – a new beginning and a fresh start and as the onion represents the love, this used of imagery hints that the relationship is a great opportunity for the couple. Additionally, ‘fierce kiss’ is oxymoron-like, fierce generally denotes danger, contrasting the assumed gentility of the kiss, though this phrase suggests passion between the lovers.
Unlike Valentine, Havisham shows a lack of hope through the use of colours. The ‘dark green’ of the speaker’s eyes suggests envy and the darkness contrasts the light in Valentine, connoting depression and pessimism. The speaker’s pure, white wedding dress is ‘yellowing,’ the light colour going off implies that hope grows old and dims, that what was once pure won’t last forever. Another element of the poem showing a lack of hope through colour is ‘Love’s // hate behind a white veil.’ The white is a symbol of hope, however the fact that there’s hate behind it suggests that there is brutality hidden behind a nice fa?ade. Havisham’s bitter speaker leads to an obstinately pessimistic view of the future.
Duffy explores ideas, thoughts and feelings about love by contemplating the upsides and downsides of it, and the struggle for a healthy relationship to be content with, rather than one laced with trouble and unhappiness.
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