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Representations of Betrayal in ‘adultery’ and ‘disgrace’

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Representations of Betrayal in ‘adultery’ and ‘disgrace’ essay
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Duffy’s poems, Adultery and Disgrace, portray the theme of betrayal in a number of different ways. Both show that betrayal is destructive and deadly to relationships, however, different diverse, including sibilance and oxymorons, are used across the two poems to portray this. It is possible to infer that the two poems are linked as Adultery depicts betrayal in the present tense whereas Disgrace shows the aftermath of betrayal in a relationship.

In both poems, betrayal is shown to be destructive and deadly towards relationships, however, different devices are used to describe these effects. In Adultery, one of the speakers describes their night as a ‘lethal, thrilling night’ which, at face value, conveys the excitement and thrill of the night. However, the use of the word ‘lethal’ makes this statement an oxymoron, drawing attention to the word and making the reader stop to contemplate the line. This may be a method of showing the reader that the thrill of the night will inevitably lead to tragedy. Additionally, the choice of the word lethal also adds a sense of dramatic tension as lethal implies that this betrayal will be deadly to the relationship, not just damaging. On the other hand, Disgrace uses the simile ‘your clothes like a dead corpse on the floor’ which, although also portraying a deadly image of betrayal, shows it in a different way. The simile suggests that once the act of betrayal has taken place, all that will be left of the other party in the relationship is their clothes on the floor, as though a memory of them has been left behind. The semantics of decay and death run throughout the poem, however, this image is particularly potent. The dark imagery of ‘dead flies’ immediately implies the death of the relationship but the use of the ‘web’ imagery may suggest that all the negative things involved are still entangled in the two parties of the relationship, despite the relationship being dead. The speaker in this poem may be indicating that even when betrayal has killed the relationship, the feelings and events around that betrayal remain present with former partners. Furthermore, the use of the words ‘blacked’ and ‘stiffened’ in the following line may imply that the destructive nature of betrayal stays with those involved int he relationship for a long time.

Similarly, both poems use imagery of decay to present the idea of betrayal. In Adultery, the speaker gives the simile of the relationship crumbling ‘like a wedding cake’, implying that the relationship is still in the process of breaking down and that the vows and commitment of marriage are inevitably eroding away. Whereas in Disgrace, the image of apples ‘rotten to the core’ show that the relationship is so rotten after the event of betrayal there is nothing left. Both of these images use conventional, home based metaphors to convey the idea of decay due to betrayal, however, they also emphasize the time gap between the two poems as Adultery is in the process of decaying whereas Disgrace is already fully decayed ‘to the core’.

The contrast between the two times of the poems is made apparent by the language used. In Adultery, present tense is used such as ‘now’, ‘slicing’ and ‘know’ rather than the past tense equivalents ‘then’, ‘sliced’ and ‘knew’. This may be to give the poem a tone of raw, heated emotions around betrayal and adultery, making the narrative of the poem more intense. However, Disgrace opens with the line ‘One day we awoke to our disgrace.’ implying that the poem is describing past events. In the context of the poem, this may be implying that the betrayal never left the speaker and that they can still remember the events vividly from some point in the future but, in the relationship between the two poems, the use of the past tense may be to depict the aftermath of the betrayal of adultery.

Additionally, Disgrace and Adultery use imagery of a garden at points in each poem. In Disgrace, the speaker says ‘our garden bowing its head, vulnerable flowers’ and in Adultery the speaker states ‘a ring thrown away in a garden no moon can heal.’ Although both of these lines are significant to each poem in their own contexts, both may be a Biblical illusion in relation to the Garden of Eden and the fall from grace. In the context of these poems, the Garden may be a symbol of temptation before the betrayal and the loss of innocence. Duffy may have chosen to use this symbol of original sin to imply that it is human nature to sin and that there is an inevitability to the loss of bliss and innocence.

Furthermore, different literary devices are used to convey the theme of betrayal across the two poems. For example, a paradox, ‘dumb and explicit’ is used in Adultery, debatably to describe the adulterer. At first, the statement seems to make little sense in the context though it may be a description of betrayal through adultery. ‘Dumb’ implies stupidity whereas ‘explicit’ indicated clarity. Even though no one could be clear and stupid they could be stupidly clear, which relates to the idea that betrayal will inevitably be found out as it is profoundly obvious in a relationship. On the other hand, Disgrace uses the personification of everyday objects as a part of the extended home metaphor throughout the poem to represent the state of the relationship. For example, the ‘fridge hardened its cool heart’ may represent a person being cold-hearted towards the emotions around the situation of betrayal indicating a tone of depression to the speaker in the poem. (Similarly, the hardening of a heart could suggest that the speaker is attempting to toughen the heart so that the feeling of betrayal hurt less.)

In conclusion, both Adultery and Disgrace present the theme of betrayal in relationships in contrasting ways due to the use of different literary devices and tenses. However, there are some similarities between the poems in the use of imagery, especially around the decay and destruction betrayal causes and the Biblical image of the Garden which appears in both poems.

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Representations of Betrayal in ‘Adultery’ and ‘Disgrace’. (2018, Jun 05). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 22, 2022, from
“Representations of Betrayal in ‘Adultery’ and ‘Disgrace’.” GradesFixer, 05 Jun. 2018,
Representations of Betrayal in ‘Adultery’ and ‘Disgrace’. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Jan. 2022].
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