“Domestic life is presented as dull and unsatisfactory.”

In response to this view, explore connections between the ways in which Larkin and Duffy write about the ordinary in everyday life. You must analyse in detail at least two poems from each of your set texts.

It is characteristic of Carol Ann Duffy and Philip Larkin’s poetry that domestic life is presented as dull and unsatisfactory. Both poets seem to paradoxically convey both a cynical and sympathetic attitude to the societal limitations of marriage and domesticity, yet the seriousness of their poetry is often undermined by the comedic effect of anecdotes with nagging caricatures. This is predominantly evident in Larkin’s ‘Self the Man’ by the colloquial phrase ‘sending a van’ to demonstrate the mental strain of domestic life and Duffy’s ‘Litany’which mocks the unquestioning devotion of ‘stiff-haired wives’ to a ‘catalogue’of domestic consumer items. Conversely, in Larkin’s ‘Afternoons’ and Duffy’s ‘The Windows’, humour is suppressed by the atmosphere of loneliness and sympathy which is created by a detached narrator from the viewpoint of a street. Both poets had unusual domestic arrangements for their time, therefore may have experienced this feeling of societal seclusion: Philip Larkin lived as a bachelor with overlapping relationships, while Carol Ann Duffy engaged in homosexual relationships and fulfilled her role as a single mother. Their transgression against the prevailing societal expectation of a nuclear family during the 1950s and 1980s may have encouraged their sharp social criticism of domestic life as being dull and unsatisfactory.

In ‘Litany’, Duffy immediately presents the dull and unsatisfactory nature of domestic life by the double meaning of the poem’s title which is defined as a long and tedious speech or a form of prayer.This religious conceit of prayer and worship is extended throughout the poem by the women’s devotion to a ‘catalogue’, which may act as a metonymy to symbolise the Bible, and the double hiatus surrounding ‘Pyrex’ that mirrors the affirmation‘Amen’ at the end of a prayer. The poem’s resemblance to a prayer may mock the middle-class women who treat consumerism as a secular equivalent to religion. Duffy portrays the women’s devotion to consumerism as they are congregated ‘passing the catalogue’with ‘stiff-hair’ from hairspray, ‘red smiles’ from lipstick and an ‘American Tan leg’ from stockings. This stereotyping of housewives from the 1960s is perhaps humorous for a reader, despite the sympathetic interpretation that the women may be attempting to distract themselves from the bleakness of their domestic lives. The critic, Elizabeth Riley, praises how Duffy ‘incorporates humour with insights of social commentary’ as she seems to mock these women whilst implying a sense of pathos. The second wave of feminism during the 1980s seems to have influenced Duffy’s sympathetic portrayal of the women as victims of ‘terrible marriages’ with ‘eyes hard as the bright stones in engagement rings’. In this striking metaphor, the adjective ‘hard’ implies a suppressed and concealed misery as the women’s eyes provide an insight to the emotion that a 1960s society would expect women to tolerate and hide. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of ‘bright’ and ‘stones’ contrasts the optimistic expectations of marriage with a brittle and cold quality.

The poem’s free verse and past tense may be used to emphasise Duffy’s retrospective account as a child-like narrator. The use of an expletive demonstrates Duffy’s transgression against the social boundaries constructed by her mother’s middle-class pretentiousness and conformity to the societal expectations of her peers. In the 1960s, an extreme pressure of conformity was exerted onto many women and is evident in ‘Litany’ by ‘the code’ which may act as a secret language when being used as a substitute for the words‘cancer, or sex, or debts’ or an expected behaviour as women were limited in the severity of their topics of discussion. This restriction of speech demonstrates the ideology that women’s prominent concern should be domestic chores and the welfare of their children while reflecting the suppression of women in the patriarchal society. Duffy states that this code was ‘learnt at my mother’s knee’, therefore further emphasising the religious conceit within the poem as her physical positioning when memorising this code resembles how a child may be expected to sit and learn during a church service.

In contrast to Larkin’s ‘Afternoons’ and‘Self’s the Man’, the women in ‘Litany’ are given an identity as ‘Mrs Barr, Mrs Hunt, Mrs Emery’ and ‘Mrs Raine’ in a tedious list which reflects the title of the poem. However, despite the naming of these women, they are ultimately stripped of their identities and objectified as a man’s possession by the marriage title ‘Mrs’ followed by the husband’s surname. This rebranded identity after marriage emphasises the unsatisfactory nature of domestic life as women were completely dependent upon their husbands for an income, house and place within the 1960s society. The internal dialogue of Duffy as a child-like persona reciting this list conveys a tone of satire and insincerity within her apology and emphasises the humorous aspects of the poem which contrast the seriousness of the women’s dull and unsatisfactory domestic lives.  

Similarly,in ‘Self’s the Man’ Larkin portrays a superficially comedic approach to the dull and unsatisfactory nature of domestic life by contrasting his bachelorhood with the fate of the married caricature,Arnold. The narrator’s tone of harsh irony and bluster is immediately conveyed the by the exclamative ‘Oh’ which, in addition to the poem’s structure of rhyming couplets, may be used as a romantic cliché to mock the institution of marriage as being dull and tedious. This immature and flippant narrative is further demonstrated by the series of inexpert rhymes ‘work/perk’, ‘houses/trousers’and ‘mother/summer’ which intensify Larkin’s cynical attitude towards domesticity.The use of humour throughout ‘Self’s the Man’ may act as a concealment of the continual savage mockery, while providing a distraction from Arnold’s dull and unsatisfactory marriage in a similar way to how Duffy’s women in ‘Litany’escape from their domestic misery by ‘passing the catalogue’. The poem’s arrangement of rhyming couplets into eight quatrains may reflect the repetitive and monotonous nature of marriage and, from a feminist perspective, creates a sense of empathy for Arnold’s unnamed wife as the tightly controlled structure perhaps resembles her entrapment in marriage with Arnold who ‘married a woman to stop her getting away’. The anonymity created by the narrator’s reference to ‘a woman’ allows Arnold’s domestic situation to be widely applied to other marriages in the 1950s which may also entail a dull and unsatisfactory domestic life. The internal dialogue ‘put a screw in this wall’ demonstrates Larkin’s blatant misogyny as his use of the imperative ‘put’ emphasises the nagging and demanding nature of married women.

This ideology of women being a persistent annoyance is further presented in the rhyming couplet, ‘the money he gets for wasting his life on work/ she takes as her perk’, which seems to mock Arnold’s masculinity as he fails to exert authority over his wife. Larkin’s attitude that Arnold is ‘wasting… life’ implies that Larkin views the institution of marriage as draining the enjoyment and liberty of life. However, Larkin’s bachelorhood is only implied in this poem in contrast to his continual cynicism towards Arnold and so this could be interpreted as an expression of envy and frustration at his single existence or a fear of commitment. The poem ends with Larkin asserting his superiority as having the ‘better hand’ over Arnold as he has the ability to reject the social pressures of marriage in the 1950s and avoid the dull and unsatisfactory nature of domestic life. Larkin’s colloquial expression ‘knowing what I can stand/without them sending a van’ summarises the satire and humour expressed throughout the poem by his implication that a life of domesticity would provoke his insanity.

Conversely,in Duffy’s ‘The Windows’ an isolated persona observes a street of houses and presents a sense of yearning for the idealised domestic lives presented within them. The repetition of rhetorical questions‘how do you earn a life’ and ‘how do you learn it’ demonstrates an envious and isolated perspective as the persona perhaps feels dissatisfied with the unrewarding nature of their own domestic life. The critic, Jody Allen-Randolph recognises that ‘Duffy shares Larkin’s tragic views of life’ and that ‘loneliness haunts her verse’. This is demonstrated by the parallel of a detached observer from the viewpoint of a street in Duffy’s ‘The Windows’ and Larkin’s ‘Afternoons’.Duffy’s persona in ‘The Windows’seems to be entranced by the perfection of the observed domestic lives as sensory imagery is incorporated throughout the poem. An amalgam of visual, olfactory and gustatory imagery is used by‘steaming casseroles and red wine’ which seems to attract the persona towards the ideal warmth and soothing comfort of a domestic life as a contrast to the hostility and coldness of a dark street. The ‘red’ colour of the wine has connotations of romance and opulence creating a disparity to Larkin’s portrayal of marriage as‘selfish’ and convenient in ‘Self’s the Man’. The visual imagery of ‘crimson curtains’ emphasises both this marital love and the persona’s isolation by acting as a physical barrier to block their outside observations. Alternatively, the curtains could symbolise the concealed secrets of a relationship which are hidden from an increasingly critical society.  The comfort and warmth of these domestic lives is enhanced by the tactile imagery ‘clean, warm towels’ which portrays the advantageous luxury of domestic lives. Additionally, a sense of contentment with domesticity is shown by the auditory imagery of a ‘doorbell’s familiar chime’. The reference to ‘familiar’ connotes that the repetition of the chime creates comfort and happiness with domestic routine, yet could represent the monotony of such a life. This repetitiveness of domesticity is emphasised by ‘the same film down all the suburban streets’ as ‘suburban streets’ are well known for their similarity in build and lack of individuality. Furthermore, the‘same film’ presents consumerism as an escapism from the dull nature of domestic lives as each family are ignorant of each other by focusing on the television. The intertextual reference to ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ creates a sense of irony as the narrator seems to long for the satisfaction and contentment observed within these houses. Therefore, domestic life within ‘The Windows’ is mainly presented as having comfort, warmth and belonging within each home and seemingly provokes a feeling of jealousy for the persona who is simply observing this family life from the suburban street.

In a similar way to Duffy, Larkin creates a detached observer in ‘Afternoons’ to provide commentary on the domestic lives of others from a street perspective. The poem’s structure of three octaves immediately demonstrates a tedium and order to domesticity, while Larkin’s frequently misogynistic attitude is subverted by a tone of sympathy towards the women. The poem begins with the metaphor ‘summer is fading’ which may resemble the fading prime beauty of women as they experience the toil and strain of their domestic lives. The repetition of the sound ‘ing’ is reflected throughout the poem by ‘fading’, ‘bordering’, ‘washing’, ‘lying’ and ‘pushing’. This present tense form may reflect the monotonous and cyclical nature of domestic life and create a sombre atmosphere by presenting the inexorable process of domesticity. The‘trees bordering’ these women accompanied by the ‘intervals’ of ‘husbands in skilled trades’ creates a sense of claustrophobia as the women seem to be physically surrounded and trapped by nature and their husbands. This may resemble their entrapment in a life of domesticity which was the societal expectation for women during the 1950s.

The commonality of experience is identified as ‘young mothers assemble’ in the‘hollows of afternoons’ perhaps for safety and support or entertainment as the adjective‘hollow’ has connotations of emptiness and a dissatisfaction with their daily life. This may be due to the gender restrictions of the 1950s which assigned women to a life of chores and children, while restricting their ability to gain an income through their own profession. The phrase ‘young mothers assemble’ emphasises the large scale at which many youthful women are confined to this domestic lifestyle and creates a sense of loneliness and vulnerability in the poem as the women gather to support each other and increase their numbers for safety. The critic, Justin Quinn, states that ‘many of Duffy’s poems echo themes of Larkin’s’ and this is demonstrated by the shared attitude of domestic life being monotonous in Duffy’s ‘The Windows’by the ‘same film’ being displayed in each house and Larkin’s ‘Afternoons’ by the ‘estateful of washing’ which creates the imagery of houses decorated with the domestic choresof women. In ‘Afternoons’, Larkin echoes the common trope of consumerism from Duffy’s ‘Litany’ and ‘The Windows’by the album titled ‘Our Wedding lying next to the television’. The polysemic ‘lying’ may present the illusory nature of weddings which, in a similar way to the ‘crimson curtains’in ‘The Windows’, conceals the difficulties of a relationship and leads to false marital expectations in a society that views marriage as morally rewarding. Positioning the wedding album next to the ‘television’ acts as a visual representation of how consumer items can physically push aside and replace the memories and importance of marriage by providing a distraction in the domestic household, as shown by the ‘stiff-haired’ women in Duffy’s ‘Litany’.  This suggests that both Duffy and Larkin view consumerism to be a medium through which the dull and unsatisfactory nature of domestic life may be diminished.

Ultimately,it is evident that Duffy and Larkin present domestic life as being dull and unsatisfactory as both poets highlight the mundane reality of marriage in contrast to the societal expectations of a morally desirable domestic life. Larkin displays a pessimistic attitude towards marriage by his blatant misogyny in ‘Self’s the Man’, presenting the women as selfish and nagging caricatures who are deprived of an identity by the repeated pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’. In a similar way, the women presented in ‘Afternoons’ are anonymous, yet are portrayed with a tone of sympathy and sorrow rather than mockery. This sense of pathos is reflected in Duffy’s ‘Litany’and ‘The Windows’ as the monotony and tedium of domestic life suggests many of these social relationships to be ‘brittle’and ‘malicious’. The repetitiveness of domesticity is enhanced by both poets by their inclusion of consumerism as a common trope in ‘Self’s the Man’, ‘The Windows’,‘Afternoons’ and ‘Litany’. In each poem, there seems to be a dependency on consumerism to fill the ‘hollows of afternoons’ and provide a sense of escapism and distraction from the cyclical nature of their domestic lives. The synthetic nature of these products may represent the false ideals within society which ultimately promote a dull and unsatisfactory domestic life. The conclusion of Duffy and Larkin’s poetry differs as Larkin portrays a sense of existential uncertainty and ambiguity by ‘something is pushing them/to the side of their own lives’ in ‘Afternoons’and ‘or I suppose I can’ in ‘Self’s the Man’. While, Duffy demonstrates a sharp focus on detail by ‘the taste of soap’ as a sanitising gustatory imagery in ‘Litany’and ‘such vivid flowers’ as visual imagery in ‘The Windows’ suggesting a much more ambivalent stance on domesticity. Despite this contrast in certainty, both poets continually demonstrate domestic life as dull and unsatisfactory.  

Thanks for reading!

This essay was submitted to Cambridge University as part of my application and was good enough for me to be invited for an interview. Any thoughts would be appreciated. 

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