How is the theme of ‘jealousy’ explored in ‘Medusa’ by Carol Ann Paper

Published: 2021-09-10 22:05:09
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Category: Poetry

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Presented in the form of dramatic monologues, Medusa and The Laboratory both powerfully convey a woman’s jealous reaction to unrequited love while incorporating themes of betrayal, despair and madness. While both poems condemn the effects of jealousy, Duffy takes a more pitiful perspective of this pernicious emotion through the conflicted persona in Medusa. On the other hand, Browning’s crazed speaker harbours a sociopathic desire to cause pain through revenge, epitomizing the harmful effects of jealousy on one’s psychology.
In Medusa, Duffy uses the perspective of the speaker to explore the destructive nature of jealousy which manifests in the poetic voice’s unstable state of mind. She is confident that her lover will ‘go, betray [her], stray / from home’, which is a clear reflection of jealousy escalating into complete distrust and resentment in a relationship. The speaker’s inability to control the intensity of her emotions is reiterated with the use of triplets and this is followed by a rhythmically matching statement: ‘so better for me if you were stone’ representing the shattering of her romanticised ideal of her partner. The use of personal pronoun ‘you’ directly addresses the readers in an accusatory manner hence emphasizing the speaker’s anger. The simplicity of ‘better for me’ conceals the complexity of her emotions. Upon closer look, the readers realise that her previous forewarning regarding her lover’s ultimate betrayal could be viewed as a self-destructive defense mechanism. By actively assuming the worst of her lover, she attempts to save herself from the heartbreak that she is so convinced she will face, hence, turning him into ‘stone’ before he gets the chance to commit infidelity. Therefore, Duffy presents jealousy as an emotion which leads to destruction not only suffered by the personae’s targets, but also the personae themselves as they become trapped within their own web of insecurities. The speaker’s lethal actions continue to be evidence of this defense mechanism as she grows in her desire to cause suffering. Medusa ‘glanced’, ‘looked’ then ‘stared’ at her victims, her growing intentionality in her actions reflecting her gradual transformation into a cold-hearted individual. By removing victims’ vibrant, active adjectives like ‘buzzing’, ‘singing’, ‘ginger’ and ‘snuffling’, Duffy illustrates the complete authority and power that the speaker holds turning living objects into stone. The escalating consequences of her actions directly correlates to the increasing impact of jealousy. However, Medusa’s ultimate victim is herself as she ‘stared in the mirror’. The monotonousness in her tone is alarming as she falls victim to her own caustic mindset thus turning herself into stone. Therefore, arriving at the abrupt finality of this self-condemning action, Duffy explores the spectrum of destruction that jealousy inflicts, both externally and internally.
Correspondingly in The Laboratory, Browning condemns jealousy, but presents the speaker to have transformed into a malicious individual rather than a misunderstood victim in Medusa. This destructive emotion incites a hysterical desire to inflict pain and revenge,encapsulated by her command to ‘grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste’. Her active participation in the brewing of her rival’s demise is captured by the dynamic, imperative verb triplet ‘grind’, ‘moisten’ and ‘mash’. The elongated vowels paint an ominous picture of unhurried and assiduous actions, portraying the speaker to be at the pinnacle of excitement at the thought of revenge. The built up tension explodes with the following monosyllabic clause ‘Pound at thy powder’. The sudden plosive sound suggesting an escalation of motions and loss of control. However, this is quickly repressed with the exclamatory phrase ‘—I am not in haste!’, hence, within two fleeting lines, Browning conveys the speaker’s volatile instability and erraticism in her emotions influenced by jealousy. At the same time, these dynamic verbs draw a direct parallel to cooking, however the speaker’s complete rejection of this maternal responsibility subverts gender roles in the Victorian society. This idea is further expounded upon when the speaker’s attention is abruptly shifted as she questions ‘And yonder soft phial, the exquisite blue / sure to taste sweetly, —is that poison too?’. The soft, feminine sounds like ‘soft phial’ and ‘taste sweetly’ mask the macabre desires of the speaker by letting the poem take a lyrical and enchanting twist. This sinister atmosphere shapes the entirety of the poem and perfectly portrays the speaker as a crazed, sadistic killer. Upon obtaining the finished poison, she is so enchanted by the product of her fascinations that she presents an element of kindness by offering a ‘kiss’. However upon closer inspection, we realise that this is just an action stimulated by wild ecstasy, as by referring to the apothecary as ‘old man’, it reveals the true nature of the speaker as a sadist. Therefore, Browning presents jealousy as a destructive force which brutally destabilises one’s mental equilibrium and potentially leads to a loss of moral compass.
However, as the speaker endures a painful transformation, Duffy reveals that jealousy stems from betrayal and self hatred, thus presenting its complexity and leading the readers to sympathise with the speaker in Medusa. The poem features a free versed structure alongside recurring enjambment, shaping the erratic form of the poem and reflecting the speaker’s disoriented emotions. The uneven lengths of each line could be a visual representation of the speaker’s ‘filthy snakes’, thus accentuating the semantic field of insecurity in the entire dramatic monologue. The demonic animation of the speaker’s caustic ‘thoughts’ into ‘snakes’ directly draws a biblical allegory of The Serpent, which is an evil force motivated by jealousy and hatred. However, the speaker’s inability to control her thoughts, and the fact that they turned their backs on her (represented by the vibrant onomatopoeia and harsh sibilance in ‘hissed’ and ‘spat’), give the connotations that they are two separate entities which cannot coexist. This powerfully conveys the speaker’s ceaseless grapple with her emotions, inevitably leading to her self hatred and mental breakdown. Consequently, the blame for the destruction caused by the speaker to her surroundings is apportioned to the unfortunate event that sparked her jealousy, instead of the speaker herself. Therefore, with the vivid description of Medusa’s inner turmoil, Duffy encourages the readers to sympathise with her. Additionally, the poem references the Greek mythological creature Medusa, who was a ravishingly beautiful maiden transformed into ‘a Gorgon’ – a punishment for desecrating Athena’s temple after she was raped by Poseidon. Duffy draws a parallel between the mythical creature and the speaker, as the portrayal of women as victims is apparent in both cases: the former in which Medusa was the one who suffered the punishment although she was raped, and in the latter, the speaker was the one enduring the consequences of jealousy when it was her paramour who had ‘a shield for a heart’ and ‘a sword for a tongue’. The masculinity and strength represented by the war weapons ‘shield’ and ‘sword’ deeply contrast Medusa’s despair and hurt, hence further victimising her. Although her ability to turn others into stone is portrayed as a destructive force on the surface, in reality, it is the only protection she has to defend herself. The use of chivalric imagery to attack the speaker subverts expectations that “a knight in shining armour” will protect or rescue women. Instead, Duffy presents a case in which idealised men can be the cause of women’s mental turmoil. At the end of the poem, the speaker wearily questions ‘Wasn’t I beautiful / Wasn’t I fragrant and young?’. The feminine olfactory imagery presented here draws a direct contrast to the disgusting connotations previously mentioned in the poem, ‘My bride’s breath soured, stanked’, emphasised by the use of sibilance. Through the disfiguration of Medusa, Duffy explores how women had to preserve their beauty in order to be the subject of a man’s infatuation, therefore indirectly critiquing the patriarchal society in the 20th century. Medusa’s ability to identify her disfigured beauty as the reason of her betrayal thus evokes an image of a victim condemned by societal beauty standards, prompting the reader to understand how this self-hatred could have caused jealousy to arise. Ultimately, Duffy challenges the power and position that men are granted above women and warns of the negative impacts of this power imbalance on the mental wellbeing of females.
Though jealousy is sparked by alleged betrayal in both poems, Medusa casts a more sympathetic light on the speaker as contrasted to Browning’s persona who is free from guilt and self-pity. The fictional character he presents is so enraged by her sense of abandonment and betrayal that a destructive force to avenge herself is created. Disgraced, she claims ‘they believe my tears flow / While they laugh, laugh at me’, the repetition emphasizing her anger and humiliation. Her failure to destroy their belief and prove her worth further escalates her feelings of powerlessness. Therefore, to regain a sense of control over her vulnerable emotions, she weaponizes them into a strong desire to kill, hence solidifying her thoughts into concrete actions to ‘let death be felt’. This thought process is further accentuated when she complains that ‘The colour’s too grim! / Why not soft like the phial’s, enticing and dim?’. Her rejection of the poison for being ‘too grim’ and yearning it to be ‘soft’ portrays the feminine side of the speaker that she uses as a disguise or facade, a calculated step to heighten her sense of control over the situation. Her close attention to detail conveys her obsession with perfecting her trade; by eliminating any flaws in her plot, she ensures that she will gain the utmost sadistic pleasure in tormenting her victim. This is heavily fueled by a sense of betrayal and lack of self esteem, proven by the speaker’s accusation that ‘She’s not little, no minion like me— / That’s why she ensnared him’. Derogatory adjectives ‘little’ and ‘minion’ enforce her sense of impotence and lack of self-esteem, therefore explaining the resultant jealousy. By describing the man as ‘entrapped’, the speaker objectifies him as a prize, and by killing the woman, she ironically casts herself as the man’s savior; a gesture made to demonstrate superiority and power. Additionally, the poem is written in an anapestic tetrameter with the same pattern of rhyming couplets in each stanza, its regularity giving a sense of order in the poem, thus reinforcing the speaker’s need for security. Ultimately, Browning concludes that jealousy could potentially trigger an obsession within the victim to assert control and dominance in order to compensate for real or imagined humiliation.
Conclusively, it is obvious that the more viscous and harming form of jealousy finds a formidable advocate in Browning’s persona, who embodies the apex of this all-consuming emotion. Therefore, readers find it more difficult to sympathise with this hardened, cruel killer than the distressed victim in Medusa. However, both poets arrive at the same verdict, showing that jealousy is a dangerous instrument which causes maddened despair and mental instability within the persona. Ultimately, uncontrollable amounts of jealousy results in tragedy and havoc, signified by Medusa’s transformation into a Gorgon and the murderous revenge of the speaker in The Laboratory.

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