Higher “Medusa” by Carol Ann Duffy Notes
The reason Duffy has chosen to breathe new life into Medusa is that this is a character quite simply packed full of fascinating imagery and symbolism. She is woman, after all, who has been persecuted by both men and women and has ultimately been cursed for a combination of her youthful beauty and pride. It is for this reason that Medusa makes such a good metaphor for aging, the bitterness of betrayal and the fleeting nature of youth and beauty. If there is one theme or idea that runs through the character of Medusa it has be loneliness. This poor woman has been forced to live apart from human society for almost the entire span of her life. Her curse did far more than make her ugly, it made her a monster to be feared by all humans. We have to ask ourselves, should we pity Medusa? What is more monstrous, Medusa or the curse?
Key Themes and Ideas
Transformation and Change
The transformation of Medusa from beautiful woman to monstrous Gorgon, makes a good metaphor for aging, the bitterness of betrayal and the fleeting nature of youth and beauty.
Transformation and change play multiple roles in the poem.
The character, Medusa undergoes physical transformation as she turns into a Gorgon.
– Her hair turns to snakes,
“A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
Grew in my mind,
Which turned the hairs on my head to filthy snakes”.
– Her face changes,
– “I’m foul mouthed now, foul tongued,
– Even her breath gets bad, “My bride’s breath soured, stank”.
– Towards the end of the poem we are reminded of the contrast between what Medusa was, and what she has become,
“Wasn’t I beautiful
Wasn’t I fragrant and young?”.
Here she is almost pleading for the reader or listener to remember what she was, to pity and feel sorry for her. Or maybe to reassure her that she wasn’t always a monster.
Throughout the poem, Medusa exercises her powers by transforming innocent animals into stone, the animals increase in size, as though she is working up to something. This builds on the increasingly sinister tone of the poem.
– “I glanced at a buzzing bee,
a dull grey pebble fell
to the ground.
I glanced at a singing bird,
A handful of dusty gravel
As well as this, we also witness the emotional change the speaker experiences when;
a) The man she thought loved her, spurns her for another.
b) When her love for him turns to malicious hatred.
“Love gone bad”
Obviously this oxymoronic phrase is central to the main ideas of the poem.
Medusa is the physical embodiment of love going wrong. As the speaker explains in the opening of the poem it is ultimately the fear of losing her loved one to someone else that causes her to turn into a monster,
“A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
grew in my mind,
which turned the hair on my head to filthy snakes
as though my thoughts hissed and spat on my scalp”
There are various things you could comment on about the word choice and imagery here but it is clear that the snakes on Medusa’s head are the embodiment of her negative thoughts about her love betraying her.
The “Greek God” whoever he may be is also an example of a negative side of love because not only does he abandon her (or at least the speaker is convinced of this) but it is also suggested that he is cold and maybe even hurtful to the speaker,
“And hear you come
with a shield for a heart
and a sword for a tongue”
“shield” suggests guarded and closed with “heart” we get the idea that he does not return the speaker’s affection.
“sword” obviously has connotations of cutting, violence and pain so just as a sword cuts, so the speaker suggests that the man’s words cut and hurt her.
One theme or idea that runs through the mythical character of Medusa = loneliness.
Medusa forced to live apart from human society for most of her life.
She overall strikes a lonely figure, bitter and twisted about being spurned and not being able to have companions as the can’t look at them without them dying.
She used to be so beautiful that the gods envied her so much they cursed her beauty away. The curse made her ugly and a monster to be feared by all humans, so now if anyone thinks to look at her they will be turned to stone.
Beauty as a Curse
Because of this the myth of Medusa raises the idea of beauty as a curse.
In a more literal sense, beauty can be viewed as a curse due to its fleeting nature – Even the most beautiful people eventually get old, wrinkly and decrepit. Every one eventually ages and loses the beauty of youth. Women especially fear aging, the loss of beauty and fertility.
Beauty can also be a curse because society doesn’t see beyond the surface. Beautiful people are constantly judged on their looks alone.
Old age is seen as a kind of a curse in our society.
No one wants to get old and people do extreme things to avoid or slow down the aging process.
Old people are often shunned, living on their own or abandoned to old folks homes.
Any beauty they had previously is forgotten.
We have to ask ourselves, should we pity Medusa? What is more monstrous, Medusa or the curse?
Is Duffy’s Medusa a metaphor?
Maybe Medusa was only cursed by her own jealousy, maybe her actions pushed her love away from her and she grew old and bitter and twisted, alone.