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'Little Red-Cap': Duffy Reinterprets a Household Fairytale


The first poem of a collection, along with the last, have the greatest emphasis placed upon them due to marking the beginning and endpoint of the reader’s journey. Whether they are the most memorable due to their positions or the extra attention given to them by the poet is debatable (I find that it is a mixture of both), but nevertheless it is important to weigh the two against each other, and there are certainly similar images in the two, continuing the journey started in “Little Red-Cap”.

The Autobiographical Duffy, in an interview with Barry Wood, acknowledges that elements of her own life that are embedded into the narrative of ‘Little Red-Cap’: the town of the first verse describes Stafford, Duffy’s own hometown; her first love also provides a basis for the Red-Cap’s relationship with the older Wolf. Though aspects of the speaker’s life reflect those of Duffy herself, these personal ties also serve to modernise and place Red-Cap in our society today, and the purpose of the entire collection is to explore the position of women against our entire history of patriarchy, rather than simply the life of the poet. Little Red-Cap (Little Red Riding-Hood) The tale of the girl with the red cloak is by no means unknown to us, but here the poet deliberately chooses the title given by the brothers Grimm. Perhaps not as well-known in comparison to the plethora of fairytales (and all their versions!) that they gave us, though the modern fantasy TV show is loosely based on them and their tales, Duffy directly links her poem to that story as related by the two German brothers; she calls upon the folklore as published in the beginning of the 19th century in order to underline the depth to which our culture today has been affected by such fairytales, reshaping it in order to delineate it from its emergence from patriarchal societies.

Red Riding Hood and Wolf

Naivety and the Cusp The poem marks a discovery: the poetic voice, narrating in a retrospective manner, recounts her crossing from “childhood’s end” into an adult, better-understood, world. She seeks out her gateway into this world of “poetry”, enticed by the image of the “wolf” with his paperback and taste for wine. The young Red-Cap seems to exert control at the beginning, using her feminine wiles in order to have “made quite sure [the Wolf] spotted” her. Within this, however, the younger self, as portrayed by the older narrator, still remains young in her thinking, believing in gaining knowledge in the “place/ lit by the eyes of owls” yet having her freedom, her own “warm... winged” poetry as represented by the dove, devoured as she proffers it to the Wolf with open hands. And indeed, as young Red-Cap’s inversions of the fairytale quotations appear in the beginning to emphasise her false naivety within her greater plans of seduction, they then become reminders of her youth. The Male Figure

Unlike in ‘Thetis’, the male patriarch features actively within the poem: the Wolf is Red-Cap’s lover, poetic repressor, and the embodiment of the male power to which women of past generations have succumbed. The attraction at the beginning is clearly shown: the Wolf’s ‘drawl’ and ‘bearded jaw’ recalls the clichéd ‘lone wolf’, older, experienced, a fantasy of sexual liberation to young women that Duffy aligns with the poetic; even the sudden use of internal rhyme, as opposed to the humdrum listing of the town setting, expresses Red-Cap’s interest. However, despite the initial allure of the Wolf, his unconcerned reaction of ‘How nice’ to Red-Cap’s open hands, along with the selfish gratification in consuming the dove, reveals his inability to satisfy her desire for knowledge. This is reinforced in the image of the ‘greying’ wolf, a mirror of the stagnated Wolf that can only give the ‘same rhyme’ to the young poet. Violence The violent death of the dove, Red-Cap’s poetic voice, is preceded by the ‘murder clues’ of the eager young girl that ‘crawled’ after her first lover. These acts of violence, with their brutality, seem at first to reflect the oppression of women; however, by describing words as ‘beating’ and then visually connecting ‘music and blood’, ‘Poetry’ itself becomes the object of the Wolf’s violence, from whose stifling hold Red-Cap liberates herself in her own act of slicing open her former lover. Having laboured over these images, I eventually came up with my own (and probably not the sturdiest) interpretations: ‘a mushroom/ stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse’ - Red-Cap understands that the literal voice, unlike the poetic one, dies along with the physical body ‘birds/ are the uttered thought of trees’ - the image here is more fantastical and figurative than the last, perhaps therefore better at providing an understanding of the ‘thought’ that literature, though seemingly inanimate and silent, is able to project.

‘Little Red-Cap’ opens the collection in what I believe to be a positive manner, despite alluding to the solitude that appears throughout. The intertwined themes of womanhood and poetry are also important to note, as Duffy uses later poems in order to explore and comment upon the nature of literature. I unfortunately decided not to continue with this blog in the beginning of 2013, and now that I feel like picking it up again I’ve realised that my AS English Literature notes are no longer of as much use as before. However, I shall still be continuing with looking at my particular favourites of that course. SO.... If you have any thoughts (as a reaction to this post), comment. Why? Well, because you can, of course. And if you have any suggestions of further reading to be posted about, by all means share them!

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