Carol Ann Duffy Examines Western Consumerism And Its Consequences

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Throughout the ‘Feminine Gospels’, Duffy forces her female readership to view how they are portrayed in society, and to actively address the misogynistic and baseless assumptions created around them. In ‘The Women Who Shopped’, the persona’s identity is carved through the materialistic goods that she endlessly purchases. There is no doubt that her tale is emblematic of capitalism itself, as the poem harnesses an unyielding and relentless tone; mirroring the hypnotic nature of western consumerism. Throughout, Duffy starkly cautions her female readership of the dangers of falling into the traps of Western consumerism. (Temptation)

It appears as though the poem begins midsentence – ‘went out with a silver shilling, willing to buy, bought an apple’. This subtly suggests the grips of consumerism have already taken hold; her mind conditioned by society’s endless advertising. The opening line appears to be written in a first person narrative, capturing the persona’s desire to embark on a materialistic and covetous lifestyle. The sibilance of ‘silver shilling’ establishes a sinister and ominous tone. The ‘s’ sound of the sibilance harks back to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps, the poet suggests that consumerism can be likened to the original sin, and the damnation of mankind. Here, Duffy aptly communicates the destructive nature of money, and how it should be treated with caution. Such a notion runs parallel to the poem ‘History’ in the anthology, whereby the hubris of humanity destroys an elderly woman. There is no doubt that the ‘silver shilling’ (arguably the hubris of humanity) will destroy the persona of the poem also. This is supported by yet another biblical reference/imagery of the ‘apple’. Responsible for the downfall of mankind, and the ultimate sin, the ‘apple’ foreshadows the woman’s fall from grace. To a certain extent, the poem serves as a fable – advising its readers against the trappings and temptations of Western consumerism.

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The poem develops with a broken rhyme scheme, aptly mirroring the broken and fragmented nature of the woman, and by extension, society itself. As the poem develops, the woman’s addiction to shopping manifests and blights her relationships – ‘wanted a wedding, wedding dress, groom, married him’. Duffy plainly highlights how consumerism plagues all facets of life. The extensive use of listing transforms these meaningful relationships and institutions into superficial and meaningless products. The woman essentially devolves and degenerates. The alliterative ‘w’ sounds establishes a relentless and unyielding pace. It is as though the persona falls deeper and deeper into the clutches of materialism and this erodes her own identity. This topic is synonymous with the collection, ‘Feminine Gospels’. Often, like in ‘The Diet’, the female is ‘a shadow, dwindling away’. This is further emphasised by the repetition of ‘wedding’. The speaker appears to be hypnotised and entranced by the fruits of commercialism, creating the stark image of a fever-like state. It becomes clear to the reader that the persona married quite simply to ‘shuffle his plastic with hers’. Metaphorical of credit cards, it seems as though money has replaced genuine love. Such an interpretation is made complete by the rather cold and emotionless tone of the quatrain.

The volta, marked at the end of the seventh quatrain, completes the devolution and dehumanisation of the female speaker. The stanza begins ‘Stone cold when she woke, she was stone, was concrete and glass’. Duffy’s apparent use of spondees, (traditionally used for emphasis), here establishes a rather robotic and monotonous mood. It appears as though the natural rhythms of human life have been completely eradicated, and been replaced by the rhythms of western consumerism. Her addiction and compulsion to buy have now consumed her. Like the speaker in ‘Loud’, ‘she’d been easily led’. The repetition of ‘stone’ has troglodytic connotations, and illustrates the isolation and loneliness experienced by the persona. No ‘groom’ stands beside her, and no ‘swimming pools’ and ‘caravans’ offer her any consolation. Duffy effectively manipulates the use of personal pronoun, ‘she’, to serve as a form of metonymy. ‘She’ is representative of all the women who are bound by capitalism, and it is this that Duffy wishes to address. The pace of the poem slows here with the poet’s extensive use of assonance, and is reflective of the persona’s downfall and demise – life’s normal hustle and bustle is now absent. She becomes the very image of western consumerism, and the very conceit of the poem: a shopping centre.

This is evidenced when ‘she would have a sale and crowds would queue overnight at her cunt desperate for bargains’. There is a certain sense of irony here as the speaker metamorphiseses into the very hollow products and items that she once so feverishly bought. Like the protagonist in ‘Anon’, ‘she’d forgot who she was’. Duffy effectively establishes a semantic field of shopping itself (‘sale’/’crowds’/’bargain’/’queue’) to create a sense of verisimilitude in a rather surreal image. The absurdity of the image is reflective of society’s absurd addiction to western consumerism. The enjambment reinforces this. The continuation of the line is reflective of the continued prevalence/importance of materialism in society. It is interesting to note Duffy’s use of the plural noun of ‘crowds’. No doubt it is reflective of the millions indoctrinated by western capitalism. Yet, it is not only humans that are impacted by this. Upon viewing the woman, ‘birds shrieked and voided themselves’ completely. The onomatopoeic verb, ‘shrieked’, metaphorically captures natures alarm and aghast at what society has become. The poem highlights how western consumerism has become a global pandemic, through a systematic and methodical degradation of self-actualisation. The female speaker has been robbed of her identity, and in its place, consumerism has taken root. Like Eve, the female persona allows temptation to consume, ravage, and erode herself. This is emphasised by Duffy’s graphic use of vulgar language (‘cunt’). It creates a rather poignant comparison between materialism and prostitution. The reader cannot help feel some sympathy, and as such, Duffy is successful in cautioning her female readership of the dangers of falling into the traps of Western consumerism. 


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