Mrs Sisyphus and Medusa

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  • Created by: mollie
  • Created on: 14-04-12 13:23

Mrs Sisyphus

The wife of Sisyphus contemptuously recounts her husband's obsession with work and the effect this has on their relationship.

The scale of Sisyphus's task is emphasised early on in the hilarious image created by his wife when she says that the stone he is enjoined to push up the hill is 'nearer the size of a kirk'. (line 2) She seems justified in calling him a 'jerk' (line 1) and a 'dork' (line 10) as he asks her to 'Think of the perks' (line 6) associated with being enslaved to the task of pushing a church-size boulder up a hill.

Mrs Sisyphus resents the fact that her husband is a workaholic and cannot even spare the time to have drink with her, 'pop open a cork' (line 8) and the spectacle he makes of himself and, by association herself, 'Folk flock around just to gawk.' (line 11) He is unable to see the futility of what he is doing and, while neighbours might think he does what he does for 'a bit of a lark' (line 13), she is more pragmatic and dismissive, 'A load of old ******** is nearer the mark.' (line 14) She has observed 'that feckin' stone' (line 17) rolling all the way down to bottom of the hill as soon as it has reached the top.

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There is a huge discrepancy between her perspective and his, the central point of the poem.

His reaction to the unremitting roll of the boulder to the bottom of the hill is  'Mustn't shirk' (line 21) while she muses on the consequences of his obsessive devotion to his work: 'But I lie alone in the dark' (line 25). She likens herself to Noah's wife as he 'hammered away at the Ark' - whose husband is imprinted on the cultural memory of the world but whose wives suffered for their obsession with work.

Her predicament is tellingly articulated in the longest lines of the final stanza: 'up on the deepening murk of the hill, / he is giving one hundred per cent and more to his work.' The length of the lines emphasises the amount of time Sisyphus spends on his work while the detail of approaching night reminds us that he will not be spending it with his wife.

Her emotional state is emphasised by the fact that her voice has been 'reduced to a squawk' (line 29) and her attitude to life by her 'twisted smirk' (line 30).

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A striking feature of this poem is its employment of highly repetitive end rhyme. This is to emphasise the monomania of Sisyphus and the tedium of the task he performs and the boredom endured by his long-suffering wife. Here, Duffy explores another facet of self-absorbed male egocentricity and its ability to utterly ignore the needs of women.

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Medusa, scared that her husband will betray her, develops the power to turn any living thing she looks at to stone.

This dramatic monologue offers an unusual perspective on the Gorgon Medusa. She is a byword for terror and ugliness, feared for her terrible looks and foetid breath. In giving Medusa a chance to tell her story Duffy asks us to consider an alternative view and to see her as a woman who, fearing betrayal by her husband, developed the terrible physical characteristics for which she is so well known.

The destructive power of jealousy turns Medusa's hair to 'filthy snakes' and she equates these, metaphorically, with the thoughts she is driven to by this most destructive of emotions.

She describes another transformation, that of her 'bride's breath' in stanza two that 'soured, stank'. The familiar term, 'foul-mouthed' (line 8) is normally metaphorically used to describe a person who uses a lot of obscenities but in this case there is a literal sense of her mouth being filthy and putrescent, along with her tongue.

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The harsh image of 'bullet tears' in her eyes reflects her stony feelings. She asks 'Are you terrified?' directing the question to the 'perfect man, Greek God (line 14) who is presumably Perseus. She would prefer the man she loves to be stone than someone else's.

Having been transformed into an object of terror and imperfection through the potential infidelity of someone with outward physical perfection, she proceeds to issue a chilling warning in the shape of a list of creatures that she has turned to stone.

A mere glance at a bee or bird renders them respectively into 'a dull grey pebble' or 'dusty gravel'. The verbs 'spattered' and 'shattered' are powerfully destructive and disruptive to the natural order that would otherwise prevail.

In all these transformations, we are presented with a physical form reflecting an inner emotional state. For Medusa, not to be loved is to be turned into unfeeling, cold stone.

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The abstractions of jealousy and betrayal become concretely present in the physical reality of 'housebrick' and 'boulder'. The more concentrated 'I looked' required to transform larger creatures again highlights the extremity of emotion she feels as much as the power she wields. Duffy chooses not to pre-modify the nouns 'housebrick' and 'boulder' with adjectives to reflect Medusa's simple and absolute intention to change complicated life forms instantly and irrevocably to solid matter. This is conveyed particularly well in the change from 'snuffling pig' to boulder which 'rolled / In a heap of ****.' Pigs are known (erroneously as it happens) for wallowing in their own waste. Here, it seems that a boulder in '****' functions as an image for Medusa as she contemplates betrayal.

The only being that can endure her direct gaze is herself, 'I stared in the mirror', completing the sequence of verbs beginning with 'glanced' and 'looked'. She sees her head as a mountain whose mouth is a volcano. The image of the mirror prefigures the manner in which Perseus will be able to kill her. The pathos of her 'Wasn't I beautiful? / Wasn't I fragrant and young?' contrasts with her acknowledgement of what she has become. Her doom will arrive, ironically, in the form of the man she loves with 'a shield for a heart' and 'a sword for a tongue'.

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The shield will literally reflect his feelings about her while the action of the sword in decapitating her will speak of them more eloquently than words. The final line is loaded with ambiguity. It indicates her resignation and sadness in the face of what she has become but there is also a remaining desire for Perseus to see her as she once was. A third element is that if he were to look at her directly he would turn to stone and be lost to her forever anyway which, as she says in stanza three would be 'better by far' than enduring betrayal.

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