Dangerous Minds in Duffy Poems


Whilst “Education for Leisure” and “Salome” portray disturbed and dangerous minds, “Havisham” and “Stealing” offer portraits of pitiful individuals worthy only of sympathy.

There may be an element of truth to this statement: all four of the poems mentioned are centred around individuals who have been mentally scarred or damaged in some way. The speaker in Education for Leisure, having been subject to a life of unemployed boredom, has developed delusions of greatness, along with a lack of caring for life, seemingly leading towards murderous habits. That of Stealing, meanwhile, has become obsessed with the titular pastime, even stealing bizarre and mostly pointless objects just so as to spite their owners. The eternal bride Havisham has locked herself in a darkened bedroom for over a decade, constantly reliving her failed wedding and building up a deeply misandrist complex, while the promiscuous Salome sinks into a web of cheap sex and (possibly) homicide. The question is of whether the distinction made in the statement about the aforementioned pairs of poems is legitimate.

It is true that, overall, Salome and Education for Leisure take on a darker tone than the latter pair, with the events taking place in the narrative reaching actual killings by the heroes. Salome’s thoughts of “[She]’d done it before / (and doubtless [she]’ll do it again, / sooner or later)”, while ambiguous as to whether “it” means casual sex or cold slaughter, make it clear that she is indifferent towards others, a point reinforced by her relatively nonchalant reaction to realising that her sleeping partner is only a severed head! In Education for Leisure, the speaker is shown to have clear homicidal intentions; considering themselves to be superior to all other forms of life, and killing small animals for entertainment before finally heading out to wound the pedestrian reader with a bread-knife.

On the lighter side (relatively speaking), Havisham’s desire to see all men given deadly punishment for her fiancé’s desertion are restricted to insane fantasies, trapped as she is in her dressing room. The thief in Stealing also is comparatively tame as, though clearly sadistic in their extraction of joy from the knowledge that they will have made children cry, they never express a desire to actually kill, apart from inanimate objects whose only “life” was that given to them in the thief’s mind.

At first glance, then, the opening statement appears to hold some value, however some of the backstory given in the four poems begs to differ. In Education for Leisure the speaker is shown to be living a seemingly pointless, empty life. Having fallen victim to the system and been abandoned by humanity, they have been forced to construct a fantasy life for themselves in which they are a celebrity and the contents of their daily routine are a series of heroic adventures. Their apparent lack of concern for life may be a response to life’s lack of concern for them, since they have clearly not been lucky in society. In any case they are not stated outright to have killed anything larger or more sentient than a goldfish, and it is not revealed whether or not “I touch your arm.” ever does in fact become “I kill you.”. For all that we know, they could have eventually come to their senses and not actually performed the murder. Likewise, Salome is not shown to kill at all since, up until the reveal in the final stanza, there are only a few oblique hints at a darker meaning in what otherwise could easily have been a poem waking up after a drunken sexual encounter. Also, though evidently somewhat jaded towards the sight of a severed head next to hers, has not done anything worse than get out of shape.

Havisham, on the other hand, deserves far less sympathy. While the other characters clearly had issues, hers go beyond mere delusions and obsessions into a passionate desire to see half of the world’s population destroyed to satisfy her personal problems regarding having been jilted at the altar. The speakers in Education for Leisure and Stealing both made enemies of society as a whole because they were hurt by society as a whole, but Havisham’s habit of sexual profiling is making her want to make all men pay for what one man did to her, and it may well be only that very same insanity which, by trapping her inside, has prevented her from doing so. I do not believe that she should be allowed “victim” status, as she is clearly a self-centred psychopath. Bearing in mind that within the poem itself gives no explanation as to why her boyfriend abandoned her, it may well have been her own fault, in which case her entire battered woman premise is simply a delusion which she has constructed to satisfy her misandry and sadism.

Based on the preceding points, I do not agree with the opening statement. In my opinion, Havisham belongs in the former category of “disturbed and dangerous minds”, while Salome is far closer to the latter. While through their own thoughts each character is presented in a way that agrees with the initial statement, my evaluation reveals that they most certainly do not.

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