Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘Havisham’ is a poem with a past, in more than one sense of the word. The speaker is, of course, the famous Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Great Expectations’ but while the character plays a relatively minor part in the novel, in Duffy’s poem she takes centre stage.
She is, we could argue, a difficult character to like, caught up in bitterness and recrimination, unsoftened by time or experience. She was jilted at the altar on what should have been one of the happiest days of her life but we see that her life, to all intents and purposes, ended on that day. She is the ultimate woman scorned. She lives in constant anger, dwelling on the wrong done to her and clinging to her desire for revenge like a needy child.
Her mental anguish is tangible. She makes animal noises, her speech is fractured like her mind, the images she gives us of herself are frightening and unsettling. She speaks in a tongue that is sometimes sensual but always twisted, giving her words a dangerous quality. She dreams of having intimacy but pollutes the dream with her desire to inflict pain. She begs for the chance to have the honeymoon she missed but wishes for a corpse to enjoy it with her. In this sense, it could be argued she portrays herself as desiring her own death along with that of her lover. Only in death will she achieve the fulfillment she has missed out on in life. She is a troubled, unstable soul. Hearing her speak to us through the poem is like watching a tortured animal through the bars of a cage.
But ‘Havisham’ offers us a lesson too, because while we can understand her anger and sympathise with her pain, we are shown a character who has lost all humanity. She seeks to “stab”, “bite” and “strangle”, inflicting pain not just on the one who wronged her but upon all mankind (with the stress on man). She has lost her self respect, her compassion, her sense of perspective and focusses all her energy on looking backwards at the past. It is not a happy picture, and certainly not a situation any well-balanced person would aspire to. The lesson is that whatever wrong has been done to us in the past, we need to move forwards with our lives.