Twentieth century literature often portrays the relationship between men and women as deeply problematic. By comparing and contrasting three texts by Katherine Mansfield, Harold Pinter and Carol Ann Duffy, discuss to what extent you agree with this view.

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 ‘Twentieth century literature often portrays the relationship between men and women as deeply problematic’. By comparing and contrasting three texts, discuss to what extent you agree with this view.

This essay will address the way various relationships between the opposite sexes are represented in selected texts from Katherine Mansfield, Harold Pinter and Carol Ann Duffy, whose works pertain to different periods of the 20th century. My aim is to compare and contrast their texts in an in-depth exegetical study in order to exhibit different treatments of these largely problematic relationships.

To begin with, I shall consider Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Bliss”. Upon its publication, “Bliss” was subject to much divisive criticism; Virginia Woolf, who hitherto admitted to being “jealous” of Mansfield’s writing, deemed it “poor” and “cheap”, whilst T.S. Eliot praised the “skill with which the author has handled perfectly the minimum material.” The story in “Bliss”, as in The Homecoming, takes place over the course of a single day; this narrative strategy provides the story with tension and is in keeping with the Aristotelian unity of time. The protagonist, Bertha Young, is a romantic and idealistic character, whose childish personality is reflected in the style of the writing: non-sequitur conversations, stream of consciousness, elaborate use of ellipsis, reiteration and exclamations marks which suggest Bertha’s strength of emotion, and paragraphs written in free indirect style, a technique often employed by modernist writers. “Bliss” opens with a conjunction, “although”, thereby disorienting the reader. By not providing a back story, Mansfield subverts the conventions and encourages the reader to pursue her own interpretation. Harold Pinter likewise employs this approach in The Homecoming. As Martin Esslin communicated in The Theater of the Absurd, “Pinter, in search for more realism in theater, rejects the well-made play for providing too much information about the background and motivations of each character. In real life, we do not have all this information.” As a result, the play’s earliest critics found it overly cryptic and failed in attributing a meaning or merit to it, but modern literary critics have defended ambiguity as "a source of poetic richness rather than a fault of imprecision." The Homecoming indeed shocks its audiences due to the seemingly inexplicable motivations of the characters.

In “Bliss”, the word “pals” which Bertha uses to refer to the relationship between her and her husband, Harry, establishes that its nature is non-sexual. Cardinal themes of the story are female sexuality, female homoeroticism and infidelity. The first allusion to the lack of sexuality in Bertha’s life is given by the animal imagery of the two cats, whose sight “so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver.” Bertha is seen trying to reawaken Harry’s sexual interest in her by dressing up in a combination of the colours white and green, colours reminiscent of “the white flesh of the lobster” and “the green of pistachio ices” which roused in Harry a “shameless passion”. However, what appears to elicit a passionate response in Bertha is not her husband but Miss Fulton, Bertha’s “find”, whose mere touch causes a “fire of bliss” within her.  The most telling symbol of Bertha’s attraction for Miss Fulton is manifested in their gazing at the pear tree (“to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed – almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon.”) The phallic symbolism of the pear tree suggests Bertha’s sexual revival. Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem where the phallus represents the very body of the poem. “Frau Freud” is one of Duffy’s most controversial poems from The World’s Wife anthology as it notoriously features thirty synonyms for the word penis, synonyms which are mostly, if not all, invented and used by men. Here, the purpose of showing a woman’s usage of male-originated slang does not aim to defeminize the woman but, through the resulted incongruous effect, to make a case of the male nature of verbal aggression. Through conveniently reversing Freud’s concept of “penis envy”, Duffy generates both a declaration of defiance and a comment on the dichotomy between men and women. The dipodic meter, often used in nursery rhymes, highlights the immaturity of men. Moreover, “Frau Freud” is a sonnet, and as we typically associate sonnets with love, beauty and nature, the sonnet structure serves to strengthen the ironic dimension of the poem.

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The female characters in my chosen texts are often presented as being either vulnerable to the predatory nature of men, or as being at a loss to men in a way that is usually dictated by society, or as being “consumables”. The latter is especially developed in “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” when the bride is wearing a dress which gives her “the appearance of an iced cake all ready to be cut and served in neat little pieces to the bridegroom”. Akin to this grotesque display of patriarchal societies is Duffy’s “Pygmalion’s Bride” (“What he’d do and how”, “clammy ...

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