How does poet Philip Larkin's attitude toward women reflect his attitude toward the loss of English tradition?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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It can be said that, in his poetry, Philip Larkin portrays women as being inferior to men and even oppressed by men due to their unimportant social positions. One example can be seen in his poem "Afternoons." Here, he portrays women as being stuck in depressing and oppressive positions as wives and mothers. Here, the image of "young mothers" letting their children go off through the school playgrounds to attend school coupled with depressing images like "leaves fall" and "hollows of the afternoon" portrays women as being depressingly stuck in a meaningless role. We see further images of meaninglessness when in the next stanza he describes skilled husbands and piles of washing to do as standing directly behind the "young mothers." Since he is using the image of "washing" alongside the image of "husbands in skilled trades," it's clear he is juxtaposing women's lack of skill with men's skills, showing that being a woman is an unequal and unimportant position. There are even other poems in which Larkin portrays women as being used merely for sexual pleasure. What's more, Larkin uses his poems to reflect on how dismal life was in England after both World Wars I and II; hence, it can be said that Larkin paints women as being oppressed and inferior to show that their oppression and inferiority was still a normal part of English life in this period.

As stated by the editors of Poetry Foundation, Larkin used his poetry to portray the "uncomfortable or terrifying experiences" people had to endure in the modern age ("Biography: Philip Larkin"). Furthermore, as literary critic Peter R. King stated in his book Nine Contemporary Poets: A Critical Introduction, Larkin expressed the "spiritual desolation of a world in which men have shed the last rags of religious faith that once lent meaning and hope to human lives" ("Biography: Philip Larkin"). The theme of loss of religious faith can certainly be seen in his poem "Aubade" and many others. It can further be noted that, in the past, women were believed to be inferior and placed in subordinate positions due to biblical and religious perspectives; therefore, if Larkin is reflecting on the loss of religious faith, then he is also pointing out that women's inequality and subordination can no longer be justified through religious faith and therefore no longer has any meaning as it once did when society could justify it through religious faith, as flawed a perception as that might have been.

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