Seamus Heaney

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How is women's role in society diminished by men in Seamus Heaney's "Punishment"?

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One way the role of women is diminished is by creating a voyeuristic spectacle of the female body. In recognizing that a young woman has lost her life, the speaker becomes hyper-focused on her female physicality: her "naked front" and the way the wind "blows her nipples / to amber beads." There is no sense of respect to honor a woman whose life ended with a rope around her neck; instead, she is objectified for the sexuality her body once possessed.

Later, the speaker employs a metaphor that serves great purpose in demonstrating the way women are increasingly diminished because of their relationships to men:

her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.

Literally, the "ring" is the noose that ended this woman's life. Yet this image is also reminiscent of a wedding ring, particularly when associated with "the memories of love." The ring thus serves as a metaphor to convey the way men are often placed in positions of power, even within a marriage, to choke the life out of women. These rings of commitment sometimes squeeze the breath out of women, forcing the death of their own dreams.

Finally, the speaker acknowledges that he holds power that women do not. He has watched as this woman's "sisters," who are also victimized by the men in their lives, are subjected to brutality. Yet he remains a passive observer of their torment, just as many men must have watched the cruelty inflicted upon the woman with the "shaved head." Women have thus endured a long history of atrocities that have been directly and indirectly inflicted upon them by men.

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