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Both of these poems by Carol Ann Duffy depict men in a less-than-flattering light, and both men suffer a terrible fate.
Little Red Cap is a twist on a fairy tale, and of course the man in this poem is portrayed as the wolf. In the fairy tale, a man saves the girl; in this poem, the man is a wolf, and he devours her. It is true, however, that the devouring only happens because she lets him do so, at least at first.
Little Red Cap is young and easily enticed by the promises the wolf implies. He is experienced and offers her things forbidden and alluring: wine and poetry. She is “at childhood’s end” while he is in a “dark tangled thorny place.”
The wolf is an obvious symbol of a predator, a creature that cunningly lures and traps and then devours his prey. And yet, she is the one who “clapped eyes on the wolf,” a creature that is presented as a cultured, sophisticated man (wine and poetry) who is, of course, perfectly willing to “buy her a drink.” The sexual imagery is evident and obvious, and the girl becomes a woman at the hands of the wolf.
After she has been made a woman, so to speak, she begins o recognize the true character of the wolf. He never hid it; she simply did not see or recognize it. Wolves devour, and this wolf’s devouring is graphically represented by the
…living bird—white dove—
Which flew, straight, from my hands to his hope mouth
One bite, dead.
The wolf did what he intended to do all along—consumed her innocence for his own pleasure.
While the young girl suffers a loss, she makes certain the wolf suffers a loss, as well. Her graphic act of violence to his most offending parts, a chop from “scrotum to throat” while he slept, is an act of retribution as well as cleansing, for the next time we see her she is renewed:
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.
While the wolf took her innocence, she was able to regain it.
Mr. Faust, on the other hand, is not portrayed as an actual predator in Mrs. Faust but as a soulless, selfish user. It is true that he mistreats his wife, but it is through indifference and self-absorption rather than through anything he actually does to her. In fact, she admits her own role in this loveless partnership:
was clever, greedy, slightly mad.
I was as bad.
Like the wolf, Faust is consumed by satisfying his own perverse desires, both his physical lusts and his lust for ultimate power. He was:
Vice-chairman. Chairman. Owner. Lord.
Faust was Cardinal, Pope,
knew more than God;
flew faster than the speed of sound
around the globe.
Faust was never content with what he consumed, eventually believing he was wiser than God and had the capabilities of a superhero. What we learn, of course, is that he has sold his soul to Satan, something we knew was probably coming based on the title.
To be fair, the women in each of these poems are, in some ways, complicit with these men, either by innocence or simple lack of interest. In other words, the young girl would have remained innocent if she had not been enticed by the wolf, and Mrs. Faust stayed in her fruitless relationship despite her admitted indifference to him. While Little Red Cap is able to regain her innocence, and presumably her life, Mrs. Faust remains complicit with her husband even after he is gone, promising to keep his secret, that
the clever, cunning, callous bastard
didn’t have a soul to sell.
In both cases, though, the man is a predator: one a literal devourer, the other a selfish user of people and things.
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