Study Guide

Havisham Themes

By Carol Ann Duffy

  • Love

    "Havisham" tells the story of a love gone horribly wrong. On the day of her wedding, Miss Havisham is jilted by her fiancé. She spends the rest of her life obsessing over this love affair gone wrong and is incapable of moving on with her life. Her love is mixed with a strong dose of hate, and much of the poem is about how the two are strangely linked. If you're looking for an optimistic love poem filled with Cupid, flowers, and chocolate bonbons, move along. In "Havisham," love is just about the worst thing that can happen to you.

    Questions About Love

    1. Does love destroy Miss Havisham, or does Miss Havisham destroy herself?
    2. What is the connection between love and hate in the poem?      
    3. Is there a connection between the "lost body" of the third stanza and the "male corpse" of the fourth? If so, what is it?
    4. Is "Havisham" a love poem? Why or why not? 

    Chew on This

    Miss Havisham is the victim of her cruel ex-fiancé. All of her troubles can be blamed on him.

    Yes, Miss Havisham was treated cruelly by her ex, but it was her choice to live the rest of her life in despair.

  • Marriage

    In "Havisham," the one thing that defines our speaker's life is her wedding, or, to be more exact, her lack thereof. Miss H was jilted by her fiancé and chooses to spend the rest of her life surrounded by the symbols of the wedding that never was – her wedding dress, the wedding cake, etc. She pines for a marriage that never happened and creates a world for herself in which time stands still. Marriage is the one thing that Miss Havisham wants and the one thing that's impossible for her to get. Especially since she hasn't showered in decades. This isn't how you snag a new man, ladies.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why does Miss Havisham refer to herself as a "spinster"? Why does she use such a derogatory term?
    2. Why does Miss Havisham want a male corpse for a honeymoon? Is she being sarcastic? Serious? What is the effect of the appearance of the veil in the fourth stanza? Is it a metaphor for something?
    3. What do you think is Miss Havisham's view of marriage in general? Does she believe that all marriages are total disasters? Would anyone react the way she has?

    Chew on This

    By referring to herself as a "spinster," Miss Havisham emphasizes how pathetic her life is. She thinks of herself as a failure.

    By referring to herself as a "spinster," Miss Havisham takes power over her situation by facing the facts.

  • Madness

    One of the big questions of "Havisham" is this: just how crazy is this lady? Is she reacting proportionally to what has happened to her? Or was she always destined to crack? Has she brought all of her troubles upon herself or is she the victim of her cunning and malicious ex-fiancé? Is she a victim of her society, which has restricted the roles of women? Or is she just plain bonkers? By letting Miss Havisham speak for herself, Duffy raises all of these questions but doesn't quite answer them. Yes, Miss H seems a bit off her rocker, but who doesn't go a bit crazy after being unceremoniously dumped? In many ways, this poem asks us to understand, and even identify with Miss Havisham, and that makes us question our very own definitions of madness.

    Questions About Madness

    1. Is Miss Havisham crazy, or is she just heartbroken?
    2. Which lines from the poem make you think that Miss Havisham has actually gone mad? Which lines make you think she's still sane?
    3. Does your knowledge of the novel Great Expectations affect your feelings about Miss Havisham's possible madness? Is it possible to judge her character based on the poem alone?      
    4. Who is to blame for Miss Havisham's situation? Is it her fault? Her former fiancé's? Society's?

    Chew on This

    Miss Havisham has clearly gone round the bend. It's just not normal to live your whole life in a stinking wedding dress.

    Miss Havisham is not crazy; she is very aware of the person she's become. Even though she has regrets and is incredibly bitter, she's still in control of her life.