Little Red Cap Analysis by Carol Ann Duffy

This is an analysis of Little Red Cap by Carol Ann Duffy.

Little Red Cap Poem

At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
Into playing fields, the factory, allotments
Kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men
The silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan
Till you came at last to the edge of the woods
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf
He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
In his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw
Red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
He had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me
Sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink
My first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods
Away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
Lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake
My stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
Snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes
But got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night
Breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
What little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?1
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
And went in search of a living bird – white dove –
Which flew, straight, from my hands to his open mouth
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said
Licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
Of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head
Warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood
But then I was young – and it took ten years
In the woods to tell that a mushroom
Stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
Are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
Howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out
Season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe
To a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
To see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
As he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
The glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone.

Little Red Cap Analysis

Little Red-Cap is a poem about the transition from adolescence to adulthood, the search for a ‘voice’ and independence, and carries subtle allusions towards Duffy’s life.

There is an atmosphere of darkness throughout most of the poem, as implied by “deep into the woods”.

Woods and forests were often associated with fear in fairy-tales, mostly due to the inability to see through the abundance of trees and how getting lost was incredibly difficult. The ‘woods’ in the poem seem to symbolize the journey into adulthood, as adolescents are being lead deeper into the mystery of growing up.

The darkness gives the poem eeriness, as bad things are often associated with the dark and the nighttime. The “dark tangled thorny place” suggests that the journey to adulthood is riddled with obstacles.

There is a lingering sense of the unease towards the poem’s dark, almost morbid, atmosphere. It suggests that maybe growing up is not as bright and beautiful as it is made out to be to children.

The allusions to the original fairy-tale create an almost naïve, innocent air to the poem, which contradicts the generally dark and morbid tone.

The line “What big ears he had!” is a direct reference to the Little Red Riding Hood’s famous lines said to the wolf.

The childish tone of the line in relation to the rest of the poem reminds the reader that the character has matured.

Little Red Cap Analysis

It helps to emphasize the character’s loss of innocence, subtly conveying the aspect of growing up and leaving childhood and its stories behind.

The references to death in the poem seem to symbolize the transition from adolescence to adulthood and the death of a childhood that entails.

The third stanza shows her descent into the woods, while her “stockings ripped to shreds”. This seems to suggest that as she ventures further into the woods, her childhood is being brutally ‘ripped’ away from her.

The “murder clues” left behind emphasizes how her childhood is torn away and killed in the process of growing up.

Throughout the poem, the wolf dominates Little Red as she attempts to find her own voice and creativity.

For the first part of the poem, she follows the wolf and “crawled in his wake”, implying that she has submitted to the wolf and that she follows without question.

She went to find a  “white dove”, which is often a symbol for purity.

Duffy seems to use the ‘white dove’ as a metaphor for creative freedom, but it is “one bite, dead” as it is eaten by the wolf. There is a harsh realism to this line, since the bird being eaten seems to suggest how she is blocked and unable to progress due to the wolf.

The abruptness of the sentence suggests how she has no choice in the matter, and that it only takes a small ‘bite’ from a man to completely destroy her poetic freedom.

The “same rhyme, same reason” creates a monotonous feeling, as if she is trapped within a loop.

The poem also shows Little Red’s discovery of her voice despite being hindered by the wolf.

In the last two stanza of the poem, there is a sense that she has an epiphany, where she realises what she must do to gain her voice.

“Stopper[ing] the mouth of a buried corpse,” suggests the loss of individuality and how she has been stopped from having a proper adolescence by the wolf. The realisation after “ten years” shows how she may see herself as the corpse, and that she needs to change her life is she wants to ‘live’ again.

The  “virgin white of [her] grandmother’s bones” carries a slight oxymoron, as ‘virgin’ and ‘grandmother’ are not words often used in the same sentence together.

However, the word ‘grandmother’ shows her heritage and the past, while ‘virgin’ connotes the loss of her innocence.

The ‘grandmother’ also helps to represent and empower the female voice against the previously dominant male voice of the wolf.

The heaviness of the “stones” in the second last line contrasts the light-heartedness of the very last line, helping to convey the sense of freedom that she receives at the end.

When she comes out “singing”, it shows that she has finally found her voice and is returning to the light while “all alone” despite usually being associated with something bad, in this context seems to suggest independence and the individuality she gained.

The poem seems to almost directly parallel Duffy’s life as if she is trying to immortalize her story in the form of a fairy-tale.

One direct reference is in the poem, Little Red is “sweet sixteen” when she meets the wolf; Duffy was sixteen when her relationship with 39-year-old poet Adrian Henri began.

Words like “bearded” and “wine” used to describe the wolf gives off an aura of age and maturity. There are connotations of Little Red being exploited in the poem for her naivety by the wolf, which really heightens the creepy atmosphere of the poem.

It was assumed by many that Duffy was under her lover’s influence during their time together until she published her first poetry anthology and proved that she had her own mind.

Little Red-Cap seems to mirror this as throughout the poem it seems that she is under the wolf’s influence, but comes to realize that she must break away from the wolf to discover her own creative freedom.

Overall, the poem seems to show the harsh reality of growing up, and the fight of searching for female voice and integrity in a world dominated by men (the wolf).

The poem suggests how women are able to be independent and find their own creativity, alluding to her own story as a way to show that women can have a voice in the world of poetry.

The death of a childhood in the poem is suggested to be tragic, however necessary in order to progress and find yourself.

The feminist undertone of the poem emphasises the independence and strength of women through this reiteration of the fairy-tale.

In my opinion, the poem stands out due to its use of dark language and symbolism to convey multiple messages at once.

Little Red Cap Carol Ann Duffy portrays the transition from adolescence to adulthood, along with insinuations of exploitation and how growing up is often not as good as it is believed to be.

The poem also shows the search for female independence through a male dominated life/society.

The very last line helps to bring closure to the poem and its search, having what could be a relatively happy “fairy-tale ending”.
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