Interactive Oral Commentary: Stealing
My name is Kate Sampson and today I will be analysing Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, Stealing. To begin with, I will provide some background information to help put the themes in this poem into context. It was published in the 1980’s during Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, it is essentially a political poem in response to a new culture of greed and selfishness that ignored the working-class. There were constant poll tax riots, miner’s strikes, homelessness, and unemployment. My thesis for this poem is: the harshness of the society in Britain during the 1980’s is reflected through one single speaker through the use of syntax and structure to create feelings of alienation and destruction. This poem can only effectively be analysed by considering the poem as a whole and not separating it by stanzas. The entire poem is a person confessing their crimes and admitting/bragging about what they have stolen. The majority of the poem refers to one time when he/she stole a snowman. Therefore, I will analyse this poem through the literary devices that are present and not by each independent stanza or line. To begin with, the title of this poem proposes several ideas about the speaker. The act of stealing suggests a lack of purpose, a want of attention, and a distraction from pain. All of which are visible throughout the poem. This poem is a dramatic monologue and the speaker is very ambiguous.
We are not sure of the speaker’s gender or age. However, for the sake of this commentary I will assume it is a man because I interpreted it as a man speaking. We also do not hear the voice of the person listening to the speaker, this adds to the idea of the speaker being alienated from society. We know that there is a listener because the poem opens with a hypophora, or when a question is posed and then answered, and it ends with a rhetorical question. We can assume that the speaker is talking to either society in general or maybe a police officer, he seems to be confessing his crimes for the first time because he assumes the listener does not understand him at the end of the poem when he asks, “You don’t understand a word I’m saying, do you?” Although this is a dramatic monologue, it also reads like a real or natural speech. The use of three literary devices in particular adds to this affect. The use of caesura, or the break between words, establishes pauses and represents the speaker’s chaotic thoughts that are all over the place.
Next, the holophrastic fractured sentences, such as in stanza one where it says; “Midnight.” “A snowman.” also show that he cannot maintain one flow of conscious. Lastly, the enjambment shows the hesitation and breaks in the sentences, demonstrating the lack of excitement that the speaker is experiencing. For example, in stanza three it says “I joy-ride cars/to nowhere”. Joy-ride cars are suppose to be for kicks and entertainment, and that is what we assume until we read the next line which says “to nowhere”. Even something that is supposed to be fun lacks any excitement for the speaker. Also, he is essentially wasting his life. These three literary devices add to the sense that this is a real speech and it is also a social criticism of the 1980’s and the alienation that people felt during this time period in Britain. The structure of this poem is divided into five equal stanzas but it also has an irregular metre. The free verse and equal stanzas show some sort of order to the poem, however the irregularity contrasts this, which represents his thoughts. The speaker wants to have order to his life however his messy thoughts get in the way of this and hold him back. There is also internal rhymes within this poem, such as “thrill and chill” in stanza two. This connection between terms symbolises what is occurring inside the speaker’s head, he is trying to internally connect to himself to believe he has a purpose.
The tone of this poem also reflects these messy thoughts because it comes across as quite aggressive and at the same time it portrays loneliness. We can see this in stanza five, line one when he says “Bored. Mostly I’m so bored I could eat myself.” This shows both his aggressiveness and his loneliness, boredom in my opinion is his way of covering the fact that he is lonely. Also, the idea of eating himself is his outlet of anger. The language used in this poem is very crucial to understand when analysing the themes. There is a contrast of both colloquial language and figurative lyrical language. The colloquial language is used frequently by words such as: mate, gut, tough, and joy ride. These terms represent the harshness of life in the 1980’s but more importantly they represent the lack of education. This speaker is clearly ostracized from society just as the man in Education for Leisure was, another poem by Carol Ann Duffy. Both speakers lack an education and are acting out by breaking societal rules. In “Stealing” he is stealing and in “Education for Leisure” he is killing animals. Both poems leave the reader with similar feelings of creepiness, however the speaker in “Stealing” is definitely more confrontational because he acts out on people and not solely animals. On the other hand, there is the figurative lyrical language, which consists of both alliterations and metaphors. For example, in stanza one line two it says, “a tall, white mute/beneath the winter moon.” This lyrical language is completely different from the colloquial language that follows. I interpreted this as the speaker’s internal struggle with himself to attempt to bring some purpose and significance to his life. However, the disarray of his thoughts always interrupts this.
The tone, structure, and language all relate to the numerous themes in this poem, however the three most important themes in my opinion are those of alienation, destruction, and the cold. Alienation appears several times throughout the poem and it is important to note that the speaker is not only alienated from society, but also from himself and the simplicity of childhood. In stanza three, line four the speaker says “I watch my gloved hand” and in the next line he refers to mirrors. Both these items are ways of alienating himself from his own identity; even mirrors are a way of seeing yourself without actually seeing because he does not have a realistic image of himself. In addition to the gloves and mirrors, the snowman is also representative of something and that is childhood, family, and acceptance in society. The thief tries to steal the snowman to steal the feeling of being accepted, he wants to recapture his innocence and along with it a sense of inclusion. But when he takes it back to his house it does not look the same and is warped because of the way he tried to take it, through stealing.
This is shown in stanza four lines one and two, “Reassembled in the yard, he didn’t look the same.” As a result, he destroys it out of fury and is left with a sense of isolation no matter what he tries to do. Either way, he sees himself reflected at the snowman and this is why he is so agitated. He sees himself through the snowman and is not content with what he sees; the snowman is clearly not succeeding in filling the empty space within the thief like he thought it would. For this reason, I believe he refers to the snowman in both stanzas one and five as the strangest thing he has ever stolen.” The theme of destruction is reoccurring as well, the speaker clearly is not able to construct anything, only destruct. He does attempt to fill his life with something constructive, however his attempts are always rejected. He discards all music, literature, and friendship that try to enter his life. Stanza five refers to both music and literature through the guitar and the bust of Shakespeare, neither of which he has time for. The friendship attempt is through the snowman he steals. Stanza one introduces this snowman and in line three says, “I wanted him, a mate…” The speaker is looking for a purpose and a snowman represents companionship, something that is lacking in his life. However, in stanza four he begins to boot the snowman in line three and becomes destructive once again. This object that once represented something constructive has know entered the cycle again and has become destructive. Destroying the snowman is also destroying an image of him, again demonstrating self-destruction.
The metaphor of the “mucky ghost” in stanza three, line three also represents destruction. A ghost has a negative connotation and also suggests something that is invisible and perhaps not seen by society, just like the speaker. The ghost, or the speaker in this case, has the power to enter homes and steal items and at the same time be destructive and as the line says, “leave a mess, maybe pinch a camera.” The speaker wants to feel included and leave his mark in society by leaving this mess through destructive actions. The thief is not only leaving his mark by being destructive when breaking into homes, but the speaker also hopes to destroy a child’s happiness. In stanza two line four it says, “Part of the thrill was knowing that children would cry in the morning. Life’s tough” because he never had that happy childhood so is acting out of spite. The thief is essentially criticising the society by showing the rough life everyone has, he also wants others to experience his pain. Another moment of destruction, in this case self-destruction is in stanza four when it says, “My breath ripped out in rags.” This metaphor is one of the more violent images and it shows again how frustrated the thief is because he is not experiencing what he desired to through the act of stealing. The idea of being cold is symbolised by the snowman.
The snowman connects to the speaker because both are cold and hence emotionless. The snowman is also described as “mute” and it is odd that the speaker would want a friend who cannot talk and I see this as him not wanting to have to speak or listen to someone else. He just needed the companionship of another, not necessarily someone to talk to.
This relates to the rhetorical question the speaker asks to the listener at the end of the poem because he automatically assumes that no one understands him, maybe this is why he is happy with the idea of the snowman not being able to talk. He rejects society but almost seems to take pride in it. He doesn’t want society to reject him, though. Later in stanza one, it says “with a mind as cold as the slice of ice within my own brain”. This description of a slice of ice depicts the numbness that the thief feels with himself and his own thoughts. Again, emphasizing this idea of being alienated because only the snowman has the potential to understand the numbness and worthlessness that he feels. In stanza four, after the speaker attempts to destroy the snowman, it says, “It seems daft now”.
Booting the snowman did not bring the satisfaction that the speaker thought it would and as soon as he finished, the numbness returned and this is evident through the word daft. He desperately pretends to embrace his isolation but is only fooling himself. In addition to my interpretation of the three major themes, I also interpreted three different objects that the speaker steals as a depiction of him being wistful for happiness and love. As I already said, he stole the snowman because it represents companionship and he wanted a “mate”. In stanza three, line three the speaker mentions how he may “pinch a camera”. I see cameras as objects that hold memories and are usually used by a group of friends or families. Both of these things this thief clearly lacks in his life. I also referred to the Shakespeare bust and guitar that he stole in stanza five lines two and three. Literature and music both bring happiness to people’s lives and helps them connect to others.
All of these things also connect back to what I said about his yearning for the simplicity of childhood, not only through the snowman but through these objects as well. The speaker could most definitely be seen as sociopathic because of how openly he is talking about his crimes and wanting children to feel unhappy, however my interpretation of the speaker does not agree with him being a sociopath. I see him as fragile and vulnerable. He definitely shows signs of being lonely and exhausted with himself and the world. In stanza four, line 4 the thief says; “Then I was standing alone among lumps of snow, sick of the world.” This in itself sums up his attitude towards everything in this poem.
The amount of pain in this sentence alone provides us with insight into the society at the time in Britain. To link back to my thesis, the syntax and language, as referred to throughout the entire analysis of this poem, allows the thoughts of this single poetic speaker to demonstrate the feeling of alienation and self-destruction that an entire society felt during the 1980’s.