The Map As A Metaphor

Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, ‘The Map Woman,’ uses an extended metaphor to explore the ideas of childhood, hometowns and nostalgia. This is explained in the opening line of the poem, which states that the woman’s “skin was the map” of the town from where she grew as a girl. The second-to-last stanza culminates with her shedding of her skin. In the reader’s head, a certain image is created, for example, that of a serpent or a body. This could be reduced to three key concepts: permanence, location and identity.

Duffy shows through the extended metaphor that the body of a woman and a map are identical. The figurative expressions in stanza 2 link her anatomy to the different features of her home town, as she states that “her veins [are] shadows beneath the map’s lines, the river an arterial”. The language used implies that, just like an artery or vein, the character relies on the map to help her survive. The reader can interpret the sentence as the character providing directions. The poet intensifies this effect through direct addresses like ‘you. In addition to suggesting that she is using the map to find her way, the poet also gives the impression that the main character is trying to promote her hometown. The tone of the novel, however, suggests that the character wants to forget this town. This is not the case, as the character has a vivid memory of many places and roads in her hometown. She can recall ‘Nelson’ or Churchill’ or Kipling and he recollects ‘Milton’. The map metaphor on her skin shows the character’s inner dependence and longing for her home. The metaphor, when compared with the tone of the story, can also reveal her inner conflict in relation to her attitudes towards home.

The poem is replete with references to themes of permanence and change. In the first stanza, the map’s definition is ‘birthmark’ or ‘tattoo’. These two marks are both permanent but they are caused by different things. Birthmarks occur naturally and are present at birth. Tattoos, however, are added later in life. In this way, the reader can understand this map’s cause in a different light. If the map is seen as a “birthmark”, then it could be that this character wants to express how her birth in this city has left a permanent mark on her. If the tattoo is read as a map, the character might be trying express that it was acquired through the life experiences she’s had. The origin of either map is unclear, but both show how unable the woman is to leave her hometown. The sibilance used to describe this woman’s efforts to eliminate these permanent marks, i.e.’sponged, washed, scrubbed’, further enhances the effect. The poem is also accelerated and the character’s desperate attempt to remove the map is revealed. The poem is filled with ideas of permanence and change, both. However, the latter tends to be more prominent towards the end. The first line of the poem shows how change can be just as damaging as permanence. She says at the end that she has a “new skin” which barely shows a mark. This is a way to show how the poet contrasts the themes of permanence with change.

The metaphorically extended change is a powerful representation of the character’s identity change and rediscovery. The imagery of serpents is used to foreshadow this change throughout the poem. The character in the poem describes a river’snaking’ north. This is done by using a sibilance. Snakes are associated with cyclicality through the words ‘looped,”repeatedly,”strangers’,’steam’, and a phrase from stanza 1 that states ‘a precis where to go back, or begin.’ The poet may have been referring the “Ouroboros” symbol which represents the eternal return of life. The women is portrayed in this cyclical structure as she is shown repeating her experiences, emotions and life. This is also linked to her escapist fantasies of escaping from her hometown. This identity shift is also reflected in the poem’s form. The fourth last stanza is a two-line verse instead of the usual ten lines. The women starts shedding her skin after the fourth stanza. The final stanza asks the character ‘What did she want?’ The final stanza uses a rhetorical query to show that even though the map is different, the woman still remains the same. The question invites the reader almost to realize that a person’s identity is not affected by their environment. This is a link to the imagery of the snake.

The reader can see that, just like the map metaphor, the extended metaphor also reveals the inner conflicts and character traits of the protagonist. In order to gain sympathy for her struggles, the poet uses the location of each poem to put the reader into the character’s shoes. The map’s permanence and the changes in her identity and the map are contrasted to demonstrate the impossibility of escaping from the effects of history. The poet was able to express her feelings about her past and her shame or fear towards her hometown through the extended metaphor. The reader is then certain that extended metaphors are used to reveal hidden emotion.


  • jessicawilson

    Jessica Wilson is a 33-year-old essay writer and blogger from the UK. She has been writing since she was a teenager and has always been interested in writing about personal experiences and thoughts. Jessica has written for a number of online magazines and websites and has also published a number of essays and short stories. Jessica currently works as a freelance writer.