Gwen Harwood sent a hostile message to the Bulletin Newspaper in 1961. This was a protest against, what Harwood believed to be, an inherent sexism within the journalistic sphere.
In Home of Mercy how does Harwood highlight the repression of females within society?
Gwen Harwood underlines the repression of women within society in Home of Mercy by expressing the restrictions that these girls face. The poem brings forward the way society view young females in the 1960s that act ‘indecently’ in societies view. Harwood is opposed to these views and believes that injustice has been done to these girls simply because they are not in a ‘traditional’ and ‘respectable’ marriage. Harwood uses descriptive language, religious imagery and irony to convey the hypocritical nature of the asylums, religion and society itself.
There were many restrictions placed on the women in 1960s. The girls of the Magdalene Asylums are an example of this, as we see through Harwood’s portrayal of the strict and conservative surroundings controlled by the nuns. In the first stanza Harwood emphasizes the suppressing nature of the convent by using descriptive language such as “By two and two” and “Neat margin of the convent grass”. Harwood alerts the reader to the forced order that is put on the girls; the nuns hold a tight control over them as if they are young children made to hold hands as they cross the road. Harwood uses a sonnet form to symbolize the restrictions. Furthermore she writes the poem in a sonnet form to represent the challenges created by these restrictions for both herself and for the girls that she writes of, with their “intolerable weekday rigor”.
This shows the blindfolded view that the nuns have, believing that what they are doing to these girls, by making them work in laundries, is right and for the girls benefit. In Home of Mercy the girls are dehumanized in the descriptive language that Harwood uses. The poet uses the expression “counted as they pass” to express the view of the nuns who see the girls not as individuals but as faceless people that they are to be punished. This language is comparable to that used of livestock, to make sure that none have escaped; which also implies to the reader that these girls are held against their will and are fenced off from society. The controlling nature of the nuns is yet again shown when the nun “silences their talking”, the girls have lost the freedom that any children would
naturally have to be talking and laughing but this is not allowed for women and girls that have ‘done wrong’ in societies’ eyes.
The Magdalene Asylums were first created to help women by rehabilitating them, however over a period of time the intention of the laundries changed to become an institution to oppress the young women in an unjust way. Gwen Harwood emphasizes the hypocritical nature of the Asylums and the nuns that managed them. Irony is used throughout Home of Mercy, including the title as it names the Asylums a home of mercy and yet the girls have been taken away from their own homes. As the piece goes on we see that the pregnant girls are treated in a way that you would not expect to see pregnant women to be treated, the nuns, who show to no mercy to them, yet again a use of irony, force the girls to ‘launder’. The idea behind the girls working as washerwomen is to symbolize them washing away their sins and yet they are not washing their own clothes but “sheets soiled by other bodies”.
The religious imagery within the poem conveys the hypocritical nature of the Magdalene Asylums. The term “plaster saints” is used by Harwood in a well thought out way as it first gives the reader the impression of the girls look at these plaster sculptures of saints that surround them as they pray, however the expression “plaster saints” also has a double entendre of a person without moral fault in a hypocritical way, which is what we see the nuns to be. Other religious imagery used is of the angels that “wrestle [the girls] with brutish vigor”, this shows to the reader that these girls are haunted by their past. Were you would expect an angel to be compassionate and have a pure nature you find them brutishly wrestling, which encompasses the thought of society that have seeped into their dreams, giving them no escape from guilt. Harwood evoke sympathy for the girls that have no escape from their punishment.
In conclusion, in Home of Mercy Gwen Harwood highlights the repression of females within society by emphasizing the restrictions put on the girls within the Magdalene Asylums by using descriptive language that shows the dehumanization of the girls and women. Harwood also conveys the hypocritical nature of the Magdalene asylums that were originally set up to be rehabilitation assistance, and stresses how the religion is acting duplicitous and deceiving. Overall Harwood evokes the suppression of women within society using the example of the Magdalene Asylums.