‘Little Red Cap’ was published in 1991 in Duffy’s much-loved collection The World’s Wife. In this volume, Duffy rewrote historical and mythological stories from a feminist perspective. She changed storylines, added details, and even fundamentally altered events to create stories. In the case of ‘Little Red Cap,’ Duffy reworks the story of Little Red Riding Hood. In this version, the young girl is less shy and innocent than she is sexually curious and ambitious. She is in full control of her life and her relationship with the wolf is a very different one.
Explore Little Red Cap
Summary of Little Red Cap
In the first part of the poem, the speaker describes leaving her childhood behind and embarking on a journey into the woods with a poetry-loving wolf. She sleeps with him, learns from him, and eventually becomes his equal. She learns about nature, about writing, and in the end, she grows tired of his day to day activities. Eventually, she takes an axe to that world she knows and to the wolf as well.
You can read the full poem Little Red Cap here.
Themes in Little Red Cap
Duffy engages with several important themes in ‘Little Red Cap,’ such as coming of age, creativity, and gender. None of these themes are out of place in Duffy’s broader oeuvre, especially within The World’s Wife. The poem celebrates the young woman’s empowerment, sexually, independently, and artistically. In this piece, Duffy asks that the reader reconsider the role of the wolf and his influence over the girl as she ages. It’s not as simple as the girl taking on more power in the relationship, misogyny, and male dominance still place a role.
The complex relationship at the heart of the poem inspires the speaker’s artistic and sexual coming of age. She moves from an innocent young woman to a mature one and from an amateur artist to an experienced one. By the end, the speaker’s voice dominates the wolf’s and suggests to the reader that artistic expression is one important way of solidifying broader personal independence and agency.
Structure and Form of Little Red Cap
‘Little Red Cap’ by Carol Ann Duffy is a seven stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets are written in free verse, this means that there is no set rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The poem does not conform to a traditional poetic structure either, although it might be called a dramatic monologue since it is in first-person and is uninterrupted by other’s thoughts or words.
Although there is no standard rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, there is a little bit of both in the poem. For example, the first line, “At childhood’s end, the houses petered out” is written in iambic pentameter. This means that the line contains five sets of two beats, the first of which is unstressed and the second stressed.
There are also a few examples of internal rhyme and half-rhyme in ‘Little Red Cap’. The former can be seen in lines eight and nine with the words “paw” and “jaw”. For the latter, half-rhyme is more common. There is a good example in line twelve with the words “sweet sixteen, never been”. This helps create a feeling of rhyme in the poem even if there is not a pattern.
Literary Devices in Little Red Cap
Duffy makes use of several literary devices in ‘Little Red Cap’. These include but are not limited to enjambment, caesura, alliteration, and repetition. The latter, repetition, is a common device that has appeared in many poems throughout the ages. In the case of Duffy’s poem, readers can spot it in the last lines of the fifth stanza.
Alliteration is a kind of repetition that involves only the first consonant sound of specific words. For example, “petered” and “playing” in lines one and two fo the first stanza and “hands” and “his” in line one of stanza five. Along with half-rhyme, alliteration can help to establish the feeling of a rhyme scheme or rhythmical pattern.
Enjambment is incredibly common in ‘Little Red Cap’. It can be seen in the transition between almost every line of the poem. Some good examples include the transitions between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines one and two of the third stanza.
The first line of the third stanza also provides a great example of a caesura. The line reads: “My first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry”. There is another example in line two of the fifth stanza. It reads: “One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said”.
Analysis of Little Red Cap
At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
Into playing fields, the factory, allotments
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf
In the first stanza of ‘Little Red Cap,’ the speaker states very directly that this poem is going to be about a coming of age story. It starts with the speaker saying this is the “end” of childhood. She is about to have a series of experiences that remove her from her youth entirely. The next lines depict the metaphorical neighborhood of her youth. She comes to fields, factories, allotments that married men attend to as though they were mistresses, and a railroad track. Finally, she gets to the edge of the woods where she 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
Sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink
The wolf is standing, doing something that wolves don’t do—read poetry. He’s reading his own verse out loud “In his wolfy drawl”. It’s contained in a paperback book. The next lines mimic the original story of Little Red Riding Hood. The speaker exclaims over his “ears” and “eyes” and “teeth!”. She marvels over him, fully accepting of what she sees and making it clear that she was seeking him out. From these lines, the reader can also intuit that the wolf is proud of what he’s reading. He’s confident in his own words.
At the right moment, the speaker ensures that the wolf notices her. She wants him to see her, “Sweet sixteen” and innocent and buy her first drink.
my first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry.
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods,
snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes
The speaker turns to talk directly to the reader. (In this first line there is a good example of caesura.) She chose to find the wolf for “Poetry” and everything he knows about it. She wants to step away from her childhood and go into the woods with the wolf, “Away from home”. There, she hopes to encounter things that surprise and challenge her. She’’’ “crawl…in his wake” and scrap her legs. She pursues the wolf, revealing to the reader that she is not quite as innocent as she might seem—at least not the innocent young girl from the original fairy tale.
Readers should also take note of the use of enjambment within all lines of this poem. Duffy rarely ends a line with end-punctuation, allowing the poem to move smoothly from line to line and stanza to stanza.
But got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night
Breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem
And went in search of a living bird – white dove –
She has fully committed to spending time with the wolf in his “lair,” exposing herself to the sexual experiences and artistic development. She is an eager participant in their sexual encounter and admits that is was somewhat intense. His fur was “thrashing”— it was her first lesson. In juxtaposition to the passion and wildness of the first few lines of this stanza, the speaker sets out after “a living bird—white dove” in the sixth line.
Which flew, straight, from my hands to his open mouth
Warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood
The white dove, which symbolizes everything from peace to innocence is immediately eaten by the wolf at the beginning of this stanza. This is a symbol of the speaker choosing to give away her youth and purity, accepting and relishing the fact that she is changed and changing. To the wolf, this is a simple pleasure, like breakfast in bed.
With another example of a caesura, the speaker describes how she investigated the “back / Of the lair” where he has his books. While he sleeps, she looks through them. They are alive with the light of writing and creativity. Duffy uses repetition in these lines, as well as alliteration, to emphasize the speaker’s wonder. She’s enthralled by what she sees there.
Duffy also uses personification in the last two lines of stanza five as she depicts the words as living, “beating, frantic” and “winged”. They were “truly alive” on the speaker’s tongue.
But then I was young – and it took ten years
Howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out
Season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe
The speaker’s time with the wolf is not brief. She’s there for ten years and it took that time for her to fully take in everything the wolf has taught her. Their relationship was dominated by the wolf when she first came. It was like a “mushroom” clogging up the mouth of a “buried corpse”. She has also learned that “birds are the uttered thoughts of trees,” a beautiful example of how true art comes from real experiences.
Although she was fun taken in by the wolf in the first part of the poem, now she’s old enough and experienced enough to realize that he is less interesting than she might like. He sings the “same old song at the moon” every day, season after season. It’s, in the end, uninspiring, the opposite of what she was looking for. It’s clear at this point that she’s gotten everything the came for from the wolf.
To a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone
It’s because of the mundanity of their life together that she “took an axe / To a willow to see how it wept”. This is an example of her new power over the written word and the world around her. She did the same “to a salmon / To see how it leapt”.
The poem concludes beautifully with the now twenty-six-year-old woman taking the axe to the wolf and cutting him open, from “scrotum to throat,” thus liberating herself of him and establishing dominance in the relationship. Her grandmother’s bones are in the wolf’s stomach, “virgin white”. In the end, she acts as the original Little Red Riding Hood did, and fills the wolf’s stomach with rocks. She leaves the scene peacefully and freely, fully in control of her own life.
Readers who were inspired by ‘Little Red Cap’ should also consider reading other poems from Duffy’s The World’s Wife collection. For example, ‘Mrs. Midas’, a retelling of this story of King Midas who can turn everything he touches to gold, as well as ‘Anne Hathaway’, the story of Shakespeare’s wife. Some others include ‘Medusa’ and ‘Mrs. Sisyphus’. Other similar poems include ‘To have without holding’ and ‘Barbie Doll’ by Marge Piercy. Finally, make sure to check out our list of 10 of the Best Carol Anne Duffy Poems.