‘Half Hanged Mary’ is a poem written about a real person and an actual event. In a small Puritan town in the 1680s, Mary Webster was accused of witchcraft. With no real evidence, she, along with many others, was hanged. But Mary didn’t die. Strangely enough, she lived for another fourteen years after hanging all night long. No one knows why she didn’t die, but her story remains an ominous one. Atwood is distantly related to Webster and wrote this poem in her honor. Through the text, she relived what Mary felt and gave her ancestor a voice. Atwood also dedicated her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale to Mary Webster.
Explore Half Hanged Mary
In the first stanzas of ‘Half Hanged Mary,’ the speaker, Mary Webster herself, describes the moments leading up to her hanging and why she was chosen. Atwood describes the prejudice against this woman, living alone with “blue eyes and sunburned skin” as the reason. She was different than other women and, therefore, a perfect target. When she was strung up, men and women came to look at her. She could see “down into their eyeholes / and their nostrils” and see their “fear.” Mary knows all them, was even friends with some. She knew their children and cared for many of them. But, there they were, staring at her dying. No one dares to help her down for fear that Mary will injure them. Time progresses, and Mary’s suffering increases. Even at the end of the poem, when it seems that she should be at her weakest, she declares that she “will not give in” to those who seek to destroy her.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘Half Hanged Mary,’ readers can find themes including women’s rights and the treatment of women, as well as strength and suffering. From the first stanzas of the poem, Mary’s suffering and incredible willpower come through quite clearly. By the end, readers should be amazed that she survived the night, no matter the state that her mind was in at the time. She somehow had the strength to fight off death, push back against those who wanted to break her, and live to see the next day. At the heart of this poem, though, is the reasoning behind why this woman was chosen or why any women were murdered without evidence of any wrongdoing.
Women were seen as a threat if they showed independence, self-assurance, or any freedom of thought or expression. In this case, Mary displayed all these things. Plus, she was unmarried, another factor working against her. In their fear of the unknown, men and women turned against her and many other women, choosing to murder innocent women rather than face the truth that there might be more to their world than their religion could explain.
‘Half Hanged Mary’ is divided into stanzas of varying lengths. These stanzas are further divided into sections based on the time of the day, beginning with 7:00 in the evening and ending with some time after 8:00 am the next morning. Atwood wrote this poem in free verse, meaning no single rhyme scheme or metrical pattern that unites the lines. Readers should also note how by 3:00 AM, the relatively structured stanzas have disappeared, as has the punctuation and capital letters. This is meant to convey the changes that have come over her through this prolonged period of suffering.
Atwood makes use of several literary devices in ‘Half Hanged Mary.’ These include anaphora, enjambment, and imagery. The latter, imagery, is one of the most important literary devices that poets can employ in their poems. It is dependent on being creative enough to trigger the reader’s senses. For example, the lines from the 3 A.M. section: “my ears like stabbed hearts my heart/stutters in my fluttering cloth / body I dangle with strength.”
Anaphora is a formal device connected with repetition at the beginning of lines. For example, in the 12 Midnight section of the poem, when Atwood starts multiple lines with the word “To” and “or.” This helps create a feeling of rhythm when there is no single metrical pattern at work in the poem.
Enjambment is another formal device and one of the most popular in poetry. It can be seen when the poet cuts off a sentence or phrase before a natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines three and four of the second.
Analysis of Half Hanged Mary
In this section of Half Hanged Mary, the woman is accused of witchcraft and sentenced to hang with no evidence apart from that she lived alone, had blue eyes, and sunburned skin. She had apparently given others a home remedy to cure warts and was therefore accused of witchcraft. Her appearance fitting the charge was enough to have her hanged. She mentions, of course, that her breasts were another factor that led her to be hanged without a trial. As a woman, she did not stand a chance against the accusation of men.
In this section of Half Hanged Mary, she is raised to hang. She wonders why they must still use such brutal means of execution and suggests that an ax would be quicker than to hang. She compares herself to a blackened apple, referring once against to her sun-baked skin. She feels people must view her and an “old bone-faced goddess” or some form of a supernatural being who “once took blood in return for food.” She then turns her attention to the men who “stalk homeward” and are “excited by their show of hate.” She reveals the men’s injustice, whose word is taken so quickly and executions conducted at their hands. She implies that here in the hangings, the evil in these men’s hearts is turned inside out for all to see and that she was sentenced to display the very evil in their hearts.
At 9 pm, she is looking around at everyone she has known, and she feels as though she can peer right into their souls, and what she sees is fear. Her tone in this section does not condemn or hate the ones who once loved her, but now watch her hang. Rather she identifies with them in their fear. Perhaps she had felt the same way before when she had watched others hang. She looks at specific people and remembers what she had done for them. She had cured one’s child and helped another to avoid the disgrace of becoming an unwed mother and facing death herself. She asks whether anyone will help her, but then she quickly answers herself and even says that she understands why they do not. For the onlookers, to fade into the background and point a finger is the safest action to take. She knows that if anyone of them were to whisper a kind word to her in her pain or to offer her a shawl or piece of bread, they would then become suspects as well.
By 10 pm in Half Hanged Mary, the speaker turns her thoughts from the onlookers up to God, and she implies that she and God have been quarreling. She implies that God has claimed to give people free will, and yet here she is, hanging against her will. She asks God how He could be a God of grace if she is here hanging. If nature is all in God’s control, she questions, what is the rope? If He is truly a God of grace, she asks, “Does my twisting body spell out, Grace?” She does not believe in Faith, Charity, and Hope anymore. She says they are no more than dead angels. She cannot see God, and she cannot understand Him. For this reason, she looks up at the sky and says that if the sky is the face of God, it is blank.
By midnight, the hanging woman is ready to let go. She feels death close at hand, comparing it to a crow and claiming that it sits on her shoulder, ready to eat her decaying flesh. She describes the rope against her throat, the way her head bulges, and how she feels that her eyeballs would pop out of her head. She then compares Death to a judge, eagerly waiting for her punishment to be complete. But then, there is a shift, and Death is compared to an angel- a dark angel, but still an angel. He speaks tenderly to her, caressing her, and asking her to trust him and just let go of life.
At 2 in the morning, she is trying to call out to God, but she cannot because the rope constrains her voice. She can only manage to make a gnawing sound that does not sound quite like a prayer. She begins to compare prayer to being strangled. She thinks that prayer has always been a “gasp for air.” She begins to think about the men at Pentecost, and this is when she seems to be in and out of sanity as images flash in her mind. She compares herself to the early apostles, perhaps because she feels like a martyr, innocent, yet sentenced to death. The second part of this section reveals some loss of sense as she hangs there, struggling. She speaks a few nonsense lines, as she has lost blood flow to the brain and is in and out of consciousness. Yet in her somewhat nonsensical dialogue, she cries out, “not yet, not yet.” She does not want to die, and even as she is hanging there in intense pain and unbearable suffering, she grasps at life in a desperate attempt to hang on, to live just a few moments longer. She is just barely in this life, hanging somewhere between this one and the next. She can feel Heaven, but it feels like “fire and shredded flesh,” and the sounds the angels make seem to her as the “caw” of the crow.
In this section of Half Hanged Mary, she is yet again in and out of sanity. Her words lack comprehensive flow, yet they still cry out with the feelings that are going on inside her as she draws nearer and nearer to death. She is keenly aware of her senses and describes them as they feel to her as she comes closer to death. She feels the wind and hears it blow through the leaves. She hears the birds, and they seem as though they “yell inside [her] ears.” She feels that her body is “fluttering” in the wind as a “tattered” garment. She cannot speak words. She feels the word “no” but cannot utter it. She feels her lungs drowning for want of air. Yet, in all of this, she still proclaims her innocence. She claims that her hanging “is a crime” but that she “did no crime.” She calls out for the leaves and the wind to hold on to her and claims that she “will not give in.”
At this point, the speaker has made it through the night. The hanging did not kill her. She sees the sunrise and no longer sees God in it. She feels as though she has lived a million years. She feels as though her hair should have turned white in just one night. She claims that her hair did not turn white, but instead, “it was [her] heart.” She feels that all the life in her heart has been drained, and it is like a dead piece of meat inside of her. She also feels taller, her body having been stretched out as it was. She has thoughts of infinity. What would it mean to exist in infinity? To never die? She has hung all night and still was alive, and she thought about what infinity might feel like. She remains silent at the end of her rope. She will not say that she is grateful for having made it through the night because she knows that someday, she will really die. And while everyone else would only have to experience death once, she would have to experience it twice.
At 8 a.m. in Half Hanged Mary, they come to cut her down from her nose. The speaker shifts to a tone of sarcasm with this section. The reader can see the change that has occurred in this young woman. She was once an innocent, wrongly accused young lady who searched for meaning, truth, and God. She once looked on the crowd, and even in her death, could still identify with them as even feel sorry for them. She was once very different. But now, she is cynical and not entirely comprehensive. She has certainly changed in this one night, and her shift in tone makes that very evident. When the speaker says, “surprise, surprise, I am still alive,” the tone suggests that there is just a hint of insanity. The reader can imagine her saying these words with a wild look in her eye. Then she goes on to mock her accusers, claiming that they cannot execute her twice for the same crime. Her response to this realization is “how nice.” This also gives the reader the chilling feeling that a serious change has occurred in this young lady. Again, one can imagine a wild look in her eye as she says this. The speaker acknowledges a change and claims that although she was not a witch before, she certainly is one now.
In this last section of Half Hanged Mary, it becomes clear that she has, in fact, lost her sanity. That awful night on which she should have died may not have stolen her physical life, but it certainly robbed her of her mind. She feels that she is just a body, “skin and waxes and wanes.” She is not her former self, though she may still retain her former body. Her mind is constantly filled with the night on which she hanged. She cannot think of anything else. She digs in the dirt, eats flowers, mice and feces, and she mumbles to herself non-stop. She is aware enough to realize that people are frightened by her and are anxious to get out of her way if they happen to pass by her on the street. She speaks in a language no one can understand. This is what she implies when she says that she speaks “in tongues.” She talks to the owls and God, and she is aware that no one else can understand her to save for God alone. She has no control over the words she speaks, They “boil out of [her].” Yet she acknowledges that her words are empty. She says they are “all vacancies.”
- “Half-Hanged Mary.” Half-Hanged Mary. School World, 2016. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.