Duffy highlights the stuffiness and restrictive atmosphere of education exemplified by the classrooms and the teachers, who are all adamant on rote memorisation instead of creativity. The laughter represents freedom and liberty, and the joy that can come because of that. The two opposing ideas and feelings, that between the intense jollity of the laughter and the stifling suffocation of the school, exists to illuminate the idea that education, especially schooling, hampers one’s potential and expression, as seen through the laughter, ultimately fuels and affords happiness.
Themes – The Failures of Schooling
We see that these girls are forced into memorising dates and names of people and events perhaps unimportant to them and generally irrelevant. This firstly shows the ineffective techniques of education, where the ability to recall random and useless dates and trivia is more important than properly understanding one’s self, let alone the ability to respect and enjoy life. If we argue that the laughter is expression, we can also see that the laughter which ensues like a pandemic affords the teachers the chance to pursue their actual dreams, instead of being stuck reeling off lists for a group of uninterested girls to stuff into their brains.
This implies that, not only is the education system harmful for the students, but it is entrapping for the teachers as well. Furthermore, one can see that most names mentioned are male. Now we see an image of a school of girls being forced to memorise and presumably recite the works and lives of men. This brings forth the concept that women are persistently scratched out of the history books so that only the men remain, men who are then studied laboriously in these girls’ schools. This also implies the concept of stifled expression as these girls are almost taught that they cannot achieve anything after learning about not a single woman.
Themes -Female Voice
The heart of the poem beats to the sound of laughter, a laughter that is ultimately representative of freedom and expression. We see that, one by one, each of these girls begins to break out into mirth, unceasing, until the whole school is nearly vibrated by the combined laughter. As these girls do so, their merriment begins to take effect, inducing teachers to pursue their dreams and so forth.
This indicates that the girls are making a change and the stuffy claustrophobia of the halls and rooms begins to become bright with such happiness. Thus Duffy creates an image of the combined efforts of these girls making a change, a change that is ultimately progressive and beneficial. This tells us that women can make a difference, especially if they work together. This difference could topple society but it will end up being a favourable change.
Symbols – The Laughter
It is fairly obvious to say that the girls’ laughter is representative of freedom and expression, a freedom they eventually forces change within the school. However, one can look at the idea of laughter in a multitude of interesting ways. Firstly, we can argue that laughter is a natural and oftentimes uncontrollable response in people, much like one’s heartbeat or perspiration. From this, one can say that such laughter, if also symbolic of expression, is a natural thing within these girls.
They are born to express and liberate themselves and it should be looked upon as natural for these girls to forge ahead with their desires. This makes the school seem even more stifling when one notices that such laughter is heavily criticised and controlled. Furthermore, it is equally clear to say that laughter is general happiness, the often audible response that induces joy and jocundity. If we also tie happiness with expression, one is forced to wonder why such people, these girls, are instead doing something that makes them miserable.
Symbols – The School
The school is ultimately in place to remind us of society. This society forces these girls to learn the escapades and trifles of men, essentially making it seem as if men are the only humans capable of success and recognition. Duffy may have used a school setting to hint at the lecturing personality of said society, where one is patronised like a student and ‘educated’ on what is and what isn’t important. It isn’t incorrect to say that one feels as if society is therefore surrounded by an image of indoctrination. Schools are frequently places of dread, where students would rather flee than stay, therefore Duffy may also be attempting to convey how society isn’t for the people, just as how a school may not be for the students (arguably).
Devices – Asyndeton
Asyndeton always makes a list laborious and increasingly slow, akin to a slog. Duffy does exceedingly well to pair this technique with the lists of names these girls are forced to memorise. Firstly, this makes the nature of rote memory appear dull and futile. When one wants to learn, one expects a slight injection of energy to keep one interested, but here we see these names pass at such a slow yet fast pace that we cannot recall a single one of them afterwards.
The words and letters blend into a homogenous mass. This directly criticises the ineffectiveness of rote memorisation, making it seem as if the sterile and dusty methods are not supportive of proper learning. Furthermore, one can also say that the names also begin to overwhelm the reader, no doubt overwhelming the girls as well. However, it is the fact that we are overwhelmed by the names of men that is of note. These girls are shown the achievements of men no matter where they look.
Devices Semantic Field
We see that the image and idea of water is constantly harkened back to when referring to this laughter. Water is often symbolic of life, thus making us think that this laughter is life itself. Indeed, the boring rote memorisation earlier on feels dead in comparison. By joining this laughter, expression, with water, life, Duffy may be arguing that there is little worth in living if one cannot express themselves.
To continue, water is also a liquid, and liquids are notorious for being quite free flowing. Rivers and streams for example of quite a clear and recognisable image. By applying this sense of flow and movement, Duffy may also be saying that laughter is what allows one to be free, expression gives these girls the ability to explore of their own free will.
The poem explores children who are unable to contain their laughter and they pass the laughter from one to another endlessly. This eventually inspired the teaches to seize their moment and follow the dreams, quitting school. Duffy presents education as stifling and being more concerned with churning out identical students than favouring individuality and creativity. The poem explores the power of female voices, young girls inspiring others with their free expression, and aiming to change modern society by gaining equality and being who they want to be.
The first laugh comes from Carolann Clare’s note passed to Emily Jane, which spreads across the school. One by one the students all begin to laugh, infectiously spreading across the school. With laughter aiming to represent freedom of expression, contrasting against the repetitive learning the girls are forced to learn. There are several teachers mentioned throughout the poem. With each eventually following their own individual dream careers, all inspired by the girls’ free laughter, which Duffy argues is what society is missing, with schools and the education system being too robotic.
All staff eventually leave their positions at the school, resulting in the headmistress having to close the school for further notice. The main characters are Miss Batt, Miss Dunn, Miss Nadiambaba, and Mrs. Mackay. Miss Batt and Miss Dunn have a lesbian relationship together, which is only revealed at the end of the poem, symbolising the freedom of each induvial now that the robotic nature of life and education has been removed.
Miss Nadiambaba becomes a poet, while Mrs. Mackay climbs Mount Everest. The ending of the poem concludes the female rebellion, dreams being achieved, however some teachers pursuing their desires too late in life. Duffy does this to symbolise the importance of youth and the need to be individuals and follow your own dreams and not careers chosen as a result of societal pressures.