Joy Harjo’s Portrayal of Revenge in the Poem Mary Magdalene

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Everyone has experienced the quick, satisfying pleasure of taking revenge on someone, but at what cost? Joy Harjo’s lyrical, interpretive poem “Mary Magdalene” expresses an abuse victim and the lengths of her efforts to get back at her abuser. Throughout the twisted poem, the protagonist of the poem is seen detaching herself from her abuser who is hinted to be her alcoholic father and ruining her own body to spite him. This dark, sadistic disposition can be traced back to the author herself Joy Harjo.

According to Joy Harjo’s website and the Poetry Foundation, Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma into the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is a tribe of Native Americans indigenous to the Southeastern United States who were forced to confine to Oklahoma as stated by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation website. This played a huge role in Harjo’s life and would forever influence her writing. In spite of her impediments, Joy Harjo earned her BA in creative writing at the University of New Mexico. She continued to write poetry that expressed Native American journeys and migrations. Not only did she become known for her Native American poems, but she also promoted the idea of feminism and killing the silence on taboo topics.

Being raised in the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Joy Harjo witnessed many tragic and horrific acts that lead her to write “Mary Magdalene”. One of these topics expressed throughout the poem “Mary Magdalene” is the idea of revenge. According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary, Revenge is the action of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong. Revenge is often confused with the similar word vengeance. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Vengeance is punishment inflicted or retribution exacted for an injury or wrong. The contrast between revenge and vengeance is vengeance is centered around the feeling of resentment and is a more personal version of revenge. Revenge is also commonly confused with avenging. To avenge someone or something is to seek punishment for wrongdoing to acquire justice. The difference between revenge and avenge is seeking revenge is not tied to the idea of getting justice and can be done out of spite or for other desires.

My perception of revenge is that it is an unavoidable desire all humans have. I would be a hypocrite if I said I completely disagree with the idea of revenge. I think in some ways it can be a satisfying ending to whatever wrongdoing occurred but then it would be more so considered avenging. Revenge to me is defined as a short term solution that only yields instant satisfaction and will eventually result in more sadness or anger. Although it is not a complete solution to pain, I agree overall with the desire for revenge being that it is deeply rooted in all of us and for the most part unavoidable.

In the poem “Mary Magdalene” the protagonist also portrays the inevitable want for revenge. This is expressed throughout the poem through Joy Harjo’s use of similes, dark imagery, setting, and idioms, which suggests a bitter, vengeful tone and a violent, haunting mood towards the idea of revenge. One example of revenge in “Mary Magdalene” is in the lines: “I cut my hair and toss it across your/ pillow./ A dark towel/ like the one after sex” (Harjo, 7-10). A technique used in this poem to portray the idea of revenge is similes. The simile in this quote is the line: “like the one after sex” (Harjo, 10). This simile not only introduces the idea of sexual abuse, but it also directs the reader towards why the protagonist is taking revenge.

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Another writer’s craft technique used is the setting. In lines 7-10, the setting seems to take place in a bedroom. The beginning of the quote conveys this. The narrator is said to have been cutting off her hair and tossing it across her abuser’s pillow. This symbolizes the narrator cutting her ties from her abuser and deciding her destiny, but the last part alludes to the setting: “across your pillow” (Harjo, 7). This imagery again displays the setting of a bedroom, but the adjective dark allows the reader to have a negative image of said setting. This sets up the idea of sexual abuse as well which can explain her later lines of her getting revenge. I can not relate to this level of revenge being that sexual abuse is not something I have been involved with, but I understand why the narrator is seen going through extreme lengths to take revenge.

This poem reminds me of Great Expectations. When reading this book, I fell in love with Estella and her character. Estella being a heartless monster of a girl breed to break hearts by her adoptive mother Miss Havisham. Miss Havisham did this to Estella because of her past experiences with love and betrayal. This causes Miss Havisham to also take an extreme path of revenge by raising Estella to break men's hearts: “‘Break their hearts my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!’” (Dickens 109). This book helped me understand how far people will go to get their revenge and overall allowed me to relate to the narrator of “Mary Magdalene”. “Mary Magdalene” does not only use similes and imagery to express heart truths; it also depicts several different examples of writer’s crafter to convey the idea of revenge. This is conveyed in the next quote: “I will drive boys/ to smash empty bottles on their brows./ I will pull them right out of their skins” (Harjo, 14-16). In this quote, one can read about how the narrator has been driven to violence due to her abusive past.

A writer’s craft technique used to do so is imagery. The narrator refers to the idea of alcoholism by depicting the narrator smashing empty bottles on her victim’s heads. The imagery of empty bottles can be traced to alcoholism possibly about her father. This would reinforce how traumatic the narrator’s past was. The placement of where she will smash the bottles also shows that she is going for the kill. A headshot would either kill her victim or cause a concussion. Either way, it shows that she is not going for pain; she wants death. The other writer’s craft technique used to portray her revenge is an idiom. One can see this in the quote: “I will pull them right out of their skins” (Harjo, 16).

This line with an idiom allows the reader to see the length the narrator will go to achieve her revenge. She can not pull people from their skins but will instead make men feel what they made her feel, disgusting, worthless, and hollow. This quote reminded me of the MeToo movement. Although I am not directly involved, I read a lot of the surviving victims’ testimonies, and they are heartbreaking. This quote reminded me of MeToo victim’s testimony I had heard. In this, the victim described how she felt after her attack. She talked about how she felt repulsed by her own body as it was a walking memory of what had happened to her. No matter how many times she showered or how hard she scrubbed, she could not get rid of what had happened to her and how she felt. This reminded me of what the narrator of “Mary Magdalene” wants to do to her revenge victims. When I first read line 16 of the poem, I was confused as to why the narrator would use such odd wording, but I remembered the testimony I heard which revealed the meaning of such violent imagery. The idiom of pulling something or someone out of their skin refers to making something or someone feel uncomfortable and out of place. This reminded me of what the victim had said she had felt like after her attack. This allowed me to understand why the narrator used such odd wording; it was to force other men to feel how she had felt, repulsed and trapped by her own body. The last quote that portrays revenge in “Mary Magdalene” is the lines: “It is the old way girls/ get even with their father-/ by wrecking their bodies on other men” (Harjo, 17-19). The quote itself displays some level of irony. The way the narrator chooses to take revenge overall hurts herself as well. It shows that the narrator is truly damaged and will stop at nothing to get her revenge.

Another writer’s craft technique used is the characters in the poem. This quote is the only part of the poem that reveals who the antagonist is, the narrator’s father. Knowing who the abuser is, reshapes the entire poem and gives the motive for revenge a whole new twist. Sexual abuse alone is terrible and damaging for the victims, but sexual abuse by a father is ten times worse. One can now see why the narrator goes through so much just to get revenge. The last writer’s craft technique used in the poem “Mary Magdalene” is wording. The wording of this quote reveals a terrible cycle of abuse: “It is the old way girls get even with their fathers” (Harjo, 17). The wording of this line conveys a common theme among abused girls and getting revenge. It is a sad truth that the narrator admits and fully displays the bitter, vengeful tone of this poem. Although I hopefully will never experience what the narrator has gone through in her attempts to get revenge on her father’s abuse, I can understand why the narrator does what she does. I believe everyone has an inner evil inside them which does include the desire for revenge.

Whether it was taking the last piece of cake or ruining another person’s life, everyone at some point has fallen victim to the sweet taste of revenge. Some are better at avoiding succumbing to temptation than others, but overall it is a character flaw we all have to fight with at some point. I think in the narrator’s case that if she wants to devote her life to getting her revenge on her father by ruining her own body she should be allowed to do so. I can say though that from personal experience revenge is not always the perfect solution. In the beginning, it feels that way, but once everything is said and done I have always felt worse than when I started. Revenge to me is not a solution, unlike the narrator’s beliefs. To me, it is more of a temporary painkiller. Eventually, something is going to run out, and it is up to the victim to decide what to do next.

The poem “Mary Magdalene” by Joy Harjo is embedded with the idea of revenge. Not only is it written by a woman who has seen her people suffer, but it also was created with the intent to break the silence on more difficult topics such as sexual abuse. This poem was carefully worded, placed, and written to allow some insight into the idea of revenge and will forever be known as an innovative piece of writing. Whether it was through idioms, similes, setting, characters, or wording, when reading this poem one feels the pain of the narrator and can understand her efforts to achieve her version of revenge on her father.

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