A Comparative Essay between “Disabled” and “An Unknown Girl”


Moniza Alvi reflects on India as her hand is hennaed by “an unknown girl” “in the evening bazaar”. The predominantly upbeat mood of this poem contrasts with the pessimistic mood in “Disabled” written by Wilfred Owen, a soldier in the First World War, stating his anti-war view through a poem on the life of a young soldier “sewn short at elbow”, crippled by war. In his poem, the difference between past and present allows Owen to reveal the regret and disappointment felt by the persona whereas, although Alvi portrays India as a magical, beautiful place where she experiences freedom, the ending reveals she will never be completely included. As such both poems illustrate longing but Alvi is longing for her identity whereas Owen is longing for his past life.


To begin with, there is a difference in mood between “An Unknown Girl” and “Disabled” as Alvi creates an optimistic mood whereas Owen creates a predominantly depressing mood. Owen creates this by suggesting a theme of isolation felt by the persona which is implied in the first stanza when Owen says “mothered them from him”. The word “mothered” has caring, kind connotations but when used with “from”, it implies that he is not given the love and is actually an outcast which creates a strong negative mood as we can feel his seclusion. Similarly, “Espirit de corps” is said in an ironic tone which emphasises the fact that he is an outcast and that war does not leave you with glory or pride. This inspires pathos as everything has been taken away from him and he is no longer included, an idea which is further emphasised by the iambic pentameter in the first stanza, communicating the dull monotony of his life due to the isolation as he has no one to share anything with. Finally, the question at the end of the poem “Why don’t they come?” shows that he is literally waiting for someone to “put him into bed” as he is not able to do this himself. We can tell that he is waiting for night and the cyclical routine that repeats each day although he could be waiting for death as he has “a few sick years in Institutes” left which creates a powerful sorrow as he is still young. As this is the end of the poem, we are left with the image of him isolated and abandoned which is very striking.


Owen further creates the pessimistic mood by suggesting the disappointment and lack of pride the persona has been left with after the war. Owen declares “no fears of Fear came yet” describing the persona before the war which groups all the fears and makes them seem overwhelming. This may suggest the persona is afraid of being a coward as he must appear strong and the personification of “Fear” makes him seem weak inside. This is emphasised by the use of “yet” as the persona now feels these fears after the horror of war. Later in the poem, the long stanza of hopes such as “For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; And care of arms” contrasts with the short stanza for reality such as “Only a solemn man offered him fruits” revealing that his hopes for war were not met and he has been left with very little. This contrast is emphasised by the reaction of the people as he is “thanked” by “a solemn man” showing us that this “pity” makes him feel mocked. A miserable mood is portrayed as he has not received the celebratory “cheer” or “giddy jilts” he was expecting instead men “inquired about his soul” which portrays that the persona feels that these “cheers” are wrong therefore the man is making a mockery of him. The phrase “carried shoulder-high” depicts a glorious image to the reader as the persona recalls the excitement after a game of football. This excitement must have been similar to his expectations of war and when contrasted with the inglorious impression of life during and after war, the reader once again is forced to feel the sorrow and regret felt by the persona as Owen has effectively provided us with images and emotions. Furthermore, the persona appears bitter about going to war as he says “Smiling they wrote his lie” indicating their deception as they dropped “hints for young recruits” which is an exaggerated glorious image which Owen portrays as a lie. “Smiling” gives this a sinister feeling which emphasises the fact that he has been tricked and lied to in a bitter, uncaring way. We feel pathos as we can feel how powerful his bitterness is.


Alternatively, to create an optimistic mood in “An Unknown Girl”, Alvi creates a theme of the magic that surrounds her in India. The repetition of the word “hennaing” emphasises the fact that it is external and decorative like a “shadow-stitched kameez”. This implies a beauty and since both objects are traditionally Indian, Alvi shows the reader that this is the overwhelming impression of magic she feels in India. The repetition of the word “neon” appeals to the visual sense as well as making the image it is used to describe seem more extreme with brighter, more defined colours. It seems almost too bright and colourful which creates a surreal and dreamlike atmosphere which portrays to the reader how enthralled Alvi is by the beauty of India she is witnessing. By describing her hennaed hand as “soft as a snail trail”, Alvi creates a magical mood by showing her astonishment. The word “soft” makes us feel comforted which is what the persona feels when in India. The sibilance in “soft” and “snail” creates a mysterious feeling which contrasts to the beauty of India, creating the longing Alvi feels for her identity. This is effectively emphasised by the childlike innocence portrayed to the reader through the words “balloons” and “icing”. In general, balloons are vividly coloured and could be used to symbolise the happiness and colour in the persona’s surroundings. The connotations we associate with “icing” are sweet and decorative which strongly suggests the happiness that Alvi is trying to portray. A “bazaar” is usually busy and crowded but Alvi foregrounds the colours and vibrancy to create a magical impression of the setting. This forces the reader to feel the magic Alvi is indicating. The image of a “peacock” is repeated as well as an “amber bird” which seems both magical and also beautiful and these are thing Alvi relates to India and the reader is forced to relate these as well. This is an intense image but could also be used to show that as a peacock can spread its tail, Alvi wishes to reveal a deeper truth about her identity. This very striking image is effective. Furthermore, the words “hushed”, “sleep” and “soft” subtly suggest to the reader the tranquil calm that Alvi feels while in India. This is contrasted with “firm” and “furious” to suggest exhilaration and happiness felt by Alvi as India has many different levels that we have been shown effectively throughout the poem.


In contrast to the theme of isolation in “Disabled”, Alvi creates the impression of inclusion and reassurance that contribute to the upbeat mood. Alvi has written this poem to portray her search for personal identity as she was taken from her home in Pakistan while she was young so reassurance allows her to reconnect with the country of her heritage. The persona indicates her reassurance by creating a soft mood through the phrase “curtain cloth and sofa cloth canopy me” which is emphasised by the repetition of the word “cloth”. We also feel the inclusion Alvi is portraying as “canopy” gives the persona somewhere to hide and be protected so she is embraced. We feel this powerful yet soft inclusion throughout the poem. Alvi accents her inclusion with “I have new brown veins” as the verb “have” creates a tone of certainty. The implied pride allows us to feel that she does feel embraced by India and the reader feels embraced as well which allows us to join the lively mood. While having her hand hennaed, the persona depicts a “satin-peach knee” which relates to the skin or clothing of the Indian girl. The soft “s” sound in “satin” forces the reader to feel the calm, gentle atmosphere as well as depicting it as luxurious. Alvi implies that she relates these things to India which we then do and we feel a striking sense of her reassurance. Lastly the persona describes having her hand hennaed as “a peacock spread its lines” which shows that the India part of her identity is spreading itself too and she is becoming more at home. Although we do not feel at home, the reader can see the stunning beauty and can understand Alvi’s inclusion.


Another difference in mood is the freedom created by Alvi contrasted with the dull gloom portrayed by Owen. Alvi displays a sense of freedom that originates from the beauty of India. There is no clear structure throughout the poem which to the reader may seem wild and chaotic but Alvi is powerfully trying to portray that this is part of her freedom. The short sentences create a fast pace which can be used to emphasise the emotion such as longing or desperation attached to longer sentences but also portrays a lively, excited feeling almost suggesting a sensory overload especially which is very effective as the reader too feels excited by the descriptions of India. The persona is trying to take in and communicate as much as possible.  This is emphasised by the unequal line lengths which allows images such as “I am clinging” and emotions such as “are hushed” to be forced on the reader. These images and emotions are all subtly different as Alvi shows her freedom in India. The contrast between these further emphasises the freedom Alvi is portraying subtly. The dummies “tilt and stare” which contrasted with the dummies we consider normal creates the impression of disorganization which relates to all of India. Alvi feels this is her freedom and in this case, it is effective.


On the other hand, Owen portrays the dull gloomy mood through the enjambment in the third and fourth line of the first stanza. It indicates how long the personas empty days are and is contrasted with the simple “play and pleasures” enjoyed by the young boys to create a dull atmosphere surrounding the lonely persona. This is very effective as the reader can feel this mood themselves. In the same stanza the phrase “saddening like a hymn” is used to create a gloomy atmosphere. In addition to the obvious connotations of saddening, Owens use of “hymn” suggests a solemn and mournful mood almost as though a part of him has died. By forcing the reader to feel these emotions, Owen has powerfully portrayed the persona’s melancholy. Due to his injury, the persona must now do what “the rules consider wise” which shows the persona no longer has freedom as “rules” have connotations of being strict which contrasts to the freedom and fun he experienced in the past. The word “wise” could also reflect on the fact that he has gained wisdom from the war due to bad decisions but this wisdom has come at the price of his happiness. This contrast shows the boring nature of his current life and the reader can feel his regret more powerfully with the image of his past happiness. The persona is described as wearing a “ghastly suit of grey” so the word “ghastly” forces the reader to think of a terrible image of the lonely man and then used with “grey” to make that image dull and lifeless. Overall this creates a gloomy visual image which is emphasised by the lack of emotion attached to the words creating an image which inspires sympathy from the reader. Finally Owen uses “shivered”, “cold and late” and “queer disease” to show how the despair is affecting the persona. He is literally cold although he may also feel cold inside as he has nothing left and is now isolated and alone. We can feel his sorrow which allows these words to effectively portray the dull mood to the reader.


Owen also reveals a contrast inside “Disabled” as an alternate lively mood is portrayed in the past. The persona has “lost his colour” which is literally referring to the colour of his skin as he is now pale and he would have been flushed after playing football but additionally he has lost the bright glow of his youth during the war. The superficial meaning gives us a physical contrast between past and present but the alternate meaning allows the reader a glimpse at how his soul was affected. Owen distinguishes between this past excitement and the present day gloom.  The persona is “waiting for dark” which is contrasted with the bright, colourful excitement felt in the past, portrayed in the second stanza. The word “waiting” implies that he is lonely because he has nothing left in his life which contrasts with “girls glanced lovelier” and romantic excitement from his past and is emphasised by the use of “dark” to suggest that he is waiting for night and the continuation of the cyclical routine that happens each day. The persona could also be waiting for death as this is a connotation of “dark”. These effective contrasts show his longing for the past and his dull life which inspires pathos from the reader. The reader also feels pathos because of the extreme contrast between past and present. Owen says “Town used to swing so gay” and the personification of “Town” gives it human emotions such as happiness that the reader is allowed to feel briefly. This creates a lively and upbeat mood in the past which is emphasised by “gay” but “used to” show the reader that this was in the past as it is written in past tense. This powerful contrast between past and present forces the reader to suffer the emotions the persona feels. Owen creates the impression of the excitement felt by the persona in the past through the contrast between leaving for war with “drums and cheers” and returning from war with “only a solemn man”. This contrast between his expectations and reality makes his past life seem exciting as he was popular but upon return, the persona feels bewildered by the lack of celebration. The difference between past and present shows us that this excitement was strong but short-lived and more pathos is inspired by that fact he feels pitied. Finally Owen says “Now, he is old;” which shows that the energetic past has gone. The word “old” is used to show that although his body is still young, the persona has physiologically aged and, in his current state, he is ancient. This contrast to his bright youth effectively makes us feel significant amounts of pathos.


One of the main contrasts between these poems is within the theme of longing as Alvi portrays her persona longing for her identity whereas Owen suggests regret and longing for the past. Having been taken from her home whilst she was young, Alvi reveals that she longs for a home and to discover her personal identity in India through the repetition of “unknown”. Alvi implies that she needs to discover or recover the Indian part of her identity  but additionally it is implied that she wishes to find her Indian blood so that she can reveal her full identity. This is powerful as we too feel the longing for her unknown identity and it is revealed further by the change in pace of “Now the furious streets are hushed” from fast to slow showing that she can’t hold onto the ever-changing India and her identity. This is emphasised by the use of “clinging” as this shows her desperation and the fact that India is constantly eluding her. This is very effective as we can feel her longing and have images to help. The “Dummies in shop-fronts” are described by Alvi using a tone of admiration illustrating a simple thing that clearly shows the intensity of her emotions and we too feel this intensity and passion for India. Lastly “float up” is implying a positive mood with “up” and a sense of freedom but it also shows that her identity keeps escaping and India keeps eluding her.


Alternatively, Owen expresses the feeling of regret that comes from his longing which is emphasised by his realisation that his injury is his own fault although Owen depicts the persona’s anger towards the military which is similar to his own as Owen wrote most of his poetry whilst injured from war. Owen articulates “He thought he’d better join – He wonders why” and the pause after “he’d better join” shows that he is struggling to remember why he decided to fight in the war so therefore he is questioning his reasons. The phrase shows the insignificance of his reasons and leads to the persona regretting his decision. Similarly, the asyndeton in stanza five focuses on all the glorious things he briefly considered and indicates that he didn’t think about the effects of war, effectively portraying the impression of regret. Owen forces the reader to contrast the short time taken to make the decision with the lifetime he will have to suffer the consequences which evokes pathos as he does regret his choice. Owen describes the war as a “hot race” which provides a sense of chaos and disorder associated with the war by the reader. This gives the reader the strong feeling of exhilaration felt by the persona whilst fighting but the reader also gets the impression that this is different from the excitement and glory that the persona was expecting from war. This difference in emotion emphasises that the persona feels regret and the word “race” shows that although he will live with the consequences, the war was over quickly. This is very effective as we are forced to feel these emotions such as regret and exhilaration. The phrases “Poured away” and “threw away” show that the persona considers the choice he made wasteful sacrifice which emphasises the fact he feels regret for the foolish decision. The word “Poured” is foregrounded so he feels that he has done this to himself. This is very effective as we feel his regret strongly. Owen associates “giddy jilts” with going to war therefore showing that he was drunk and disorientated when he made the decision so he did it for foolish reasons and he now lives with regret. Ultimately the rhyme pattern that continues regularly throughout the poem could suggest that his decisions, made in the past, will carry on like the lines even after they have been made.


Owen emphasises this regret by the longing created for the past. Owen contrasts “One time, he liked a blood smear” with the persona’s real injury to emphasis the fact that the persona is now “legless” but in those days he enjoyed the glorious side of injuries. This shows the powerful longing for the past but also indicates that the persona was more naïve in those days from the ironic tone. This is emphasised by “in the old times” as the tone is happy and warm but the use of “old” shows us that this was in the past and he no longer has these caring  feelings. This illustrates the longing for the past although pathos is also created. The phrase “younger than his youth, last year” indicates that the persona wishes to have his past life back as his youth was the time of excitement and happiness and he no longer feels these things in the present. The pause shows he is struggling to compare the past and present which emphasises the fact the he wishes he could have his previous life back. This is a strong emotion and inspires much pathos from the reader. Finally the persona sees how the women’s eyes “Passed from him to the strong men that were whole” showing his longing for the past as he is comparing the way they look at him now to how they used to “glance lovelier”. This contrast shows how incomplete the persona feels as well as portraying to the reader that he is alone and deserted. This direct contrast between past and present allows the reader to feel precisely how strong the persona’s longing for the past is and how lonely he now feels.


Although both Owen and Alvi both create an excited mood, there are different emotions created by the different types of excitement. The contrast between excitement and calm especially in the phrase “longing for the unknown girl in the neon bazaar” in “An Unknown Girl” allows Alvi to see both sides of India which makes her feel at home. The yearning showed by “longing” and “unknown” creates a calm atmosphere which is contrasted with “neon” to show both sides of India and give Alvi the feeling of her full identity. Alvi manages to force us to feel both the calm and excitement and we can almost feel the sense of belonging. In contrast, all the excitement in “Disabled” such as “he’d drunk a peg” and “he was drafted out” is used in the past tense which is then contrasted within the poem with the gloomy mood in the present to create a longing for the past and regret as well as the isolation of the persona. This inspires pathos as the images allow us to see how lonely the persona is and feel his regret. So therefore we can tell that the sensory overload that causes Alvi to feel such excitement and allows her to included in India contrasts with the past excitement making the persona in “Disabled” feel alone. But another way of looking at it is that this excitement pushes both persona’s away from the thing they desire; Alvi who desires to find her identity but is eluded due to the excitement in India and Owen who wishes for past enjoyment but now has a lack of vitality due to foolish excitement.


However, one of the most striking differences between “An Unknown Girl” and “Disabled” is the persona’s choice and control of the situation. In “Disabled” Owen says “he asked to join” showing that not only was the persona given a choice but he chose to do the wrong thing although he was in control. This illustrates to the reader that it was the persona’s own fault and his decisions lead to his injury. He can’t blame the military for being “legless” although “smiling” and “lie” indicate his bitterness towards the commanders. Alvi portrays an image of the persona “hands outstretched” which shows that she is longing for this and is not in control although she is fighting from having her identity evade her again. She was not given a choice. This contrast makes Owen’s persona appear wasteful as he threw away his youth whereas Alvi has lost something she cares about. Alvi creates a subtle amount of pathos throughout the poem whereas we feel pathos for the persona in “Disabled” as he is having the realisation and it is already too late.