My Last Duchess: The Exploration of Power, Worth, and Relationships
Is it truly impossible to envision yourself as the Duke from Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”? For a moment, try to picture yourself in his gilded shoes: a connoisseur of admirable art, the possessor of a nine-hundred-years-old name, and the presumed murderer of a woman who seemed to smile without inhibition. At first glance, this may seem like an undeniably strenuous task. How does one justify and find applicable meaning in the Duke’s character? However, given an alternate perspective to judge the Duke’s mindset, his true nature becomes something more than something merely within the confines of the poem. Margaret Atwood’s short story “My Last Duchess” does just this—the narrator finds comfort and relatability in the character of the Duke, instinctively defining herself through his independence in comparison to the overtly joyful Duchess. Thus, Atwood’s “My Last Duchess” engages with Browning’s “My Last Duchess” by exploring the nature of the Duke in a new light—a light that pulls from a young girl’s perspective on power, worth, and relationships.
In terms of power, the main narrator of Atwood’s “My Last Duchess” is not the typical enigma that exudes strength and purpose. Nell is at a confusing point within her life, and oftentimes finds herself questioning her values and position in society. She finds consolation through literature, and thus takes a special interest in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” when it is assigned in her English class. While Nell certainly comprehends the magnetism of power, the Duke is entirely consumed with ideas of power and control—something Nell seeks but cannot obtain. The Duke ascertains his power by his sheer willpower: “I gave commands;/ Then all smiles stopped together” (Browning, 1329). Nell dreams of projecting these characteristics, yet cannot govern that which seeks to outmaneuver her. Thus, she finds solace in Duke’s authoritative mindset, for he is able to impose his will and essentially change his future for his own well-being.
Worth is another aspect that drives Nell to find resonance in the Duke’s character. Nell finds particular significance in her academic-minded independence: “With a good set of grades, this dismaying fork in the road could be postponed for awhile” (Atwood, 58). However, Nell deems independence in general as a high facilitator of value as well. Thus, she is inclined to be dismayed with the character of the Duchess: “The wife who went around smiling earnestly to left and right could have been annoying. There were girls at school who smiled at everyone in the same earnest, humourless way” (Atwood, 66). In this same manner, the Duchess’s mindless smiles irk the multi-faceted, independent character of the Duke. The Duke himself understands his standing in comparison to the lesser people around him, whether that lowliness comes from status or mindlessness: “she had/ A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,/ Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er/ She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” and “as if she ranked/ My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/ With anybody’s gift” (Browning, 1329). However, by declaring his disgust at both the Duchess’s mindlessness and the lowly catalysts of her affection, the Duke ends up merely being jealous of that which he declares unworthy. Joshua Adler explains this in his work “Structure and Meaning in Browning’s “My Last Duchess””: “He is reduced to the ignoble pastime of comparing himself unceasingly with lesser beings whom he despises” (Alder, 222). In this manner, Nell also falls prey to comparing herself with the objects of her unrest: the mindlessness of her boyfriend and the ignorance of the popular students at her school.
Through an exceptionally irksome argument about the nature of the Duke’s character, Nell finds herself questioning the merits of the relationship with her boyfriend: “As a boyfriend, Bill wasn’t following—could not follow—the standard cycle” (Atwood, 61). Once she begins to view herself and her values in terms of the Duke’s nature, she understands the mindlessness of her boyfriend, the one who opposes her authority. She sees her boyfriend as a Duchess character, a superficial individual who does not comprehend the same complexities of life that she does: “The more I thought about the Duchess and about how aggravating she must have been—aggravating, and too obliging, and just plain boring, the very same smile day after day—the more sympathy I felt for the Duke” (Atwood, 66-7). In this same manner, the character of both Nell and Duke can be critiqued, for their hatred stems from wanting authoritative power over that which escapes their control. In the example of the Duchess, she “had possessed too independent and spontaneous a spirit for the prison-museum which it was her duty to share with him” (Alder, 222).
In general, life oftentimes demands a second look, a second glance into the realm of the apparent. Margaret Atwood’s “My Last Duchess” does precisely this—by unexpectedly comparing a young girl with a seemingly atrocious Duke, each character is able to become multi-faceted and dimensional. Both Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and Margaret Atwood’s “My Last Duchess” explicitly study the psychology and motivation of characters that find similar significance in how they view power, worth, and relationships. In this manner, the unexpected exudes the profound.
Adler, Joshua. “Structure and Meaning in Browning’s “My Last Duchess”” Victorian Poetry 15.3 (1977): 219-27. JSTOR. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.
Atwood, Margaret. “My Last Duchess.” Moral Disorder: And Other Stories. New York: Nan A. Talese, 2006. N. pag. Print.
Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. By Andrew Hadfield and Clare Carroll. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2010. N. pag. Print.
Bronzino, Agnolo. Lucrezia Panciatichi. 1545-1561. Artnc. Web.