Murder, He Wrote: Robert Browning and Killing the Duchess and Porphyria
“Robert Browning is one among those who highlights the scenario of killing women for possessive passions and social status. It is found that the two poems of Robert Browning “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” had given similar message to the reader. The poet portrays how two innocent women are killed and strangled by two different men in order to control the women” (Bose). Browning’s legendary dramatic monologues “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” focus heavily on the sexual objectification of women during the Victorian era of the 1800s. The death of the women in each poem signifies their lesser status to their murderers, they are but objects to possess and covet; sexual beings that are owned by their masters. Browning’s sadistic and detailed poems shed light on the inequality of men and women during this time period. “Browning inflates and explodes romantic egotism: the lover kills the woman, not he. But the death that preserves the woman’s imputed compliance is, Browning implies, but a formalization of the romantic male speaker’s desire to fix and possess the female beloved. Romantic poetry idealizes the woman who is subject to the male gaze; she is the reflector and guarantor of male identity. Hence the male anxiety about woman’s independence, for her liberty puts masculine self-estimation at risk” (Maxwell).
In the poem “My Last Duchess” the Duke of Ferrara has killed his wife because he believes that she has been unfaithful to him. However, Kevin Gardner discusses the one sided argument of the Duke’s reasoning: “Of course the formal nature of the dramatic monologue, in which we hear only the duke’s ego-driven version of the story, limits a full apprehension of the facts” (Gardner). It is true that due to the fact that the Duchess, having already been murdered, cannot explain herself. This leaves us with only the Duke’s reasoning as to why he would kill his wife: simply because she didn’t obey him as he demanded of his Duchess. As the Duke progresses in his story we are left wondering if he had ever told his wife about how he was feeling, did he ever mention that he was feeling so murderous because of her actions? Surely one would think, that being a married couple and all that the Duke would converse with his Duchess about her acts of insolence. “The duke attributes his failure to communicate his preferences to his wife to his social standing. Even if she tolerated some correction or instruction. Not surprisingly, a man of such vanity would not lower himself to tell her his will; she ought to attune herself to him, he thinks” (Gardner). Perhaps not, according to Gardner. The Duke believes that she should be able to read his mind, or better yet do nothing or speak to no one unless she is told to. It is a common theme in many Victorian era novels and poems that women are to be seen, not heard, and that they should obey their husbands at all times if they are to be good wives. The Duke is no different, although his measure of punishment was a tad bit extreme. The Duchess had to pay for her crimes against the Duke, or that is what he asserts now that he is looking for a new, more obedient woman to be his Duchess. And even after her death, the Duke continues to control his murdered wife by having her portrait painted and hung in his hall. “The Duke is a sadist; he wants the Duchess’s portrait to be hung on the wall of his palace in order to show his artistic taste and also to ascertain so-called moral values in the Victorian era” (Bose). Yes, morality is what drove the Duke to murder, for his wife was just to kind to everyone. The Duke’s insane reasoning is shown as he says “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” (Browning, 1329). In reality, the Duchess was perhaps just a kind soul, and the Duke’s ego was not tended too properly, judging by her lack of complete admiration for her husband.
Browning’s other poem “Porphyria’s Lover” is very similar to “My Last Duchess” in the fact that another young woman, a sexual being, is brutally strangled by her lover simply so he can have possession over her forever. In this poem, we find Porphyria doting on her beloved, who is describing her in great detail as she approaches him. She is absolutely beautiful, and absolutely his. In the lines “Happy and proud; at last I knew/ Porphyria worshipped me” (Browning, 1325) it is shown by the narrator’s own thoughts that he has complete control over her. But of course, this isn’t enough for him. As Porphyria seeks any kind of affection from the narrator, he simply sits, watching her do all the work. The only action that the narrator takes in the poem is the killing of Porphyria, wrapping her own hair around her neck and strangling her. In this act of murder, her lover believes that he has done her a favor; he has preserved her in her worshipping state, so that she may be his forever. And really, what more can a girl ask for than to be the object of sexual possession? The narrator believes that he has made her “Perfectly pure and good” (Browning, 1326) by strangling her. Now that she is dead, she can never do anything to upset her lover, or make herself displeasing toward him. Most would consider being dead a displeasing characteristic, but as long as she doesn’t speak out of turn or spurn his sexual desire, it must be okay.
Robert Browning’s focus on sexual desire and the objectification of women was a hotly debated topic of the Victorian era, when many women were fighting for their rights and many men were going to extreme lengths to keep them in control. “From these two poems, Browning clearly exhibits the attitude of men in the Victorian society. Women are treated as play things and sexual objects of men. These two poems do not record the voices of the women folk and also their sighs were muted by the poet. It seems that women were not given chance to express their wishes and desires” (Bose). Browning’s use of male narrators sarcastically voices the opinions of men, which held more resonance in Victorian society, while the female characters were silent, much like the actual silence that was imposed upon the Victorian women.
Bose, A. Chandra. “Subjugation Of Women In Robert Browning’s Selected Poems.” Language In India 13.2 (2013): 24-30. Communication Source. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
Breakspeare, William Arthur. Young Lovers. Digital image. British Paintings. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2015. <http://goldenagepaintings.blogspot.com/2011/08/william-arthur-breakspeare-young-lovers.html>.
Browning, Robert. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fourth ed. Vol. 2B. Pearson, 2010. 1325-1326. Print. 5 Dec. 2015.
Browning, Robert. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Fourth ed. Vol. 2B. Pearson, 2010. 1328-1329. Print. 5 Dec. 2015.
Gardner, Kevin J. “Was The Duke Of Ferrara Impotent?.” Anq 23.3 (2010): 166-171. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2015
Maxwell, Catherine. “Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover.” Explicator 52.1 (1993): 27. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.