It’s a Man’s World…and Jenny’s Just Sleeping in it
The nineteenth century was a time of high class division, suppression, and overall judgement. Men and women were held to completely different standards and moral codes. Dante Rossetti’s poem, Jenny, is a great illustration of this division between men and women. By exploring the different opinions and views a man would have in the 1800’s, readers are able to get a great insight into the culture and mindset of the typical nineteenth century man. This piece is written from a man’s perspective in order to shed light onto the judgement, assumptions, and hypocrisy of the time in which it was written. Jennyis used to call out the tension amongst the classes and genders in the 1800’s.
In the beginning of the poem, the narrator describes Jenny in a soft and almost endearing sense. She is beautiful, young, and soft to the touch. She is described as a precious flower. However, the narrator’s kind observations begin to turn into more of a critique or judgement of Jenny. As the narrator goes deeper into his thoughts he goes from seeing Jenny as a beautiful flower to seeing her as “a rose shut in a book in which pure women may not look” (stanza 8). Jenny is a prostitute, that fact is given straight away. She is now crushed and transparent, her purity gone forever. Jenny sleeps on her bed, unaware of his judgements and unable to speak for herself. Without knowing anything more than her name, the narrator establishes Jenny’s value. The author, Dante Rossetti, does this for a specific reason. At the time this was written, in the mid 1800’s, people’s value was based on their class. Being a prostitute meant that Jenny was in the lowest class possible. Dante is calling out how quick people were to judge and how little they could know about someone before determining their worth as a human. Jenny was asleep and unable to speak for herself, which represents women of almost all classes in the 1800’s. The author is using sleep as a metaphor to the silenced and passive position women were forced into most of the time.
The Narrator also seems to make up his own version of Jenny’s life. In his head, Jenny was raised in a small town, possibly on a farm. She dreamed of going to the city and finding a husband, but tragedy struck and Jenny had to turn to prostitution. The narrator has no reason to believe this other than his own imagination. For all the reader knows, the narrator could have made up the name Jenny as well. The narrator is implementing his own ideas and beliefs onto Jenny possibly to amuse himself or validate his actions. He looks around Jenny’s room and notices it is very sparse. He then compares this to that of his own room at home. The Narrator is a well-read man who has may shelves of books piled high in his room. Because of her lack of books, the narrator assumes she is a simple girl who cannot read. He assumes so much about Jenny, when in reality all he knows is her name and color of hair. The entire poem is revealed to be more about the narrator and his opinions than it is about Jenny. The reader never comes to know any truth about Jenny, only the Jenny the narrator has assumed. The danger in assuming Jenny’s life is that it could be completely different, and in fact it is. The narrator thinks he has such control over the situation and more power because of his class and higher education, but he is the one who payed and lost money for a service, he is the one who’s thoughts are being dictated by a “lesser” person.
In the mid 1800’s the level of hypocrisy for women versus men’s purity was at an extreme high. There was a great emphasis on a woman’s purity and her mannerisms at the time. A woman’s social life would be over if she were to lose her virginity before she was married. She would basically become an outcast to society and lose all value of her family name. The interesting thing about losing a woman’s virginity is that it requires two people, usually one being a male. It is hard to find a documented case of a man being stripped of his title for having sex before marriage. In the eighth stanza, the narrator speaks of “lilies of the field”, referencing Matthew chapter 6 verse 8 in the Bible. The narrator boasts about being well-read and quotes the Bible, but if he is so well-read and spiritual, would he not have read the ten commandments in Exodus? The sixth commandment clearly states that adultery should not be committed. This commandment was not just given to the women, but to the men as well. What the reader can assume about Jenny, because she is a prostitute, is that she is not married. But, can the reader assume the same of the narrator? The narrator is so consumed in Jenny’s sins and her made up life, that he does not bother to acknowledge his own sins and wrong doings. After all, he is the reason Jenny is lying on his lap, because he employed her to do so.
The narrator spends a night with Jenny in the dark where his sins can be hidden. As the sun rises and light shines, the narrator sees Jenny’s beautiful face. Along with her beauty he sees his own sins revealed by the light. The poem Jennyis not about a woman or a prostitute. Instead, it is about a man’s sins being deflected onto someone else. Jenny is not perfect or blameless, but she is also not the only faulty character in the poem. Dante uses Jennyto exploit the hypocrisy, judgement, and wrongful assumptions that were placed on women and the lower class in the 1800’s. Without poems like Jenny women would never have been given a voice to call out the hypocrisy instilled in both men and women at the time.
Rossetti, Dante. Jenny. Poetry Foundation, 1869, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52332/jenny.
The Holy Bible. Collins Publishers. 1989.