Gender Roles and Relationships in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover”

The diversity in the portrayal of women across literature varies as much as women themselves do in real life. However, society’s beliefs often influence how authors define what it means to be a man or a woman in relationships. Robert Browning criticizes the expectations tied to gender during the 1800s using his two dramatic monologues: “My Last Duchess” and “”. Both of the male narrators in his work view the powerful women in their life as a threat to their masculinity and use force to reclaim a sense of control in a patriarchal society. These poems offer a unique perspective on the connection between femininity and masculinity because Browning presents the women in each relationship as the initial dominant force. Given the Victorian time period, depicting women in leadership roles, even in the domestic sphere, directly contradicted the gender expectations; this makes the female protagonists in both poems quite unique.

In “My Last Duchess” the Duke describes his former wife as “Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” (Browning 24-25) The Duchess’ curiosity and friendliness exhibited a confident demeanor, and the society would consider it problematic for her to act flirtatiously with other men. In a way, she refuses to acknowledge her class position that, with clear reference to the Victorian bourgeoisie, is validated by sexual and emotional constraint. (Efird 4) The mentioned “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” (Browning 34) did not impress the Duchess and she behaved independently rather than viewing herself as an object at the mercy of her husband’s wishes. This places the Duchess in a power role within their marriage and left the Duke scrambling to control his wife because she did not exemplify the ideal women he desired. Similarly, Porphyria’s character plays an active role in Browning’s poem by entering the cottage, calling her lover’s name and placing his arm around her waist while the man adopts the passive role.

In comparison, customs for courtship usually demanded that men take the dominant role in the 1800. Any deviation from that would appear improper as the bourgeois masculinity emphasized self-discipline and the need to control in patriarchal roles. (Efird 2) Even the poem’s title itself portrays Porphyria as the main subject and shows the lover as her possession as opposed to old fashion thinking of women as men’s property. Both the Duke and then the unnamed narrator from “Porphyria’s Lover” found themselves in similar predicaments in which their relationships deviated from society’s norms and left them feeling incompetent. As a consequence of their uncommon relationship roles, both men in Browning’s poems encountered feelings that threatened their masculinity. In light of his wife’s actions, the Duke of Ferrara worried how others would view him and his ability to remain regal and in power.

He loathed the idea of other men making his wife feel happy, “Sir, ’twas not/ Her husband’s presence only, called that spot / Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek.” (13-15). His jealously eventually turned to anger against his wife that led him to take drastic action against her in order to protect his ego. Porphyria’s lover turned to delusion rather than jealousy and he believed that she worshipped him enough to die for him. Considering Porphyria’s previous dependent actions, the narrator may have felt inclined to take control as the man and take the burden away from Porphyria. In the dramatic monologue, he states that she was “Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavor” (line 22) which prompted him to believe she needed saving.

As Knoepflmacher says, “Imprisoned as they are within a male’s rhetoric of justification, they have also become bereft of a voice of their own” (143). The two women not only lose their ability to voice their opinions and in a sense are reduced to static images incapable of change. For the Duchess, this is in a very literal sense as a painting that the Duke controls all aspects of. Porphyria’s memory only exists in the mind of her lover, who depersonalized her by ending her life. (Knopflmacher 142-43) Finally, the masculine figures take it upon themselves to silence the feminine figures in severe ways to regain masculine control. They achieve this by robbing the women of the traits that make them unique individuals. As a result of the reversed relationship roles, the men’s emotions overpower their judgement of right and wrong and cause them to act assertively.

This theme in itself critiques society in which men glorified detachment from emotions and women were rendered weak due to their emotional reactions. The Duke’s rage and insecurities in “My Last Duchess” distressed him to the point where he takes lethal action against his wife: “Then all the smiles stopped together. There she stands / As if alive.” (Browning 47-48) Calling for her execution felt like the only plausible way for him to regain control of his unruly wife. Rather than having her alive, he prefers to see a silent and idealized version who can no longer disobey him.

The narrator of “Porphyria’s Lover” focused less on stopping his lover’s wandering eyes, and instead focused on capturing her in a pure and uninterrupted moment. The lover viewed Porphyria’s demise as a favor, so that she no longer had to face reality and could remain immortalized in a moment he deemed perfect. His interpretation romanticizes the violent acts and downplays the severity of his actions by claiming that God has not yet punished him for actions. However, the man’s view reflects a classic male narrative by saying: “That moment she was mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good” (36-37). Women were deemed respectable only when they represented purity and innocence. Therefore, the narrator decides that by killing Porphyria she would reflect the notions of femininity that she previously disregarded even in her death. Efird describes the women’s death as being caused by the men’s own lack of control: “The speaker’s narcissistic desire to control the world around him, a desire that makes the woman and the external world into images of himself rather than realities” (152).

Their apathy towards living beings originated from the patriarchal parameters instilled in them from a young age. The narrators felt the need to react as the dissonance between their lovers’ actions and their attitudes as men grew. Ultimately, both the women’s deaths symbolized that a divergence from society’s gender roles justified grave actions to achieve the optimal and traditional masculine and feminine relationship. Browning uses satire to address the overwhelming concepts of femininity and masculinity that governed the lives of the people around him. His monologues “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” portrayed women in dominant roles despite the contrast of societal expectations. Their male lovers felt emasculated when they no longer felt they had authority in their relations. The duke and unnamed narrator acted on their insecurities and felt that silencing the women in their life saved their ego and masculinity. Browning’s depiction of women in these two dramatic monologues provided a social commentary on the toxicity of dominating gender roles.

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