Power And Masculinity In My Last Duchess And Porphyria’s Lover

Women during the Victorian era often took on the role of the housewife and the husband’s subordinate caterer, while the men played the dominant provider. There are however stories that portray women as rebellious, where they fight against these expectations set out for them. Robert Browning provides a critical view on power and its relation to gender through his poems, “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess.” Browning uses his works to demonstrate the consequences of stepping out of one’s social position. There’s a concept in which power and masculinity are connected. Therefore, when men feel that their power is being threatened, so is their masculinity. In “My Last Duchess,” the duke is easily seen to have asserted his power upon his wife and killed her after feeling threatened by what he views as her stray away from the domestic sphere he wanted her to remain in. He felt that the best option would be to have her killed and demonstrate the total control he has over everyone. The duchess failed to meet his unspoken needs and the duke demonstrated what is often seen in men, where violence is used as a form of punishment for doing so. Similarly, Porphyria in “Porphyria’s Lover” is seen to take on the active role from the start of the poem, which is usually played by the male character. Doing so eventually leads to the narrator killing her. The men in these two works decide that the only way to take back control is by annihilating the one who is posing as a threat.

To understand masculinity and its effects in a relationship, one must first understand gender. Gender is a construct which has a list of norms, values, and expectations that have been set in place to dictate the way males and females should go about their lives. While there have been many different definitions of what gender is, they all come to the agreement that masculinity is one of the most important values set upon gender, in terms of the way that it drives it. A major way of expressing one’s masculinity is through violence. Men make up a heaping amount of violence incidents, which can be seen by the fact that 86% of armed robbers are carried out by men, as well as 77% of aggravated assaults, 87% of stalking incidents, 86% of domestic abuse, 99% of rape incidents, 90% of murders, and 61 of the 62 mass shootings that have been committed in the past 30 years (Katz, 2013). Despite these numbers, when violence is discussed, it tends to be spoken of in gender neutral ways. To make matters worse, when coverage is done on incidents involving men being violent towards women, people tend to say ‘violence against women,’as to not place the blame bluntly on men. It gets spoken of in a way that makes it seem “as if it’s something that just happens to women - like the weather. They’re just experiencing it” (Katz, 2013). Thus, creating oblivion in society to the fact that men are the root of about 98% of this violence.

Violence was even said to be a “natural phenomenon” and that there is an association between hormones and violence. It has been said to be innate in that it is supposedly linked to the amount of testerone one has. Since men typically have more testosterone than women, it is the way in which they have been wired all their lives. From the start of time, men were meant to be hunter-warriors and were programmed to act aggressive and violently. Men are “meant” to be violent because they are said to be overcome with hormonal rages in which they can not control. Today, in the midst of arguing over who has more influence on violence – the movie industry or video game industry – we’ve lost sight of the fact that both of them have continued to build upon the glorification of violence and how it ties in to being masculine. It also falls on parents and the influences they have on boys from a young age. Rather than saying that violence is something that is learned, Katz believes it is something that is taught. Thus, shifting the responsibility onto those who feel the need to incorporate violence when teaching their sons what it means to be a man. They teach their sons that being a man means being dominant, powerful, aggressive, to always be in control, and even to be sexual. “By initiating and maintaining control, the individual maintains his status and is able to perform masculinity” (Loveland, 15). Anything short of doing so will emasculate them. In response, men then adopt what Katz likes to call ‘the tough guise,’ which is a mask young men wear to cover their vulnerabilities, emotions, and anything else that is very normal, but will have them labeled as powerless or weak.

An issue that's seen greatly throughout tons of works of literature written in or about the nineteenth century is the patriarchal rules that had been placed upon women. When a woman breaks these rules or goes against them, they will often face consequences. In the case of the Duchess of Ferrara, the end results were deadly. To start off the poem, the Duke of Ferrara directs the attention of his guest to the painting that hangs on the wall of his late Duchess. He goes on to praise the painter, Fra Pandolf, for creating such a lifelike image of her. It is important to note that the Duke had selected a monk to paint his wife because he felt that he needed to hire someone who would not be attracted to her. Already, it becomes clear that there is some sort of jealousy the Duke has in which he does not want other men to see the beauty of the Duchess. He then continues and states that he is the only one who can unveil the painting to guests, as a way of demonstrating dominance. He reveals that those who view the painting tend to be mesmerized by the look on her face and often ask him “how such a glance came there” (Browning, 12). The Duke goes on to say that it hadn’t just been his presence that caused the faint blush in her cheeks, but “perhaps/Fra Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps/Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint/Must never hope to reproduce the faint/Half-flush that dies along her throat’” (Browning 15-19). He suggests that the reason for the blush that laid upon her cheeks could have been because Fra Pandolf had complimented her. To further build upon his theory, he goes on to say that she was often left blushing over simple compliments such as those and that “she had/A heart...too soon made glad/Too easily impressed” (Browning 21-23). In other words, criticizing her for being too easily made happy. Despite the fact that it is still the beginning of the poem, there’s a sense of jealousy and loathing that has already begun to appear through the way he speaks of the Duchess. He also claims that she had liked everything and everyone she saw.

However, the inclusion of the Duke saying that “she looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (Browning 24) makes it seem as though the Duchess had ogled everyone who crossed paths with her. The duke continues by stating that everything made his former duchess equally happy. Whether it was a broach, the sun setting in the West, a branch of cherries gifted to her, or the white mule she rode on the terrace: all made her equally happy. She would thank the person who had given her the gift with the same kind words or the same blush. Then, as if he were struggling to describe the concerns with the way she did so, he states that she “somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked/My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name/With anybody’s gift” (Browning, 32-34). By saying so, it is clear that the duke felt disrespected by the fact that the duchess did not care for his pedigree and social position. He had never thought of confronting her for this because he felt that arguing with her over her behavior would be beneath him, and he simply can never do that. The duke feels that communicating with his duchess the concerns he has would be to lower his status, demonstrating the often seen idea in which men communicating their feelings to their partners makes them like less of men. The duke in this case views himself through his power and status; in doing something that he considers beneath him, he would run the risk of harming both of these.

The duke then goes on to say that his duchess had smiled at him everytime he passed by her, but what bothered him was the fact that she smiled at everyone the same way. The anger he had towards her for this only grew as she began to smile more and more. By simply giving orders, “all smiles stopped together” (Browning, 46). Although Browning never outright says that the duke ordered to have her killed, the reader can infer that he does since he says, “there she stands/As if alive” (Browning 46-47) directly after. The duke is seen to constantly define himself through his power and social status. Although his former duchess is seen to not have done anything wrong, the fact that she broke social barriers and treated all the people she met equally was enough to make him feel as though she had been disrespecting his status. To maintain his role, the duke orders to have her killed and annihilates the threat that she once stood to be. The duke wants to control everything and everyone, including his future wife, which is shown through the very thorough explanation for the painting he gives the father of his prospective wife to be. To close the poem, Browning leaves the image of a painting hanging on the duke’s wall of Neptune taming a sea horse. From this, one can come to a true understanding of the duke and his ill-treatment of women. Browning uses “My Last Duchess” as a way of depicting the suffering of women and the oppression they faced at the hands of the tyrant monarch and arrogant men in the Victorian era.

Women in Victorian poetry were often overshadowed by the men, who usually took on active roles. “Porphyria’s Lover,” a short dramatic monologue, shows the consequences that come along with women attempting to switch the roles. Porphyria is seen to take on this position from the very beginning of the poem, and does not allow the role of ‘masculinity’ to be given to her partner. For starters, by calling the poem “Porphyria’s Lover,” it indicates to the reader that he is now the possession of Porphyria. Browning could have titled the poem with the narrator’s name and left Porphyria as the lover, but he did not. Browning instead chose to give Porphyria the active role, which is usually played by men. To further build upon this, as she walks into the cottage, she “shut the cold out and the storm,/And kneel’d and made the cheerless grate/Blaze up, and all the cottage warm” (Browning, 7-9). Before a word is heard from Porphyria, she is presented as a strong-willed woman, especially for the time period the poem took place in. As soon as she enters the cottage, she’s seen to take control of her surroundings as she reshapes the environment. She then continues by untying her hat and letting “her damp hair fall” (Browning, 13). She takes a seat next to him and maintains control by placing his hands on her waist and places his head on her shoulder, physically propping him up, as she whispered that she loves him. “Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour,/To set its struggling passion free/From pride, and vainer ties dissever,/And give herself to me forever./But passion sometimes would prevail” (Browning 23-26). For the speaker, this marks as a kind of triumph: despite the struggle of balance Porphyria’s had trying to balance what her heart desires and her pride, she has chosen to give in to passion and make her way through the storm to see her lover. Doing so means that she has chosen her own desires over the social punishment often seen to arise for women when they indulge in them, thus changing her status and no longer being an independent woman.

When presented with a woman who takes on the dominant role and makes the man the inferior one, the narrator is left feeling as though his masculinity is being threatened. Understanding the power he holds over Porphyria, the speaker then describes her as “mine, mine, fair, / Perfectly pure and good” (Browning, 36-37). Repeating the word “mine” over and over again, the speaker has now changed the narrative and made Porphyria his possession. Unsure of what to do to keep her “pure” and “good,” the speaker ponders upon this for a moment. He then decides that the best thing to do is to kill her. Taking “all her hair/In one long yellow string I wound/Three times her little throat around,/And strangled her” (Browning 39-41). Porphyria’s lover, unable to deal with the fact that she was now in control, strangled her with a “yellow string.” With her life in his hands, he instantly regains his sense of control over her. He “warily oped her lids:again/Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.… untighten’d next the tress/About her neck… propp’d her neck up” (Browning, 44-49). With Porphyria now dead, she ceases the control she once maintained and displayed earlier in the poem. While it is typically seen that the eyes of the dead get closed, the speaker chooses to open her eyes instead. He props her head upon his shoulder, reversing the roles of the actions she earlier took. Now, Porphyria is no longer free to move as she pleases. She is instead permanently under his control and will remain as “mine, mine” (Browning, 36). The speaker has not established complete control over her and turned her into a passive object; all of which he believes is the right thing to have done since her “one wish” (Browning, 57) was to be with him forever.

While power and control through Porphyria was portrayed as her having the ability to move around freely, it means total and utter control over another being for her lover. The speaker seeks control over her behavior, therefore when she had been moving around freely and maintained control of him and his things, he was automatically threatened and felt the need to assert his power over her. By killing her, the speaker not only takes back the control that he believed was meant for him, but he also preserves the “good” and “pure” in her. Falling into her desires and embracing her sexuality are acts that women in Victorian era had been condemned for. Porphyria’s doing so meant that she had to face some sort of consequences. To add onto that, she had managed to take on the controlling role throughout the beginning of the poem, therefore threatening the speaker’s masculinity and power. The way in which he saw was best fit to get rid of these issues altogether was by killing her.

Robert Browning uses his works “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” in order to demonstrate the deadly consequences that women have faced after going against the expectations set in place for them. Here is where the connection between masculinity and power take place. While masculinity has ties to being dominant and controlling, femininity – the absence of masculinity and the lack of power or patriarchy that comes along with it – means being submissive and remaining in the societal expectations set out for one. When a man feels as though his power and control, are being threatened, there becomes a need to assert masculinity. The attempt to do this often includes the use of aggressive methods towards an intimate partner, and in doing so the man’s power is restored. Feeling threatened by his duchess’ kindness and desires for the world, the duke makes her another beautiful silent object for him to look at. Despite the fact that he could have voiced his concerns to her and had her obey them, since that was what he expected the outcome to be, the duke felt that he could not stoop so low that he would be telling someone what they are doing incorrectly. Similarly, when the speaker in “Porphyria’s Lover” feels threatened by the control she seems to take on, he strangles her in an attempt to regain control of the situation and keep his masculinity intact. When the men in both works feel that the women pose as threats to their masculinity, they decide that the only way to take back control is by annihilating them. 

16 December 2021
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