Madness at Havisham in the Sisters and Lover of Porfiria

The following is a sample essay on the exploration of madness in Havisham by Carol Ann Duffy, The Sisters by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Porfiria’s Lover by Robert Browning. To read the introduction, body, and conclusion of the essay, scroll down.

‘Havisham’ by Carol Anne Duffy, ‘The Sisters’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ by Robert Browning, are all studies of madness. Within each poem the main theme is presented in different ways such as using dramatic monologue, free verse and satire.

Through examining poetic techniques and devices closely, I will identify the ways in which madness is portrayed in these poems.

Carol Anne Duffy’s ‘Havisham’, published in the late 20th century, is based on the novel ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens. In the book, the character Havisham is percieved as a mentally strong person, who would never want to show any type of weakness. However, Duffy takes a satirical approach towards Havisham’s character. She twists Havisham and makes her reveal the weakness and anger in her ‘heart that breaks’, ‘I stabbed’.

Havisham is shown to be mad and obsessed with her tragic past ‘not a day since then I haven’t wished him dead’ as her life seems to have stopped at the time she was jilted on her wedding day ‘the dress yellowing’. She has never stepped outside her house since, which also stopped in time like the rest of the things in her life, ‘I stabbed at a wedding cake’. Everything is in the same place as it was at twenty to nine, the time Havisham was jilted.

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This reveals her insanity as she who would choose to live like that for so many years?

Havisham is a completely obsessive character, who is determined not to let go of her past and keeps going over it again and again ‘ropes on the back of my hands’. She despises herself ‘spinster’ and sees herself as a skeleton ‘slewed mirror’, all distorted.

The poem is written as a dramatic monologue which shows that Havisham wants everyone to believe she is a strong character, but actually has no idea what she is revealing ‘b-b-b-breaks’. This would make confirm anyone’s beliefs that she is mad, as anyone who can talk about how much they feel shattered and live like it’s the end of the world, and still think people believe she is strong have completely lost their mind. She feels completely trapped and is nervous wreck.

Havisham shows madness in many ways, firstly by the use of tautology which creates a rambling effect ‘full length, her, myself, who did this to me’. The pace picks up at these points, which reinforces the rambling. Rambling is a good technique to use as anyone ‘normal’ would not be shown to waffle whilst talking.

There is also the use of oxymoron’s ‘beloved sweetheart bastard’, ‘love’s hate’ which shows madness in the sense that she is confused. She can’t seem to let go of her ex-fianc� but also blames him for the state that she is in. She’s completely lost. Havisham is also shown to talk to herself all throughout the poem ‘who did this to me?’, ‘cowing nooooo at the wall’. This shows her madness even more as this is a stereotypical habit we believe ‘mad people’ have.

There are a number of additional themes used apart from obsession such as revenge. The use of colour ‘green’ and ‘give me a male corpse’ shows Havisham wants her ex-fianc� to feel exactly what she does, and also over a long period of time.

Sex is also another theme used. In the time ‘Havisham’ was set, for women, marriage did not just mean falling in love. It also meant turning into a woman by having sex. This is why Havisham almost spits out the word ‘spinster’ and often imagines what it would be like to have sex, ‘my fluent tongue in its mouth’. However, she always suddenly wakes up ‘bite awake’. Love is presented by the use of the colour ‘red’ and the word ‘love’. This shows that although she hates her ex-fianc� and never names him ‘its ear’, ‘its mouth’, she does feel passionate towards him. This is also shown by the use of the antithesis ‘loves hate’. She doesn’t want to love him and hates him for jilting her. This again reinforces the fact that Havisham is mad, as who would still love someone that jilted them?

Another style used by Carol Anne Duffy, apart from dramatic monologue, is by writing the poem in first person ‘I haven’t’. This is a very effective technique to use as the reader gets to witness Havisham’s madness for themselves, instead of hearing it through someone else’s point of view. It helps the reader see exactly where Havisham reveals her madness and obsession ‘I stabbed at a wedding cake’, ‘I stink and remember’.

Duffy uses colour effectively as a metaphor for Havisham’s feelings. ‘Dark green’ is used to describe her eyes, but also to show her jealousy and her thirst for revenge. ‘Puce curses’ describe the coldness of being alone and the pain she suffers. After using these colours, the tone changes and turns to pure ‘white veil’. This represents Havisham’s innocence and the fact that she feels an incomplete woman. ‘Red balloon bursting’ is used to show all her feelings of love and hatred are swelling inside her heart, until it becomes too much to handle and she breaks down.

The verse and sentence structure in the poem helps the reader find out more about the character of Havisham. The poem’s structure is set so it looks organised which, at a first glance, wouldn’t make the reader believe Havisham is mad. However the use of enjambment ‘who did this to me’ reveal that she is actually rambling, showing confusion and madness. This makes Havisham seem even more manic as she truly believes she appears ‘normal’. The sentence structure also helps disclose the real Havisham. Duffy uses short sentences ‘spinster. I stink and remember’, again to emphasize the waffling. All this adds up to create the madness in Havisham.

The tone isn’t the same throughout the whole of ‘Havisham’. It starts off showing her anger and bitterness ‘I could strangle’, but slowly turns a bit emotional where Havisham reveals how she reacted to her depressing past ‘cawing nooooo’, ‘trembling’. At this point, the readers feel sorry for her as she is showing hatred towards herself. The tone in the next verse shows passion and Havisham’s lustful fantasies ‘lost body over me’, of what could have happened on her wedding night. However, the last verse is where Havisham’s anger grows and grows – ‘I stabbed at wedding cake’, ‘give me a male corpse’ – until finally she lets go ‘b-b-b-breaks’ and both her mind and life brake down.

Using all these devices and techniques, such as satire, colour and adding additional themes, Duffy presents Havisham’s madness very effectively and successfully.

Class was considered very important to the Victorians, and this is shown in Tennyson’s ‘The Sisters’, which was published in 1881. Around this era, people were completely obsessed with madness; a trip to the local mad house would be considered normal and a typical family day out.

‘The Sisters’ is a poem that uses the themes of jealousy, necrophilia and murder to help tell its story. It’s a story of ‘two daughters’, one of which falls pregnant, ‘she fell’. This would be seen as shameful, ‘blood with shame’, as celibacy was expected in the time ‘the sisters’ was written.

After not being able to handle the burden of mixing ‘her ancient blood with shame’, the sister commits suicide, ‘she died’. The main theme is introduced early in the poem ‘therefore revenge became me well’. The second Sister takes it upon her to have revenge for the horrific state her sister ended up in, ‘she went to burning flame’, because of the earl. I also believe the Sister believed she also had another reason for revenge; the fact that the earl chose her sister over her made the Sister angry. Her jealousy, ‘she was the fairest in the face’, has made her even more determined for revenge.

The sister gives herself time ‘whole weeks and months’ to make her plan ‘to win his love’ work. This shows the Sisters amount of obsession, and also as it is written in first person narrative it shows that she is completely aware of what she is doing, showing her insanity.

The Sister becomes successful ‘I won his love, I brought him home’, and after bringing the earl into false impression that he is safe ‘I kiss’d his eyelids into rest, his ruddy cheek upon my breast’, she gets her revenge ‘three times I stabb’d him thro’ and thro’.

I believe that the Sister’s character is the most sinister out of all that I will write about. This is due to the fact that she is completely aware of what she is revealing, and Tennyson has shown this by not having the poem written using dramatic monologue, whereas Havisham is completely different and truly believes that she appears to be a ‘normal’ person.

The Sister is shown to be proud of what she has done ‘laid him at his mothers feet’, showing her madness, as who would be so proud of killing someone that they reveal it was them? The Sister’s charter appears cruel and cold-blooded as lying a dead son at their mother’s feet is going too far.

‘The Sisters’ has a structured verses throughout the poem, which shows the Sister is very controlling, therefore has planned and knows exactly what she’s doing. This again reveals the Sisters madness, because she is willing to do anything to reach her goal without any regret.

The Sister reveals her madness in a variety of ways, but her insanity isn’t that she has completely lost her mind, like Havisham, but the fact that she has evil characteristics ad thoughts. Even though she has always had feelings for the earl ‘I loved his beauty passing well’, she still wants him dead. However, before this line, the Sister reveals that she ‘hated him with the hate of hell’. This antithesis shows her confusion as although she loves him, on the other hand she hates him. This also shows how daunting the sister appears to be, as who would plan on killing someone they like, without any second thoughts or regrets?

Although she has just committed a murder, the sister has no remorse for her actions, ‘I curl’d and comb’d his comely head’. There is a big element of strong imagery here, with the use of alliteration, which places a disturbing picture of necrophilia in the readers mind. This action, of the Sister’s, alone would make anyone believe that she is mad, as she is actually attracted to a dead body. She finds her revenge erotic and as she is comfortable around the dead earl, she reveals her satisfaction.

Power, one of the additional themes used in the poem, is used many times throughout ‘the Sisters’. The Sister is in power, or control, all throughout her revenge plan, which is firstly shown by the structured verses Tennyson has used. It also gives the impression to the reader that the Sister has planned every step of her revenge extremely carefully and thoughtfully.

Also the simple rhyming pattern ‘AABB’, adds the control element to the poem, and again reinforces the insanity of the Sister, as the speakers control again shows tat she is aware of her actions, which, again, is quite daunting.

The sister reveals her obsession all throughout the poem, as her careful planning and biding of time is proof. This is similar to Havisham’s obsession as she also wanted to get revenge for what she had to go through. In the alliteration ‘I hated him with the hate of hell’, it’s like the Sister almost spits out the words, whilst also creating alliteration and sound, and reinforces her obsession and madness to complete her well-planned revenge, ‘ whole weeks and months’, ‘I lay in wait’.

The most important theme, to which Tennyson’s poem is based around, as well as madness, is revenge. Introduced early, ‘therefore revenge became me well’, it is the main way the Sister’s madness is revealed. She is determined to get her revenge, even if she has to wait a long time, ‘whole weeks and months, and early and late’. The sinister element here is that although the Sister still has feelings for the earl, ‘o, the earl was fair to see’, she still wants revenge for something that happened along time ago. This is similar to the situation in ‘Havisham’ as although she is still loved her ex-fianc�, she still wanted him to feel pain. This shows a great deal of madness in both women, as how can you want to someone so badly, even after so long, and still truly say you love them?

The tone is shown very cleverly and effectively all throughout the poem, by the use of the repeated refrain ‘The wind is…’ because the forth word changes as the Sisters plan progresses. It starts of ‘blowing’ which is used as a metaphor to show her anger where she is talking about her Sister being prettier than her. However, the transition of the active verb changes to ‘howling’ and eventually ‘raving’ as she kills the earl. However after she calms down and realises her plan was successful, the ‘wind’ goes back to ‘blowing’. I believe this last repeated refrain shows the most of her insanity, because she has just committed a murder and instead of panicking or regretting it, she actually becomes satisfied with what she has done.

Tennyson’s tactful techniques and use of different themes all adds up eventually to show the Sister’s sinister insanity, which at a first glance at the poem, is invisible.

Power struggle based ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, reflects the time it was written in. Browning uses status, sex and murder as his main themes to help represent the insanity of the Lover. Porphyria, an upper class Victorian woman, ‘laid her soiled gloves’, is shown to see a mentally disabled man for sex, even though she is married. However, the Lover doesn’t realise he is being used, but truly believes Porphyria loves him, ‘Porphyria worshipped me’, and believes she wants to be with him forever, ‘and give herself to me forever’.

As affairs were frowned upon, he believes there is only one way he can help his ‘worshipper’ reach her goal, ‘her heart’s endeavor’ and that’s by killing her. However also, if this doesn’t show enough madness, he actually thinks she wants to be killed, ‘ no pain she felt’, and so murders her.

Out of ‘Havisham’, ‘The Sisters’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, I believe, that the lover is the most stereotypical type of what we would consider a ‘mad’ person to be like, as firstly he lives in a mental home. Also by using enjambment, Browning reveals the madness of the Lover, as he waffles on without any breaks. At a first glance at the verse structure in this poem shows clearly the insanity of the Lover, however in ‘The Sisters’ the structure reveals no madness at all.

The Lover also appears to me to be quite an arrogant character as he thinks he means the world to Porphyria ‘Porphyria worshipped me’, which is surprising because the only time she comes to see him is when she wants to have sex, and I can tell this as she wastes no time in seducing him ‘made her smooth white shoulder bare’. He even believes he is equal to God, ‘God has not even said a word!’, and, even though he has just murdered Porphyria, he thinks even God can not argue with him, as he can’t possibly do anything wrong. This sort of behaviour would make anyone believe the Lover is mad, as who on earth would believe God thinks its ok to kill someone?

Anyone who argues with themselves would be considered completely crazy, and that’s exactly what the Lover does ‘I debated what to do’. He tried to decide on how to kill Porphyria, and after he commits this crime, he truly believes in his mind that he and Porphyria had come to this conclusion together ‘I am quite sure she felt no pain’. This insanity continues to the end of the poem, where he thinks that now both him and dead Porphyria are happy now, as her ‘wish’ to be with him forever has come true, and also thinks that she is as good as alive.

Like ‘Havisham’, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ is also written using dramatic monologue, as when the Lover says things such as ‘she guesses not how her darling one wish would be heard’, and believes he is the greatest lover who gave her a dream gift, he doesn’t realise even more. Anyone would have to be completely insane to actually think killing someone is giving them a perfect gift. Also, they would to be even madder to believe they are still alive, as the Lover does about Porphyria ‘the smiling rosy little head’. This just proves the lovers insanity.

Power struggle is used by Browning all throughout ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, starting with Porphyria in control. She makes him wait for her ‘and, last, she sat down by my side’ and talks to him ‘and called me’. Revealing his madness again, the Lover hears her but doesn’t utter a word of reply ‘no voice replied’. Still in charge, Porphyria begins to dominate him ‘she put my arm about her waist’ and the lover doesn’t even try and stop her and take control, as he knows what is going on, but his insanity stops it from sinking in. however, Porphyria begins to seduce him, ‘all her yellow hair displaced’, the power changes ‘murmuring how she loved me’. He begins to believe he is her weakness and almost pities her ‘she to weak’, and that she belongs to him ‘that moment she was mine, mine’. This repetition enforces how he feels, and it is almost a childish thing to say. His power grows even more after he murders Porphyria because now he begins to seduce her ‘blushes bright beneath my burning kiss’, ‘I propped her head up as before only, this time my shoulder bore’, instead of the other way round like it was at the beginning of the poem.

Also here, necrophilia is introduced using strong imagery ‘as a shut bud that holds a bee’. This is similar to the two other poems as Havisham, the Sister and the Lover find dead body’s erotic, and anyone who gets turned on by the thought of manipulating a dead body is clearly mad.

The poem has a negative start, by the use of Browning’s language, using words such as ‘sullen’, ‘tore;, ‘spite’, ‘worst’, ‘vex’ and ‘break’. According to the Lover, life without Porphyria is dull. However, the tone changes as well as the Lovers mood when Porphyria arrives, ‘blazeup’, ‘war’ and the use of the metaphor ‘cheerless grate’. As well as warming up the rooms by lighting a fire, she also warms the Lover’s mood up by her presence.

By the use of all these and other clever techniques, especially enjambment, Browning has successfully achieved revealing the Lovers madness.

The main theme of madness is presented in a variety of ways in all three poems that I have studied. The effective method consists of the use of enjambment, dramatic monologue and the effects of different style verse structures. Enjambment and dramatic monologue, used by Browning and Duffy, are, I believe, the most successful techniques to use when showing madness, as the enjambment creates the waffling effect – considered to be a characteristic in a ‘mad’ person – and the effect of dramatic monologue is another characteristic believed to be found in someone who are mentally disabled, as they tend to not realise how they appear to others.

In all three poems ‘Havisham’, ‘The Sisters’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’, the verse structures all have a different style; ‘Havisham’ is set out with paragraphs but the lines to do not end with proper punctuations, ‘The Sisters’ is set out so no reader would actually believe the poem would be about a mad women at a first glance, however, ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ uses big enjambment and it is clear that the poem was not going to be about some one ‘normal’.

Using a few similar techniques and a few different to some extent, all three poems, in their own ways, portray madness, especially using the time that they were written in, which, I believe, was a big influence to their writing.

Overall, I believe that all three poets should be congratulated on their poems as they show madness very effectively and successfully, using a number of techniques.

Cite this page

Madness at Havisham in the Sisters and Lover of Porfiria. (2017, Oct 17). Retrieved from

Madness at Havisham in the Sisters and Lover of Porfiria
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