In “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess”, Browning explores the male psyche by portraying two men so obsessed by domination and control that they are finally driven to kill their lovers. Written in the 19th century, these poems are set in a patriarchal society in which female subservience was expected and male supremacy absolute. In “Advice to a Husband” Cobbett states that “A husband under command of his wife is the most contemptible of god’s creatures. ” And it is this proclamation, viewed by many of the time that drives the protagonists of the two poems to the extremes.
Despite the fact that the poems are written in dramatic monologues, the text contains certain clues which voice Browning’s judgment and condemnation of the drastic actions taken by the male figures and thus society’s role of trapping women under the rule of men. Neither the Duke nor the lover meet the expectations that the reader has of a protagonist of a Romantic poem. Instead Browning’s presentation of flawed men as opposed to romantic heroes suggests that Browning is playing against his reader’s expectations.
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The Duke’s description of his wife quickly reveals that he is a paranoid character; his speculative suggestion of what Fri?? Pandolf might have “chanced to say” reveals that he even suspects his wife of flirting with a monk. The lover is also a jealous character. He thinks that Porphyria is “weak” as she will not free herself “from pride and vainer ties dissever, / And give herself to me forever. ” When the lover realises Porphyria’s affections for him he becomes so crazed by power that he strangles her with the “long yellow string” of her own hair.
In contrast to “My Last Duchess”, the poem makes completely clear to the reader that Porphyria is cruelly murdered by her lover. However the reader is led to suspect that a similar crime also occurs in “My Last Duchess. ” The Dukes language is clinical and free from emotion as he declares “I gave commands; / Then all smiles stopped together. In both poems, the men blame Porphyria and the Duchess for their own deaths due to what is deemed to be inexcusable behaviour. Browning however allows the reader to oppose the perspective of the male personas.
In “Porphyria’s Lover” the lover’s descriptions of “vainer ties” are vague, so could be anything from another man to a social life excluding him. But as the reader is morally judgemental, no reason would be sufficient for murder. Even the lover himself feels the need to reassure himself of his action by saying “No pain felt she; / I am quite sure she felt no pain. ” He also seems to fear God’s judgment as he says “And yet God has not said a word! ” In “My Last Duchess” the Duke’s reasoning for his wife’s death shows irrational jealousy.
He not only feels threatened by other men but of things, animals and even of the sunset which he describes as “The dropping of the daylight in the West. ” As in “Porphyria’s Lover” the reader does not believe the Duchess deserves her fate despite the fact that it is told from the Duke’s point of view. His broken sentences show elements of self-doubt and he cannot clearly convey his argument for his partner’s death. “Somehow – I know not how… ” It also appears that he senses his irrationality because he first states “Who’d stoop to blame / This sort of trifling? yet he continues to do just that. The Duke kills his wife in order to stop her looking as “her looks went everywhere. ”
This is because her role as wife is to be looked at, not to look at others. In death she is immortalised by means of a portrait in which she is trapped “looking as if alive” purely showing her husband’s success through her beauty. The Duke regains the control that he thought he had lost by keeping his wife hidden: “since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you but I”. The Duke murders his wife because he refuses to lower himself: “I chose / Never to stoop.
This idea of hierarchy between men and women is also portrayed in “Porphyria’s Lover”. Porphyria feels she has to provocatively offer herself in order to cheer her lover which is described by the male persona as “stooping”. The lover also states “Porphyria worshipped me” which conveys his heightened sense of ownership similar to the Duke’s emotions when viewing the portrait of his wife. The lover’s proclamation “That moment she was mine, mine” shows the power he holds over Porphyria and subsequently he kills her. In her death Porphyria becomes perfect to him as now he has total control.
The Lover uses Porphyria’s corpse like a puppet, positioning her to create different scenes: “I propped her head up as before / Only, this time my shoulder bore / Her head” “And thus we sit together now / And all night long we have not stirred. ” These grotesque actions give the reader the impression that the Lover is dramatising their lives together singlehandedly, perhaps to ensure that nothing will ruin their eternity together.
He even continues to create her emotions and wishes for her. When doing this he objectifies her further by referring to her as it. So glad it has its utmost will… ” Although the Duke does not literally use his wife’s body as an object like Porphyria’s Lover, he uses the portrait he commissioned as a means of enjoying the visual aspects of his wife without having to deal with soul underneath. “I call / That piece a wonder now… ” shows clearly how the Duke believes his wife merely to be a possession of his. However unlike Porphyria’s Lover, The Duke’s perfection is somewhat tainted by the fact that another man painted her with a look of “… depth and passion… ” which reveals the personality underneath the face.
In this patriarchal environment in which “My Last Duchess” was set women and paintings were often considered to be the same as they are both commodities which show the wealth and success of a husband. Beautiful paintings showed that the husband could afford a talented artist and beautiful women came with smaller dowries thus showing that the male figure could meet the expense of his wife. The persona’s justifications for the murder of their partners are so weak that it is clear that Browning clearly deemed the male view that the best wife is a dead woman to be immoral.
The characters’ personalities and the radical action taken provoke anger and shock within the reader and cause pity for the deceased women as Browning allows the reader to draw the conclusion that they were undeserving of their death. Not only does the murder seem unjust, but the way the male personas treat their dead lovers after their death stimulates bitterness. The Lover’s manipulating of Porphyria’s body presents a grotesque image whereas the Duke’s use of his wife’s portrait as a means of showing his power and success shows his character to be egotistical.