Victorian Sexism Reviled within Browning’s “My Last Duchess”


I love poems, and think many of my readers will relate to this. There is a lot to love about classic poetry, and they overwhelmingly rich with content. Below is my personal take on “My Last Duchess” and the deep sexism that is revealed throughout it. I hope you like!

“Nineteenth-century bourgeois masculinity was characterized by a rigid program of male self-discipline and control necessary for conformity to the hegemonic parameters of patriarchy (151),” argues Tyler Efird, whose study of sexism within Victorian literature examines the works of poet Robert Browning and his dramatic monologues that subjugate women. Browning created male-dominating speakers in his poetry who controlled female characters due to a patriarchal system that controlled Victorian society. Wealthy noblemen were at the center of power during this period and the patriarch led great influence on gender issues. “Significantly, this program required the strict regulation of male sexual desire, thereby “insuring,” according to Victorian patriarchal ideology, the application of male energy towards other purposes – most often those required of work and intellect”(l 51) states Efird believing this is the root of violence directed to females by males in Victorian Literature.

The nobleman of the Victorian age, like the nobleman of the renaissance period, due to specific sexual freedoms, not acceptable during the Victorian age, and by using a concept similarly to Freudian ideas of sublimation, would redirect sexual impulse into more intellectual activities. For example, sexual desire is masked by the Duke, the speaker of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” by an obsession with the esthetic and power, socially acceptable yearnings for a Victorian era aristocrat, or in the Duke’s case, a Renaissance gentleman.

Indeed, this system would by standard means flawed as it leads to pent up sexual frustration in its male class, resulting in the mistreatment of woman, objectifying them as is the case with the Duke of Browning’s Poem. “My Last Duchess” reflects this sexism of the Victorian age as Robert Browning’s poem shows the subjugation of Victorian woman and the patriarchal dominance men held during this period.

Understanding the Victorian language used by Browning is important when dissecting “My Last Duchess.” Keeping Efird’s theory in mind, that sexual desires were sublimated elsewhere, it makes sense the Duke would hide his true feeling within the language he used. Mastery of language and writing would be paramount to such an aristocratic noble, and the shaping and twisting of words would be a simple task for such an educated man. This concept is the study of Kevin J. Gardner, a literary theorist who believes the Duke’s specific choices of words directly reviles why he is upset at his wife: he is impotent. Due to his condition, the Duke fears all men his wife talked to, leaving him in a jealous rage. The Duke strives to be perfect, yet he fears this imperfection is embarrassing enough to reject his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old-name” (33). Gardner argues the evidence to his theory is hidden in the language. Studying Victorian terminology, alongside the use of other Browning texts, Gardner’s article “Was the Duke of Ferrara Impotent?” attempts to give more insight into sexual language in Victorian literature.

In the line “The bough of cherries some officious fool I Broke in the orchard for her, the while mule I she rode around the terrace, (27-29) cherries are an important word to examine. “In “Cherries,” from Frishtah’s Fancies, the cherry becomes the speaker’s conceit for love-making, while in “Warning,” the cherry represents a feminized and virginized portrait of a friend of Browning’s for whom the poet expresses a forbidden desire …This would indicate that to Browning  picking  of cherries  is associated  with  forbidden  sexual  acts” (Gardner,  168).   An educated man, Browning would have read or know about these texts along with the sexual connotations associated with them. His choice to include these lines in “My Last Duchess” means Browning was, at the least, open to the interpretation and the sexual significance cherries had on the poem. Reviewing the cherries talked about by the Duke shines light on the possibility the last duchess was not loyal to her husband, a common belief about this poem.

Sexual Victorian innuendos used in other Browning poems can be found in “My Last Duchess.” Specific attention can be drawn how the word “stoop” (43) is used in previous works by Browning: “Browning gave the word sexual implications in several other poems, including “Porphyria’s Lover” and “The Worst of It,” both of which touch on the subject of sexual indiscretion” (Gardner 168-169). Browning, aware of his word choice, and again, the understanding of the Freudian concept of sublimation popularly used by Victorian nobleman, uses “stoop” (43) as a sexual term reviles that sexuality plays a large role within the poem, giving rise to gender issues of sexuality within Victorian society and how nobleman (and women) dealt with these issues.

If the Duchess was adulterous like Gardner believes, she would be an incredibly radical character within Victorian literature. Standing up to the wills of her patriarchal husband is no laughing matter to a Victorian woman in a society dominated by male nobility. Or, perhaps, the duchess was unaware of her husband’s discomfort of her freedoms. Communication was never their strong suite, “We easily notice the duke’s reluctance to communicate his displeasure with his wife’s behavior, and this breakdown in verbal communication symbolizes a sexual dysfunction: he seems to reject all forms of intercourse with her” (Gardner, 168). The Duke mentions he has a difficult time talking to his last duchess, “Even had you skill /In Speech which I have not” (35- 36). However, his language used within the poem states otherwise; the use of enjamed lines represents the duke unable to keep his mouth shut, as if guilty of the murder of his wife -spewing the tale with little control. Although it is easy for the duke to speak to the listener of poem, why was it so hard to speak to his wife? It is the embarrassment that keeps him from communication with his duchess. However, this is also due to the fact that we do not get to hear the duchess’s side of this story.

The lack of speaking of female characters is noticeable in Browning’s literature. This is Browning showing us women were powerless during this time, without the ability to explain themselves. Being yoked by overly powerful male patriarchal figures, woman are slaves to the Victorian gentlemen. “Browning symbolically represents the behavior of the Duke through the art work depicting Neptune taming a sea horse that is hanging the wall in the palace of the Duke. From this the reader can understand the mindset of the Duke and his ill-treatment of women” (Bose, 26). The duke is understood to be Neptune taming his wife, a sea horse, who we understand enjoys riding a white mule (28) in the duke’s orchard. Bose continues to argue, “This poem understandably depicts how women suffered and were suppressed by the tyrant monarch, and arrogant men in the Victorian period” (26). Objectifying women, the Duke would rather but up a painting of his last duchess to scare all future women then to communicate with his duchess.

A cheating wife and a jealous impotent husband lay the framework for understanding Victorian society, and the unfair sexism that was directed towards women. Browning’s poem is the possible Victorian era retelling of the life of Duke of Ferrara Alfonso II, who ruled from 1559 to 1597. My Last Duchess explains the relationship between renaissance nobility and Victorian bourgeois. Alfonso II was the final duke of his name since he failed to reproduce an hair to continue the line after three wives continued to give the duke negative results. The possibility that the Duke is based  of Alfonso  II  shines new  light  on  how  Victorian  society  is heavily  influenced  on renaissance nobility. Additionally, it also shows how historically, the topics of male control over women continues into the Victorian age, where it is to be examined and presented by literary masters and critics like Robert Browning.

It is arguable that the dramatic monologue, made famous by several of Browning’s poems, especial “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s lover”, are dominantly male in nature, leaving out the opinion of the female characters these poems discriminate. However, lacking female opinion only helps to define the time there poems originated, while addressing the mindset of the male speakers within them. “Although ‘My Last Duchess’ is a fragment of an unacted drama, we can see clearly in it some of the essential elements of Browning’s use of language in the dramatic monologue. The starting point is an image, usually visual but sometimes (as we shall see) aural; the speaker translates the image into worlds, the translation being a statement of the meaning of the image and hence an interpretation of it” (Hair 102-103). Sexism found in Victorian society is not the subconscious meaning translated by the Duke. He explains the painted and with it the unfair treatment that befell his last duchess. Browning lets the duke state his feeling on the matter, creating a more believable depiction of the topic of gender issues faced during the period. The Duke does not know he is describing gender problems of Victorian society, he is merely describing a picture as he sees it, telling the history this image reviles to him. Moreover, to readers his depiction of the portrait states multitudes of the history and culture of his time period. Browning is not addressing gender theory, he is letting the Duke explain it himself.

Though My Last Duchess is a rather dark tale, it goes without question, Browning’s work got darker after the loss of his Wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “Browning felt he had to write about life around him as he saw it, the sordidness as well as the beauty. He believed, as he told, Julia, that cultivated men were capable of the ‘grossest’ wickedness: the more cultivated the mind, the more repressed the individual; and the greater the self-denial, the greater the wickedness.”(118) states writer Pamela Neville-Sington in her book “Robert Browning: A Life after Death, which examines Elizabeth Browning’s death affects her husband’s writing. Indeed, Browning had a somewhat Marxist opinion of the bourgeois, as stated above by Neville-Sington. Browning believed that refined men experienced extra wickedness, and this is defiantly reviled within “My Last Duchess.” The Duke is the perfect example of a spoiled aristocrat, so used to getting what he wants, he is incapable of understandings the feelings of others. Browning’s work, mocking the cultural elite of society, reverts back down to issues of gender. To elitists, woman do not rank as well as wealth men, thus this concept is featured within “My Last Duchess” since the poem can be read with an anti- bourgeois focus.

What Robert Browning wanted to say “In My Last Duchess” may never truly be discovered. Indeed, “There is no known surviving autograph of ‘My Last Duchess’ so we cannot confirm what seems highly likely…” (Hawlin, 139). However, the greatest of dramatic monologues will continue to influence readers and thinkers for years to come. The Duke, who we know so little about, is in a way, left mysterious and his character, charm, and wickedness so familiar to use, he could resonate within a multitude of characters within literature. Same can be said for the last duchess, whose silence represents thousands of women who never had the chance to speak up for themselves.


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