In Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”(1842), “Porphyria’s Love”(1842), and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s verse novel “Aurora Leigh”(1856) we have two contrasting images of male lover and husband. The greed for wealth and power drives the male characters in Robert Browning’s poems to grow from dominating to domineering psychopaths and destroys the object of their affection; in contrast Aurora Leigh, a woman of substance, refuses to play the second fiddle and spurns the offer of love and marriage from her cousin Romney to be able to pursue art independently.
Though the Brownings are not known as the typical representatives of their era, some of the characters reflect the dominating values of their time. The upper class male characters in these poems are vain and arrogant in their attitude, and condescending to women. Robert Browning’s view in “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” through the dramatic monologues. The Duchess, being a woman of “a softer mood”, becomes the soft target of her hard-hearted husband. She lacks the education and confidence to choose her path of freedom.
The two male characters – the obsessive lover in “Porphyria” and the Duke in “My Last Duchess” — reveal the dark motives through the successful use of dramatic monologues. In “My Last Duchess” it is an exaggerated view of his social status that leads the Duke to neglect his wife first, then as she obdurately follows her natural inclinations of innocence and equanimity to all, she is smothered to death with aristocratic diplomacy: “This grew; I gave commands;/ Then all smiles stopped together. ” (ll.
45-46) The Duke who gets rid of his last Duchess so inhumanly, shamelessly negotiates marriage with the daughter of a rich Count. He admires the beauty and the grandeur of the Duchess’ portrait, and it is the famous artist Fra Pandolf or Neptune taming a sea horse, the rare sculpture of Claus of Innsbruck to highlight his position and ensure “master’s known munificence/ Is ample warrant that no just pretense/ of mine for dowry will be disallowed. ”(ll. 49-51) It is greed that drives the Duke to murder his first wife to make way for a more profitable second marriage for a hefty dowry.
The Duke represents the values of the rich upper class; he overestimates his nine- hundred-year-old status and underestimates the priceless sweet disposition of his humble wife: “She had /a heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad,/ Too easily impressed;” (ll. 21-23) His typical male vanity is expressed in his own words: “Who’d stoop to blame/ This sort of trifling? ” (ll. 34-35) The male ego in the Duke is so domineering that it would not brook any kind of opposition to the custom and culture of his “superior” class. Marriage is a matter of convenience and a passport to accumulation of wealth.
As soon as he realizes the incompatibility of his first marriage, he is ready for the second even at the cost of murdering his last Duchess. The Duke stands for the ruthlessly ambitious capitalist of the Victorian era who does not mind building his empire on the graveyard of his hapless victims. His criminal nature is camouflaged by his high social status. Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” bares the psyche of a lover obsessed with jealousy. The dramatic monologue focuses on the central character of the male lover who kills his beloved on the ground of suspicion.
This abnormal act of murder exposes the deeper recesses of his soul. In a cold and stormy night he makes love to his lady after she returns from a sortie and then strangles her with her hair. Even after this diabolical act the male lover does not feel any remorse; on the contrary, he gloats over the absolute surrender of his beloved: “Murmuring how she loved me – she …And give herself to me forever. ” (ll. 21, 25) It is vanity that sustains the lover; but he feels insecure from some unknown threat of an imaginary rival: “Porphyria worshipped me; surprise/ Made my heart swell and still it grew” (ll.
33-34) He kills her with a desire of immortalizing the consummation of their love. The sadist manipulator of woman delights in the “blue eyes”, “blushed burning cheek” and the “smiling rosy head” of the corpse. This may be an extreme case, but the absolute domination of the male over their female counterparts is fact of Victorian society. The death wish of Porphyria does not sound true, it seems to be her lover’s wish-fulfillment. The sick lover takes stock with a calculating mind: “And I, its love, am gained instead! ” (l.
55) The women in Robert Browning’s poems pay with their lives for trusting their men. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh”(1856) explores the fate of a progressive thinker Aurora who turns down the marriage proposal of Romney, she finally emerges triumphant in her profession of a poet and reformer as she proclaims: “Their sole work is to represent the age,”(V. 200) She refuses to give up her profession of writer to complement the philanthropic work of her cousin with a bold assertion: “You misconceive the question like a man,/ Who sees a woman as the complement / of his sex merely.
” (Bk. II. ll. 434-36) Though Aurora is deprived of her inheritance because of her refusal to marry her cousin Romney Leigh, she fares better than Robert Browning’s women who are playthings in the hands of their dominating men. She represents the New Woman who struggles against the male domination and finally emerges successful. Aurora notes that she faces opposition not only from the Victorian males but also from her aunt who is deeply conditioned by patriarchal culture as she describes her : “She had lived/ A sort of cage-bird life, born in a cage,”(Bk. I.
305-06) Such expresses the lot of the vast majority of Victorian women: “I only thought/ of lying quiet there where I was thrown/ Like sea-weed on the rocks, (I. 378-80) The relationship between Aurora and Romney breaks off when he scoffs at the idea of her becoming a poet– a trivial achievement. The superiority of the males is always highlighted in their conversations. Women are thought to be incompetent enough to be singers. She sums up her objections to male proposal of love and marriage: “What you love/ Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause:/ You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir/ A wife to help your ends, — in her no end. ”(I.
400-03) Only a clear-headed and intelligent woman could see through the male pretence which is part of Victorian culture. The most trenchant comment made by Aurora on the need for individual identity is: “That every creature, female as the male,/ Stands single in responsible act and thought/ As also in birth and death. ”(I. 337-39) She drives home the truth to her fiance that she is unwilling to regard his work as her own and concludes: “I too have my vocation. – work to do,” (I. 455) It is no mean achievement for a financially dependent woman to have the courage to declare: “I / who love my art, would never wish it lower/ To suit my stature.
”(I. 492-94) The men of Victorian age definitely enjoyed more power over women and used this power to suppress their potential. As we see the women of Robert Browning’s poems are victims of male sadism and manipulation. But in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Aurora Leigh” we notice the beginning of a new dawn. Education help women struggle for emancipation at every level and achieve some freedom which means end of the era that treated women as their helpmates and as exclusive properties. Barrett Browning is regarded as an avant-garde writer of her age.
Browning, Elizabeth Barrett. “Aurora Leigh” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Ed. New York. W. W. Norton & Co. 2001. pp. 1898-1912 Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Ed. New York. W. W. Norton & Co. 2001. pp. 2025-26 Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th Ed. New York. W. W. Norton & Co. 2001. pp. 2028-29 O’Gorman, Francis (ed. ) Victorian poetry: An Annotated Anthology. Malden. Blackwell Publishing. 2004. 173-175