The ‘Reversibility’ of Gaze in Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’

Categories: Gender Equality

Male Dominance and Female Subjugation

"For Renaissance artists, painting was perhaps an instrument of knowledge but it was also an instrument of possession, and we must not forget, when we are dealing with Renaissance painting, that it was only possible because of the immense fortunes which were being amassed in Florence and elsewhere, and that rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world." John Berger in his "Ways of Seeing" writes, "To have a thing painted and put on a canvas is not unlike buying it and putting it in your home.

If you buy a painting you buy also the look of the thing it represents.'

In the article "Men of Blood," author Carter J. Wood acknowledges analyses of Victorian violence necessitate an understanding of the time period's "constructions of dutiful femininity that excused men's disciplinary violence and an all-male judiciary that stood idly by or even actively supported male household dominance" (Wood 266).

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An age that is charged up by a series of events like Industrial Revolution, Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, shift of the world from Theo centrism to anthropocentrism, conflict between science and religion, rationality and faith which introduce an overall change in Victorian England, fails again to bring that change in the domain of women and femininity. The order and dominance of the patriarchal society still remains and the condition of the women beings to change from bad to worse.

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The norms of the patriarchal society, subjugation policies, structural violence imposed upon women became accepted in the society largely out of lack of power and authority. This male dominance and ways of female subjugation is the very narrative of Browning's "Porphyria's Lover". Though the poem is titled after Porphyria, creating a sense that she will be in focus throughout the poem including her actions and intentions, the poem, however, is centered around her killing, her submissive role, lack of words and most importantly lack of her and her authority.

Murder is indeed a crime but if it is done by a male and which involves a woman, murder surprisingly becomes a punishment for the rectification of the society rather than a crime. If there is crime that is done by the woman and her death is her punishment. This again goes back to the process of witch lynching in the Medieval and Renaissance period. However, love as a theme is the crux of the poem where murder is happened not for the love but for the continuation to secure the love. This is why Porphyria becomes important as she is the very representative of love for the lover/murderer.

The Renaissance Man

When we talk about Browning it is always the domain of psychoanalysis that becomes the primary focus which is indeed true if we consider his poems like ‘My Last Duchess' and "Porphyria's Lover'. But Browning is more than that. He is always fascinated by the Renaissance period, the paintings of the great Italian Masters, Florentine art patronage and everything associated with the age. But it is not exactly the Renaissance age which fascinates Browning But Renaissance man—the all-knowing, all-powerful Cartesian Subject. In his ‘My Last Duchess' the Duke becomes the very model for him. But the true model of this Renaissance man is perfectly captured in his poems like ‘Andrea Del Sarto' and ‘Fra Lippo Lippi'.

The Gaze

Browning's ‘My Last Duchess' is set during the late Italian Renaissance. The speaker (presumably the Duke of Ferrara) is giving the emissary of the family of his prospective new wife a tour of the artworks in his home. He draws a curtain to reveal a painting of a woman, explaining that it is a portrait of his late wife; he invites his guest to sit and look at the painting. The analogy of possessing and the status of women as mere object is embodied in the portrait. But what is kinetic here is the gazing, as Browning blurs the very distinction between subject and object. Looking is an effort to control another subject as object. But when another subject is introduced as a viewer the first subject functions as object.

The subject who looks may achieve control over the object only to become the object observed. When the poem opens and the description it provides it only validates the subjectivity of the duke and the objectivity of the duchess because we will come to know that the duchess exists only in the picture. She is now reduced to a desired, pleasured and controlled object. But when the duke is exhibiting the paintings to the emissary the duke becomes an exhibitionist. That makes the Duke an object and there is only subject left in the scene -the emissary. Therefore, gazing is always reverse. The subject needs to be gazed by an object. And by only becoming an object the subject can validate its existence and subjectivity.

As Davis indicates, Lacan goes beyond Freud to define the process of looking and its reversal as involved in what Lacan understands as the ‘Gaze.' The ‘Gaze'oscillates between looking and being looked at, as those opposing positions are ‘implicated' by the ‘desire' of the unconscious or ‘Other.' In looking the looker is ‘seen' or ‘implicated' by the unconscious or Other. Lacan encourages us to see that it is desire in the unconscious which is producing textuality. When we read, we attend to a text as though it were an object; however, it is the Gaze which is holding us through the object text and turning us into mastered objects (Davis, pp. 987-988). ‘The Gaze which inscribes the Other's desire in a discourse of positioning - is trained on readers from the outside as they read, and through the willing surrender to the active/passive alternations of reading, readers (subjects who become objects) play within and also escape the confines of voyeurism and exhibitionism' (Davis, p. 988).

Thus, a ‘text' is not a discrete object but an intersection of a manifest text and an unconscious text, neither of which is the text. Double-ness is inevitable, since the text is both what the reader reads and the means by which the Gaze ‘reads' the reader. Any notion, then, of an ‘authoritative reading' is inevitably decentred (Davis, p. 1002).

The Illusion of Possession

‘That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she is alive' the very first line of the poem creates a sense of possession of the Duke that is confirmed by the word ‘my.' At the same time an illusion of possession is created. The duke is not only looking at the picture but he is also being looked at by it of which he is completely unaware. The motif that ran through his mind to kill his duchess is the lack of single indifferent dominance of desire of His over her and only dependent faithful singular gratitude of her for Him. But she can be ‘....too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed' and ‘...her looks went everywhere' that was against the traditional role imposed by patriarchal society on women.

The picture therefore serves as an object of desire and the complete possession of the duke over his duchess that was impossible at the time when she was alive. But the picture here also serves as a product of ‘male gaze' that is the depiction of women from a masculine point of view, presenting women as objects of male pleasures. The Duchess, like Porphyria becomes a tool for the male to secure his identity and authority. That fear of the loss of love object, Lacan would suggest, is a metaphor of a repressed fear of a greater loss, the loss of life itself and the impoverishment of the soul.

Madness and Insecurity

Madness was an important issue in Victorian England and madness was always associated with women and hysteria that is loss of structural thought in the mind but opposed to man and rationality. Browning in ‘Porphyria's lover' subverts this gendered analysis of madness as disease of female and ultimately the killing of her to restore order in society, and enclosed madness with a man. Therefore the female centric analysis of madness is very much critiqued. Browning, through the association of madness with the domain of male, demands a rational understanding of this pathological act. As argued by Victorian Medical theorists like Haslam and Preacher, that it is the collapse of the will that facilitates the collapse of the rationality in mind. It is will which binds the mind and the body together. So the collapse of the will facilitates the collapse of the mind and therefore the collapse of the rationality and then the collapse of the body and therefore the control of it. The lover's act is not the collapse of the will but the precaution to avoid it.

The murder, therefore, becomes not the consequence but the prevention of something more disastrous. The lover's ego of loving her is greater than Porphyria. Her death will ensure her complete submission to him of love. The murder therefore becomes not an act of violence but an act of insecurity of the lover to avoid the bigger violence—the wound of his ego. The poem is not a narrative of love and death, violence and cruelty but a sheer insecurity and desire to maintain power as a male figure—the very representative of male dominated society. It is not the poem of murder but the avoidance of it.

The Collector, Not a Lover

Browning's male speakers are always sexually frustrated not because for the lack of sexuality but for the lack of secure it. This implies the very Victorian tendency to subjugate woman and sexuality has a big role in it. The duchess's smile becomes a threat to the duke that challenges in manhood and sexual subjugation over the duchess. This pathological understanding of a simple smile, which is nothing but a gesture of humanity rather than an invitation of sexuality was the base of the Duke's psychological complexity. As a renaissance man he is interested in possessing the beautiful objects and exhibiting it. But the duchess even though was beautiful but was not a work of art and therefore she is not docile, meek or interactive.

An admiration of painting does not involve a reply from the painting but this was not the case with the duchess. For the duke therefore, creating her an aesthetic object was a more viable object to completely possess her and her looks and then exhibiting her. Through the molding of the duchess as a work of art, the duke was able to make of her a beautiful object of desire caught in a frame. Even though it is a portrait of the duchess, it is ultimately the aesthetics understanding of the duke. He likes to possess what he loves rather than feeling for it. He is collector than a lover. Apart from all these services, the portrait of the duchess in the end turns into a memento of punishment, a token of aesthetic caution to the family of his new wife.

No Subject

In the poem we see it is not only the art work of a female portrait that is gazed at but the Duke also falls under this sense of gazing when he plays the role of an exhibitionist where the subject is the emissary. The duke and the duchess both become in one way or another objects. But the emissary also becomes an object because he also looks at the portrait and looked back by it. In this way there is no subject left in the poem. They are part of an action that is constantly happening. There actions create an event and through that event they come into being. The continuous process of looking and being looked back creates a being and validates it. Our vision always bears reversibility within it that makes the body both subject and object, the seeing and the seen. Despite the reversibility of the seeing and the seen, it is the possibility of being observed which is always primary. Therefore, we are always already gazed at by phenomenological intent that is our intention to be understood by others or to be gazed at to negotiate with the reality that demands to be real to validate our own existence and thus we are made assured that we are always already objects.


  • Armstrong, Isobel. Browning and Victorian Poetry of Sexual Love in Robert Browning. Ed. Isobel Armstrong. Ohio University Press: Athens, 1975.
  • Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin. 1972.
  • Con Davis, Robert. Lacan and Narration: The Psychoanalytic Difference in Narrative Theory. Baltimore, 1983.
  • Ingersoll, Earl G. Lacan, Browning, and the Murderous Voyeur: 'Porphyria's Lover' and 'My Last Duchess'. Victorian Poetry, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Summer, 1990), pp. 151-157, West Virginia University Press.
  • Pettigrew, John. J. Collins, Thomas. Ed. Robert Browning: The Poems, New Haven, 1981
  • Richards, Jeffrey. "Passing the Love of Women: Manly Love and Victorian Society." Manliness and Morality, Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940. Eds. J.A. Mangan and James Walvin. St. Martin‟s Press: New York, 1987.
  • Ross, Catherine. Browning‟s Porphyria's Lover. The Explicator No. 2 (Winter 2002): 68-72.
  • Wood, J. Carter. "Men of Blood." Journal of Social History 39.1 (Fall 2005): 266-8.
Updated: Feb 20, 2024
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The ‘Reversibility’ of Gaze in Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’. (2024, Feb 20). Retrieved from

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