The Duality of Violence and Sexuality

Browning’s “My Last Duchess” and “Porphyria’s Lover” are both monologues that seek to explore the complex relationship between violence and sexuality. The Victorian Era was dominated by mantra of sexual oppression, and Browning, in an attempt to analyze sexuality in as shocking a manner as possible, links it closely with violence and murder.

The speaker of “My Last duchess” is a widowed Duke, and the poem is a monologue of disturbing declarations of ownership and crimes committed. The Duke is speaking with a man who has been sent to negotiate the terms of the Duke’s marriage to a new woman. The Duke reveals to the negotiator that his late wife did not appreciate his “gift of [his] nine-hundred-years old name,” and was flirtatious with other men. He admits later that his jealousy and superiority complex lead him to killer her himself, so that she could forever be his, and only his, in the form of a beautiful portrait.

“Porphyria’s Lover” is the story of a young beauty who defies society’s sexual norms to be with the Speaker of the poem. She tends to him, and lights a fire that keeps out the cold bitterness of the storm, which rages outside their cottage. She offers declarations of her love, and the author realizes that in the moment, she is completely his. Out of a desire to keep her from eventually leaving him, most likely due to society’s pressures, he strangles her to death with her hair. He then proceeds to toy with the body and remark upon the lack of punishment administered to him by God.

Both poems are monologues by men overcome with jealousy. Both speakers are so desperate to possess the adoration of their lovers that they are willing to commit murder. In doing so, the Duke believes he has attained complete, eternal ownership by storing his wife’s memory in a painting that belongs to him. In the Duke’s mind, his wife’s overtly sexuality kept her from belonging to him in the complete sense of the phrase. His solution to the problem was to have her killed, indicated by the line “I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together.” Similarly, the speaker of ‘Porphyria’s Lover” deeply fears his lover’s abandonment. The most important aspect of his relationship with Porphyria is his possession of her, so in order to eternalize the moment in which she declares her devotion to him he murders her.

By linking sexuality and violence so explicitly in his two poems, Browning hopes to force his readers to ponder the question of the relationship between the two. Both were viewed as scandalous in the time period, and both – although this applies to sexuality primarily – were treated with extreme caution in the literature of the period. Browning asks the reader to try and decide in what way the two are related. By linking the two relationships consumed by sexuality with murder, Browning is condemning sexual promiscuity.

 

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