Sexual Violence and the Victorian Era: Oppressive Social Forces in Robert Browning’s
By Christine Utz
Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” is a social representation of the Victorian era, which supported the creation of dominant and sexually abusive men. During the nineteenth century, Victorian ideals determined the guidelines for social etiquette. A traditional regime of patriarchy flourished under the strict gender stratifications of the time period. However, tensions grew between the sexes in both the political and domestic realms and gender violence surfaced in response to the heightened conflicts. Robert Browning was born into this conservative time period, but was able to employ expressive freedom through literature. His dramatic monologue, “Porphyria’s Lover,” delves into the psychology of a patriarchal mind, illustrating the power struggle of a woman and her lover. Through the manifestation of the speaker’s mentality and motivation, Browning reveals the gross injustice of patriarchal society and male supremacy.
In the latter half of the 19th century, Victorian ideals dominated the domestic sphere. To the Victorian, the home and family were sanctuaries where the impurity and vice of the outer world could not invade. The impossibility of violence and sensuality within the safe-haven of the Victorian home supported the ignorance of sexuality and sexual conflict (Gregory 493). For the purpose of conforming to the strict Victorian ideals, “sexuality was carefully confined; it moved into the home” (Foucault 3). Society forced citizens to repress their sexuality and sensual feelings. If one were to refuse this repression, the act was seen as a conscious transgression of the social laws; society coupled sex with sin.
The ideals propagated by the Victorian regime that supported patriarchy, along with the development of feminism, provided the foundation for “the social construction of male sexual violence” (Showalter 4). The political interests of men and women were rapidly diverging and this created tension between the sexes. Women existed in a separate sphere that defied the rules of patriarchal culture. Men found themselves in an increasingly difficult search for their identity, which had once been clearly defined by the laws of the patriarchy. The Victorian Era gave birth to an increase of “sexual antagonism,” resulting from “male resentment of women’s emancipation” (Showalter 9). This backlash of resentment led to the reaffirmation of the need for male supremacy and an idealization of the dominant masculine figure (Showalter 8-9). For women, this meant that not only were they to be subordinated, but that their submission would be achieved through whatever means necessary. If society deemed physical violence an essential means of control, then men would not hesitate to exert such force.
The Victorian era advocated a strict, conservative treatment of sexuality and relationships between the sexes. The ideals within this social movement included virtue, purity and goodness; yet domestic violence somehow prevailed amongst these conservative characteristics (Gregory 493). In fact, “historical work on the subject of sexual violence within the Victorian home suggests that it was a relatively common feature of domestic life, and occurred within families from a wide range of economic and social positions” (Gregory 492). However, because sexual violence violated the Victorian domestic ideals, many citizens refused to acknowledge the increasing frequency of wife-beatings and the like. In most cases, the law did not get involved. To appease those that protested the violence, the 1853 Act for the Better Prevention and Punishment of Aggravated Assaults upon Women and Children and the 1857 Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act were passed. Also, Divorce Court proceedings were printed in the daily papers, serving to expose the realities of marital violence (Gregory 492). Yet the problem persisted.
Amidst the social forces that restricted the lives of men and women alike in the 19th century, literature emerged as an outlet for self expression and a means to investigate the psychology of such social problems as sexual conflict. The French philosopher and social critic Michel Foucault observed that, “toward the beginning of the eighteenth century, there emerged a political, economic, a technical incitement to talk about sex” (Foucault 23). This phenomenon persisted into the 19th century and the Victorian Era. Although society requested for the repression of sexuality, sex had to be expressed through some form. Discourse allowed for the freedom of expression, explanation, and understanding of sex. Naturally, authors of the 19th century seized the opportunity to explore the sexual realm. However, in the endeavor to uncover the psychological motivation behind sexual abuses, the Victorian novel fell short. Writers hesitated to address such a delicate subject so openly in their narrative framework (Gregory 493). Thus, the dramatic monologue emerged as a way of expressing the inner workings of sexual violence and domination. Its success among audiences was largely due to the fact that “the dramatic monologue requires a certain degree of reader identification no matter how perverse or abnormal the speaker” (Gregory 497). Victorian poets began to exploit the lyric form as a valuable means of psychological analysis and protest.
At this point, Robert Browning enters the poetic scene and uses the dramatic monologue to portray his thoughts regarding Victorian domestics. Browning’s dramatic monologues often contain “acute depictions of sexual conflict within the domestic sphere,” illustrating the painful tensions between men and women that lead to acts of violence (Gregory 493). In his time period, the daring move to address the subject of domestic violence required tactful approach. The monologue provides a voice for the repressed expression of sexuality and sexual brutality. Readers unknowingly become involved in the inmost thoughts of the protagonist of the monologue and witness these intimate forms of violence and sexual corruption (Gregory 495-96). One of Browning’s earlier dramatic monologues that depict perverse forms of sexual dominance is “Porphyria’s Lover.” In this poem, the narrator murders his lover by strangling her with her own hair. Browning’s readings of John Wilson’s “Extracts from Gosschen’s Diary” and Barry Cornwall’s poem “Marcian Colonna” influenced him to write “Porphyria’s Lover.” Both pieces that Browning read address the erotic murder of a woman by her lover (Maxwell 27). As Edgar Allan Poe romanticizes, a beautiful woman’s death is “the most poetical topic in the world”’ (Gilbert and Gubar 25). But “Porphyria’s Lover” goes beyond merely demonstrating the aesthetic values of murder; it attempts to reveal the sexual tensions inherent in Victorian culture.
The central theme of Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” revolves around the male protagonist’s desire to fix and control his feminine ideal. Browning presents to the reader two opposing characters, Porphyria and her lover, and contrasts them by their social classes and their intentions. He characterizes Porphyria as an assertive female figure who openly displays her sexuality. The narrator describes her authority and sensuality in the following lines: “She put my arm about her waist, /And made her smooth white shoulder bare, /And all her yellow hair displaced, /And, stooping, made my cheek lie there” (Browning 16-19). Porphyria initiates physical contact with her lover, tantalizing him with her bare shoulder and flowing hair. She chooses to let her clothing and hair fall down and she makes her lover’s head lie upon her shoulder. She assumes a position of control, infantilizing and acting maternally towards the narrator; she is his protector. Furthermore, the very act of letting down her long blonde hair carries sexual implications because “masses of hair, whether golden or dark, radiant female sensuality in Browning as in many other male writers” (Karlin 215). Hair symbolizes a woman’s sexuality and is a titillating and tempting display for men. Porphyria knew how to flaunt her features and use them to seduce her lover. She supplants her lover’s traditional position of authority and dominates the relationship by making use of her womanly powers.
Although Porphyria appears at first to be the dominant figure, she quickly becomes a device by which the narrator can establish his sense of identity; he ultimately will obtain her submission. He observes that she is “Too weak, for all her heart’s endeavor, /To set its struggling passion free,” criticizing her for being frail and controlled by emotions, like the stereotypical female (Browning 22-24). Because the poem is a monologue, the reader receives only the narrator’s perspective. Thus, Porphyria does not express her own feelings. Only the patriarchal male expresses his thoughts. The narrator fears his diminishing sense of power and supremacy and attempts to regain domination over his female companion. He obtains this supremacy through the “narcissistic sexual mastery” of his lover Porphyria (Maxwell 991). The speaker’s objectification and consequential murder of Porphyria is the indirect result of his resentment of her independence. He feels threatened by her display of autonomy, and finds that the only rational means of controlling her is to kill her. In death, he fixes and preserves her submission forever.
In the retelling of the speaker’s murder of Porphyria, textual analysis provides evidence for the speaker’s mentality and motivation. Porphyria declares her undying love for him and openly reveals her willingness to engage in sexual acts. After witnessing her display of affection and desire, the narrator proclaims, “Happy and proud; at last I knew /Porphyria worshipped me” (Browning 32-33). He realizes that she has completely given herself to him, mind and body, and even goes so far as to say that she worships him. She has flattered him with her actions, and he realizes that in “That moment she was mine, mine, fair, /Perfectly pure and good” (Browning 36-37). The poem resembles an ideal romantic love story, yet the speaker decides to kill Porphyria. This course of action makes him appear to be insane or a perverted necrophiliac. However, his words indicate that he believes himself to be acting rationally, that he sees no other choice but to murder Porphyria to preserve his masculinity and honor. He recalls no details of malice or vengeance when describing the murder. Instead, the account is sentimental and even affectionate, “all her hair /In one yellow string I wound /Three times her little throat around, /And strangled her” (Browning38-41). He mentions her hair and her little throat, commenting on her beauty and fragility even as he kills her. The murder results not from rage, but from a seemingly sane assertion of male dominance.
In the plot of the poem, the speaker’s reaction to Porphyria’s assertiveness requires a reversal of the power relations, and this reversal in turn demands an extreme form of discipline. Before the speaker murders Porphyria, she makes him rest his head on her bare shoulder, but after he has killed her, he carefully notes, “I propped her head up as before, /Only, this time my shoulder bore /Her head” (Browning 49-51). He now possesses Porphyria completely. She was strong before, but now she lies weak and helpless in his arms. Her feebleness gives the speaker an ultimate sense of pride and power. The murder therefore represents his mastery of Porphyria, not an erotic consummation. It is “an insanely logical act of redress” (Karlin 214). The narrator reasserts himself as the dominant one at the expense of the life of his lover. Yet her death does not mark the end of their relationship. After he strangles her, he reflects on her happy blue eyes and flushed cheeks. She shows signs of life even in death, and the narrator’s description of her countenance is a “rhetorical assertion of his power over her: ‘life’ is literally conferred on her by his action” (Karlin 215). He has the power to silence her, to control her body, and to give her new life.
The narrator justifies his murder of Porphyria by professing his good intentions and arguing the rationality of his actions. He truly believes that the course of action he takes is right, and that Porphyria would have wanted it as well. He pities her as a woman, and assures himself that she is too weak and naďve to see the obvious solution to their dilemma. He relieves her of her burden, of her struggle to be independent and strong, and puts her to rest. He speaks apostrophically to Porphyria’s dead body, “The smiling rosy little head, /So glad it has its utmost will, /That all it scorned at once is fled, /And I, its love, am gained instead!” (Browning 52-55). He feels that, had he explained it to her, Porphyria would have fully understood the necessity of her murder. She expressed her intense love for him and her desire for an intimate relationship, but in the process, she forgot her place in society. She, as a woman, must remain subordinate, loyal, and pure. Her lover acted against her for her own good. The narrator rationalizes his crime with his noble intentions. He has to preserve his honor as a man by preserving Porphyria’s purity and inferior role. His masculinity depends upon his honor, which correspondingly depends on his female counterpart. She is a reflection of his self, thus she must be molded in a manner that suits him. As a corpse, he can do with her as he pleases, but all in the name of honor. The speaker can be heard justifying his deed as Shakespeare’s Othello did after murdering his beloved Desdemona, “An honorable murder,…/ For naught I did in hate, but all in honor,” (Shakespeare, cited in Maxwell 30). The speaker murdered Porphyria for his own benefit and the benefit of patriarchal society as a whole, therefore it was rational.
The sociological undertones of patriarchy within Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover” are a reflection of society as a whole and the general feeling that women threaten male supremacy. The Victorian era dictated that a woman’s place was in the home and that she functioned as an object under the control of the man. In the traditional patriarchal sense, “women exist only to be acted on by men” (Gilbert and Gubar 8). Men treated women like property; women belonged to the possessive male and must provide for his pleasures. The aim of every Victorian woman should be to please the man. Furthermore, the preservation of her virtue is man’s greatest sense of pride. Any act that does not comply with this social dictum directly transgresses conventional law. In Porphyria’s case, she oversteps her boundaries as a Victorian woman and this represents an assault on the patriarchal system. By being an assertive and sensual woman, “she is absolutely unredeemable: no virtue can outweigh that “fault” of her presumption because she has grotesquely crossed boundaries dictated by Nature” (Gilbert and Gubar 8). These are the sentiments of the Victorian man, that women were created as the subservient sex. Porphyria therefore deserves her punishment; it serves to condition her to the social norms. The moral that Victorian society would attach to Browning’s poem is: sexual violence may be necessary to control a rebellious woman.
However, Browning’s intentions were not to glorify patriarchy, but rather to expose its cruel injustice towards women. In “Porphyria’s Lover,” Browning creates “a version of poetic lyricism dependent on an awareness of both the socio-historical and rhetorical dimensions of human identity” (Gregory 494). That is, the significance of his poem relies upon the historical context and sociology of men and women during the Victorian era. Browning’s poem is an example of the sexual violence that was occurring all too frequently around him in Victorian England. Porphyria, “like most patriarchally conditioned women,” emulates the “the inferiorized and ‘alternative’ (second sex) psychology of women under patriarchy”’ (Gilbert and Gubar 50). Her character and the gross injustice of her murder stand as examples of the actual crisis of gender violence occurring at the time Browning was writing. His intention in writing such a shocking poem was to expose the indecency of the male response to female autonomy and to criticize the system of patriarchy.
Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” is a product of the coercive social forces at work during the Victorian era. The poem reflects the agency of sexual violence in a male dominated society threatened by the autonomy of women. The speaker of the poem embodies the sentiments of all Victorian men; he is stereotypically gender biased and vengeful against his strong-willed lover. Porphyria is condemned for asserting herself and displaying her sexuality, while her lover gets away with murder. The hypocrisy and inequality of gender relations in the Victorian era urged Browning to speak out against the oppressive social forces and demand public awareness to the crisis of sexual violence.
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© Christine Utz