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«“No pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain”. Control and power as a symptom of mental disorder in Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s ...»

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“No pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain”.

Control and power as a symptom of mental disorder

in Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”

Dorota Osińska

Every human being seems to be driven by both instinct and an insatiable

desire to gain control. In terms of social structure, the question of power is

often related to the Victorian gender ideology. It assumed that women were

entirely dependent on overprivileged men, hence they were treated as puppets and possessions. However, the pursuit of power might also take a form of an obsessive behaviour, which can lead to internal turmoil and ultimately complete detachment from reality. The zenith of interest in human psychology can be dated to the Victorian Era, often labelled as an Asylum Era. At the beginning of the 19th century there were allegedly a few thousand “lunatics” in a variety of institutions (Porter 112). Prior to the 1850s, the conditions of those places were outrageous. Nevertheless, with the rapid development of science, the society started to realize that mental illness is nothing but the illness of the brain. And yet mental condition marked by pathology and the manic drive for power has allured also artists to incorporate this motif as a part of storytelling in literature and art.

This preoccupation with obsessive control as an integral part of mental aberration can be traced back in one of Robert Browning’s earliest dramatic monologues entitled “Porphyria’s Lover”. It was first published in 1836, along with “Johannes Agricola” under the caption Madhouse Cells.

Both parts evoke a strong sense of eeriness and convey various manifestations of insanity.

Without immersing into the peculiarity of the poem, “Porphyria’s Lover” seems to be a straightforward, yet eccentric work. The plot begins with the speaker, a troubled man, who is visited by his lover, Porphyria.

What appears to be a romantic tryst, turns out to be a scene of murder.

Having strangled Porphyria, the speaker retraces his steps and explains the FOLIO 1 (14) 2015 ___Literature___ rationale behind his crime, hence the whole poem can be seen as a “whydunit” story (Binias 108).

Because the poem seems to be somehow opaque and equivocal, it allows critics to employ many readings and analyses. On the one hand Catherine Ross claims in her article, “Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’”, that the conventional reading of the text includes a presupposition that Browning’s narrator is “insane” and hence he is justified to murder Porphyria (68). Some critical theories suggest that Porphyria is a fatal woman, who uses her sexuality in order to dominate the speaker. Indeed, even the name Porphyria seems to be itself suggestive and evocative, as it can be associated with Greek word “porphyry”, meaning “purple” – understood either as the royal colour in Roman times or a symbol of the deepest lust (Gage 25). What is more, Catherine Maxwell, in her essay “Browning’s Pygmalion and the Revenge of Galatea”, creates a link between Porphyria’s power and her actions. When Porphyria enters the poem she is the embodiment of life and action. She is “glid[ing]” into the speaker’s cottage, whereas he just sits “with heart fit to break” (6, 5). Moreover, by standing, Porphyria becomes physically taller and symbolically more powerful. And yet, by his passive – aggressive demeanour, it is actually the speaker, who takes control over Porphyria and proves his dominance and authority.

In the analysis of the poem the choice of genre seems to be a valuable clue. Dramatic monologues are constantly reoccurring in Browning’s poetry and they are employed in many different ways. A Glossary of Literary

Terms, edited by M.H Abrams, provides the essential features such as:

A single person, who is patently not the poet, utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment (…). This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditors' presence, and what they say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker. The main principle controlling the poet's choice and formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker's temperament and character. (“Dramatic Monologue” 70-71) FOLIO 1 (14) 2015 ___Literature___ As Glennis Byron notes, the lyrical ‘I’ usually tends to validate the meaning and credibility. However, in case of dramatic monologues authority and integrity are put into question (38). The description of the events in “Porphyria’s Lover” is presented only by the speaker persona, therefore he is the sole point of reference and authority. Even though his report is flawed by his “perverted reasoning” and results in lack of his “trustworthiness and reliability” (Binias 109), it is the only account of the events.

The speaker, having been given analeptic recollection of the event, is presented without a name, yet he seems to be highly individualized. The solitary life he leads (limited to the small cottage beside the lake) is probably restricted to his only role as a lover of Porphyria. Binias, commenting on the creation of the speaker, pays a lot of attention to the “psychologized description of the landscape”, which mirrors the mayhem and chaos inside the mind of the speaker (104). Apart from skillful use of the lake setting, connected with Romantic tradition, the use of pathetic fallacy truly enhances the whole reception. The term, coined by John Ruskin, appears to be employed here to create a bond between the internal and the external. The speaker links the violent storm outside with his mood, describing it as “sullen” (2) and fraught with “spite” (3). This correlation of the violence of the weather with his dissatisfaction and frustration as a lover echoes Ruskin’s idea that “[a]ll violent feelings (…) produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things” (205). Nevertheless, this storm inside his mind stops when Porphyria enters under his roof. His attitude changes from seemingly tortured lover into passive – resistant observer, who thoroughly records her every move (Binias, 105). Although Porphyria seems to take the initiative, Binias claims that her “dominance and independence (...) are but an illusion”. In fact, it is the lover, who takes control, who manipulates and holds very subtle power over her by playing hard to get. Even though she calls him, he does not respond and eventually uses “emotional blackmail” that forces her to make another move (110).

In the analysis of the speaker’s behaviour, especially jealousy and male possessiveness, Maxwell finds similarities between him and Shakespeare’s Othello (28). Browning seems to develop the archetype of Othello as a “deluded lover, the one, who declare himself an honourable murderer” (Maxwell 30). The mental construction of the speaker in maintaining the Victorian gender hierarchy has come to destructive extremes as his decision concerning the murder of Porphyria is justified by deranged FOLIO 1 (14) 2015 ___Literature___ rationale. Binias mentions that in speaker’s vision of unquestionable power and dominance he creates “Moral Marshall Plan for Porphyria” (114). By killing her, he saves her from “struggling passion”, “pride” and “vainer ties” (23, 24). This logic only enhances the Victorian patriarchal model of masculinity, associated with supremacy and possession. The speaker is forced to establish his superior position only via aggression, violence and assault, otherwise his “wounded ego” would not be healed. Therefore, by a brutal murder, he reinforces unequal gender relations (Binias 117). Additionally, Browning uses the mode of ekphrasis, understood in terms of storytelling.

Heffernan explains that ekphrasis does not only include the literary representation of visual art, but also it conveys the moment, in which time stops (297). In Browning’s poem, this atemporal moment is depicted at the end, when the speaker says “(…) thus we sit together now” (58) and simultaneously ascribes himself the role of the immortal artist. The murder occurs not because of affection, but in order to preserve the perfect Porphyria, as “mine, mine, fair/Perfectly pure and good” (36, 37). By killing Porphyria, he turns her into a perfect object. She becomes an immaculate sculpture, without any flaw or “stain” (45), therefore giving him the opportunity to re-arrange the scene and play with higher and lower position, in accordance to his design.

In the course of the poem, the speaker appears to undermine and diminish the murder – he claims that it was “her utmost will” (53) her “darling one wish” (57) and he is sure “she felt no pain” (43). It might look as if he puts responsibility on Porphyria’s conduct, in his view immoral.

Furthermore, the speaker’s declaration “And yet God has not said a word!” (60) seems to be ambiguous and puzzling. It may be treated as the triumph of the speaker, a success and merciful deed – as Binias points out, “the case was so clear that God, the Moral Master Judge, did not contest the ethical charges and thus found for him” (121). But perhaps the speaker challenges or teases God, just because the murder of Porphyria and turning her into a perfect sculpture remotely resembles the creation of the first woman.

The urge to possess control over Porphyria can be found in the use of language. The whole poem can be divided into two parts: line 31, “Be sure I looks up at her eyes” constitutes the turning point in his “version of what happened before the killing” (Binias 113). Up to line 21, the active verbs (“glided”, “kneeled”, “rose”, “made”) are ascribed to Porphyria and after line 31, the speaker starts to dominate. “I looked” in line 31 is the description of FOLIO 1 (14) 2015 ___Literature___ active reaction on the contrary to “I listened” in line 5, which connotes with passivity and sole reception (Binias 113). Moreover, a word such as “worship” (33) is perhaps applied in order to highlight speaker’s allegedly divine power including possession and objectification of Porphyria, as “she was mine, mine” (36). The peculiarity of the poem’s structure is strengthened by the application of masculine rhyme pattern, in which rhymes end with a stress on the last syllable in each rhyming word. The dominance of this “male” pattern might suggest the speaker’s gained authority and supremacy even over the structure.

A question of control in Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” is clearly linked to the mental distortion. Browning provides deep and detailed insight into a complicated mind of the speaker, who assigns himself almost the Godlike position. His jealousy, possessiveness and desperate urge to dominate lead to catastrophic consequences. The eagerness of the speaker to maintain Victorian gender hierarchy is expressed by killing Porphyria. Browning’s application of ekphrasis and the analeptic technique gives the story a strong sense of eeriness and idiosyncrasy. Moreover, as Binias notices, the open ending of the poem does not pose a danger either to speaker’s twisted mind or Browning’s harsh rationale (121). The complexity of hidden motives, masks and mixed messages throughout the story contributes to the understanding and discovering of the Victorian interest in psychology, patriarchal ideology and foremost an interesting correlation between excessive drive for control and mental instability.

Works Cited

Binias, Silke. Symbol and Symptom: The Femme Fatale in English Poetry of the 19th Century and Feminist Criticism. Heidelberg: Winter. 2007.

103-122. Print.

Browning, Robert. Porphyria’s Lover. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Abrams, M.H.. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968. 1252Print.

Byron, Glennis. Dramatic Monologue. London: Routledge, 2003. 38-40.


FOLIO 1 (14) 2015 ___Literature___ “Dramatic Monologue”. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Ed. Abrams, M. H..

Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993.


Gage, John. Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993. 25. Print.

Maxwell, Catherine. “Browning's Porphyria's Lover”: The Explicator. 52.1.

1993. 27-30. Print.

Maxwell, Catherine. “Browning's Pygmalion and the Revenge of Galatea.” ELH 60.4. 1993. 989-1013. Print.

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