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Essay: Comparing ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ & ‘My Last Dutchess’ to Wuthering Heights

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  • Published: 14 March 2023*
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  • Tags: Wuthering Heights

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Robert Browning’s poems, Porphyria’s Lover, and My Last Dutchess, are comparable to Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights because they describe how women are pushed into submissive objectified roles by Victorian culture. The three texts are comparable because Browning and Brontë’s describe women as possessing less social power. Wuthering Heights is comparable to through descriptions of the oppressive nature of Victorian society, which is apparent through the descriptions of Healthcliff’s violence. Where Porphyria’s Lover and My Last Dutchess differ from Wuthering Heights, is that men overpower the female characters. Porphyria’s lover and the Duke in Browning’s poems reduce women to objects, and Brontë’s hyper masculine, abusive, Healthcliff uses masculinity to illustrate gender norms in the domestic sphere. What makes Brontë’s text different from Browning’s two poems, is that Brontë associates feminine descriptions to male characters like Edgar Linton. Where masculinity is used to overpower women in Browning’s poems, in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, masculinity is also used to empower female characters like Catherine, allowing her to have greater social power and mobility.

Porphyria enters at the beginning of Porphyria’s Lover and is met with coldness from her male lover. It is only after her death that he feels that he can love her. The man’s initial mental state is apparent in the beginning as he is sitting at home with the windows open during a storm with no heating. It was Porphyria who closed the windows, and warmed the place up “She shut the cold out and the storm, and kneeled and made the cheerless grate, Blaze up and all the cottage warm” (7-9). The coldness of the home is also reflected in how he reacts to her coming home, and his passivity and lack of emotion towards her “And, last. She sat down by my side and called me. When no voice replied” (14-15). This is the first example of the man’s social insecurity. As he carries his silence, this is more clear when he thought “So, she has come through wind and rain, Be sure I looked up at her eyes” (30-31).

I think this would make the man uneasy, because Victorian culture was based upon men having more social control over women by objectifying them. section also suggests that the solution of killing her would be supported by society. This is emphasized with the last line of the poem “And yet God has not said a word!” (60). By stating that god would not object, I think that Browning is commenting on how Victorian society would support or not take action against him. In this case, by killing her she would literally essentially become an object. During the murder, he also states that she did not feel pain, or that he was pretty sure she did not, and that she was so submissive that she was okay with what he was doing to her “And strangled her. Porphyria is killed and becomes an object, which the man feels like he can express more feeling towards. No pain felt she; I am quite sure she felt no pain” (41-42). Having restored a Porphyria to the Victorian notion of a woman’s place in the household, it suggests that violence and objectification is a common reaction to women who appeared to want/possess increased social power.

Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess is also about the objectification of his love object, in this case, she is literally reduced to a painting on the wall “That’s my last Dutchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive” (1-2). Like Porphyria’s Lover, the poem illustrates the Duke’s power as a man to be able to decide if his wife should die “I gave the commands; then all smiles stopped together, There she stands as if alive” (45-47). Much like the beginning of Porphyria’s Lover, the Duke’s decision to kill the Duchess stemmed his insecurity about his love object’s described independence. This is clear in the passage where the Duke says “Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er, She looked on, and her looks went everywhere” (23-24). This section was followed by how he described her as giving attention to everyone, and even blushing at what others would say to her “Would draw from her alike the approving speech, Or blush at least” (30-31). By having her killed and then painted, his love object would not be able to turn and look around, and would be forced to look the way the artist painted her.

Like Porphyria’s Lover, My Last Dutchess provides commentary on Victorian marriage norms, but from the perspective of nobility. In this case it relates to the Duke’s comment “as if she ranked my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old-name with anybody’s gift” (32-34). If she were to marry him, she would assume his name, and therefore lose more of her own identity. The Duke’s ability to simply sentence women to death for not completely submitting to him suggests that he is an overpowered model for traditional gender roles. What supports this notion of women being expendable objects is the title itself. Browning titled the poem “My Last Dutchess” which could imply that there were many more women before her, who all did not submit themselves to the Duke. It is also important to note the similarity in how the men justified killing in Browning’s two poems. Much like the man saw Porphyria’s dead body as beautiful “Her head, which droops upon it still: The smiling rosy little head, So clad it has its utmost will, That all it scored at once is fled, And I its love, am gained instead” (52-55), the Duke did so as well “Looking as if she were alive. I call that a piece of wonder, now” (1-2).

Charlotte Brontë used the oppressive power of masculinity like Browning, to illustrate traditional gender norms in Wuthering Heights. What differed in her use was that while women were objectified, Catherine was given masculine qualities which gave her increased power. In order to unpack this, I will first unpack the dynamics of power in Mr. Heathcliff’s home, Wuthering Heights. In the home, “the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether to another quarter” (Brontë, 4). Stereotypically, the kitchen is where domesticated women spent time. It sounds like the kitchen could be symbolic of women being excluded from conversation, however this is not the case. At the beginning of the novel, women replied in sharp, short sentences that read as confident and angry ‘”I’ll put my trash away, because you can make me, if I refuse,’ answered the young lady, closing her book and throwing it on the chair” (Brontë, 25). This passage shows that she is aware that she does not really have a say in what Healthcliff commands her to do. This is followed by Heathcliff raising his hand, threatening to hit her if she did not do what he said immediately. There is an element of rebellion in the women but also an awareness of a lack of power.

Catherine Earnshaw contrasts Browning’s poems, where the women were not given a voice. Furthermore, Catherine is given manipulative and social power over Heathcliff, and her wittiness is noted “defying us with her bold, saucy look and her ready words; turning Jospeh’s religious curses into ridicule […] showing how her pretended insolence, which he thought real, had more power over Heathcliff than his kindness, how the boy would do her bidding in anything” (Brontë, 34). In the case of Browning’s poems, it was more desireable to have an independent woman dead than alive. Her ability to make social decisions for herself is important to note because women traditionally did not have much decision for whom they would marry, or due to the marriage being a financial decision for a dowry. A dowry reduces women to property, as it is an incentive to marry someone. This is mentioned in Browning’s My Last Duchess “Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed at starting, is my object” (51-53).

This contrasts Catherine, who is able to choose who she would like to be with for her own benefit. An example of this is in chapter nine, when Catherine tells nelly that she accepted Mr. Edgar’s request to marry “To-day, Edgar Linton has asked me to marry him, and I have given him an answer” (Brontë, 60). Having decided to marry Edgar Linton for his looks and more importantly her status, it marked an empowering moment for Catherine because Heathcliff had “listened till he heard Catherine say it would degrade her to marry him” (Brontë, 63). It is her decision to advance herself, which leaves Heathcliff at his social level. Catherine is then asked to make a decision after forcing a confrontation between Mr. Edgar and Heathcliff “Will you give up Heathcliff hereafter, or will you give up me? It is impossible for you to be my friend and his at the same time; and I absolutely require to know which you choose” (Brontë, 93).

Revealed in Isabella’s letter to Ellen, atherine’s decision to be with Mr. Edgar resulted in Mr. Heathcliff getting together with Isabella, and resulted in Mr. Heathcliff punishing her for Catherine breaking his heart. This was done through mockery, “’Parlour!” he echoed, sneeringly, “parlour! Nay, we’ve noa par-lours”’ (Brontë, 111). This was escalated to intimidation “I assure you, a tiger or a venomous serpent could not rouse terror in me equal to that which he wakens” (Brontë, 114). Catherine also had an emotional effect upon Heathcliff, like when he stood in the garden waiting to talk to her “’Well he wishes to see you,’ said I, guessing her need of an interpreter. “He’s in the garden by this time”(Brontë, 123). When he finally saw her and looked at her, Catherine remarked that his eyes were about to well up with tears, and the way Heathcliff spoke placed all the power in Catherine’s hands “Heathcliff had knelt on one knee to embrace her; he attempted to rise, but she seized his hair, and kept him down (Brontë, 124). It is then Catherine’s death that marks Heathcliff beginning to manipulate the children, like when he locked Catherine and Linton inside of his house until they married eachother “’I know how to chastise children, you see,’ said the scoundrel, grimly, as he stooped to repossess himself of the key, which has dropped to the foor.” (Brontë, 207)

Where masculinity is used to overpower women in Browning’s poems, in Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, masculinity is also used to empower female characters like Catherine, allowing her to have greater social power and mobility and emotional control of Mr. Edgar and Heathcliff before her death. Being from a wealthy family, Catherine’s increased social status allowed her to decide whom she wanted to marry which resulted in Mr. Heathcliff first becoming vengeful and to being obsessed with his earlier love.

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