115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Writing Men Misreading Women: The Archive and the Painted Gaze in Robert Browning’s Proto-Feminist Dramatic Monologue "My Last Duchess"

Alanna Bartolini, University of California, Santa Barbara

Browning uses the dramatic monologue as a way of allowing silent female figures to speak over their louder male counterparts, as a way of protesting patriarchal structures. Using Derrida’s archival theory as a lens through which to regard “My Last Duchess,” in particular, it becomes possible to understand the Duchess’s portrait as an archivally-shaped subjectivity, resisting her own curation. 



The poems “Porphyria’s Lover” and “My Last Duchess” both demonstrate what I have termed Browning’s proto-feminism. Browning uses the dramatic monologue as a way of allowing silent female figures to speak over their louder male counterparts, as a way of protesting patriarchal structures and undermining the universal acceptance of a male speaker’s authority. Using Derrida’s archival theory, and Freud’s concepts of the pleasure principle and the death drive as a lens through which to regard these works, it becomes entirely possible to understand Porphyria and the Duchess as archivally-shaped subjectivities that resist the fetishization, objectification, materialization, and curation of the silent female figures in the poems.

Both poems have male speakers of questionable morality and sanity, both feature female characters who are entirely silent, and these female characters’ deaths are at the hands of their respective poems’ speakers. I argue that their silences and even their deaths are used to the women’s advantage in these poems. Browning’s use of the dramatic monologue is significant because, with only one speaker allowed, the women’s voices are not so much silenced as written between the lines. Where Elizabeth Barrett Browning went a more directly feminist route with Aurora Leigh, privileging the female voice and experience, Robert Browning’s subtler feminism shines through Porphyria’s and the Duchess’s silences precisely because their silence is a generic convention of the dramatic monologue, and not a stylistic choice on his part. Rather than writing women, Browning writes men misreading women and failing to interpret them correctly, and uses this to form a critique of Victorian patriarchy. The dramatic monologue, then, is the only poetic genre that allows Browning to explore both this writing and silencing, all the while advancing a subtle proto-feminist perspective.

The Duchess’s painted gaze in this poem is the main way that Browning sidesteps her necessary silence. The idea of the Duchess being “killed into art” ties into Derridean archival theory because the Duchess’s portrait cannot be ontologically divorced from her being. Both the portrait and the woman are conflations of each other, and so for the Duke to have a material representation of her that is simultaneously both mimetic and real is for him to engage in what Derrida terms archival violence, or le mal d’archive.

For Derrida, all archives have a death drive, and the death drive “threatens every principality, every archontic primacy, every archival desire” (14) and this is part of the Duchess’s final triumph over her husband. If control over the archived material can be considered power, and that power can be considered violent, then the archived material – the portrait – can be considered dangerous, perhaps even a weapon capable of wielding itself. In a Hegellian sense, the Duke’s desire for mastery results in his own enslavement, and in the Duchess’s empowerment. Were he to open the archive to the public, her looks and smiles really would go everywhere, and he would consider the game lost, and yet by keeping her portrait private, he also loses. The Duchess has him in check-mate, and Browning’s proto-feminism is demonstrated through her victory.