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How Are Women Portrayed In Robert Browning’s ‘Porphyria Lover’?

1410 words - 6 pages

During the nineteenth century people were under a strict patriarchal rule, especially the women. In those times, women were seen as ornaments “a momentary toy of passion” to the society and properties to be traded within marriage, therefore, Victorian moralists repressed female sexuality. As a result, for a woman to admit she even had sexual desires was considered sinful, let alone acting on those desires - like Porphyria did - was borderline criminal. Moreover, when Porphyria “glided in” she “untied her hat and let her damp hair fall”. Victorian moralists referred to female fornicators as ‘fallen’ women. Additionally, committing adultery was also a sin as it went against one of the Ten Commandments “Thou shall not commit adultery”, therefore, Porphyria ‘letting her hair fall’ could symbolise the boundaries she had willingly chosen to overstep by coming to meet her lover.

The title ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ may indicate to the reader the idea that the lover would be the only active article in the poem, especially if it was written by a male during those times. However, at the beginning of the poem Porphyria is immediately given the active role, she’s the one who “glided in” wanting to visit him “for love of her…/ through wind and rain”, she also “shut the out cold and storm”. This gives Porphyria a masculine physical ability as she has the power to “shut…out” something as sinewy as a storm, which goes against the female stereotype.

The storm can been seen as the lover’s burning desire and only Porphyria has the potential to quench it, after all, the lover had been sitting around waiting for her “with a heart fit to break”. Additionally, the storm could represent his impatience in waiting for Porphyria “it tore the elm-tops down for spite” as her arrival appeases it. Looking at it from both perspectives, it can be argued that the lover was playing the active role from the start. Nevertheless, Porphyria also sits beside him, calls his name, puts his arm around her waist and places the lover’s head on her shoulder, whereas, the lover sits passively without response or reaction, allowing her to rearrange him “…made my cheek lie there”. The passivity of the lover may be explained as the result of a clash between two different social classes – she came to meet him at his “cottage”, and cottages were the lower forms of households in those days. She also left a “gay feast” which insinuates a banquet, and only rich people in those days could afford such expenses. However, it is possible to dispute that the power dynamic is unbalanced because of her fervent agency compared to his extreme passiveness - which would be unusual in a male dominated era - not because of their social difference.

Additionally, Porphyria “murmuring how she loved me” may seem sufficient, though the reason why she only murmured it and not proclaim it out loud could be because she’s still somewhat hesitant in giving herself fully to him. She’s “too weak, for all her heart’s endeavour”...

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