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Depiction of Sexist Mistreatment of Women in My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

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At the time the Browning’s poem My Last Duchess was published, the concept of ownership in marriage was still very prevalent; Browning develops the central theme of his poem around these notions of inequality and male dominance in a direct attempt to explore the concept of sexism within marriage. 

The poet conveys this through the use of possessive diction throughout the poem; at the beginning the Duke parenthetically mentions that “none puts by the curtain I have drawn for you, but I”, symbolically indicating his control over the viewers of the painting which mimics his control over who saw her in reality. The use of possessive diction continues throughout the work, as the Duke comments on how he “gave commands” and “then all smiles stopped together”. These lines evoke catharsis from the audience, causing the reader to sympathize for the Duchess. The final section reveals the proposed marriage arrangement with the Count’s “fair daughter” who is his “object”. Through his objectification of the girl by diminishing her worth to merely her physical attributes, the Duke reveals his shallow and patriarchal views that were common amongst the men of Victorian society. The Duke recalls the memory of his former Duchess and her bothersome qualities, accusing her of having a heart “too soon made glad” and “too easily impressed”. The Duke continues to recount the flaws in the Duchess’ character, claiming that she values “the boughs of cherries some officious fool broke in the orchard for her” and her “white mule”, to the same extent with which she values his expensive gifts. The connotations with “cherries” in literature are typically associated with forbidden sexual acts, potentially alluding to the concept that the last duchess was not faithful to her husband. This sexual reference gives rise to gender issues of sexuality during the Victorian area. 

The Duke addresses his difficulty in communicating with his wife, “Even had you skill /In Speech which I have not”; however, his use of enjambment presents otherwise, showing his inability to stop talking to the listener and the Duke’s reluctance to develop communication with her. The brief use of direct apostrophe, in reference to “Even had you skill In speech — (which I have not) — to make your will,” illustrates the Duchess’ lack of ability to respond to such accusations, which are coupled with the lack of speech female characters express within the work, to emulate the powerless view on women in Victorian society. The speaker uses allusion to “Neptune”, comparing his love to “taming a sea-horse”; the evident degradation of his previous wife through diction associated with animals, further iterates the dominant role men assumed within marriage. 

Initially the Duke is portrayed as someone trustworthy, with well-mannered qualities, repeatedly addressing his guest as “sir” to gain the reader’s trust and act as a representation of the common married man in Victorian society. It is soon revealed, however that the poet employs an unreliable narrator who speaks openly about his wife’s “crimes”; his belief that he has carried out justifiable murder due to her inappropriate behaviour contrasts with conventional societal morals, thus the Duke’s persepective shapes the story to his own version and bias, causing the reader to question his reliability as a narrator, as well as similar sexist mistreatment prevelant in Victorian society. 

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Depiction Of Sexist Mistreatment Of Women In My Last Duchess By Robert Browning. (2021, March 18). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from
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