In patriarchal Victorian society, the pleasure of looking is a role specifically reserved for men, whereas the female always assumes the role of object. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Jenny" exemplifies this idea of men as active, controlling subjects and women as passive objects of desire. In other poems such as "My Last Duchess" and "Andrea del Sarto" paintings depicting a female model actually create viewing conditions which facilitate for the male viewer the voyeuristic process of objectification. Jenny also assumes a completely passive position as she is asleep with her head upon the speaker's knee. The fact that Jenny is asleep makes her unable to talk back and defend herself when the speaker voices his impressions and accusations of her. The fact that her head is lower than the speaker's also emphasizes her subordinate position. As the speaker voyeuristically "watches" Jenny "there," he is asserting his control over her(46). The speaker takes a sadistic pleasure in ascertaining Jenny's guilt and dispensing his forgiveness and ultimate punishment. The speaker finds nothing wrong with his desire for Jenny, but he condemns her for being impure. From his male viewpoint, women are not allowed to be desiring sexual subjects in their own right.
Suppose I were to think aloud, —
What if to her all this were said?
Why, as a volume seldom read
Being opened halfway shuts again,
So might the pages of her brain
Be parted at such words, and thence
Close back upon the dusty sense.
For is there hue or shape defin'd
In Jenny's desecrated mind,
Where all contagious currents meet,
A Lethe of the middle street?
Nay, it reflects not any face,
Nor sound is in its sluggish pace,
But as they coil those eddies clot,
And night and day remember not.
Why, Jenny, you're asleep at last! —
Asleep, poor Jenny, hard and fast, —
So young and soft and tired; so fair,
With chin thus nestled in your hair,
Mouth quiet, eyelids almost blue
As if some sky of dreams shone through!
In what way does this poem represent the ultimate repression of the female voice?
How does the speaker's attitude toward Jenny change from the first section to the next? What kind of control is he trying to assert? Is it based on a need to incriminate and punish her or the desire to possess her sexually?
Why does the speaker claim that Jenny's mind is completely empty and free of troubling thoughts and memories?
Note the contrasting images associated with Jenny's mind. Is the first description allude to what the speaker knows is there? Does the latter, more idealized description represent the speaker's denial of Jenny's sinful, fallen state?
How does the speaker's voyeuristic gaze compare or contrast with other modes of looking such as that of the artist in "Andrea del Sarto"? Recall that the artist in "Andrea del Sarto" transforms his wife into a beautiful, satisfying object as a way of making her appear less threatening. In what way is the speaker's image of Jenny like a contrived and idealized portrait?
Last modified 26 October 2003