The speaker in Browning's "My Last Duchess" increases his art collection by adding a painting of his deceased wife. In describing the portrait to a visitor he relates the tale of her demise. His language suggests that his wife's presence in the house has been relegated to a trophy or another object of art in his collection:
That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frą Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will't please you sit and look at her? I said [lines 1-5]
In detailing the portrait, he objectifies his wife asking his visitor to "sit and look at her." Instead of a lively and vivacious bride the speaker has transformed her into an object intended for silent beauty and nothing else. In this way, she serves a very similar function to another art piece in the speaker's collection:
Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me! [lines 52-56]
The speaker's use of "my object" references his goal of obtaining another bride, however it also transforms his new bride into an object of his. His reference to the bronze statue immediately after this connects his process of obtaining brides to the process of art collecting. The subject matter also reinforces his perceived superiority and desire for power. Neptune's "taming [of] a sea-horse" relates very much to the speaker's desire to tame his wife. His failure to make his last wife into the docile and passive object he desired presumably made him order her death.
1. The speaker's ability to discard his wife is reminiscent of Rochester's treatment of Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. However, the speaker puts his wife on display while Rochester hides his away in the attic. What does this suggest about the two works? In what ways do the characters exhibit similar or different behavior?
2. The poem's conversational style indicates the presence of a second party. What effect does this presence have on the interpretation of the poem? In relating this tale to another person, how does the poem's meaning change? Does it?
3. In describing the painting, the speaker uses words like "she" and "her" instead of "it." Additionally he states that the painting depicts her "looking as if she were alive." The poem heavily implies that the speaker had his wife murdered so what does it mean that he wishes for the painting to make her seem alive again?
4. Both the statue and the painting have been created according to the speaker‘s specifications. What additional information do these details give you about the speaker?
5. Browning includes the fictional artists Frą Pandolf and Claus of Innsbruck. Innsbruck suggests Claus's Austrian origins while "Frą" hints at Italian ones. Does this suggest the speaker has imported these works? How common was it for patrons to commission artists who lived so far away?
Modified 3 March 2009