In "Count Gismond," our initial acceptance of the story told by the narrator is later undercut in the same way that the Duke's story is in "My Last Duchess." Again we have a first-person speaker narrating events which have happened some years previ ously. Again the interruption, in stanza nine ("See! Gismond's at the gate, in talk/ With his two boys: I can proceed" [49-50]), places the narrating at a specific moment and emphasizes the pre sent-tense location of the narrating: before Gismond comes up stairs, the speaker has just enough time to finish telling "us" the story of her courtship and marriage. And again, as in "My Last Duchess," the identity of the auditor is not revealed until very late in the poem--here we do not learn that we are "Adela" until the last stanza--permitting us to respond directly to the character within the narrative present, suspending until a second reading our awareness of the real author of the poem.
If we gradually lose faith in the countess's story, that growing doubt is set up by the very suspension of disbelief into which Browning lulls us by drawing us into his narrative frame work. The story appears to be a straightforward romance, with marked similarities to fairy tales; and this, of course, is the version of the story which the countess would want to propagate. It is entirely possible to read this story as innocently as S.S. Curry does and conclude that "the woman he saved from disgrace, who loves him of all men is now his wife. We feel the whole story colored by her gratitude, devotion, and tenderness" (16). But such a reading must overlook several important details: the bizarre mention of Gismond's dripping sword, which she felt swinging by his side (lines 110-11); the remark about her younger boy's black, scornful eye; and her easy white lie about the conversation she and Adela have been having. Then we recollect that she never did deny Gauthier's allegation that she spent the night with him.17 (Why was no reply possible?) Only then do we begin to suspect that perhaps Gauthier's lie was no lie, and we notice how well this story serves the speaker's interests. Similarly, we realize that the lines,
God makes, or fair or foul, our face;
If showing mine so caused to bleed
My cousins' hearts, they should have dropped
A word, and straight the play had stopped [15-18],
might be spoken in the purest innocence or with self-serving sanctimoniousness; we can only decide which on the basis of our estimate of the speaker's character. But our final evaluation of the poem must include the realization that we can reach no con clusion about our suspicions--they remain unsupported.
Last modified 2 February 2005