In Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poem "Jenny," the silent status of the work's namesake allows the speaker to engage in a long discourse on the prostitute's role in Victorian society while he contemplates his own relation and attraction to her. This discourse at once pities and sympathizes with Jenny while simultaneously condemning her as a corrupt prostitute and fallen woman. However, the speaker does not seem unaware of his own role in perpetuating Jenny's situation, as he asks,
Is rest not sometimes sweet to you? —
But most from the hatefulness of man
Who spares not to end what he began,
Whose acts are ill and his speech ill,
Who, having used you at his will,
Thrusts you aside, as when I dine,
I serve the dishes and the wine. [lines 82-88]
The speaker seems to recognize his own blame and that of man when he observes "The shadows where the cheeks are thin, / And pure wide curve from ear to chin" and asks, "What has man done here? How atone, / Great God, for this which man has done?" (lines 240-42). The speaker does not condemn his own attraction to Jenny, but rather justifies it by showing the reader Jenny's inherent beauty and man's part in corrupting it.
And must I mock you to the last,
Ashamed of my own shame, — aghast
Because some thoughts not born amiss
Rose at a poor fair face like this? [lines 383-86]
Although the speaker sympathizes with Jenny, he places himself in a position of power by casting himself as the arbiter of condemnation and forgiveness. Jenny's silence enables the speaker to cast the eye of the male voyeur on her sleeping form, which remains incapable of returning the gaze. Rather, Jenny retains a passive presence throughout the poem that resonates throughout the speaker's comparison of her to a book: "You know not what a book you seem, / Half-read by lightning in dream!" (lines 51-52). The speaker grants himself the opportunity to read Jenny and guess at her thoughts as he substitutes his version of what she might be thinking for her own voice. This objectification continues throughout the poem, as Jenny remains silent and the speaker demonstrates "the potter's power over the clay" (line 181) by subscribing his own thoughts to her sleeping form. The speaker makes Jenny completely powerless against his judgments and thought projections, just as he casts her as powerless against the voyeuristic gaze of society, embodied in his self-conscious male eye.
Do you think the speaker intends to emphasize the prostitute's role as victim in Victorian society?
How does the poem reconcile man's role in contributing to Jenny's fall with the speaker's desire to clear his own guilt?
Where does the poem's speaker ultimately place the blame for Jenny's fall? How does this treatment of blame compare to Rossetti's treatment of the subject in his Fair Lady images, such as Lady Lilith?
How does or does not Rossetti's poem typify the Victorian stance towards prostitutes and fallen women? How does this treatment of the Victorian fallen woman compare with that of other Pre-Raphaelite works that we have looked at in this course?
What does Rossetti's comparison (lines 177-208) of Jenny with the "pure woman" in the example of his "cousin Nell" achieve? The speaker also claims
Of the same lump (as it is said)
For honour and dishonour made,
Two sister vessels...
So pure, so fall'n! How dare to think
Of the first common kindred link. [lines 203-208]
Last modified 11 October 2004