A Look at Brownings Last Duchess
When one first lays eyes on Robert Brownings famous dramatic monologue, My Last Duchess, prior to reading it all the way through, one may think this piece an imagined tribute to the Dukes deceased wife, her memory and to their life together. However, by and by, it appears that what initially seemed to be a rather harmless tale, is in fact a story peppered with destructive jealousy, a favouring of the aesthetic over actual human beings and an eerie obsession with control. The over-the-top value placed on the aesthetic in the monologue, calls for the inclusion of Isers argument that reading is a temporal experience that integrates both involvement and detachment in the discussion of the poem. Yet, this discussion would be more fruitful by complementing it with Cullers notion of fictivity, where literature is read for what it is-literature.
Thats my last duchess painted, that is how the poem starts, with the Duke reducing his wife to a mere colored fresco. The usage of phrases such as too easily impressed implies that the Duchesss simple nature, was too difficult for the Duke to bear, too easily he says, and one thinks that she wasnt enough of a battle for him, too easy a challenge. The Duchess is also portrayed as nature loving; the imagery used bough of cherries, she rode with round the terrace is somewhat reminiscent of Snow White. Here the narrators gender takes on more importance than before, for it is almost as if he perceived the Duchess as an archetype of a woman as opposed to a real person with genuine feelings and a creature of substance. When the reader reaches line 30, it becomes apparent that the Duke is losing composure, his faade of refinement and rather haughty bearing temporarily subside, leaving room for the manifestation of anxiety shown in his broken discourse. He expresses his discontent at the Duchesss overly relaxed countenance around others; even more so at the fact that she was just the same around him, bestowing no extra attention onto her husband. And while that may evoke sympathy in some, his proclamation my gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name is almost chauvinistic. It is as if the Duke expected his wife to encapsulate her entire self-worth in his legacy, a pitiful almost laughable concept. The implication is that he did not entirely acknowledge her as a separate entity, but a mere extension of him.
Here one must to some extent abandon unstructured discourse, and focus on how Isers temporal experience argument fits into the understanding of My Last Duchess. Firstly, Isers theory is that for the reader, the aesthetics of reception include an awareness of time (Melaney). In addition, here one must also distinguish between the implied reader, who is established by the "response-inviting structures" of the text (McManus), and the actual reader who approaches the text with his/her own set of beliefs and preconceived notions. According to Iser, the whole text can never be perceived at any one time (Iser p. 108), apperception can only take place in phases and as a result the aesthetic object cannot be identified with any of its manifestations during the time-flow of the reading (Iser p. 109). The reader in the present moment where he is involved in the act of reading itself, cannot detach to make sense of the text, rather he constructs meaning and fills in the gaps almost intuitively as he goes along. However, upon pausing to review what he does remember and understand of the material-detachment- he mentally revisits the past so as to have a solid enough foundation to build upon the understanding of what he might read next. Robert Brownings poem in question is about a time gone by, when he was writing in his present-which to the modern day reader is the past-of the past, it is possible that the reader he had in mind was a futuristic one and futuristic readers have one too many approaches to literature.
In The Act of Reading, Iser mentions the importance of noting what literature does and not what it means. He writes that fiction is a means of telling us something about reality; in The Last Duchess a fictitious scene is used in order to shed light onto a bygone era. It is widely acknowledged that tremendous emphasis was placed on the arts during the Renaissance, perchance Robert Brownings aim is to demonstrate how this preoccupation with the aesthetic, could result in one becoming obsessed with control-in this case, the control is exercised by men and is considered absolute. That theory finds ground in the Renaissance era, where marriage, a womens main vocation, cost them their personal property rights when the clothes a women wore were legally dictated by her social class and womens thoughts and ideas were shaped by men (Hull qtd in Cloud).
To conclude, Culler in step four of the five steps of the vraisemblance, speaks of literary conventions which play upon the opposition between truth and fiction. The literary could be useful in understanding a possible relationship between two people, since possibility is only concrete when materialized, and fiction is an expression of possible-and I use this term quite loosely, Rumplestilskin for instance is what one would call unlikely-imaginings. The inferences made from literature due to being made in a somewhat detached state, since the initial response to a familiar depiction is usually an instinctive one, could provide the reader with an opportunity to approach their situation from an outsiders perspective in a roundabout sort of manner.
Cloud, Amanda. "Gender Roles of Women in the Renaissance." Cedar Crest College. Cedar Crest College, n.d. Web. 29 Mar 2011. .
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978. (109-111), (54-55). Print.
Melaney, William. Modern Literary Criticism. The American University in Cairo, New Cairo. 27 March 2011.