In his poem “My Last Duchess”, Robert Browning gives his readers a complex picture of his two main characters. The Duke, who narrates the poem, is the most immediately present but Browning sets him up to ultimately lose the reader’s trust. The Duchess becomes the sympathetic character, a victim of foul play. It is through the various representations of the Duchess within the poem that we come to know both characters. The representations of the Duchess, which focus on her ever-present smile and easily satisfied nature, come in sharp contrast with the desperate, sputtering language of the Duke as he tries to tell their story on his own terms. This contrast is a manifestation of the Duke's frustration with his inability to control the Duchess and her nonchalant but near-total control over him.
The Duchess is first introduced as a painting hanging in the Duke’s gallery. The very form in which we meet her gives us an indication of both her passivity and her ability to persist, unchanged, in one mode of behavior. A painting has very little living communicative power, relying on the expressiveness of its subject at the time of painting. It is notable that no mention is made of any background or accompanying objects in the painting—often in portraiture these elements are relied upon to convey key ideas about the subject. It seems that the Duchess relied solely upon herself and the painter to tell her own story. Even if other objects are in the painting, they are unremarkable enough that neither Duke nor poet feels compelled to mention them. From a literary standpoint, this means that the poet felt that we needed no other initial information about the Duchess. Even at the level of chara...
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...haunts him, and by placing it both first and last he drives it home very strongly. He can’t help but repeat that phrase when confronted with the Duchess who is both still smiling and “as if alive”—he is driven mad by the idea that he couldn’t even succeed in killing her. His actions, too, are driven by the Duchess. Since she is still smiling and life-like, despite his best efforts to the contrary, he is driven to the irrational extreme of covering the painting and ensuring that “none puts by the curtain…but [himself]” (9-10) His extraordinary desire to control the Duchess leave him vulnerable to her imperviousness. By remaining unaffected by the Duke’s strenuous efforts to alter her behavior, the Duchess forces the Duke to take more and more drastic measures—like killing her and hiding her painting—and eats away at his ability to even keep control of himself.
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