Without a doubt, the Victorian age can be considered as a very vibrant era, an age of change and development, a time of expansion, reforms and of technological and scientific advance. It was only natural that these changes would affect the traditional religious and social beliefs and conventions, as well. The conventional gender system with its strict hierarchy and role expectations was mostly still intact and sexuality and corporeality were considered to be taboo subjects. Nevertheless, it was exactly this attempt to avoid sexuality and gender topics which led to sometimes excessive discussions about these issues, for example the so called “Great Evil” of prostitution and related to that the enforcement of the Contagious Disease Acts in the 1860s. These discussions, however, made many Victorians – for example the “New Women” that formed the basis for the later on emerging feminism – aware of the injustice of the status quo and led to a questioning of the traditional separate spheres ideology. The ideas of womanhood and masculinity had to be discussed and to be adapted to a new age.
Although the stereotype of the “uptight Victorian” lives on until today, the literature of this time – since literature always mirrors the cultural climate of the society in which it came into being – demonstrates the Victorian’s interest in gender questions. In this paper Robert Browning will serve as an example for a poet highly aware of these ongoing changes. In his dramatic monologue “Porphyria’s Lover” he takes up the gender issue and deals with femininity, manliness and sexuality.
The first chapter of this paper will give some information about the form of the dramatic monologue as a special means to present a person’s inner life and furthermore, will deal with the conventional idea of gender in the Victorian age. On the basis of this more general information, the second chapter will have a closer look at the poem itself and will compare the concept of gender roles and the construction of gender relationship designed by Browning with the traditional gender ideology. Browning’s way of dealing with this issue will be taken as one example for the Victorian’s awareness of the complexity of the gender question.
II. The Development of the Dramatic Monologue and the Victorian Ideals of Womanhood and Manliness
II.1 The Dramatic Monologue – Development, Aims and Effects
Although he is the poet who is nowadays most strongly associated with the dramatic monologue, Robert Browning did neither invent this typical Victorian form, nor did he ever use this term to denote his poems – he rather called them “dramatic lyrics” or “dramatic romances”. It was Browning’s well-known colleague Alfred Tennyson, poet laureate from 1850 until 1892, who invented this poetic form and the term itself was coined by the critic Arthur Lyttleton in 1878, two years before Browning’s death (Loehndorf 1997 : 170).
The creation of this new genre, which enables a poet to present the innermost feelings of a character by making him give away his secrets in a fictional monologue, goes hand in hand with the development of psychology as an independent discipline in the 19th century and an increasing interest in defining the nature of selfhood in general (Slinn 1999 : 313f.). So, literature took up this occupation with introspection and self-scrutiny and showed an increasing interest in interior processes, as well.
By writing dramatic monologues Robert Browning broke with the tradition of the “subjective poet” and did no longer express his own feelings and subjectivity, but as an “objective poet” from now on dealt with other people’s minds by “mak[ing] men & women speak” (Browning cited in Loehndorf 1997: 25). Despite this shift in perspective, Browning’s main topic remained the presentation of human subjectivity and the exploration of psychological depths (Riede 1994 : 432f.). As Browning puts it: “[…] [M]y stress lay on the incidents in the development of a soul: little else is worth study.” (Robert Browning cited in Loehndorf 1997 : 26).
The term “dramatic”, however, is misleading, as the emphasis is not on the deeds and actions of the speaker – namely a “character in action” – but on the interior processes, which Browning defines as the “action in the character” (ibid. : 26). Besides, in this poetic subgenre the reader has to perform an important task, as well: He has to complete the information he is given by the speaker to be able to act as a sort of judge:
A work like mine depends more immediately on the intelligence and sympathy of the reader for its success – indeed were my scenes stars it must be his cooperating fancy which, supplying all chasms, shall connect the scattered lights into one constellation – a Lyre or a Crown (Robert Browning cited in Riede 1994: 430f.).
Since the dramatic monologue became a highly popular form during and after the Victorian age and since there is a wide range of such works with very different characteristics, it is nearly impossible to provide an appropriate definition for this genre. Nevertheless, critics over and over again tried to list the – in their eyes – constitutive features of a dramatic monologue: According to Ina Beth Sessions, for example, the prototypical dramatic monologue features an identifiable speaker, talking to an audience – consisting of one or more people – in a specified occasion. While there is a sort of interplay between the speaker and his audience, the former reveals mostly unconsciously his real character, motifs or intentions (Loehndorf 1997 : 175). Browning’s probably most popular poem, “My Last Duchess” (1842), can be classified as such a prototypical dramatic monologue, since it contains all the above mentioned features: A wealthy Renaissance Duke speaks to an envoy of the Count whose daughter he is planning to marry and by contemplating a painting of his last wife he reveals his jealous and egoistic character. “Porphyria’s Lover”, however, is more complex and does not completely follow this definition, but as it will be shown later it covers the most important characteristic: the revelation of the speaker’s psyche and pathology.
 A.N. Kincaid, for example, even distinguishes between the ‘dramatic monologue’, which is spoken to an audience, the ‘dramatic soliloquy’ that is presented by a speaker talking aloud to himself, and the ‘lyric soliloquy’ which resembles a stream of consciousness (Loehndorf 1997 : 175f.). According to this classification “Porphyria’s Lover” would most likely belong to the category of the ‘lyric soliloquy’.