George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess” are two Victorian-era works that delve into the world of bad relationships. (In case you were wondering why they’re both so long.) Interestingly, both pieces of literature also rely heavily on descriptions of paintings and sculptures to explore a skewed male-female dynamic. This technique of using one art form to portray a second art form (ex. painting a statue or writing about a photo) is what high-fallutin’ academic types call “ekphrasis,” which comes from the ancient Greek for “art-on-art action.” Remember that 130-line description of the carvings on Achilles’s shield in The Iliad? Yea baby, that’s the stuff.
Most of the ekphrasis used in Middlemarch involves our upstanding young heroine, Dorothea Brooke, who is constantly described in terms of portraits and sculptures. These artsy comparisons are usually drawn by the novel’s male characters, who – torn between her extreme piety and dark beauty – can’t seem to decide whether she looks more like a painting of a nun or a statue of a goddess. In their attempts to understand Dorothea, these men repeatedly reduce her to a variety of inanimate and, *ahem,* purely visual art forms. Thankfully, the dapper Will Ladislaw eventually steps in to criticize these “representations of women” for being unable to convey any real depth. So what does all this have to do with power struggles between the genders? By symbolically aligning the men’s perceptions of Dorothea with objects that can only be looked at, Middlemarch implicitly brings the concept of the “male gaze” into the mix. And according to feminist theory, the male gaze is inherently degrading because it relegates women to the status of objects. (Objects like paintings and statues? Boy howdy!)
Of course, the truth is that everyone uses gaze to reduce other people into tidy little bundles, not just the men of Middlemarch. In fact, we’re practically incapable of reserving our superficial snap judgments about the strangers we see passing by – a phenomenon which the fashion industry couldn’t be more grateful for. (Lens-less black frames, a cardigan, and jeans that look like they need to be surgically removed at the end of the day? Hipster. Baggy clothes, a baseball cap, and a jewel-encrusted platinum grill? Gangster. Second- or third-hand jeans, a stained shirt, and maybe not the cleanest hair? Hobo. Or college student.) The point is, imagining that you can successfully size someone up based on immediate empirical evidence is, at best, a feeble attempt to feel comfortable in the face of the unknown, and, at worst, a mechanism for exerting control over another person.
Which brings us to “My Last Duchess,” a creepy poem recounting a dramatic monologue about a painting. (Ekphrasis squared?) The poem’s narrator, whom we cleverly deduce is a duke, starts off by describing a portrait of his (most likely murdered) ex-wife, which he always keeps hidden under a curtain. (Very normal, very healthy.) He overeagerly brings up the fact that she is happy and blushing, explaining that he can just tell by people’s faces that they’re always dying to ask about it. (Smiling in a portrait? What madness is this!) The narrator becomes increasingly fixated on how she used to look whenever a “spot of joy” spread over her face. Critically, he continues: “She had / A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad,” insisting that her perpetually sunny disposition was merely evidence of her lax morals. (Yeah, we hate her already.) Very clearly projecting his own neuroses onto an unfortunate wife, the duke chooses to interpret everything he sees as subversion. And what better reason to get into a battle of gazes than the fact that his wife “liked whate’er / She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.” (Eyes off, tootz!) Finally, the narrator admits that, to put an end to this insufferable and inexplicable smiling, he issued “commands” of some sort, causing all the smiles to stop. (He probably could have just told one of his stories.) Now he keeps her image hidden under a piece of cloth. The significance? Ultimate control: only the duke can decide who gets to look at her – and when her image can look back.
Did I mention that all this happens during what is supposed to be a discussion about his upcoming marriage? (You smoothtalker, you!) Don’t worry, though; the duke promises that, although he expects a hefty dowry from his future father-in-law, the lovely daughter is his only true “object.” (Let’s hope this doesn’t involve a taxidermist.)