Art, Sex and Domination in Middlemarch and ‘My Last Duchess’ – hygfr

Art, Sex and Domination in Middlemarch and ‘My Last Duchess’

George Eliot Middlemarch and Robert Browning’s “The Last Duchess” are two Victorian works that delve into the world of bad relationships. (In case you were wondering why they are both so long.) Interestingly, both pieces of literature also draw heavily on descriptions of paintings and sculptures to explore a skewed dynamic between males and females. This technique of using one art form to depict a second art form (such as painting a statue or writing about a picture) is what high-quality academic genres call “ekphrasis,” which comes from the ancient Greek for “work of art.” Remember that 130-line description of the carvings on Achilles’ shield in the Iliad? Yes baby, these are the things.

Most of the ekphrasis used in Middlemarch involves our upright young heroine, Dorothea Brooke, who is continually described in terms of images and statues. These artistic comparisons are usually drawn by the male characters in the novel, who—torn between her fierce piety and her black beauty—cannot seem to decide whether she is 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* visual art forms. Fortunately, designer Will Ladislaw eventually steps in to criticize these “representations of women” for their inability to convey any real depth. So what does all this have to do with power struggles between the sexes? By symbolically aligning 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. According to feminist theory, the male gaze is inherently demeaning because it relegates women to the order of things. (Things like paintings and statues? Hey, boy!)

Of course, the truth is that everyone uses gaze to reduce others to neat little groups, not just the men of Middlemarch. In fact, we’re practically unable to hold our snappy, superficial judgments about the strangers we see passing by—a phenomenon the fashion industry couldn’t be more grateful for. (Black frames without a lens, a cardigan, and jeans that look like they need to be surgically removed at the end of the day? A hipster. Baggy clothes, a baseball cap, and a bejeweled platinum grill? A gangster. A second or third pair of jeans, a colored shirt, maybe not the cleanest hair? The face of the unknown, and at worst a mechanism for exercising control over another person.

Which brings us to “My Last Duchess,” an eerie poem that tells a dramatic monologue about a painting. (Ekphrasis squared?) The poem’s narrator, who we cleverly infer is a duke, begins by describing a portrait of his (presumably murdered) ex-wife, which he always hides under a guise. (Very normal, very healthy.) He overly recalls the fact that she’s happy and blushing, showing that he can only tell from people’s faces that they’re always dying to ask about it. (Smiling at a photo? What madness!) The narrator becomes increasingly focused on how she used to look whenever a “spot of joy” spreads across her face. Critically, he continues, “She had a heart—how shall I say?—she soon felt elated,” insisting that her perpetually sunny disposition was merely evidence of her laxity of morals. (Yes, we actually hate it.) It is very clear that the Duke is projecting his neurosis onto an unfortunate wife, and chooses to interpret everything he sees as sabotage. And what better reason to get into a battle of looks than the fact that his wife “liked it all / I looked at her, and her look went everywhere.” (Away, Totz!) ​​Finally, the narrator admits that to put an end to this inconsolable and inexplicable grinning, he issued “commands” of sorts, causing all the grins to stop. (Maybe he could have just told one of his stories.) Now he keeps her image hidden under a piece of cloth. Importance? Ultimate Control: Only the Duke can decide who can look at her – and when her portrait can look back.

Did I mention that all of this is happening during what is supposed to be a discussion about his upcoming marriage? (You smoothie, you!) Don’t worry, though; The Duke promises that although he expects a huge dowry from his future father-in-law, a beautiful daughter is his only real “goal”. (Let’s hope this doesn’t include a taxidermist.)

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