Comparing The Psychology Of Robert Brownings Poetry English Literature Essay
Compare the examination of abnormal psychology in Robert Browning’s poetry, and in Iain Banks’ novel, ‘The Wasp Factory’. Make illuminating connections with the work of Edgar Allan Poe.
The abnormal mental state of the narrators in both Browning’s poetry and in Banks’ novel, The Wasp Factory, is intrinsic in achieving the gothic style. Whilst the protagonists’ insanity is more implicit in Browning’s poetry, the narrators, nevertheless, display similar characteristics of psychosis and delusion. Indeed, this madness disconnects the characters from the rest of society, and this element of monstrosity is vital in creating the intrigue and terror that ensues. Inclusion of such monstrous figures destabilises the ‘natural order’: it challenges the fixed social structures and ideology, and becomes inconsistent with what the majority considers both acceptable and intelligible. Yet, whilst on the surface gothic works may appear to reinforce these seemingly grotesque characteristics, in many respects, through exposing the ‘unnatural’, they deconstruct the illogical, and thereby attempt to create a set of social norms.
The first chapter of The Wasp Factory, The Sacrifice Poles, serves as a warning to the reader that they are entering into the domain of Frank’s psyche. The unconventional behaviour she displays is evident through her intentional replacement of common nouns with proper nouns: for instance, the capitalisation of words such as ‘Factory’ and ‘Poles’. Essentially this represents the objects which Frank views as significant in the private world that she has constructed for herself. Frank’s tendency to fantasise is further demonstrated through the naming of her catapult- “The Black Destroyer”. In fact, Frank goes beyond symbolism- for instance she assigns the house with humanistic attributes through personification: “powerful body buried in the rock”. Of course, this description may well be representative of the dark life she lives, in regards to both her social isolation and the sinister lifestyle that she leads. Nevertheless, the inclusion of symbols and personification imply that this is not just a fantasy; it is essentially a religion. The conflicting behaviour that Frank exhibits, that is her seemingly child-like behaviour and her meticulosity with rituals, underlines her highly unusual mental state.
The initial lines of Porphyria’s Lover similarly imply the protagonist’s unusual frame of mind. The use of pathetic fallacy and personification, for instance, “the sullen wind” is not only effective in creating a cold and melancholy atmosphere, but may be representative of the narrator’s mind; consequently, there is a strong sense of foreboding. The abnormal psychology of the narrator is further exemplified through the description of how the wind “did its worst to vex the lake”. Likewise, the wind is “awake” and tears down “the elm-tops for spite”. Thus, the wind is perhaps an emblem of the narrator’s destructive facility: it may be argued that the lake is representative of Porphyria, and the wind is representative of the narrator’s anger towards Porphyria. In this sense, the narrator’s anger is possibly a consequence of his inability to possess the femininity that Porphyria exudes.
In The Wasp Factory, Frank’s father also displays an abnormal state of mind, which is demonstrated through his efforts to exert constant authority over his son. Mr Cauldhame has ultimately left Frank excluded from society through his decision to conceal his identity and home educate him. More sinisterly, however, Angus, through experimentation, has essentially created a contemporary Frankenstein: Frank’s sexual identity has been manipulated. Fundamentally, Angus has suppressed Frank’s innate feminine characteristics through experimental hormone therapy and has indoctrinated him with misogynistic views. This “bogus power” enables Mr Cauldhame to think that he is control of what he views as the correct “father- son relationship”. Yet, of course, normality has no association with Frank’s life: the child-like mentality that she exhibits through his fantasy, perhaps signifies that, in reality, Frank is scared of the ‘real world’ in a multitude of ways. Alternatively, this fantasy world may keep Frank sane, or at least partially sane: Eric shows the stark consequences that may result from the ‘real world’. Moreover, their use of imperial measurements is not only indicative of Mr Cauldhame’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, but accentuates the concept that the island does not progress with time. In this respect, the Cauldhame family is a microcosm of the demise of the empire and the island is a last remnant of it. Accordingly, it can be argued that it was the demise of Angus’ position as a patriarch that has ultimately brought about his decision to devise an all male environment. Angus’ obsession with control, therefore, stems from his fear of being replaced as the ‘monarch’ of the ‘empire’ because of the emergence of the new feminist movement. Thus, Angus Cauldhame’s behaviour is synonymous to the description found in Jerrold Hodge’s gothic textbook: Angus has created a “patriarchal enclosure... designed to contain and even bury... a potentially ‘unruly female principle’”. The way in which Banks presents the reader with a typical boy’s story whose protagonist is, in truth, a girl is perhaps a critique of the way in which society devises fixed binary gender stereotypes, and thus is an attempt to undermine these traditional gender expectations. Frank, however, conforms to the typical gothic female character, which is suppressed by a domineering male; the irony is that Frank is both the subjugated female and the tyrannical male.
A similar level of control is displayed by the narrator in Browning’s My last Duchess. This element of control, that the narrator wishes to possess over his wife, is exemplified through the poem’s iambic pentameter. With twenty-eight rhyming couplets, the very tight structure of the poem is possibly representative of the level of authority and control that he expects to exert over his wife. The curtain that he has drawn over his late wife’s picture is again perhaps symbolic of the level of authority that he desires to exercise over his female partners. Indeed, he “gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together”. This underlying sense of threat signifies his expectations of how his wife should behave. Ironically, however, the Duke can only, when his wife is dead, counteract what he perceives as her “earnest glance”. Fundamentally, his wife has been objectified from subject to object; she is simply one of his possessions. Similarly, the narrator in Porphyria’s Lover demonstrates a notion of control. The sibilance in the sentence, “she shut the cold out” stresses how she is able to alleviate the narrator’s mental anguish. However, it also stresses the narrator’s dependency on Porphyria and this concept is reiterated through the way “she was mine, mine”. The use of repetition thus highlights the possessive nature of the protagonist. Certainly, it is possible that the narrator is resentful of both her social superiority and of her more commanding presence. Stereotypically, particularly in the nineteenth century, men were usually in control. The fact that she has a “gay social life” may also be a source of the protagonist’s bitterness and the only way to free himself of such powerlessness is to kill her. Browning may be attempting to indicate a reversal of gender roles; the male is the ‘weak’ character through his inability to keep control of himself- let alone Porphyria. In this sense, the protagonist’s obsession with maintaining control is similar to that displayed by Mr Cauldhame in The Wasp Factory.
Frank’s aggressive behaviour also illuminates his abnormal psychology. In many ways, the buck, which Frank encounters, is symbolic of all the things that she wishes to possess: that is, ironically, an ‘alpha-male’ persona. This concept of masculinity is maintained through the way that Frank “hissed”. This animalistic imagery, once again, highlights Frank’s aggressive and territorial nature, which reveals her very apparent abnormal mindset. In essence, though, this encounter is an externalisation of Frank’s internal battle. This externalisation of an internal conflict is perhaps representative of Frank’s struggle with her dual gender identity. Additionally, this attack of revenge on the buck reinforces that Frank has the capability to kill and in fact clarifies her monstrosity. More disturbing, however, is Frank’s admittance that “it felt good”; this compounds her mental disposition. This scene provides the reader with a very clear image of Frank’s ability to inflict suffering and destruction whilst chillingly deriving pleasure out of it. The externalisation of internal conflicts is equally manifested in Poe’s work. For instance, in The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat the narrator’s attempt to bury the corpse symbolises their attempts to conceal the problem. In The Black Cat, the narrator’s attempt to hide the corpse under the wall is ultimately representative of the narrator’s desire to contain his problems within. Alas, for the narrator, their failure to deal with their problems effectively, leads to the resurfacing of the initial problem, and, inevitably, his downfall.
However, despite Frank’s seemingly grotesque and in many ways nauseating behaviour, the reader can nevertheless, in some ways at least, sympathise with Frank. This creates a very unsettling dimension in that Frank, who has murdered three people, has the ability to do this to the reader. Certainly, Frank’s manipulative nature may well be an attempt to expose her abnormal mind further. However, an encounter with this element of monstrosity is sometimes known to provoke paradoxical emotions. This notion of ‘abjection’ as Julia Kristeva describes is the “in-between, the ambiguous, the composite”. Thus, the monstrous element has the ability to induce sentiments of horror and desire, disgust and fascination. Indeed, Frank’s mix of monstrosity and humanity possibly provide us with a forewarning of the transgression of which we may all be capable of; this, of course, presents a poignant and unsettling dimension. The Inclusion of animals, as evident with Frank’s encounter with the buck, is also visible in Poe’s The Black Cat. Poe’s story, like Banks’ novel, perhaps includes these animalistic aspects to reiterate that by undertaking such vicious acts the narrators are in complete deficiency of a logical human psyche. In this way, they are also deficient in human ethics: as philosopher Daniel Dennett states, many regard human ethical knowledge as a “marvellous perspective that... no other creatures have”.
The unconventional behaviour displayed by the narrator in Porphria’s Lover, is implied further through the way he “debated what to do”. This uncertainty accentuates that when he kills Porphyria, it is a conscious decision and not a hotheaded act. The apathy, which the narrator exhibits, is also shown through the very orderly ‘ABABB’ rhyme scheme which is ultimately suggestive of the narrators casual attitude, albeit this makes him appear all the more dangerous. The alliteration in the sentence “Blushes beneath my burning kiss” however, presents a clear contradiction to his callous nature, with the alliteration emphasising his ‘burning’ passion for her. This paradox in the narrator’s personality may nonetheless simply epitomise his psychosis. This detached and callous character is also evident in The Wasp Factory. For instance, Frank’s casual admittance that his killings were “Just a stage (he) was going through”, stress his lack of remorse; in fact, like the narrator in Porphria’s Lover, Frank is essentially justifying his actions. Hence, it reveals the very apparent psychosis of both narrators. This concept of the narrator justifying their actions is illuminated in The Tell-Tale Heart. Certainly, the narrator is essentially justifying the murder of the “old man” through the notion that he had an “evil eye”: “I think it was his eye!- yes, it was this!”. In essence, the narrator’s uncertainty alludes to the concept that it is simply an attempt to justify the sinister and irrational behaviour that the reader is about to witness.
A parallel can be drawn between the way in which the narrators justify their behaviour and the prominent notion of self-deception visible in The Wasp Factory, and in many of Browning’s poems. In The Wasp Factory, Frank’s self-deception is exemplified through the way in which she has essentially created her own fantasy. Frank’s propensity to self-deceit is apparent through the final chapter: “the factory was my attempt to construct life, to replace the involvement which otherwise I did not want”. Moreover, the level of deception in which Frank has gone to is explicitly expressed through her engagement in rituals, which is an attempt to affirm her position as man. Frank’s repetition of the “secret catechisms” thus helps her to create the illusion that the existence of her male persona is of truth. Ultimately, though, her attempts are futile: the juxtaposition of the bowie knife and comb that Frank carries around presents the reader with a subtle intrusion of Frank’s ‘real’ gender identity. These two contrasting objects possibly symbolise Frank’s conflicting personality: the knife is representative of the destructive behaviour that she asserts to conform to her male persona, whilst the comb is representative of her inherent, albeit more restrained, behaviour. This lingering uncertainty regarding sexual identity, as Boris Kühne argues, is a “source of the uncanny” and presents us with a “pervasive gothic feeling”; this ostracises Frank from societal norms, and is inevitably the major source of her monstrosity.
A comparable level of self-deception is visible in Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister. Essentially, the narrator soliloquises his own inadequacies and attributes them to Brother Lawrence. Stanza IV illustrates the narrator’s perception of his own self-righteousness, and indeed his dedication to denouncing Brother Lawrence’s commitment to his faith. The narrator describes Brother Lawrence’s ostensible lusting over the two nuns, Dolores and Sanchicha. Yet, he goes on to explain that “that is, if he’d let it show”; crucially, there is no evidence that Brother Lawrence has been lecherously looking at the nuns. Rather, the detailed account of the nuns’ activities must be a product of the narrator’s own impure thoughts, and his attempts to attribute these unchastely thoughts to Brother Lawrence can only serve to accentuate his self-deceptive and manipulative personality. The monk’s attempt to describe himself as the epitome of morality continues with his comment regarding the symbolic divide between their table etiquette. The crossing of his silverware, the narrator argues, symbolises his remembrance of Christ’s death on the cross; Brother Lawrence displays no such gesture. Additionally,
The notion of self-deception is similarly visible in Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister. The narrator, who perceives himself as the epitome of morality- yet, many of the faults he assigns to Brother Lawrence are, in reality, his own. Certainly, the narrator seems compelled to denounce Brother Lawrence’s commitment to the faith. In stanza IV, the narrator insinuates Lawrence’s unchastity; in truth, however, the narrator has no evidence: “that’s if, he’d let it show!” Rather, it suggests that the comments he has just made are in fact his own.
-Expand—ref. to the fact that he has to ‘trip’ him up in order to succeed in B.L’s damnation etc.
Despite Browning’s clues towards the protagonist’s madness, it is never evident through the tone or diction of the poem. Instead of being presented with a stereotypical mad character, like Eric in The Wasp Factory, it is more implicitly implied. Alternatively, his madness is suggested through what the narrator does not say and the fact that he perceives Porphyria as being happy and at peace: “The smiling rosy little head”; the narrator’s portrayal of events can simply not accord with reality. Undoubtedly, the narrative of Porphria’s Lover could well be a figment of the protagonist’s imagination; if this is the case, then it clearly reinforces that the narrator exhibits an element of abnormal psychology.
*Paragraph on Religion- Frank has essentially created his own religion, ritualistic behaviour with the wasp factory, sacrifices etc & connection to the factory itself resembles hell (description-page 23).
Frank’s quasai-religion is based on society’s perceived masculine stereotypes that he witnessed on tv etc. – perhaps an unconscious realisation in that he has to follow fixed behaviour from tv- poses the question of whether he deliberately suppressing the female behaviour that he innately wishes to exhibit?
Make connections to Browning: Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister- behaviour contrasts to what he preaches etc. Also, religious overtones in The Laboratory- laboratory perhaps alludes to the devil’s workshop—emphasise delusional state of the narrators. Edgar Allen Poe- essentially perceives himself as a God-like figure- ‘supernatural powers’: “the extent of my powers-of my sagacity”- again delusions of grandeur.
To conclude, the novel, The Wasp Factory, and the poem, Porphyria’s Lover, include prominent examples of abnormal psychology. The Protagonists’ unreliable narrative and the contrasting personalities they display are essential in creating this image of madness. In addition, the apathetic attitude, which the narrators adopt towards their victims, is fundamental in revealing their evil and monstrosity; this consequently serves to shock and terrify the reader, thus lending itself to the gothic genre.
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