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Robert Browning's Poetry | Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3683 words Published: 17th May 2017

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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.

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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. 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 capacity: it could 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. The Laboratory also reveals a narrator that exhibits an unstable mental state. The anapaestic meter of the poem possibly reflects her enthusiasm and engagement in producing the poison. Additionally, the tricolon "Grind away, moisten and mash up thy paste" is representative of her increasing exhilaration as the poison approaches completion, whilst active verbs such as "grind" and "pound" convey violent connotations, which present us with an ambience of foreboding. The "exquisite blue" and the "gold oozings" of the poison, however, are possibly an allusion to the opulence of the French court. There is a stark contrast between the murky laboratory, which is arguably representative of the decadent aristocrats, and the affluence of the court; this is perhaps symbolic of the widespread corruption that encompassed the French aristocracy. During the emergence of the gothic literary movement, history was characterised by widespread political unrest often resulting in revolution. Subsequently, the genre became very popular with writers as it enabled them to express sympathy and moral concern over such movements. In The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe's imagery describing the attrition of the house is perhaps an attempt to symbolise the narrator's degenerating mental state. Also, the "Haunted Palace" that is occupied by "evil things... (that) assailed the monarch's high estate" is possibly an allusion to how his mind is being possessed by the malevolent forces that ostensibly surround the house.

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 daughter. 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. Fundamentally, Angus has suppressed Frank's innate feminine characteristics through experimental hormone therapy and has indoctrinated her with misogynistic views. This enables Mr Cauldhame to think that he is in control of what he views as the correct "father- son relationship". Of course, normality has no association with Frank's life: the child-like mentality that she exhibits through her 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 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 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 enclave. 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, who is suppressed by a domineering male; the irony is that Frank is both the subjugated female and the tyrannical male.

A similar desire for 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". The 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. In the nineteenth century, society was characterised by patriarchal codes, which women had to adhere to; men typically exerted absolute control over their female partners. Thus, Porphria's "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 her 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 his desire to contain his problems within. Alas, for the narrators, their failure to deal with their problems effectively, leads to the resurfacing of the initial problem, and, inevitably, their downfall.

However, despite Frank's seemingly grotesque and in many ways nauseating behaviour, the reader can, nevertheless, sympathise with her. 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 is evident in Frank's encounter with the buck, and 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, and are more comparable to animals who ultimately do not work within such moral frameworks. The authors are perhaps attempting to demonstrate that the narrators are 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 an impulsive act. The composure, which the narrator exhibits is also shown through the very orderly 'ABABB' rhyme scheme which is ultimately suggestive of the attitude, albeit this makes him appear all the more dangerous. However, alliteration in the sentence "Blushes beneath my burning kiss" presents a degree of desire for Porphyria. The paradox may nonetheless simply epitomise his psychosis. In The Wasp Factor, 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. In addition, 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. The concept of the narrator justifying their actions is illuminated in The Tell-Tale Heart. 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.

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A parallel can be drawn between the way in which the narrators justify their behaviour and the notion of self-deception. 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 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 of her male persona. 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, feminine character. 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.

This is also evident in Browning's Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister. Essentially, the narrator soliloquises his own inadequacies and attributes them to Brother Lawrence. Stanza four 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 looking at the nuns lecherously. 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 narrator's absurd suggestion that Brother Lawrence's drinking of the "watered orange pulp in three sips" supposedly denies the Arian doctrine again provides us with an illustration of his attempt to reaffirm his moral superiority. Ironically, despite the narrator's belief, his attempt to condemn Brother Lawrence into eternal damnation reiterates his spiritual inferiority; this irrational behaviour provides an indication that Browning's narrator also exhibits an elementary characteristic of abnormal psychology.

The quasi-religion that Frank constructs evidences the depth of her delusion and, correspondingly, her abnormal psychology. However, Frank's religion has not stemmed from an intrinsic religious belief, but arguably out of a necessity to harbour some control, whilst denying any element of responsibility. Frank, in light of the failure of familial relationships, relies on The Wasp Factory to guide and ironically protect her. Frank creates a polytheistic religion: water, fire and death are all pseudo-Gods and perhaps compose Frank's trinity. Indeed, Frank's monstrosity is a result of her moral indifference. Since sea has "destroyed what (she has) built... wiping clean the marks (she) made" Frank perhaps deduces that this permits her to inflict suffering on animals, which are below the pseudo-hierarchical order that she has constructed. However, the contrast to the sea destroying her dams and the sadistic killing of the rabbit is not apparent to Frank. Frank's quasi-religion naturally has many Christian elements: the lighting of the candles in Frank's religions, nevertheless, contrastingly symbolises a destructive power. Banks notes that this was an attempt to satirise religion, and expose the ways in which we are all "deceived, misled and harking back to something that never existed". Consequently, Banks ridicules all religions perhaps in a bid to create a society that is free from religious doctrine, and one that advocates logic and equality. Poe's work also contains religious undertones. For instance, in The Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator essentially ascribes himself the role of God; this is reinforced by the way he describes "the extent of my powers- of my sagacity". The delusion of grandeur ultimately reveals his damaged psychological state.

Religious overtones are similarly apparent in Porphyria's Love. The imagery arguably possibly portrays Porphyria as an angelic entity. The way she "glided in" and her ability to make "the cottage warm" suggest a supernatural quality, with her "yellow hair" and "bare white shoulder" possibly alluding to her angelic purity; even when Porphyria is dead, the narrator describes her "blue eyes without a stain". The presentation of Porphyria's purity and innocence may well be an attempt by Browning to accentuate a feeling of anguish after Porphyria's death. Conversely, the magical element that the narrator has ascribed to her may ultimately be a result of the 'magic' in his head. In this respect, the reference to her eyes, which were "without a stain", is perhaps his warped perception that Porphyria "worshipped" him; after all, 'the eyes are a window to the soul'. Certainly, the notion that she worshipped him is reinforced by his absurd insistence that she is happy and at peace in his arms: "the smiling rosy little head". The fact that "God has not said a word", however, is perhaps a direct attack on God: a sin has been committed yet no justice has been obtained. Indeed, Browning's poem was written during the 'Age of Enlightenment', a time where the legitimacy of the Bible was challenged and an emphasis of rationalism over religion occurred. In a rather different perspective, the "God" which is referenced may simply be a rhetorical God, which the narrator uses to convey his perception of how any God across all religious spectrums would view the strangulation of Porphyria as morally correct; this would clearly reinforce that the narrator exhibits an abnormal mental state.

To conclude, all the texts examined contain quintessential characteristics of gothic mode and symbolism, which disclose the abnormal psychology of the narrators. The monstrous aspect pervades us with a feeling of uneasiness and revulsion. Yet, through including the seemingly grotesque and disconnected narrators, the gothic is able to defuse the transgressive, and challenge the conventional expectations of society. In The Wasp Factory, Banks perhaps attempts to satirise the way in which society constructs binary gender stereotypes and, in doing so, challenges what appears to be an illogical social norm. Similarly, Browning's Porphyria's Lover and My Last Duchess, through including subjugated female characters, possibly battles to expose the patriarchy that characterised Victorian society. Poe's narrator in The Fall of the House of Usher, perhaps similar to Frank in The Wasp Factory, possesses a dual persona, or doppelganger, which accentuates the transgressions of which all humans may be capable of. In this way, through exposing the unnatural, the gothic advocates rationality and, as Kühne argues, acts as "final safeguarding device against the invasion of the monstrous in the reader's actual life".


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