“Three times her little throat around, and strangled her. No pain she felt”: Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”, written by Robert Browning first appeared in 1836. This dramatic monologue tells the story of a male’s sexual fantasy towards his lover Porphyria’s corpse. The title of the monologue is written in third person, which makes it appear as though a story is going to be told.  Conversely, the monologue is written in first person, from the perspective of the fantasizer. The narrator tells the private story of his feelings towards Porphyria, giving the reader a very invasive and intimate feel as well as bringing the reader very close to the male character. At first glance, this monologue may not seem to be about necrophilia, because one hopes to find a different interpretation for the symbolism and imagery that Browning bluntly writes. Necrophilia as described by Oxford Dictionaries is, “sexual intercourse with or attraction towards corpses” (2010). It is not until after carefully analyzing each stanza that this deviant affair becomes apparent. Stemming from a fear of commitment towards relationships, the narrator panics over his feelings towards Porphyria, resulting in him murdering her. However her death does not stop his feelings towards her or his sexual desires.  This paper is going to explore the erotic necrophilic desires that this man possesses towards this woman’s lifeless body.

In the first stanza in Porphyria’s Lover the male character is describing Porphyria as a lover would; watching her every graceful move. The speaker lives in a cottage by the countryside. His lover, Porphyria, comes home from a storm and with her womanly touches is able to make a fire and bring cheer to their home, “And kneeled and made the cheerless grate Blaze up, and all the cottage warm” (Browning 8-9). This scene gives the picture of rural simplicity; a cottage by a lake, a rosy-cheeked girl and a roaring fire. Our first clue that something is not right with the speaker is in the ending of this stanza when Porphyria sits by her lover’s side and attempts to talk to him, but he does not reply, “And called me. When no voice replied” (Browning 15). This subtle warning is easily dismissed, for one may assume that the speaker is just lost in thought or an introverted person who does not always express himself. However in actuality, this line holds great significance because it is the readers first clue that this romance is fairly one sided; Porphyria being in love with the entirety of this man, while he simply loves the idea of her, her beauty and youth, whereas intellectually he cannot stand her.

Browning makes use of a caesura to give the reader a natural pause as well as to show the change in mood and sexual transgression in the poem. Browning’s writing evolves from being subtly romantic to writing that is sexually enticing with overt sexuality. Porphyria embraces the speaker, putting his arm around her waist, and offering him her “smooth white shoulder bare” (Browning 17). Porphyria tells the speaker that she loves him with all her heart, “And give herself to me forever” (Browning 25). This type of abrupt and utter worship would cause anyone to panic, especially a male with commitment issues. Porphyria is obviously very forward in her passionate feelings towards this man, causing him to do what every relationship phobic person would do; run, or more accurately in this case, murder her. “A sudden thought of one so pale For love of her, and all in vain” (Browning 28-29). Many males feel the need to obtain authority and power in a relationship and by Porphyria giving herself to him forever, he has nothing to work for, no reason to ever propose, or work for the relationship for she is already his “forever” (Browning 25). He realizes that she “worship[s]” (Browning 33) him at this instant. The emotions that this knowledge brings the speaker is overwhelming, causing him to feel: “happy and proud; at last I knew” (Browning 32). Although this male does not want all the complications that come along with commitment, he does not want or intend to lose Porphyria, which he fears he would if she knew his true and selfish feelings.

The speaker realizes that Porphyria will eventually give in to society’s pressures that one must marry and leave him when she realizes that he cannot give her marriage or anything more than he already has. As a result of this realization, he kills her, with the weapon of choice being her hair, to preserve their almost expired relationship, “Three times her little throat around, And strangled her” (Browning 40-41). He then explores his necrophilic urges by toying with her corpse; he holds her close to him, opening her eyelids and imagining the laughter that her blue eyes once shared. The speaker seems to be unaware and carless of the fact that his lover is now dead for he shows no sign of acknowledgment except for a positive change in emotion. In this monologue, the speaker has yet to show any kind of sexual intrigue towards Porphyria up until this point, while embracing her corpse he kisses her, “her cheek once more Blushed bright beneath my burning kiss” (Browning 47-48). This positive change in emotion is undeniable evidence of the speaker’s necrophilic disorder, supporting the idea that he feels better suited for relationships with nonresponsive people. The speaker shows the most amount of excitement here then in the entire monologue when he states, “And I, its love, am gained instead!” (Browning 55). One may fear asking the question what could he have possibly have gained from this – with the answer inevitably being the ability to do as he pleases with her body, and have full control of the relationship which he had felt emasculated of beforehand. He now has the ability to pleasure himself in all the ways that he has always desired without having to handle her inferior and non-intellectual mind. The speaker spends the rest of the night sitting with his lover in harmony assuring himself that he has not sinned because, “And yet God has not said a word!” (Browning 60). This is enough evidence for the speaker that what he has done is not wrong.

In Robert Browning’s monologue “Porphyria’s Lover”, it is apparent that the speaker has necrophilia. As previously defined, necrophilia does not necessarily mean sexual intercourse with a corpse but could be the desire to control another person’s corpse in the context of a romantic relationship; being better-suited to relationships with nonresponsive people. With the necrophilic persona to define the speaker, we explore his erotic fantasy towards his lover Porphyria’s corpse.From fear of the commitment that this man feels towards Porphyria, he begins to panic resulting in him murdering her. Just as the nameless speaker seeks to freeze their relationship by killing Porphyria, so does Browning in seeking to freeze the reader’s consciousness after finishing reading this monologue due to shock. The ending of this monologue leaves the reader wondering many things, the most prominent thought provoking being what happened next? Did he ever get caught? How long did he continue to have this deviant affair with Porphyria’s corpse, and what did this affair consist of? This monologue raises the question of how society views the relationship between sex, violence and necrophilia, and whether any aspects of the later are acceptable or whether they point to a mental disorder that requires further analysis.

Works Cited

Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover.” 1836. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Greenblatt, Stephen.8th Ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 2054. Print.

Oxford Dictionaries. Necrophilia. 2010. Web. 30 November 2010.

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Richard O'Keefe
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Four misreadings: the speaker does NOT say that anybody is vain but that his love for her is “all in vain” , that is, futile. And he does NOT say that he has gained anything at all but that Porphyria”s will has gained its object, namely him. As for the last line, it clearly shows that the speaker DOES know that what he did was wrong; why else would he EXPECT God to speak? . The speaker does not GO pale in the poem. He imagines Porphyria thinking of him as futilely pale with love of her, so this is… Read more »
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