Curtain to Control Women

“It is a joy to be hidden but disaster not to be found.” -D.W. Winnicott

This disaster of not being found, because she is dead, is the fate the Duke of Ferrara left to his last Duchess- a tale documented and dramatized by Robert Browning in My Last Duchess. In this post I aim to discuss and analyze the fact that the Duke of Ferrara keeps the portrait of his last Duchess behind a curtain, “The curtain I have drawn for you” (Browning 10).

It is ascertained that the Duke has the Duchess killed because she had a heart “too soon made glad, Too easily impressed” (Browning 22-23) and was too flirtatious with other men which showed disregard for the Duke’s “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” (Browning 33).  It can be assumed that he contributed to her death in the lines: “I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands As if alive” (Browning 45-47).

In class we discussed that it was usually nudes that were hidden behind curtains but as far as we are aware, the Duchess is fully clothed in her portrait. I assert that the Duke places her behind a curtain so that in her death he can hold control over whom she glances at and who admires “the faint Half-flush that dies along her throat” (Browning 18-19) in a way that he felt helplessly unable to do while she was alive. I believe the Duke does this due to an inferiority complex evidenced in the extreme pride he holds in his old name and the rare, expensive pieces of art he feels the need to collect “thought a rarity, Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!” (Browning 55-56). He evidently feels the need to be narcissistic in order to prove to others that he is the absolute best and when someone does not think so or bow to his will (the last Duchess) he feels so inferior and lacking in true self-confidence that he needs to eliminate such persons. Due to this lack of self-confidence he treats his women as beautiful objects whom he controls in order to bring himself up and it is evidenced he will do the same with his next young bride-to-be that is waiting downstairs, “Though his fair daughter’s self…is my object” (Browning 52-53). In My Last Duchess he does her the ultimate insult by hanging her on his wall as an object he could control, a painting, since he couldn’t control her enough while she was living.

I find the whole concept of curtaining art to be particularly thought provoking. Curtains simultaneously conceal and reveal and viewers of art as well as readers of My Last Duchess have a special privilege of seeing both sides of the curtain. Curtains are commonly used in theater to heighten anticipation. Likewise they can be used to reveal a secret hidden beneath them. This heightening of anticipation factor shows that the Duke is almost taking pride of what he has done as well as how beautiful his ex-wife was and reveling in the fact that the viewers of her will not know the dark secret. We as readers however, are able to suss out the repeal of the curtain as being insight into the deeper secret that he has killed her. I find the curtain to also symbolize deception- not only the deception of the Duke but the deception of paintings in general in that not only do we solely get the Duke’s perspective and opinion on the actions or “misdeeds” of the Duchess but we also solely get Fra Pandolf’s depiction of her, which could also be flawed or incomplete as Christina Rosetti comments on painting models that are painted “Not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (Rosetti 14) in In an Artist’s Studio. The fact that we cannot even ascertain the true feelings, actions, and even appearance/demeanor of the Duchess gives us as readers a flawed sense of who she was as a person which leads to a broader critique of women in Victorian art in that they were merely objectified, controlled in depiction, and stripped of their power. In the case of My Last Duchess she has not only been stripped of her life but first (and perhaps most importantly in the Duke’s mind) stripped of her power to ever again annoy the Duke or contribute to his rampant insecurities.


2 thoughts on “Curtain to Control Women”

  1. I’m interested in the ideas of power and control over the gaze. By concealing his dead wife behind a curtain, the Duke of Ferrara gets to control who sees her (mostly himself). Even after her death, the Duke is controlling who gets to look at his wife, choosing the people she shows herself to. He’s marshalled the male gaze and directed it away from his wife, yet he also controls the gaze, drawing the curtain aside to allow others or himself to look.

  2. The practice of keeping a painting of a woman behind a curtain without the consent of the woman depicted also reminds me of “Fannie’s Pets,” in which a man lurks in the shadows to watch Fannie (even just that sentence implies the coded sexual desire in the image). However, while the men who would have owned portraits with curtains could use their status and wealth to capture and control the beauty of a woman, the man lurking in the back of the painting watching is doing so illicitly, taking advantage of a “public” display, As a result, he is coded as creepy, shrouded in shadow instead of admired, as the speaker of the poem was by other characters, for “taming” his wife.
    I also find the idea of faithfulness in the poem interesting in relation to the power dynamics. Even if the speaker had managed to force his wife to only smile at or pay attention to him, her technical fidelity would be meaningless as a representation of loyalty, as would be expected in a marriage, because it was expressly under the orders of her husband.

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