Poem Analysis: Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess Versus Michael Ondaatje’s In The Skin Of A Lion

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“We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling”

When you see this quote, you can probably come up with an image of people in society, in our everyday lives, telling each other stories of what they have been through that day or what happened in the past, which creates a connection, a better insight about that person. However, another way a connection can be formed between people through storytelling is through different textual forms. The two texts that I am comparing today are Robert Browning’s poem, My Last Duchess and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion. And through these 2 texts, as the reader, we can form a connection with the composers and understand the message they are trying to get across to us by storytelling, via various methods, in this case, a novel and a poem. After analysing these two texts, one of the themes I felt that the composers had tried to convey was the social hierarchy experienced in these relative texts.

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Robert browning’s poem, My Last Duchess, questions societal views towards women in the 19th century Victorian England. Set in the Italian renaissance, My Last Duchess, highlights its patriarchal society and welcomes the readers to criticise the values presented. Browning shares a dominating males outlook on women through dramatic monologue, showing the possessive nature of the duke who objectifies the duchess in the painting, “that piece a wonder, now”. His controlling character is further expressed with the painting of the Duke’s last Duchess, which symbolises the Duke’s jealousy and reputation against the promiscuity of his last Duchess. Browning uses verbal irony, in “She had / A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad, / Too easily impressed”, to exemplify that the duke states a phrase that is completely opposite to the literal meaning. Hence through this, Browning foregrounds Victorian attitudes towards women. Moreover, the allusion “Notice Neptune, though, taming a sea-horse” uses Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, to represent the power the duke possesses, which is utilised on a delicate and vulnerable seahorse that symbolises the last duchess. Browning tells his perspective in his poem to share his views on the expectations of women, reinforcing that narratives are powerful mediums to confer authors views and welcome readers to establish their views. Whilst Browning himself was trying to convey his perspective, the main protagonist in the poem itself was also telling his own story. The duke, through his monologue, speaks to both a character present in the poem, but also to the readers of the poem, conveying his exquisite tastes in women and art, to encourage his ego, highlighting his wealth and social status above his last duchess.

In In the Skin of a Lion, through the lens of introverted protagonist Patrick Lewis, Ondaatje metaphorically communicates his ideas in regard to the immigrant culture and mistreatment of immigrants to Canada in the early 20th century. Ondaatje’s abandonment of chronological stability throughout the text, where multiple perspectives are seen, reminds readers of how perspective can give voice to the hidden decisions of history. The awful working conditions of migrant workers, the condition’s history chose to disregard, are portrayed within the chapters, ‘The Bridge’ and ‘The Palace of Purification’. The harsh labour of the men is shown in, “The men stood, ankle-deep in salt, filling casings, squeezing out shit and waste from animal intestines”, the low modality presenting the jarring circumstances of migrant workers, and the sibilance creating a tone of despairing labour. Additionally, the metaphor ‘North America is still without language, gestures and work and bloodlines are the only currency’, where ‘gestures and work’ exhibits the limitations of ways to express themselves, suggests that human connections in a post-colonial setting are marked by a lack of communication and comprehension, allowing readers to understand the extent to which migrants are denied a personal voice. The puppet scene is another illustration of the frustration of the migrant workers. Ondaatje’s use of the puppet as a symbol of the oppression of language in ‘They were all waiting for the large puppet to speak, but it could say nothing.’, indicates the migrants’ loss of personal voice due to the pervasiveness of the English language and Canadian culture. Ondaatje’s metaphorical judgement that Patrick was ‘a prism that reflected their lives’, shows the power of storytelling to promote personal meaning, illustrating the heterogeneity of the migrant experience. Ondaatje gives the migrant workers a voice through the power of language, making their achievements appreciated in history. Whilst Ondaatje shows his point of view about the migrant workers, Patrick was also telling his story. His denial demonstrates the discontent of the awful conditions where the working class were enforced to work by telling the worker’s stories and allowing their voices to be heard as fundamental.

The main protagonists in their respective texts and the composers themselves each told their own story to portray their opinions and perspectives on the social hierarchy. It is by these methods of storytelling, that we as the reader were able to feel a connection with the composer and the protagonist.

To conclude, I’m not sure if you noticed but I’ve been holding up quotes every time I spoke of them. (put quotes together). And through this, I just want to demonstrate that like the quote I chose mentioned, we really do live in a network of stories.


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