Compare the treatment of women in Robert Browning’s poetry and Iain Banks’ novel, ‘The Wasp Factory’.
The treatment of women in Iain Banks’ novel, The Wasp Factory, and in Robert Browning’s poetry, widely conforms to the typical qualities of gothic female characters. Fundamentally, both writers include characters that are subverted by society and the dominant male protagonists; however, both writers, perhaps more implicitly, also convey the characters as either a female seductress or as an enchantress. The inclusion of such characters is thus intrinsic in achieving the intrigue and horror that creates a gothic atmosphere.
The chapter, ‘In the Bunker’, in Banks’, The Wasp Factory, elucidates Frank’s hatred towards women and is perhaps a wider symbolism of Frank’s internal battle between his/her male persona and Frank’s female physiology; certainly, in this respect, women are literally “too close for comfort”. Ultimately, Frank feels emasculated; what essentially is thought to define a man, Frank does not have. Undoubtedly, Frank’s perception of the sea as a “mythological enemy” may also be a source of his hatred towards women. It is widely recognised that the sea often represents femininity in literature. Also, the mythology of the sea is connected to the notion of mermaids portrayed as seductresses who lured sailors with their enchanting music. This portrayal of women as rapacious female predators offering a real sexual threat is very prominent in gothic literature.
This concept of female sexual predatory is perhaps also visible in Browning’s, My Last Duchess, where the previous duchess’ “looks went everywhere”. Yet the duke’s perception of his previous wife is perhaps flawed; the notion of “the white mule she rode with round the terrace” however, is arguably indicative of her youth. The duchess is still very young and thus cannot control her emotions. It is perhaps more accurate then that the duchess was essentially a ‘maiden in distress’. Indeed, she is subjugated by the domineering male protagonist who wishes to maintain constant control over her. However, the curtain that is drawn over her painting, ironically symbolising that the duke is only able to exert his control when she is dead, can only now counteract her “earnest glance”.
Throughout The Wasp Factory, Banks accentuates that Frank’s masculinity is depicted through stereotypes- his character is essentially built upon how Frank perceives a man should behave. Frank is obsessed with having “ultimate control” and power, yet from a very young age, Frank has had no real control over his life; his father has dictated it. More ironically, he has no control over his biological sex, despite his continuing attempt to ascertain that he is of the male sex. Thus, Frank’s encounter with the buck is symbolic of all the things that he possess; that is, ironically, his ‘alpha-male’ persona. Frank’s typical male characteristics are emphasised through the way he “hissed”, the animalistic imagery serving to exaggerate his aggressive and territorial nature. In many ways, this encounter with the buck is once again symbolic of Frank’s internal battle; in essence, it is an externalisation of an internal battle. The way in which Banks presents the reader with a typical boy’s story whose protagonist is actually a girl is perhaps a critique of society and an attempt to undermine traditional gender expectations. Frank, however, conforms to the typical female gothic character of a woman who is suppressed by a domineering male character; the irony though, is that Frank is both the subjugated female and the dominant male.
Browning’s poems may similarly attempt to challenge traditional gender expectations. In Porphyria’s Lover, the indication of her “gay social life” is a contrast to the male protagonist’s seemingly secluded lifestyle. Stereotypically, particularly in the nineteenth century, men were usually in control; yet Porphyria is initially portrayed as the domineering figure and this is evident through the way that “She shut the cold out”, the sibilance serving to stress the narrator’s dependency on Porphyria. It is possible that the narrator is resentful of both her social superiority and of her more commanding presence and the only way to free him of such powerlessness is to kill her. Thus, 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.
Angus Cauldhame, in The Wasp Factory, manipulates knowledge to ensure that he maintains control over Frank: “‘what height is this table?’…’thirty inches’ I told him…’wrong’, he said with an eager grin…’two foot six”. Both measurements are correct yet Frank must adapt his knowledge to fit with Angus’ personal mindset. Fundamentally, Mr Cauldhame has indoctrinated Frank with misogynistic views and maintains utter control over his life. In this sense, Frank also conforms to the character of the ‘persecuted maiden’, which are so abundant in gothic literature. Yet, it may also be argued that Frank deceives himself through the rituals that he enacts in an attempt to affirm his identity as a man: “I held my crotch, closed my eyes and repeated my secret catechisms”. Thus, this perhaps indicates that Frank is at least deluding himself of his ‘real’ gender. Nevertheless, In Frank’s eyes this is a better alternative to the contrary; after all, in Frank’s words women are “weak and stupid”. Certainly, it possible that Frank’s rituals and sacrifices are in many ways reminiscent of a witch. Of course, if this is the case, Frank also exhibits supernatural qualities that are intrinsic in creating the intrigue and suspense associated with the gothic genre.
Both the protagonists in Browning’s poems, Porphria’s Lover, and My Last Duchess display a similar want of control to Mr Cauldhame in The Wasp Factory. The way the “sullen wind… did its worst to vex the lake” is perhaps representative of the narrator’s anger towards Porphyria. Once again, there is a strong connection between women and the moon’s ability to control tides; thus possibly suggesting that the protagonist’s anger is centred towards his inability to possess the femininity that she gives off. His anger is also suggested through the inclusion of personification and pathetic fallacy, for instance, “the sullen wind”, which is indicative of his cold and melancholy character. The narrator’s desire for control is further reiterated through the way “she was mine, mine”, with the use of repetition serving to highlight the possessive nature of the narrator. Indeed, Porphyria is objectified; she is literally transformed from subject to object through the murder that the protagonist has created. Similarly, the female character in My Last Duchess, is objectified through the duke’s painting; she is simply one of his possessions. Additionally, the narrator’s control that he wishes to hold over his duchess is illuminated through the iambic pentameter of the poem. With twenty-eight rhyming couplets, the very tight structure of the poem is representative of the level of authority and control he expects to exert over his wife.
To summarise, the portrayal of women in the both Banks’ novel and Browning’s poetry is fundamental in creating the horror and supernatural qualities that are associated with gothic literature. The depiction of the female characters however, also allows the writers to present a critique of society, and raise debates on both nature and nurture, and gender expectations of men and women.
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