Character Analysis in Porphyria's Lover
Porphyria’s Lover: The speaker—also the titular lover—sets the tone of the poem and sheds his perspective on all the poem’s events. In some ways, the poem, which takes the form of a dramatic monologue, explores the speaker’s psyche more accurately than it does the world around him. And a psychotic psyche it is. Much of the poem’s chilling effect derives from the way we are forced to closely witness the speaker’s twisted obsession with Porphyria, as well as his devilish decision-making.
Porphyria: Porphyria is portrayed as a beautiful young woman with fair skin and long fair hair. She has some sort of romantic relationship with the speaker. However, because we can only encounter Porphyria from the speaker’s biased and twisted perspective, we never really know who she is. Her name comes from porphyria, a medical condition in which the pigment of the red blood cells builds up, causing a number of symptoms, the most obvious of which is a reddening of the skin. Historians suspect that porphyria gave rise to the legends of vampires and werewolves, a tradition Browning likely drew on in his writing of the poem.
Character Analysis Examples in Porphyria's Lover:
"made the cheerless grate..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
Porphyria acts with deliberate, strong agency when she comes into the room. The verb “to make” emphasizes power and agency. In a way, she makes the cottage warm through her forcible will. This verb repeats itself in other locations, each time conveying a similar effect.
" I propped her head up..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
While at the beginning of the poem Porphyria has control over the speaker’s body, here the speaker has the power to manipulate her body. This demonstrates a reversal of the couple’s power dynamics: now that she is dead, he holds all the power in the relationship.
"surprise..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
The enjambment here further highlights the speaker’s perception of his own God-like power. Enjambment is when a sentence extends beyond a poetic line without a break. It is often used to suggest two meanings of a line: the one that is read to the end of the line, and the one that is read to the end of the sentence. If one reads the entire sentence, the speaker’s surprise gives him a swelling feeling of love. If one reads to the end of the line, “surprise” takes on a conceited tone: Porphyria worships him and he is not surprised. This second reading of the line reveals the speaker’s growing confidence in his power and influence. Whereas at the beginning of the poem he was unresponsive and sitting alone in a dark room, now he sees himself as obviously deserving of Porphyria’s permanent affection.
"Happy and proud..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
In his lover’s eyes, the speaker confirms his fears: she is no longer restrained by her pride. She is “happy and proud” to be with him; she is proud of the actions she has taken and the desire she feels. His interpretation of the look in her eyes confirms Porphyria’s deviance from “acceptable” female behavior.
"pale..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
Here, the speaker imagines Porphyria thinking of him at the feast: he is the “one so pale” who draws her away from the party. Notice that the speaker once again displaces himself from the narrative by calling himself “one,” a gender-neutral, impersonal pronoun. This disassociation shows a disconnection between the speaker’s self and the self he imagines Porphyria sees.
"struggling passion..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
It is important to recognize that the portrayal that we are given of Porphyria and her passion is filtered through this speaker’s perspective. We are never offered Porphyria’s side of the story or her own account of her feelings. This portrayal of the woman also suggests that the speaker is passing moral judgement on Porphyria’s character. Since the narrator has been unreliable up to this point, the reader might look at this description and wonder if Porphyria is as laden with passion and unrestrained by polite society as the speaker believes.
"gay feast..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
The adjective “gay” means bright or lively, joyful, and full of mirth. For the middle class, Victorian parties were opportunities to make social connections, maintain relationships, and gain social power. That Porphyria leaves this happy party in order to go to her lover is a sign of her social deviance; she abandons this social ritual because her passion and love for this man are more important. The speaker sees this action as a type of weakness: her passion is so great that even her obligations to society cannot “restrain her.” He paints Porphyria as a wild, uncivilized woman who is at the mercy of her passion.
"sometimes..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
Here, the speaker claims that although Porphyria resists her passion because vanity and pride restrict her, the adverb “sometimes” suggests that this situation has arisen multiple times before. Porphyria has come to the speaker despite her apprehension because of her passionate love for him.
"give herself to me for ever..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
By “give herself to me for ever” the speaker means that the woman will give him her virginity. He characterizes her as “too weak” to resist her own passion. In Victorian society, extramarital sex was illicit and seen as a sign of moral corruption. The speaker sees his lover’s passion as something that makes her weak rather than a sign of her agency. This suggests that while she enacts more modern sexual liberty, he is still viewing their relationship through romantic, Victorian social structures.
"made..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
The use of the word “made” also connotes a type of force; the speaker seems to be conveying that the woman is acting contrary to his wishes. It also hints that he is the passive recipient in this relationship and that she holds the power. The pose of cheek-on-shoulder portrays the woman as a type of protective figure and the speaker as dependent on her.
"And yet God has not said a word!..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
As his delusions develop, the speaker seems to step into a God-like role. In the seventh stanza, when he reflects that “at last I knew/Porphyria worshipped me,” he casts himself in a divine light. The verb “to worship,” after all, suggests an act of religious praise. The speaker uses this delusional, divine self-image to justify his murder of Porphyria. As he reflects in the final line, “And yet God has not said a word.” The speaker does not answer to a god because, in a sense, he believes himself to be one.
"She put my arm about her waist,..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
In this line, Porphyria is the actor; she actively manipulates the speaker’s body so that he responds to her the way that she wants him to. The woman’s ability to act on him almost as if he is an inanimate doll suggests that she has the power in this relationship.
"no voice replied..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
When Porphyria arrives, her lover is sitting in a dark, cold room as a storm rages outside. He is unresponsive even to his own name. This should strike the audience as odd. However, because of the romantic imagery and focus the speaker places on his lover rather than his feelings, the reader may not notice his behavior is odd the first time they encounter these lines. The careful reader will see that there is something peculiar about this speaker.
"I listened..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
Much like Browning’s famous poem My Last Duchess, “Porphyria’s Lover” takes the form of a dramatic monologue. A dramatic monologue is a poem in which an imagined narrator describes a particular situation or series of events and inadvertently reveals aspects of their own character. The speaker in a dramatic monologue is generally suspicious as they are not immediately forthcoming with aspects of their personality or actions.
"vex the lake..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
The verb “to vex” means to trouble, afflict, or harass aggressively in order to interfere with peace and quiet. The storm the speaker describes seems sadistically violent. One might read this description as an expression of the speaker’s own feelings: either he sympathizes with the wind and feels vengeful, or he sympathizes with the lake and feels persecuted. In either reading, the speaker seems to be in an emotionally unstable state.
"sullen..." See in text (Porphyria's Lover)
In using the adjective “sullen,” which means gloomy, ill-humored, or moody, the speaker personifies the wind. Personification generally indicates a character or speaker’s attempt to understand or identify with an inanimate object or force. Here, the speaker seems to project his own mood onto the landscape and see himself as the storm raging outside.