[Adapted from Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows: Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art, and Thought, 1980. Full text]

The dying prelate in "The Bishop Orders His Tomb" provides the most extreme example from Browning's work of a character who can neither interpret nor apply types properly, but the preacher in "Christmas Eve" (1850), like many in The Ring and the Book (1868-9), embodies an equally effective use of this method of character definition. His long poems also depict characters by means both of these figures's self-conscious distortion of types for dishonest ends and of their apparently unconscious citation of such biblical images. For example, in The Ring and the Book the villainous Count Guido Francheschini represents himself as an innocent, selfless man by dramatizing himself as Christlike. (7) But when he refers to "God's decree,/ In which I, bowing bruised head, acquiesce" (4.1410-11), he reminds us that he is, in fact, far more like Satan than like Christ. Guido's Satanic nature is recognized by other characters in the poem, including Caponsacchi, who, realizing his adversary's dangerous scheming, had thought to himself: "No mother nor brother Viper of the [Francheschini] brood/ Shall scuttle off without the instructive bruise" (6.677-8). The authoritative statement of Guido's nature in terms of this image is made, of course, by the old Pope, who sees Pompilia acting analogously to Christ when she treads this Satan-figure into hell and, the reader adds, is herself "bruised". Browning uses the same typological allusions in The Inn Album (1875). When the evil nobleman mentions in passing that "Head and feet/ Are vulnerable both, and I, foot-sure,/ Forgot that ducking down saves brow from bruise", the reader might not perceive this as an allusion to Genesis 3:15. But when his former mistress describes him more elaborately, we cannot miss the allusion:

Let him slink hence till some subtler Eve
Than I, anticipate the snake -- bruise head
Ere he bruise heel -- or, warier than the first,
Some Adam purge earth's garden of its pest
Before the slaver spoil the Tree of Life. (8)

Browning has his characters employ typological allusions to locate his villain for the reader, thus providing a means of authorial commentary even in the midst of forms modeled on dramatic monologue in which he cannot speak in his own person.


Victorian Web main screen Religion Biblical Typology

Last modified 1998