The Problems a First-Person Speaker Creates for Interpretation

J. T. Best's ingenious reading of "Porphyria's Lover" raises central questions about interpreting the dramatic monologue, that quintessentially Victorian poetic genre or form developed by Robert Browning, Alfred Tennyson, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in the 1830s and '40s. Victorian poetry, which often displays radical experimentation with poetic form, presented numerous problems for contemporary readers, but the fundamental difficulties associated with interpreting dramatic monologues derive from three closely associated facts:

These defining characteristics of this poetic form created major problems for early Victorian readers, who had little idea how to read such poems because they were accustomed to assuming that all poems spoken in the first person represented either the poet or an idealized version or persona of the poet.

Readers tend strongly to identify with — that is, give their credence to — the speakers of first-person narration, and as Wayne C. Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction demonstrated a half century ago, the main problem with first-person narration appears in its either/or nature: either one takes the speaker to be a completely reliable narrator, accepting everything that he or she says as true, or, less frequently, one understands the speaker to be completely unreliable and takes everything he or she says with a grain of salt or outright disbelief, such as occurs as soon as the reader realizes that the speaker in Swift's "A Modest Proposal" does not represent the author; many readers, especially students new to satire, in fact never do come to this realization. First-person narration, in others words, allows little room for subtlety about the narrator or speaker. But as Booth further pointed out, first-person speakers create another fundamental problem for interpreting the texts in which they appear — the reader has no sure way of getting outside the speaker's statements to determine whether they are true!

The Critical History of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw

Booth makes these points in the midst of a discussion of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, which has had an interesting critical history: at the time the novella appeared in print, readers assumed that James had written a suitably creepy ghost story and nothing more. As the years passed James's reputation as a prose master rose in the literary academy, in large part because of his supposed combination of high seriousness, complex analyses of personal motives, and sophisticated, often difficult, modes of narration in which irony played a large role. As Vivian in Oscar Wilde's "The Decay of Lying" put it satirically,

Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible 'points of view' his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.

Mid-twentieth-century readers of James, however, couldn't get enough of these qualities, which came to define his greatness. Soon enough academic critics decided that such a master of prose would not, could not, stoop to write a mere ghost story, a pop form, and since these were also the decades in which Freud's writings became far widely accepted than they have been recently, some ingenious critics read The Turn of the Screw as a sophisticated pyscho-sexual case study in which the governess who narrates the tale, driven by her sexual needs, herself kills her young charge. This interpretation, which soon dominated the way the novella was taught, had the several great advantages: It perfectly matched contemporary fashion, it served to make James, the great canonical author, appear even more sophisticated and wise in the ways of the human psyche, and it also permitted the critics who made this interpretation to seem very smart, certainly more intelligent than James's contemporaries. Only one problem: looking at James's notebooks shows that he thought he was writing . . . a ghost story.

The critical history of The Turn of the Screw has several important implications for the interpretation of dramatic monologues, which like the James novella, have a first-person speaker: (1) Since such texts provide no evidence other than that provided by the speaker, any reading that seems consistent with this evidence will appear plausible. (2) Readers tend to choose interpretations that match popular intellectual fashions, their own deep beliefs, or self-interest. (3) Going outside the poem for external evidence, such as the writer's own public or private remarks, may provide the only convincing way to resolve alternate self-consistent readings, though not everyone may be willing to be convinced: a reader could counter the evidence of James's own notebooks with the claim that he may have began with sole intention of writing a ghost story but somewhere along the way he changed his mind and did not feel it necessary to record that decision in his notebooks (what kind of evidence would make this claim more or less likely? at what would you have to look?)

The Critical History of Tennyson's "Ulysses"

Tennyson's poem (text) has an even more complex history with not two but four possible — that is more or less self-consistent — interpretations. By far the most popular reading of the poem matches the popular Victorian one, builds to the famous final line: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield." According to this reading, "Ulysses" embodies the Victorian stiff-upper lip, the need to endure when things get difficult and unpleasant. Going outside the poem, we recall that Tennyson stated he wrote it shortly after learning of Arthur Henry Hallam's death, so "Ulysses" turns out to be — along with "Tithonus" and "Morte d'Arthur" — in some sense a reaction to the traumatic death of his closest friend. "Tithonus," like the Struldbugs in the third book of Gulliver's Travels, argues for the necessity of death just as Bedivere in the "Morte d'Arthur" dramatizes the necessity, if difficulty, of having faith, keeping faith, and carrying on after the death of a loved one. According to the usual reading of "Ulysses," then, the poem's final line fits perfectly with the poet's situation as a mourner. As I have pointed out elsewhere in VW, Victorians tended to read this poem pretty straightforwardly, as an avowal of faith in the necessity of striving ever onward. They were supported by Tennyson's own statement that this poem "gave my feeling about Hallam's death perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam, his great elegaic lament. But modern critics have found "Ulysses" anything but simple. Perhaps more than any other single poem, how you read it depends upon your theoretical assumptions about the nature of poetry.

In 1954 E. J. Chiasson called the accepted reading of the poem into question when he pointed out the speaker's

marital and social irresponsibility, pursuit of sensation, and adoration of the naked intellect, [which] is thoroughly opposed to In Memoriam's glorification of the marriage bond as symptomatic of and contributory to social solidarity. . . . It is especially surprising that the pivotal doctrine of In Memoriam, namely the belief in immortality, the belief which serves as sanction for all other beliefs, and without which life becomes mere rutting and social disintegration, should become in 'Ulysses' at best a subject for the display of a kind of jovial agnosticism. [171]

According to Chiasson, then, the poem, which so many take to be an uplifting call to courageous perseverance, is in fact a form of intellectual satire, which "can be read as the dramatic presentation of a man who has faith neither in the gods nor consequently in the necessity of preserving order in his kingdom or in his own life" (172), and thus, like Tithonus and the mariners in "The Lotus-Eaters" dramatizes an intellectual position that the poet wishes to explore but not accept.

Chiasson's reading depends upon two points, the first of which is the speaker's apparently scornful treatment of his wife, son, and people — so unlike the protagonist of The Odyssey. Second, Chaisson assumes that Tennyson speaker is the Ulysses of Dante's Inferno, which condemns him to hell for overreaching pride, rather than the main character of the Homeric epic. The justification for making this assumption was the statement by the poet's son that his father referred to Dante's, not Homer's, Ulysses.

To the standard reading of Ulysses character and Chiasson's more sharply negative one with their consequent effects upon the meaning of the poem, I offer a third possibility: Like Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's," "Ulysses" is a deathbed poem, which treats death as the last great adventure into the unknown — a reading that fits perfectly with Tennyson's statements about the occasion on which he wrote the poem as well as the other poems the explore the nature of death. According to this interpretation, Tennyson's speaker is the character who appears in Homer rather than Dante, and I would justify this assertion with the argument that unlike so many statements in the poet's memoirs edited by his son, Hallam Tennyson, not his father, asserts that "Ulysses" refers to Dante's version. (Quite frankly, this is the weakest point in the argument for my interpretation.) In this reading of the poem, the mariners Ulysses addresses are the ghosts of his crew from the The Odyssey, all of whom perish.

Considering all three readings, one can argue that Chiasson's and mine have the advantage over the more popular one that they are self-consistent; that is, they fit the text of the poem. Nonetheless, it is difficult proving which one might be correct because both arguments appeal to contradictory external evidence. James Kincaid, who has written perhaps the finest book-length study of Tennyson, follows Robert Langbaum and takes yet another tack, arguing that in the dramatic monologue

the removal of context makes it extremely difficult not only to know how to judge but to be sure if one should judge at all. Certainly, the creation of a solid position from which one can observe how the speaker "contradicts himself" or is subject to the poet's satire is a critical fiction, a convenience that distorts the effects of the poem.

Robert Langbaum's The Poetry of Experience, a brilliant discussion of the problem of perspective in the dramatic monologue, uses a very open appeal to our experience in the poem to demonstrate that an overtly satiric reading of a dramatic monologue is a possible, but rather crude and uninteresting response. To see that Ulysses's comments on Telemachus are contemptuous is one thing; to argue that this contempt acts to condemn Ulysses is something else. 'there is no way we can find within the poem a morality that allows for such certain judgments. By removing rhetorical securities, the dramatic monologue does, as Langbaum insists, force us to experience the speaker himself, not a meaning which is external to him.

Still, the tendency of this form to find the extreme case, in fact to be generally effective in direct proportion to the outrageousness of its argument and the distance of the speaker and action from conventional moral and social norms, means that our instinct to make judgments is very strongly activated. . . . Contrary to what I take to be the implications of Langbaum's argument, judgment is not an attendant or superficial response but an immediate and powerful one. But it is also given no place to rest, no terms with which to deal, and this very fact accounts for the ironic rhetoric. We are asked to respond simultaneously on two contradictory levels: that of distant critical judgment and that of absorbed, direct experience. We must and we cannot do both; and we realize, therefore, the tension between the now disjoined meaning and experience. [complete text]

Such an essentially agnostic approach to interpreting those dramatic monologues that treat the speaker ironically certainly has appeal, if only because of its ingenious novelty. But for me such interpretations of "Ulysses" and similar dramatic monologues has one fatal flaw: it takes for granted the not very credible assumption that Tennyson writes this kind of themeless poetry — dramatic monologues in which he does not make any points about the subjects that most concern him — only in those poems that we have difficulty interpreting. The conclusion seems a bit too convenient. Certainly, this fundamental difficulty of interpretation does not exist in poems in which the speaker more or less speaks for or in place of the author. In Browning's case we have the example of speakers whom the author treats unironically, such as Abt Vogler, Rabbi ben Ezra, and the Pope in The Ring and the Book. One could of course argue that this new kind of themeless poetry occurs only when the author of the dramatic monologue treats the speaker critically or ironically, but that doesn't work either, for plenty of examples of dramatic monologues come to mind in which both Tennyson and Browning treat their speakers ironically and yet their points of view appear quite clearly in the resulting intellectual satires: Tennyson's "Tithonus" and "The Lotos Eaters," Browning's "Andrea del Sarto," "Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister," "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's," and "Cleon."

What Evidence Can One Use in Interpreting a Dramatic Monologue?

The dramatic monologue is a literary genre, and like all genres it relies upon certain techniques that signal the reader how to read it. Browning, Tennyson, and other authors or use this form use some or all of the following means of helping readers interpret the words of the fictional speaker who is unreliable:

"Porphyria's Lover"

Considering both internal and external evidence, one might think that the speaker of "Porphyria's Lover" exemplifies the most unambiguous and easily understood of all unreliable speakers in dramatic monologues: first, the poem was originally published as one of two "Madhouse Cells," clearly and unabiguously pointing to the fact that the words of the insane speaker are not to be trusted; second, every assertion or judgment the speaker makes is quickly disproved by his own words:

Then there's the central fact of the poem, the chief source of its power — this madman, who today would be labelled a paranoid schizophrenic, strangles his beloved, asserts on the basis of no evidence that she felt no pain, and sits all night with the dead body wondering why God hasn't spoken to him in praise for his act.

When discussing this poem in class, the first question I ask students is, "At what point in the poem did you begin to distrust the speaker?" For almost all of us that point comes with the great shock of reading that he has strangled the beloved with her own hair. At that point (or upon completing the poem) one can go back through the poem and note all the previously missed hints of what was to come. The sensationalism of the poem is enough to tempt one to take it at first as a poem without much more of a point than that young women should probably not date homicidal maniacs, but on reflection it soon becomes clear that Porphyria's lover is another one of those Browning male characters who objectify, use, and abuse woman by projecting their wishes upon them — the Duke of Ferrara and Count Guido Franceschini being the most obvious examples.

Related Materials

References and Suggested Readings

Chiasson, E. J. "Tennyson's 'Ulysses' — a Re-Interpretation." (Originally published 1954) Critical essays on the Poetry of Tennyson. Ed. John Killham. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967. Pp. 164-74.

Fowler, Alastair. Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1982.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974.

Kincaid, James. Tennyson's Major Poems: The Comic and Ironic Patterns. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975. [full text]

Last modified 8 April 2006