In The Moonstone, we saw many of the social side effects of imperialism on England, including the perceived superiority of the white race that produced an extremely narrow and racist worldview, and the perceived superiority of the male sex that led to strict gender roles in British society. In “Porphyria’s Lover,” Robert Browning expands upon this second social inequality.
In the first half of the poem the speaker expresses his discomfort and anger that Porphyria will not “give herself to [him] forever” (line 25), citing that she is “too weak” (line 22) as a woman to make her own decisions as the reason. The speaker is unsettled by his lack of control and seeks to reestablish the dominance expected by the British white man. He does this by strangling her, reducing her from a living being to an object he can own and manipulate. However, he assures himself that “she felt no pain” (line 42), a delusive behavior typical of British imperialists in order to justify the atrocities involved in their economic and political conquests. Once the speaker has regained the control he craves, he divides the object even further, only describing his lover in terms of her individual body parts such as “her lids” (line 44), “her neck; her cheek” (line 47), and her “smiling rosy little head” (line 52). This disturbing manner of talking about a human shows the dehumanizing effects of imperialism, as people became so infatuated with economic gain that they reduced every aspect of life to only its value. The speaker has, through this murder, created a set of commodities.
It is interesting to note that though the speaker is unnamed, he is the titular character, described only as the lover of Porphyria. Browning likely did this in order to imply that there is no one person to blame for the horrors of imperialism, and that the contemporary British reader is likely guilty of the same attitudes.