Words give meaning and character. Words condense a part of the world into one set of symbols, and the reader unfolds the word into a world of meaning. They infuse the reader’s senses with life, color, scents, texture, emotion, actions, and more. The words “caress,” “slaughter,” and “mesmerize,” for instance, all conjure distinct meanings and pictures before the mind’s eye. Words can even define a generation—think “hippies” or “flappers” or “Star Wars”— but also define one person. The diction of the narrator of “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning reveals the narrator’s character.
Materialism comes to view in the narrator’s diction. His specificity when he speaks of the painter of his last duchess and the sculptor of Neptune reveals that he wants the Count’s messenger to know how much greatness he possesses: he has enough power to associate himself with the specific artists Frà Pandolf and Claus of Innsbruck, who are presumably renowned artists, since he has enough wealth to commission the painting and the sculpture from them. He cares about brand name and accumulation of brand name objects; he even tells the Count’s messenger that he “said Frà ‘Pandolf’ by design” (Browning 6). His materialism extends also toward women. Instead of saying a sentence along the lines of “There’s a painting of my last duchess on the wall” or “My last duchess’s likeness is there,” he states “That’s my last duchess painted on the wall” (1). The painting is her, and she is the painting. After he murders her, he literally objectifies her for himself to hoard. He also objectifies his duchess-to-be, calling her an object. If the reader removes the parenthetical phrase set off by commas, the narrator declares the Count’s “daughter’s fair self… is [his] object” (52-53). Although one can interpret this line different ways, Browning uses other wordplay elsewhere in the poem, so one can say that this word “object” signifies a deeper quality within the narrator that he objectifies women habitually. Whatever compels the narrator to behave this way, no doubt exists that he accumulates objects in a materialistic mindset.
The narrator also showcases pride throughout the poem’s diction. The most prominent example of this prideful diction shows itself in the choice of the word “lessoned” as opposed to “lessened” in respect to his relationship with his wife. The word “lessoned” conjures images of schoolchildren bending over primers to learn and recite their lessons for a much older, much wiser schoolteacher. By the use of “lessoned,” the narrator degrades the duchess to a mere child in need of instruction because of her foolishness, and he places himself in indelible authority over her as the knowledgeable, venerable, benevolent soul who attempts to teach her. The theoretical use of “lessened” instead of “lessoned” would indicate natural equality between the two in taste, wit, decorum, and modesty. The narrator deceives the Count’s messenger, who would hear “lessened,” into believing that his wife is the prideful one while he really presumes to teach her a lesson. A less prominent but also valuable observation lies in the phrase “My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” (33). The word “gift” denotes his own benevolence with his name, as if his name is the only valuable she possesses. Also, his specificity of nine hundred years assures the Count’s messenger once again of the narrator’s prestige and importance. The narrator definitely values his family line, whatever reason he may have for this pride. This pride evidences itself continually in his diction.
Whatever his motivations may be, materialism and pride show themselves in the narrator. However carefully a person chooses his words, the character of the speaker will always reveal itself, if examined carefully. Words indicate identity. If what exists in the heart naturally surfaces in speech and action, we, then, should examine others to see beyond a potential guise of flattery to the sometimes corrupt motivations behind it. In turn, we should examine our own words and behavior to consider our distinct identities and amend them if necessary.
Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” Literature: Approaches To Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. Ed. Robert DiYanni. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2008. 512-513. Print.