Intertextuality in Margaret Atwood’s “My Last Duchess” and “The Age of Lead”

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2015

24 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1. Introduction

2. ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning

3. ‘My Last Duchess’ by Margaret Atwood

4. The Franklin Expedition

5. ‘The Age of Lead’ by Margaret Atwood

6. Conclusion


1. Introduction

This term paper introduces the reader to the world of Margaret Atwood, an internationally well-known Canadian author, who is “able to create technically innovative, ironic studies of the crisis of personality in contemporary society” (Mac Donald in Magill 1981: 641). She often uses myths and prominent works as a base for her own writings and concentrates on rewriting traditional or popular versions of stories, of which many undermine objectification or even refuse women (Wisker 2012: 67). It is striking how many times Atwood has used several texts within texts or intertexts throughout her career and thus it is worth having a closer look at it (Wilson 1993: 3).

Generally an intertext can refer to any kind of text like a poem or an essay and is “the continual play of referentiality between and within texts” (Wilson 1993: 4). And as we will see in this term paper, she makes no secret about her sources, when constantly using intertextuality (Wisker 2012: 67), which for her is just more than grafting several narratives (Wilson 1993: 351).

In order to show how well Atwood is able to use intertextuality, the following chapter begins with Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue respectively poem ‘My Last Duchess’, which is essential for a better understanding of the intertextuality used in Atwood’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and important to finally understand the Duke’s and the Duchess’ role in both writings. The next chapter has a closer look at Atwood’s short story, published in a collection of connected short stories by her called ‘Moral Disorder’ in 2006, which “grapples with the complicated ethics of obligation, particularly the conflict between selfishness and sacrifice that can arise within the praxis of care” (DeFalco 2011: 236).

But many of the stories in the collection like ‘My Last Duchess’ also focus on the socialization of gender, a very central subject to Atwood, particularly the short stories set in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when gender was a principally discussed social issue (Wisker 2012: 165). In addition, as we will see in the short story ‘My Last Duchess’, Atwood regularly reverses the hero’s gender in order to alter the role of women from objects to subjects and she also doubles roles in order to make the same person look like a rescuer and a person being rescued (Wilson 1993: 32).

After exploring how Atwood used Browning’s dramatic monologue respectively poem in her own short story, the following chapter will introduce the reader to a historical event, the Franklin Expedition. This event was Atwood’s inspiration for another short story and is supposed to show her wide range of sources while working with intertextuality. Thus, the knowledge about this expedition is essential for a better understanding of the intertextuality to Atwood’s ‘The Age of Lead’, published in her collection ‘Wilderness Tips’ in 1991 (Rodrígruez in Martínez et al. 2003: 558). This short story is discussed in the last chapter of this term paper. It begins with the narration of the unsuccessful Franklin Expedition in the 19th century (Hatch in Nischik 2000: 195) and finds its end with an image of an environmental pollution (Ridout in Bloom 2009: 55). Therefore, the title of the collection ‘Wilderness Tips’ is misleading, because it does not give any advice of how to survive in the forest and is not about surviving at all (Grace 1993: 76). The stories in the collection rather trigger a journey from “culture to nature and vice versa”, in which the past and the present conflate into the “complex enunciation of Canadian cultures and national myths”. Especially ‘The Age of Lead’ is evidence of the alternating “guise that national and cultural formations have adopted in the last years” (Rodrígruez in Martínez et al. 2003: 558). Furthermore, like in ‘My Last Duchess’, Atwood in ‘The Age of Lead’ depicts characters, who struggle with themselves and their surroundings. With the help of intertextuality, Atwood is able to shift the point of view and by using unconsciousness, she is also able to show how the self is influenced by contradictory impulses (Palumbo in Bloom 2009: 21).

The current term paper will only compare the two mentioned short stories by Margaret Atwood in order to give an example of her wide range of knowledge regarding poems and TV documentaries respectively historical events that gained common interest. It will not be possible, and also not be necessary, to sum up the whole short stories in each detail. Instead this term paper will focus on the most important happenings in order to show intertextuality between Atwood’s short stories and her mentioned sources.

2. ‘My Last Duchess’ by Robert Browning

Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ is his most famous as well as most discussed dramatic monologue respectively poem (Houle 2010: 31). Dramatic monologues are principally associated with Browning and consist of just one speaker who gradually gives a psychological insight of his own character. Thus, usually what the speaker expresses is not as interesting as the secret he accidentally reveals about himself. In the case of the Duke, who is the speaker in ‘My Last Duchess’, by presenting a painting of his late wife to an emissary, he inadvertently reveals his ferocity to his late wife (Kuiper 2012: 25). And due to the fact that the Duke is the only speaker of the poem, one should be aware about the Duke’s honesty, also because Browning’s poem does not offer another perspective in which the Duke’s perspective can be contrasted or compared to (Bloom 2001: 16).

Generally, the speaker of the poem and the Duchess are believed to be historical figures (Bloom 2001: 16). The speaker of the poem, the Duke, is believed to be the fifth Duke of Ferrara Alfonso II. (Houle 2010: 31), who lived around the 16th century (Sharma 2010: 58), while the victim of the poem, the Duchess, is believed to be Lucrezia de Medici, married to him since she was fourteen (Houle 2010: 31). But unfortunately, as one could already imagine, the matrimony ended with a mysterious death of the Duchess just three years later. Instead of grieving, the Duke started pretty soon negotiating with an emissary about a marriage with a niece of the Count of Tyrol (Bloom 2001: 16), who later became his new wife (Houle 2010: 31).

Browning seems to have based his dramatic monologue respectively poem ‘My Last Duchess’ exactly on that happening. He starts his poem with a Duke, who has lately been widowed, inviting an emissary, who comes to bargain about a new matrimony with a daughter of another influential family. As he shows the emissary around, he stops in front of a painting (Sharma 2010: 58-59) and invites the emissary to have a closer look at the painting of his late wife (Houle 2010: 31). Actually, one must read almost the whole poem in order to find out the full relationship between the Duke and the Duchess. But right at the first line it becomes obvious that the Duke seems not to be sad about the thought of his deceased wife (Watson 1973: 70):

“That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, looking as if she were alive. I call that piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands worked busily a day, and there she stands” (Browning 1993: 1) .

The mood of the first line seems to be untroubled, but also the following (Watson 1973: 70) “looking as if she were alive” and “there she stands” (Browning 1993: 1) can be interpreted as “an absence of guilt and regret, even a kind of complacency” (Watson 1973: 70). Nevertheless, after having mentioned the extraordinary painting and highlighted that actually without his permission no one is allowed to have a look at it, he starts talking about the painting and the last Duchess in it (Houle 2010: 31).

As the explanation of the Duke about the painting and the Duchess in it goes on, it becomes clear that the Duke seems to be very obsessed by the adoring look (Houle 2010: 31), or as he says by the “earnest glance” (Browning 1993: 1), on the face of his deceased wife. In addition, he mentions to have had some problems with her behavior (Houle 2010: 32) and before the poet carries on with the implication, he hesitates, giving the reader one last moment of a still alive Duchess (Watson 1973: 73): “Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt, whene'er I passed her; but who passed without much the same smile?” (Browning 1993: 2). The narration of “who passed without much the same smile” combined with “no doubt” (Browning 1993: 2) indicates that her behavior infuriated the Duke and made him jealous (Watson 1973: 73).

The more he reflects about the Duchess, the more he reveals his criticism of her disrespectful comportments (Sharma 2010: 59). He believes that his wife’s smile was an insincere one because also others, especially men, seem to get the same kind of smile, which for him as an egomaniac is absolutely unbearable (Watson 1973: 73) and gives him the feeling to be “[…] reduced to the ignoble pastime of comparing himself unceasingly with lesser beings whom he despises” (Adler 1977: 222). In addition, it was simple to make her glad and oftentimes she was too thankful for just ordinary things. All these strange comportments combined gave him finally the feeling that the Duchess did not appreciate his (Sharma 2010: 59) “gift of a ninehundred-years-old name” (Browning 1993: 2), causing his anger (Watson 1973: 73).

Now somebody could argue, why did he not tell the Duchess what was actually bothering him. The Duke gives an answer by saying that bringing it all up would have been very (Houle 2010: 32) “stooping” (Browning 1993: 2) to her and that was something he absolutely wanted to avoid (Houle 2010: 32). As already mentioned, the Duke is the only speaker of the poem and thus one should question his honesty, because talking about the behavior of the Duchess might has been very downgrading to him and not to her (Bloom 2001: 16).

Nevertheless, he tells the emissary to have come up with a better idea and (Houle 2010: 32) in a short and sharp sentence reveals his cruelty to the Duchess (Watson 1973: 73): “I gave commands; then all smiles stopped together” (Browning 1993: 2). So all the smiles of the servants, friends, and those of the whole citadel stopped, when the Duchess got removed and thus all “vulgar frivolity” was finally gone (Watson 1973: 73).

Actually, what really happened to the Duchess remains obscure, but it becomes pretty clear that the Duke is very proud of having made the Duchess disappear and of the serenity he is still able to look at the painting (Watson 1973: 73): “There she stands as if alive” (Browning 1993: 2). But at this point the reader, and possibly also the emissary, recognize that the Duke must have had something to do with the early demise of the last Duchess (Sharma 2010: 59). And after having made this confession, he leaves the painting behind and goes on with his business. In this case: The negotiation and arrangement of another wedding with a daughter of another influential family (Houle 2010: 32).


Excerpt out of 24 pages


Intertextuality in Margaret Atwood’s “My Last Duchess” and “The Age of Lead”
University of Constance
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
523 KB
intertextuality, margaret, atwood, duchess, lead
Quote paper
Franco Mucci (Author), 2015, Intertextuality in Margaret Atwood’s “My Last Duchess” and “The Age of Lead”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Intertextuality in Margaret Atwood’s “My Last Duchess” and “The Age of Lead”

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free