[Molly Schroeder writes about Margaret Atwood, Robert Browning, and the EngageNY lesson plans for “My Last Duchess.” Molly plans to be an English teacher and is a graduate student in literature in the Bard MAT Program. Her essay was a response to an assignment in Victorian Spaces, an MAT literature course.]
Margaret Atwood’s “My Last Duchess,” from her 2006 collection, Moral Disorder, is not only an example of a contemporary space based on one of our Victorian texts, Robert Browning’s poem. Atwood’s story is also eerily connected to our conversations on teaching poetry in high school in the context of EngageNY’s eleventh grade lesson plan.
Essentially, “My Last Duchess” is about an unnamed, female narrator’s experiences being taught the famous Robert Browning poem by “the best English teacher in the school,” which also includes her navigation of the tumultuous world of adolescence (4). In the context of learning about Robert Browning’s famous poem in her high school English class, the narrator describes the pressures of students in an exam-focused school environment (the exam scores of students would be published in a newspaper, and Browning’s poem “was an important poem, worth…a full fifteen marks on the final exam” (5)). The narrator mimics the rhythms, distractions, and dread of high school classes with keen accuracy, reminiscent of a student’s meandering mind during an afternoon class: she glances over “the brand-new classroom,” dives into tangential meditations, which are interrupted by Miss Bessie’s fear-inspiring questions and the narrator’s own note-taking (1). The narrator’s journey with the poem is not only limited to the classroom; it also affects her relationship with Bill and prompts her to consider the limits and restrictions of her environment. She is attuned to the gendered expectations of her town as well as the notion that excelling in education is a way out: “The boys were expected to become doctors, lawyers…As for us girls, we weren’t sure where we were headed. If we didn’t go on [to university], we’d have to get married, or else become old maids; but with a good set of grades, this dismaying fork in the road could be postponed for a while” (5). While the narrator is aware of her aptitude for literature, this capacity is qualified by Bill, her boyfriend, who says that the narrator is “really, really smart, in that way at least” (7, emphasis mine), and also by herself. Whether it’s because of the stress of Miss Bessie’s classroom or the narrator’s own insecurities about her somewhat radical interpretations of the poem, she never speaks up in class to offer her own reading of Browning’s work. In fact, the only instance of her discussing her opinions of the Duke openly ends in an argument and subsequent breakup with beloved Bill (13-14).
This story is particularly interesting in light of the EngageNY lesson when considering Miss Bessie’s motivations and tactics in teaching her students. “Nine times out of ten she simply answered her own questions,” but other times she would wait for a response to her hanging question, and the narrator describes “the suspense, the looming danger – the threat of being pounced on, called by name, forced to speak” (2). Miss Bessie is demanding, exacting, and has extremely high expectations for her students with the clear and repeated goal of preparing them for success on the ever-looming, fate-determining final exams. “Line by line, she hauled us through the poem,” the narrator writes, just as is required in the EngageNY lesson plan (5). Test-focused, emphasizing objective analysis and “correct” answers, Miss Bessie’s method is comparable to the state-mandated lesson plans. “She described our task of learning as a race, as sort of obstacle course” that she expertly ushers the narrator and her classmates through and is considered an exemplar teacher for her efforts (4). However, her methods aren’t totally sound, as Bill is completely frustrated by the poem while the narrator is dissuaded from offering her own insights into the poem because of the limitations of the intended purpose of the lesson.
Bill and the narrator contrast hopelessly in their reactions and interpretations to the poem, perhaps foreshadowing the end of their relationship, but certainly demonstrating two different kinds of students who were both failed by didactic methods of English instruction. Bill “wanted everything to be clear-cut, as in algebra, a subject he was good at,” and naturally finds frustration and difficulty in juggling the multiple meanings and complexity of Browning’s poem (7). Meanwhile, the narrator breezes through Miss Bessie’s questions in the safety and privacy of her notes and, upon further and deeper meditation on the poem, reaches interpretations of the poem that go further than the readings of her classmates and some that are not at all supported by the majority. While Marilyn suggests that the lines “as if she were alive” suggest that the Duchess is dead, the narrator surmises that the Duke “bumped her off,” integrating her own interest in detective stories in her Victorian literature lesson (3). The narrator also becomes sympathetic to the Duke upon further investigation. She compares the Duchess’s smiling to “girls at school who smiled at everyone in the same earnest way…usually coming to rest on some boy” and justifies the Duke’s reaction to the Duchess (10). She rejects the accepted view “that the envoy was horrified by what the Duke had told him and had tried to rush down the stairs first in order to get away from such a twisted nutbar” and argues the Duke is “merely showing consideration to the envoy” to pass along the message to the new Duchess about how she should act (11). Her unpopular interpretation has “all three of them in cahoots – the Duke, the envoy, and the Count,” demonstrating an awareness of the larger patriarchal structures demonstrated in the poem (11). The climactic final scene of the story – the argument between the narrator and Bill – demonstrates the limitations of Miss Bessie’s teaching and the goals of English instruction: Bill cannot enter the poem because of its immoral cruelty and his personal objections to authorial intent and choice, while the narrator cannot escape the poem because of its complexity and her inability to effectively articulate her interpretations to others. Even though the narrator is a model student, her intellectual abilities are stifled by such restrictions, just as Bill is stifled by feeling pushed out of the poem.
Atwood’s story suggests the potential benefits of allowing students to respond to a focused freewrite invitation: imagine what the classroom discussion would have been like if the narrator was allowed to freely associate with the poem, as she demonstrates in the narrative structure of the story, and then read those findings aloud to the class. It is not clear if her interpretations reached anyone other than Bill, and the finality of their argument suggests that she was discouraged from pursuing them further. While Miss Bessie was certainly an effective teacher, the narrator understands the limits of such teaching; in recognizing these limits, she begins to understand her own role and agency in her learning. In questioning why Browning’s “My Last Duchess” was chosen by Miss Bessie and other teachers, as well as other texts that feature “hapless, annoying, dumb bunny girls” the narrator states, “They got together, they had secret meetings, they conferred, they cooked up our book list among them. They knew something we needed to know, but it was a complicated thing – not so much a thing as a pattern, like the clues in a detective story once you started connecting them together. These women – these teachers – had no direct method of conveying this thing to us, not in a way that would make us listen, because it was too tangled, it was too oblique. It was hidden within the stories” (15). The short story is the narrator’s, and presumably Atwood’s, attempt to articulate that “complicated thing”, by examining the narrator’s reaction to the poem in her specific context of being an adolescent girl in a gendered and patriarchal society. Atwood’s story suggests that the reason for the persistence of Browning’s poem and of Victoriana in general in the English curriculum lies not only in its instructional value, but also in its ability to engender useful resistance and multiple interpretations for students: to encourage students to take on different perspectives and to make these isolated texts somehow relevant to the lived experiences of the students who study them.