profile of woman surrounded by flames staring in terror with her hair menacingly wrapped around her throat

Porphyria's Lover

by Robert Browning

Start Free Trial

What is the narrative structure of "Porphyria's Lover"?

Quick answer:

"Porphyria's Lover" has a linear narrative structure. The narrator tells the story chronologically, and the main events appear to take place over the course of a few minutes.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Porphyria's Lover" has a linear narrative structure. The poet begins by establishing the setting: a cottage on a stormy night, where the first-person narrator is waiting for Porphyria. The narrator tells the story in chronological order, describing his feelings for Porphyria as he does so. She enters, tends to the fire, takes off her wet cloak, shawl, hat and gloves, and then comes over to greet the narrator, telling him how she loves him.

The narrator sees some conflict in Porphyria's love, since she cannot entirely sever herself from other obligations outside the cottage. However, he quickly realizes that her love for him is paramount, and she is entirely his. This reflection leads him to strangle her with her own hair, then, when she is dead, he opens her eyes and kisses her. At the end of the poem, he says that they have sat together the whole night "And yet God has not said a word!"

The main events of the poem probably only take a few minutes. Hours then pass without detailed commentary as the narrator sits all night with the dead Porphyria. The background to the story remains vague, and the reader has only the perspective of a highly unreliable narrator—who appears to be insane—on which to rely. The narrator has taken no steps to avoid discovery and does not seem to understand the nature of his act, leading the reader to think that his murder and madness are likely to be discovered outside the time-frame of the narrative.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Porphyria's Lover" tells a linear narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The setting is established right away: it is a stormy night at a rather remote little house. The house is cold until Porphyria arrives and starts a fire in the grate. She invites the speaker, who is identified as her lover, to put his head on her bare shoulder.

The middle involves Porphyria proclaiming her love to her beloved. At first, the beloved is unsure of what to do, but her closeness and devotion arouse something within him. The climax comes when he strangled her with her own hair.

The final third of the poem involves the fallout of the murder or what Freytag's Pyramid would term the falling action. The lover kisses the corpse, puts her head upon his shoulder, and the two are seated as such all night long, with the speaker feeling no remorse.

The structure emphasizes the mystery of the beloved. At first, we assume he is a normal person. However, as the poem progresses, the character becomes slowly more unhinged, until his climactic act of murder reveals him to be a heartless psychopath who is only interested in total control over Porphyria in death.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The narrative structure of "Porphyria's Lover" is linear: it tells a story in sequence from start to finish. It starts by setting the scene with a description of the stormy weather, then moves to Porphyria's arrival, her making herself at home, her sexual advances, and the narrator's strangling of her, ending with the two of them sitting together, him alive and her dead.

The poem is structured as a dramatic monologue, meaning it is told in the first person. As the term monologue indicates, we hear only the point of view of the narrator: the dead Porphyria never gets to speak or respond to the narrator's explanation of events. Therefore, the narrative is highly subjective: we don't know if what the author says is accurate, despite the detail he provides.

A dramatic monologue is a study of the character of a speaker who inadvertently reveals himself to his audience. In this case, despite the matter-of-fact, ordinary, detached recounting of events by this speaker, what he is has done is anything but ordinary and reveals him to be mentally disturbed. The narrative also ends in a sense in the middle of the story: the speaker says

And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word!
We as readers know the other shoe is ready to drop, as someone is going to find him with the strangled corpse of Porphyria: the narrator might imagine all is well, but God⁠—or at least the law⁠—will inevitably be speaking.
Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Porphyria's Lover" is written in dramatic monologue, a format Robert Browning popularized and in which he excelled. Unlike some of Browning's monologues that don't have an actual plot but are musings of a character, this poem has a story arc. In the beginning, the setting is described: It is a dark and stormy night. The inciting incident is when Porphyria glides in. She removes her wet clothing, lets down her wet hair, builds up the fire, and then sits down next to him. She sensually bares her shoulder, puts the narrator's arm around her waist, and pulls his cheek down to rest on her. She whispers she loves him. Evidently the narrator has been thinking jealous thoughts about her--presuming she had been unfaithful to him. We do not know if these doubts he has about her are true or whether they are the imaginings of his twisted mind. Instead of being content in the love she is showing him now, his heart swells with pride at the fact that she worships him. He debates what to do. In the climax of the story, he finds "a thing to do": He winds her hair around her neck and strangles her. In the denouement, he unties the hair and kisses the lips of the corpse. He then sits with the corpse, with her head on his shoulder like his had been on hers. They sit that way together until morning as he imagines she is happy that now she has him to herself forever. The final words, "And yet God has not said a word," suggest the theme: That the narrator is a psychopath who cannot hear his own conscience despite the atrocious act of murder he has just committed. 

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial