Victorian Views on Love and Gender in Christina Rossetti’s After Death
From the Inside, Out
In “After Death” by Christina Rossetti, the cultural views of the Victorian era are challenged. Rossetti uses different styles of writing in order to portray her abnormal perspective—at the time—regarding love and gender during the late nineteenth century. In the poem, Rossetti uses word play such as the use of active verbs and polysemous words and phrases to reject the strict Victorian views on love and gender.
The voice of the poem comes from a female who is dead, but still experiencing what is going on around her. Although the poem is spoken in past tense, it is from the first person point of view and is formed to create the sense that the speaker had witnessed the event in the present, even though she was not alive. By arranging the poem in this format, Rossetti is able to demonstrate to the audience with a sense that women have intelligence even though it was not a normal thought when discussing women during the Victorian era because women were thought to be weak innocent and vulnerable.
During the Victorian era, women were strictly thought as a way to build a family; it was ideal to have a home with a family in the Victorian era, and women were needed to procreate. Women were seen by society to be homemakers and would often give up their individual rights when they married. By giving the woman speaker a voice in the poem, Rossetti goes against the social norms of the Victorian period and allows the woman to have a voice. By using the first person, the speaker, even though dead, she is able demonstrate how women are individuals and should not hide themselves from the world because society says to.
Rossetti is also able to use the poem to describe the time period of the Victorian age. In the first three lines of the poem, gentle active verbs, such as “swept,” “strewn,” and lay are used when talking about the appearance of the surrounding objects. By using gentle verbs, Rossetti describes how the Victorian society believes that the culture that surrounds them is calm and normal in their ways, yet they forget about the bigger issues at hand. Victorian culture appeared to be strict and sturdy, because they had a sense of perfection and goals that were ideal to society. The society focused on the appearance of things—such as focusing on the appearance of a household and family without looking deeper into the love and relationships within it—before analyzing what was beneath the appearance, which is shown by Rossetti introducing the poem with a description of the room, and then slowly making her way into the depth of the poem, regarding the dead woman and the actions of the living man starting in the fourth line.
At the start of the fourth line, the male character is introduced and the gentle active verbs transition into coarse active verbs. The coarse words that are used when describing the actions of the male, such as “crept” and “ruffled,” are used to describe the ideal views that Victorian society held for males: that they were supposed to be strong and dominant, and that the overall society was not supposed to show emotion with regards to love. The male in the poem coincides with the culture of the Victorian period by not altering the corpse or blatantly showing any deep emotion towards the woman.
As the man encounters the dead woman, he does not take her hand or even pull back the shroud to reveal the speaker’s face, demonstrating that he is abiding by the ideals of Victorian society and acting in ways that would not reveal any acts of affection and love towards the speaker. By not outwardly displaying his feelings towards the woman and refraining from puling back the shroud, the man is shielding her from the cruel judgment of society. Yet despite his composure appearing to be put together, the speaker notices him turn away, she “knew he wept” exposing the case that men do have emotions, but the culture is causing them to hide from them and is inhibiting them from living life fully.
As the poem continues to the last three lines, the speaker concludes with, “He did not love me living; but once dead/He pitied me.” By saying he did not love her living, Rossetti proposes two meanings: that he did not love her when he had the chance, when she was alive, and also that he did not love her whole-heartedly—both showing the effects that the Victorian culture had on people during the time. Instead of enjoying the time while the speaker was alive, and embracing his feelings of love and affection, the male had to abide by the rules of society and repress his emotions to satisfy the society’s ideal male appearance of a strong, emotionless man. But Rossetti demonstrates that gender does not need to be black or white regarding the actions of each; women are not innocent and weak as Victorian culture typically presented them to be. Instead, Rossetti presents women to be strong and intelligent.
By demonstrating how the dead woman can understand and interpret the actions of the male, even though she is not living anymore, gives a sense of intellect for the woman. Rossetti also demonstrates intellect by showing how women can process different emotions through the last phrase of the poem: “very sweet it is/To know he still is warm tho’ I am cold.” This phrase demonstrates a sense of the speaker being passive aggressive towards the male character—showing that she is not blind to his actions, and that she too has intelligence. In a passive aggressive sense, the speaker is saying that the male is still alive and is able to find love, but because of the Victorian culture, she is left cold, dead, and with no love.
Throughout the poem, Rossetti also uses the two characters to describe the different roles and views during the Victorian era. She uses the male to demonstrate how even though he is supposed to appear to be strong and dominant by Victorian society, he reveals the irony in it because he is submissive to the unwritten rules of the Victorian culture. On the other hand, the woman is used to describe how women are trying to rebel against the social norms cast upon them by society, by showing the woman to lifeless in Victorian culture, but at the same time, still able to witness what is occurring. By contrasting the two, Rossetti allows the inner feelings of women to be displayed because the dead woman does not have to hide her true self from the living Victorian society, not that she is no longer a part of the living world.
At the end of the poem, Rossetti leaves the Victorian society with a warning that if the culture is not altered, people will be left cold, lifeless and loveless. Just as the man did not realize the feelings that he had towards the woman until she was dead and gone, Rossetti is saying that people do not appreciate what they have until they have lost it, and because nothing lasts forever, people should take advantage of what they have while they have it.
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