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Condition of women in Victorian society as seen in Robert Browning’s The laboratory

Robert Browning, known as a Victorian poet, was renowned for his dramatic monologues, with The Laboratory being a notable illustration. This poem is inspired by a real event in seventeenth-century France, in which a woman, poisoned multiple relatives. 

The Laboratory depicts a psychopathic female who presents a disturbing examination of the idea of insanity. The poem explores the theme of insanity and the depths of human evil. The protagonist, a troubled woman, intends to poison her love rivals. She is feeling betrayed by her significant other. The poem illustrates not only the wrath of a betrayed woman, but also the few choices available to her in a male-dominated society. The lady is shocked that her partner has abandoned her for another woman. While planning her revenge, the woman’s focus is on her enemy and it highlights how in Victorian society, women are only valued for their sexuality, leading to their dehumanization and creating division among them. 

In a society that discriminates against women, their only source of power is their sexual appeal to men. When the speaker visits the apothecary for poison to use against her rival, she compensates him not only with her jewelry but also with her body by offering him a kiss on her lips, utilizing her physical beauty as payment and enticement simultaneously. This scenario also causes women to be pitted against one another. Angry that her lover has left her for another woman, the lady suppresses her feelings and does not display any hostility towards him. She comes to the conclusion that women’s beauty surpasses hers, making her feel like a minion compared to her graceful and full-figured enemy. She attributes her lover’s betrayal to the disparity in their physical appearances. As a result, she requests a poison that would destroy her looks while causing her death. The woman also imagines how simple it would be to poison Pauline and Elise, her fellow court members, who have not wronged her other than having more attractive physical traits. Women find it easier to compete with other women based on looks rather than with men who have authority and control. 

While this poem at first might seem to be a mere cautionary tale about the danger of jealousy, it is also a reflection on the sexist Victorian world.

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