by Anna Clark, M.A. Student in History and Armstrong Browning Library Graduate Research Assistant
This fall, the Armstrong Browning Library & Museum is hosting “Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in ‘Fifine at the Fair,'” an exhibition exploring the topics of sexual desire, social class, and the male objectification of women in Robert Browning’s 1872 poem “Fifine at the Fair.” This exhibit was curated by Katrina Gallegos, a Master’s student of Museum Studies at Baylor University. Gallegos’ exhibit is on display in honor of the poem’s 150th anniversary from August 17, 2022 – February 15, 2023.
Examining Browning’s Characters Through the Lens of Symbology
Gallegos is a graduate student at Baylor University pursuing her Master’s degree in Museum Studies. Employing her interest in symbology, Gallegos’ exhibit explores Greco-Roman symbols she uncovered through her analysis of Browning’s poem and how these symbols connect to the topics of sexuality, desire, and male objectification of women in the late 19th century.
Particularly, Gallegos explains the symbols Robert Browning employs to describe the three central characters of the poem: Don Juan, Don Juan’s staid wife Donna Elvire, and Fifine, the exotic gypsy woman who is the object of Don Juan’s sexual desire.
Gallegos explains Browning’s usage of Don Juan, a fictional folk figure throughout European literature whose reputation is synonymous with being a womanizer. From the first introduction of Don Juan in the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina’s play The Trickster and and the Stone Guest, the Casanova character of Don Juan lives in the public imagination as a man who enjoys the thrill of seduction and conquest of women regardless of socioeconomic class and marital status.
In “Fifine at the Fair,” Don Juan is portrayed by Browning as a Victorian gentleman of education and rank. He is married to Donna Elvire, his wife of many years, and the two are first depicted as having a loving relationship. However, Gallegos points out that this marriage is not as happy as it appears. Despite his respect for Donna Elvire’s virtues, Don Juan has the roving gaze of his namesake and unjustly compares his loyal wife to a gypsy woman he sees at the fair named Fifine.
Gallegos describes how Don Juan attempts to justify his sexual objectification of both his wife and the gypsy through reference to Greek and Roman myths.
A satirical cartoon depicting a man’s sexual fantasies
The symbols used to describe Don Juan’s wife Donna Elvire are, as Gallegos points out, nautical. In the poem, Don Juan compares his wife to a “calm sea” and a “sturdy ship.” Gallegos connects these nautical metaphors to Greco-Roman mythology in which women were often associated with the sea. The mythological characters of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty who rose from the sea at birth, and the sirens, female mermaids who led sailors to their death by their enticing songs, are important symbols in the poem.
A woman in Victorian dress
It is of note that Donna Elvire is compared to a calm sea and a sturdy ship, not to the beautiful Venus or the enchanting sirens of myth. Instead, Gallegos argues that Donna Elvire is a passive character, who is along for the ride like a ship at a calm sea and steady wind. She is silent throughout most of the poem, overtaken by the dominating personality of Don Juan and his monologues on idealized female beauty.
Whereas Donna Elvire is plain and respectable, Fifine is depicted through Don Juan’s male gaze as alluring and seductive. Gallegos notes the comparisons to various femme fatales throughout Greco-Roman mythology: Helen of Troy, the goddess Venus, and Cleopatra. Fifine is described with a “Greek-nymph nose,” “Hebrew eyes,” “spangled hips,” and “wiry hair,” which all add to her exotic appeal.
In the poem, Don Juan peers upon Fifine as she is changing and refuses to avert his gaze. Instead of acknowledging his wrongdoing, Don Juan blames Fifine’s attractive appearance for his lustful eye and thoughts. Gallegos explains how Don Juan attempts to use his comparisons to Greco-Roman mythological symbols to justify his betrayal of his wife and objectification of a young gypsy girl; like the Helen and Cleopatra figures of old, Fifine’s irresistible beauty has left Don Juan at the whim of his passions.
Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty
Gallegos asks her audience to reflect on the issues of the phenomena of the male gaze and the objectification of women through her study of Browning’s characters. These topics of lust, sexuality, and objectification are especially interesting in the context of Robert Browning’s Victorian England of 1872.
Come and celebrate the 150th anniversary of Browning’s complex poem “Fifine at the Fair” through the research of Katrina Gallegos. The exhibit will be on display in the Armstrong Browning Library and Museum’s Hankamer Treasure Room through February 15, 2023.
Read more in this series of blog posts about the exhibit “Mythic Women: Archetypal Symbology in ‘Fifine at the Fair'”: