Victorian Literature Dramatic Monologue
by
Cornelia Pearsall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 October 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0094

Introduction

Although the dramatic monologue stands as a definitive Victorian poetic form, defining the genre is a vexed issue. The features that constitute a dramatic monologue are themselves under debate, as taxonomists have charted courses between definitions that are so broad as to include any number of single-speaker poems, or so narrow as to exclude well-known and widely accepted examples of the genre. Most would agree that, at a minimum, a dramatic monologue consists of a speaker who is indicated not to be the poet; an auditor, specified or implied; and a particularized situation or setting. But the status of the speech is under debate: Is what the speaker says gratuitous and unwittingly self-revealing, or is it purposeful, intentional, and self-aware? The status of the auditor is also in question, with some arguing that he or she plays a major role in the dramatic monologue, and others arguing that he or she is a negligible figure. The role of the reader has been a source of debate as well. An influential critical view holds that the reader feels torn between moral or ironized distance and sympathetic engagement with the poem’s speaker, a view now considered by some as overly dependent on the positing of a universalized and ahistorical “reader.” These debates in themselves point to the highly relational nature of Victorian dramatic monologues, which can call into question the nexus between the speaker and the auditor, the speaker and the reader, the auditor and the reader, and the poet and the speaker, auditor, or reader. The complex, even dizzying, range of interpretive options (and still other approaches are possible) may help account for the vitality of this genre in the Victorian period. Because this bibliography concentrates on the Victorian instantiation of the genre as a whole, it is organized along literary-historical, thematic, and theoretical lines, rather than by author.

General Overviews

The works listed below provide helpful introductions to the genre’s primary features and the debates surrounding them. Byron 2003 provides an indispensable starting point for approaching the genre by introducing key issues concerning the genre’s definition, history, and theoretical debates. Howe 1996 is less comprehensive but still helpful in addressing the genre’s relation to narrative. Everett 2006 provides an online bibliography via The Victorian Web. Sinfield 1977 probes the theoretical implications of the fictive or “feigning” aspects of the genre, and especially what the author sees as an ironic discrepancy between the speaker and the judgment of the poet and the reader. Pearsall 2000 and Slinn 2002 both approach dramatic monologues as kinds of speech acts, discussing a range of controversies and poems in more focused introductory essays.

  • Byron, Glennis. Dramatic Monologue. London: Routledge, 2003.

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    A comprehensive guide, beginning with a review of the debates concerning definition, paying consistent attention to the Victorians but spanning historically from the genre’s Romantic origins to its modernist and contemporary developments. Highly attentive to the gender dynamics of male and female poets and speakers, as well as cross-gendered monologues.

  • Everett, Glenn S. Discussions of Browning’s Dramatic Monologues: A Bibliography. In Victorian Web. 2006.

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    An abbreviated entry but a useful bibliography, adapted from Everett 1991, cited under Reader-Response. Critical works in the bibliography focus on Browning, but the theoretical texts cited have a broader range.

  • Howe, Elisabeth A. The Dramatic Monologue. New York: Twayne, 1996.

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    A solid overview, with a chapter that surveys the history and definitions of the genre, stressing its narrative elements, followed by chapters on the Victorians (with particular attention to Browning and Tennyson), the modernists, and 20th-century authors.

  • Pearsall, Cornelia D. J. “The Dramatic Monologue.” In The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry. Edited by Joseph Bristow, 67–88. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521641152E-mail Citation »

    Drawing from a range of poets and critics, Pearsall views dramatic monologues as performative, as seeking to represent or compel various social transformations. She argues that the words of speakers are efficacious, accomplishing various goals—some stated, some implicit.

  • Sinfield, Alan. Dramatic Monologue. London: Methuen, 1977.

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    Traces a broad history of the genre in English, with Browning as the most frequent test case. Develops the idea of the “feigning” nature of the dramatic monologue, which “pretends to be something other than what it is” (p. 25), because the first-person perspective is fictive.

  • Slinn, E. Warwick. “Dramatic Monologue.” In A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Edited by Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison, 80–98. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631222071.2002.00008.xE-mail Citation »

    Insightful summary of aspects of the history, cultural contexts, and critical approaches to the genre. Sketches out arguments and examples treated more substantially in Slinn 2003 (cited under Performativity and Politics).

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