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Why does the poem “My Last Duchess” become a source of conflict between Nell and Bill?

Why does the poem “My Last Duchess” become a source of conflict between Nell and Bill?

In the short story “My Last Duchess,” Margaret Atwood engages her plot with the dramatic monologue poem “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning. In the poem, the Duke’s character is not appealing to his audience as his jealousy over his ever-smiling Duchess leads to him killing her but opts to immortalize her by having her image on a portrait. However, in the story, Atwood intends to present the Duke from a different light through a high school girl’s perception and understanding of love and power. The poem “My Last Duchess” is assigned to the narrator’s class, and she takes special interest in it since literature is her source of consolation to the concerns she has about her position and values in society. Nell’s unpopular opinion that leads to her siding with the Duke and her views that the Duchess was a “dumb bunny” drives the wedge between her and her boyfriend, and this serves as the main source of conflict that ultimately causes a breakup. Her teacher, whom she vehemently admires, sparks this conflict by exposing Bill as a character whose interests do not match his girlfriends’.

The narrator’s main vulnerability as far as power and purpose is concerned are the primary elements that can be attributed to her position regarding Duke’s role in the poem. Duke is an egomaniac who believes that he has to wield his powers to his Duchess. He states that whenever he passed, he would get “Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands/ Then all smiles stopped together” (line 45-46). He believes that a move as simple as having to explain his dissatisfaction with her smile would be stooping too low for his stature. By the time that Miss Bessie assigns this poem to Nell, she is at a point where her life is somewhat confusing and struggling with identity as far as her purpose and values are in life. Being a lady as the Duchess, it would be typically expected that Nell would exhibit negative feelings against the text. On the contrary, she draws her inspiration from the Duke dreaming that she would be able to exhibit his characteristics. In school, the narrator states that “there were girls at school who smiled at everyone in the same earnest, humorless way” (Atwood, 66), and to her, this was a character that undermined an individual’s worth, reflecting the character of Duke who states that the Duchess had a heart that “Too easily impressed” (line 23). Like the Duke, the speaker is dejected by what can be seen as the mindlessness of her boyfriend, leading to the conflicts in her attempt to change his mind and attitude towards the poem and literature in general.

The flaws of Bill are exposed by Miss Bessie, who sarcastically castigates him for his lack of comprehension of the poem. The ambiguity of the poem is reflected in the inability of Bill to respond to a question regarding the storyline development. This is the main event that sets major events in the story on course leading to the breakup between Nell and her boyfriend. When Miss Bessie sardonically calls Bill an “attentive reader” (p. 62) for failing to address a question appropriately, Nell makes it her duty to help him understand the poem because she apparently feels ashamed for him. Most importantly, she gathers that her boyfriend may not be sharing her interests and desires as much as she would want him to because she has developed a passion for the poem. This is akin to the division that is clear between Duke and Duchess in the poem and thus serves as the initiation of conflicts between Nell and Bill. Nell feels that “As a boyfriend, Bill wasn’t following could not follow the standard cycle” (p. 61), and while envisioning herself in the nature of Duke, she feels like Bill undermines her authority. To her, Bill comes off as an individual that would never comprehend complexity because, as the Duchess, he is simple-minded. Nonetheless, Bill has the audacity to call Nell “a brainer and a show-off” (p. 72), and this gives her the feeling that just like her parents, her boyfriend does not understand her leading to a breakup.


The story “My Last Duchess” is marred by conflicts that primarily emanate from Margaret Atwood’s unconventional approach. She assigns the narrator, a young high school girl, the attitude of an egocentric Duke that kills his Duchess because he feels that she is too submissive, as reflected in her unending smiles. On the other hand, Bill’s character is reminiscent of the Duchess as he presents himself as too obliging. This approach is a recipe for conflicts between the two lovers, and it is the teacher, Miss Bessie, whom Nell admires too much that sparks the conflict. In the story and the poem, the author and the poet present the psychology of individuals regarding their motivation as it pertains to worth, relationships, and power. Therefore, the conflicts between Nell and her boyfriend can be generally seen as a power struggle.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. “My Last Duchess.” Moral Disorder. Virago Press, 2007. pp. 57-86.

Browning, Robert. “My Last Duchess.” Ed. Kelly Mays. The Norton Introduction to Literature, Shorter Thirteenth Edition. Norton, 2019. pp. 1132-1133.

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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