Friday, April 20, 2012

Gothic Angels: The Dead, Good Girl in Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover” and Alice Cooper’s “Cold Ethyl”

With so many representations of the femme fatale in art, music and literature, a man might consider himself duly warned against the seductive charms of the destructive woman, but being forewarned is no assurance that a man will entirely escape the shame and suffering of betrayal from the one he loves. How does a man make sure that his girl will stay true? Sometimes the sweetest face can disguise a devil’s lying tongue, and the girl who seems loyal might actually be treacherous when the man is not around. In “Porphyria’s Lover” and “Cold Ethyl,” Robert Browning and Alice Cooper offer one solution to this problem that, although grotesque, is remarkably effective. Both the poem and the song feature men who can rest assured that their lovers will always be good girls because they are dead. While macabre in their approach to the problem of women’s fidelity, Browning’s poem and Cooper’s song demonstrate the lengths to which men are willing to go in order to avoid betrayal by a potential femme fatale and ensure the permanent loyalty and “love” of a gothic version of the domestic angel.

In “Porphyria’s Lover,” the lover of the title is frustrated by his relationship because of his inability to control the girl he loves. Porphyria is unwilling to commit, and she prefers to remain beyond the lover’s control and inside her own world of wealth and society. While not exactly a femme fatale on the same level as Keats’ belle dame sans merci, the lover sees Porphyria as a woman who is veering dangerously close to being more whore than virgin because her materialism and vanity take precedence over her emotional attachment to him. The lover summarizes this problem with Porphyria very succinctly; he describes her as
Too weak, for all her heart's endeavour, 
To set its struggling passion free    
From pride, and vainer ties dissever,    
And give herself to me for ever. (22-25)
Angels should care more for love than money, but Porphyria either cannot or will not fit the mold into which her lover wishes to cast her. The lover’s solution to this problem is to render Porphyria completely passive by strangling her with her own hair. Now she can no longer resist the angel role or the lover’s complete control over her; she will remain “perfectly pure and good” forever (37). The fact that she is dead does not cloud the lover’s joy at her newfound perfection; he insists that she is happier this way and that their macabre union has the de facto blessing of God since He “has not said a word” in condemnation of the lover’s actions (60). The lover ends the poem locked in a morbid embrace with his perfect, blonde, angel corpse; the reader, who can imagine the inevitable decay of Porphyria’s remains, recoils in horror, but the lover is satisfied because his conflict was with Porphyria’s will, and that troublesome part of her has been utterly erased by her death.

In the song, “Cold Ethyl,” Alice Cooper provides a logical continuation of Browning’s theme by depicting a man whose perfect girlfriend is also a corpse, although Cooper’s song takes the macabre situation to the next level by highlighting the sexual nature of the speaker’s relationship with the dead body. The speaker blatantly talks about having sex with the deceased woman:
One thing,
No lie,
Ethyl's frigid as an Eskimo pie.
She's cool in bed,
Well, she oughta be 'cuz Ethyl's dead! (Cooper)
The humorous undercurrent that characterizes Cooper’s most lurid songs is obvious in the pun about Ethyl being “frigid,” a term that describes both anything refrigerated or cold and a woman with no sexual passion. The speaker never tells us where he got this corpse, and we do not know if he, like Porphyria’s lover, is a murderer as well as a necrophiliac, but Cooper’s speaker is far more practical about his dead angel because he preserves her by keeping her in a refrigerator. Porphyria’s delusional lover never thinks much about the natural decay of corpses, but Cooper’s speaker clearly understands that his permanently perfect lover will only stay desirable if he keeps her on ice. Like Porphyria’s lover, however, Ethyl’s necrophiliac boyfriend sees a corpse woman as the perfect mate because she is completely passive and permanently available to him. The speaker brags that “everything is my way / Ethyl don’t have much to say.” Like Porphyria’s lover, he has total control in the relationship. The speaker ends the song with the following declaration:
If I live 'til ninety-seven
You'll still be waiting in refrigerator heaven
'cuz you're cool,
You're on ice,
Cold Ethyl,
You're my paradise.
The dead Ethyl makes an ideal lover because she is never going to leave the speaker or betray him by having wishes contrary to his own; her passivity and reliability make her the speaker’s “paradise,” a perfect angel woman who will never break the speaker’s heart. Like Porphyria’s lover, Cooper’s speaker has taken the idea of the angel woman to an extreme that seems horrific, if also grimly comical, to the audience, but he himself seems very well satisfied with the situation.

Both “Porphyria’s Lover” and “Cold Ethyl” rely upon a certain amount of shock value in their appeals to their audiences; necrophilia is a topic bound to give people the willies, either pleasurable or otherwise. Still, both the poem and the song explore the territory of the virgin/whore dichotomy in an interesting way because they show the extreme end of masculine desire to avoid the dominating power of the femme fatale and ensure the sexual and emotional fidelity of the adored angel. The men in both texts want so much control and power over the women in their lives that they find only corpses are passive enough to be satisfactory. Ironically, their frozen gothic angels are the only women who can live up to the expectations of these grotesque and greedy lovers.

NB: All rights reserved by the author. This essay may not be copied, reprinted, or reused without express permission from the author. 

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