John Donne: Poems

The Objectification of Women: Degrading or Empowering?

Edmund Spenser’s revolting description of Duessa being stripped in <i>The Faerie Queen</i> (Book I, Canto VIII, Stanzas 45-49) emotionally contrasts with John Donne’s glorifying description of his lover’s body in the poem “Elegy XIX: To His Mistress Going to Bed.” Both works use diction to augment an already present “male gaze,” subjectively constructing an objectified female identity. The “male gaze” causes the objectification of women, a form of alienation that degrades them and the power they hold over the “male gaze.” Nevertheless, by evaluating both the authors’ choice of diction and the characters’ choice of actions, the texts reveal that power is not despotic in these relationships; although the “male gaze” objectifies women, both Duessa and Donne’s lover play their own roles in their objectification, ironically resulting in their empowerment.

The ornamentation of women is a theme common to both works. Spenser’s Duessa strategically ornaments herself with beautiful objects to hide the falsehood that lies beneath. In contrast, Donne’s lover ornaments herself to hide her femininity, a positive quality. In both cases, women willingly ornament themselves, and through their own objectification, they empower...

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