The name of Keats’s heroine, “Madeline,” derives from “Magdalen,” a name which recalls the biblical woman Mary Magdalene, a penitent prostitute who becomes a follower and advocate of Christ.
Given the religious associations of her name, some scholars link Madeline to religious purity. Critics who argue for Madeline as a symbol of religious (read: Christian) purity align her in the tradition of virginity, that is, in company with St. Agnes herself, as well as the Virgin Mary. In this vein, Katherine Garvin argues for the importance of the historical St. Agnes to Keats’s poem: “[She] was one of the earliest saints who claimed a mystical marriage as a reason for avoiding a human one…She established the precedent for a girl to choose her own destiny, and to follow the lead of her heart in seeking a spouse” (358).
Other critics—i.e., those who denounce Porphyro as a seducer and/or a rapist—read Madeline as the victim of sexual rape. See other hyperlinks
Yet a recent strain of critics has reversed the seducer/victim binary and read Madeline as the one who seduces Porphyro, the one who traps him as her husband. Mary Arseneau, for instance, quotes one of Keats’s letters that describes his lover Fanny Brawne; in so doing, Arsenau suggests that Madeline (like Fanny Brawne) “has the power to ‘absorb,’ ‘uncrystallize and dissolve’ her male admirer” (qtd. in Arseanu 234).
In short, like the critical response to Porphyro, the ones to Madeline are equally varied. Or in Susan J. Wolfson’s words, “[Madeline] appears variously as an innocent dreamer, an object of devotion, a subject of soft ridicule, and a target for appropriative designs, opportunistic manipulation, and, some have argued, calculated betrayal” (83).
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