Famous philosopher Foucault analyzed the social relationship that panopticon entails—a system with the “watcher” and the “watched”; the “observer” and the “observed”; the “powerful and the “powerless.” In P.K. Page’s 1943 poem “The Landlady”, the relationship between the tenants and the landlady can also be characterized by panopticism, where the landlady watches her tenants without interacting with them. The poem offers a close look at the psychology of such a social relation and uses extensive imagery through similes, a sympathetic tone and unique point of view, and included carefully selected details to portray the landlady—the observer of the relationship—as obnoxiously curious, obsessively controlling, yet inevitably lonely and insecure—creating spaces of imagination for the readers to sympathize with the seemingly repulsive character.
The poem delves deep into the mind—the id, ego, and superego of the landlady with the wield of compelling imagery that comes from various similes and metaphors throughout the poem. In the first stanza, the poet compares the boarders as “personal as trains,” which perfectly characterizes the indifference of the boarders and the emotional and personal distance between the landlady and the renters, which later helps explain the odd behaviors of the landlady. Again in the first stanza, Page describes the eyes of the landlady as a “camera”—using vivid language and imagery to capture the aggressive desire of the landlady to record and control—to ultimately satisfy her need of intimacy through peeking into other’s private spheres. Other similes like “pads on the patient landing like a pulse” and “like a lover” achieve a similar effect, all characterizing the landlady as obsessive and in desperate need of human connection. The oxymoron in the final stanza, where the landlady would “palm the dreadful riddle of their skulls”—creates a dauntingly terrifying image of the landlady—which further exposes her unconscious desire of friendship, love, and connections—all expressed in a horrific manner. The verb “palm” contrasts with the object “skull” and reveals the perpetual contradiction of the character—something that the poem explores. The gothic last line resonates with the first stanza, corresponding with the cause and effect of the landlady’s loneliness. Therefore, the poem does not portray an obnoxious character but paints a colorful picture of someone that the readers can sympathize with.
Throughout the point, the third person omniscient point of view dissects into the mind of the landlady, using streams of consciousness, accompanied by a pitying tone, to appeal to the sympathy and empathy of the readers. Throughout the poem, the poet offers a close look at the inner thoughts of the landlady, using the fifth stanza to especially explore the thought process of her. Using verbs like “wonders”, “jumps”, “dreams”, “trembles” and “jaywalks”, Page brings the paranoia of the character to life. Choosing to include details of the dwellers’ private lives like “their cupboards”, “their private mail” and “the secrets of their drawers”, the poet juxtaposes the privacy of the tenants with the landlady’s transgressing the line between the public and the private, establishing a chill sense of creep as the photographs become “theirs and hers.” The selection of details and the diction in the poem support the narrator’s sympathetic tone that avoids demonizing the character as utterly evil and obsessive. From the psychoanalysis of the details in the poem, the audiences can come to understand the landlady as insecure, only using her power to satisfy her pathetic psychological needs.
Finally, the sounds of the words in the poem help support the complex portrayal of the landlady. The phrase “the craving silence swallowing her speech” entails the use of alliteration and uses the sound effects to delineate a scene of extreme loneliness and even despair—as the landlady swallows her speech and becomes incapable of building a connection with the people that she sees every day. Similarly, the repetition in the last stanza—“all, all, all”—establishes a sense of eternity that starkly contrasts the transient nature of the people—who “come and go” like “trains.” The repetition of the word “all” echoes the despair and extremity of the landlady—who witnesses the helpless change of the environment around her and fails to preserve stability and connections around her.
The various literary devices in the poem portrays a devastating setting and delved into the character that eventually dehumanized the landlady as a woman who turns her internal need for stability, comfort, and intimacy into obsessive behaviors that seek to control others to fulfills her unconscious needs in an environment where people are constantly changing and refuse to expose their intimate, personal, and vulnerable spheres to the landlady. Thanks to the literary elements, the landlady becomes not just a control freak but a character deserving of sympathy.