Donne’s Inconstant Indifference

The narrator of John Donne’s “The Indifferent” polarizes women as being from the “country” or from the “town” with many variations across the spectrum to show how he loves a range of women (l. 4). The final qualifier of the first stanza is “I can love any, so she be not true” (l. 9). While these women are different, the one trait they have in common is their infidelity. Though the narrator describes the women as varying in physical characteristics, sociability, and emotions, they are the same kind of woman in their unfaithfulness.

With his first question, the narrator suggests that practicing vices are what make these women happy. With that invocation other “mothers,” the narrator suggests the women do it out of rebellion against the old standard of relationships (l. 11). The narrator’s fourth question implies that the women would feel guilty if men were true and they were not. The narrator shifts the blame onto the women that if they were faithful, men would be faithful, too, which mimics a child’s logic of “she started it.” The narrator does not seem to care if the women take his money, though a fear in today’s divorces is the settlement of assets, so long as he is free to love whoever he pleases. Donne does an interesting flip from the middle of the second stanza, line 14, of men and women being the same in their actions, to the end of the second stanza, where the narrator does not want to become faithful because the woman is being faithful to him. Donne’s use of “grow” is notable in that in context it means the narrator becomes the woman’s lover. There is also literal growth, such as a child grows taller a physical change, and so “growth” has a connotation of change, yet the action is that the narrator would stay constantly the woman’s lover (l. 18). Further “subject” has an implication of agency over that of an object, yet the phrasing of “Must I” insinuates that the narrator does not have a choice (l. 17).

For love, the women’s vice of inconstancy is the “sweetest part” (l. 20). It is appropriate for Donne to invoke a supporter of infidelity Venus, the Roman goddess of love, who has had many affairs. In lines 24-25, those who are faithful lovers are Venus’ enemies. The last four lines are spoken by Venus. Since Venus’ words are not offset with quotation marks, it can be taken that the narrator agrees with her. The narrator and Venus, who are both unfaithful, are upset by those who are constant because they show that it is possible to be faithful and they diminish the pool of possible lovers. The last two lines are Venus’ curse upon the faithful, that they will be faithful only to those who are unfaithful. Thus, the faithful are spited and there are plenty of lovers to go around because there are still unfaithful people.

This concern of having different lovers is both an interest in change and a need to remove guilt. First, a variety of lovers provides a drama typical of grade school that continues through adulthood over who is going out with who and who is cheating on who. This drama is not only a source of entertainment as seen in countless TV shows (such as “How I Met Your Mother,” “Big Bang Theory,” etc.), but a source of learning and social interaction. Who a person associates with can be an indication of character and values. People can also learn about a person’s personality by observing the person’s behavior in social settings. How they act under pressure, what they do when they discover they’re being cheated on, and so on. A person’s use of masks and personas can complicate these observations. The narrator can love any woman because they are all inconstant. The narrator wants to maintain this infidelity because it means he can also be inconstant and be removed from any moral qualms. The narrator can then have relationships with a lot of women.

Who are “the indifferent” that the title speaks of? The indifferent are those who are inconstant because they do not care if their current lover is cheating or if he/she leaves them. The title then speaks to the dissatisfaction of those who are inconstant. Another way the need for change and variety could be fifth felt more satisfactorily is by doing different events and actions, rather than different lovers, which could then be shared with another person in a constant, deep relationship.

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