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Emily Dickinson, an early 19th century American poet, can be regarded as the most influential, and frankly the most important poet to ever grace the American poetry landscape. Writing as a woman in an ever growing patriarchal society, Dickinson laid out the framework for many young women to express their words, feelings, and thoughts in a brand new discourse unbeknownst before. Never shying away from difficult topics, such as death or dreariness in her everyday life, she highlights a different aspect of life that sets her apart from most poets. While she lived an introverted and isolated life which affected her poems and writing style, her works as well ruptured the boundaries between women’s and men’s traditional writing style. Along with this, she also mixed up her individuality with her traditional self which gives her poems a certain uniqueness. With Dickinson’s connection to her daily life into the poems she writes and feminist writing style, she allows the reader to interpret the emotions she’s feeling at the time, and to find a deeper meaning with her use of poetic devices, specific word choices, and eloquent writing style.
In a time where women were held to the confinements of the general male belief that women should stay home, and tend to the man, many women sought to break away. Dickinson broke these social conventions with her unique poetry and writing, speaking out on the women’s role and feminist aspects. In a critical essay written by Shira Wolosky titled, “Public and Private in Dickinson’s war poetry,” she states that, “Dickinson’s modesty, even while it conforms in many aspects with expected and prescribed female behavior, does so with such extremity as to expose and radicalize gender norms” (170). This can be seen in a multitude of Dickinson’s works, such as
“We outgrow love like other things”. In this poem, Dickinson writes,
We outgrow love like other things
And put it in the drawer,
Till it an antique fashion shows
Like costumes grandsires wore (1-4).
Women were taught during this time to conceal all feelings they had, and to not express them in any means. This poem addressing this during the time was even a stretch, as it even concerned the topic when she outlined, “We outgrow love like other things / And put it in the drawer”. By challenging these beliefs, Dickinson calls to action standardized gender beliefs and the way in which people perceive them. With this statement it becomes clear to readers that Dickinson not only writes these poems for her own enjoyment, but for her own good, outlining her thoughts in a time in which they were confined by the greater man.
Another way in which Dickinson highlights controversial roles of women in society is when she highlights the stereotypical view of society about women and beauty: beauty is the only “truth” for women to please everyone. Dickinson expressed her thoughts on this when she said,
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth,–the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said (5-8).
Dickinson herself was very plain in real-life and did not imagine captivating women as a definition of beauty. Rather, she believed in the beauty that is the truth expressed in words, such as her own poetry. In a review done by Dedman School of Law called “Appearance as a Feminist Issue”, it outlines, “appearance should be a source of pleasure, not of shame. Individuals should be able to make decisions about whether to enhance their attractiveness without being judged politically incorrect or professionally unacceptable” (709). When Dickinson states that beauty and truth are one, it leaves it implied that her own beauty is comprised by her own thoughts on herself, not being shaped by the people around her. By pointing out that women themselves only have the power to define their own beauty, it questioned a greater belief that was always standardized by the dominant male discourse. The “man” defined women’s beauty during this time as a loyal companion tending to their needs, have it being at home, taking care of the kids, or doing chores for their well being. Instead, Dickinson questioned this belief, setting the notion that women were the only person to determine their “beauty”.
In some of Dickinson’s works, her messages are not always stated explicitly, but instead implied under a greater meaning. For example in a famous poem written by Dickinson herself titled, “Because I could not stop for Death”, she states,
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility – (1-8).
By stating the dominant male character in her writing as “He”, she sets the characterization between the male, and death itself. She goes further to state how “he knew no haste and I had put away my labor and leisure”, to further deepen the meaning of gender norms during the time, and how men have standardized women’s practices around themselves, “for His civility”. By not only incorporating the capitalized pronouns strengthen the dominant male figure, but the way in which she states it brings home the fact how women have tended to the man for too long, setting themselves back in the process. In a analysis done by Emily Rasch, looking at feminism within Dickinson’s writing, she found that, “…the general consensus is that death, in this case, is a symbol of marriage lasting for an eternity. From a feminist perspective, this would be an eternity of living in a world focused around the patriarchy” (230-231). Dickinson never let herself become under the “chains” that marriage entailed, as she never wanted to become confined by the man. She instead was fine with being a single women in a time where you needed a man to be successful, and “provide” for yourself. She outlined these thoughts setting the precedent that many young feminists believe today, in which you don’t need the man to be successful, but instead just yourself.
Another message in which Dickinson attempts to convey within her writing is highlighting the patriarchal dominance in which she lived in at the time. Women were dominated in most senses, from their social life to work life, they had no freedom to say what they believed. Dickinson often spoke out on this dominance, and in a poem called “They shut me up in Prose” she states,
“They shut me up in Prose–
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me “still”” (1-4).
By leaving “They” implicit, it allows the reader to connect that Dickinson is talking about the “man” or the patriarchal society. She states that they “shut” her up from when she was a little girl, putting her in the “closet”. Through stating this does Dickinson not only connect the social confinements that women lived in during the time, but also the mental confinements, by controlling their thoughts from young ages to their own beliefs. Dickinson not only wrote this piece as a sort of call to action against the dominant patriarchy, but also a form of rebellion, questioning their beliefs on a broader scale. This dominance can be researched even father into modern day as a study titled, “Patriarchy and Women’s Subordination: A Theoretical Analysis”, done by PhD Abeda Sultana states that, “patriarchal institutions and social relations are responsible for the inferior or secondary status of women. Patriarchal society gives absolute priority to men and to some extent limits women’s human rights also” (Sultana 5). Sultana recognizes that women have become a second class to men as a whole, even limiting women’s human rights. Not only did Dickinson warn of this two-hundred years prior, but she spoke out during a time in which was looked down upon. This fact alone speaks to the volume her poetry had, influencing feminist theory today, and beginning to bridge the gap between men’s and women’s rights.
With speaking out on on major societal gaps between men and women, Dickinson also highlighted the societal view on religion, and a call to reform on that as well. From an early age Dickinson rejected conventional faith, and disagreed with the Puritan beliefs that her society withheld. Exploring the key ideas in her religious poetry such as death, the Bible, and nature of God, she passionately protests against the misogynist values that religion withholds. She condemns the constricting feminine values of domesticity and submissiveness and also the denial of freedom to woman, which the orthodox religion upholds. This can be seen in one of her poems titled, “The Bible is antique Volume” where she states,
The Bible is an antique Volume–
Written by faded Men
At the suggestion of Holy Spectres
Not to be Trusted (1-4).
- “Public and Private in Dickinson’s war poetry,”
- Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Vol. 2. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1960. 45- 83. Print.
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