Emily Dickinson: Unconventional Woman

Unconventional images in the poetry of Emily Dickinson cover numerous themes. Dickinson constructs unusual and often provocative metaphors for God, religion, sexuality, and death. She condenses many thoughts and possibilities into her poems which make them interesting to discuss and dissect. In order to fully appreciate her ideas about the roles of women in her time it is important to understand how she approaches any subject of interest. Dickinson allows the reader to interpret a poem’s meaning due to the complexity of the metaphors and language she uses.

The main concentration of this post is Dickinson’s poem “She rose to His Requirement—dropt.” It is possible to analyze her personal internal stance on the position of women in society by deconstructing her tightly woven metaphor about a woman who seemingly sacrifices herself for her marriage. I will also examine passages from “The Soul selects her own Society,” and “Wild Nights—Wild Nights.” By closely analyzing Dickinson’s poetry I will discuss how she rejects traditional gender identities and conservative societal views on sexual desire.

The tone of Dickinson‘s “She rose to His Requirement—dropt” is satirical in the way that it trivializes “The Playthings of Her Life” which to a woman like Dickinson are not lightly set aside. These “playthings” are the woman’s dreams, aspirations, talents and imagination. She is no longer allowed to be defined by these childish ideas, rather she is forced into servitude by the chains of marriage and motherhood. These chains hold her dreams and desires “unmentioned—as the Sea / Develope Pearl, and Weed.” These chains are the traditional and expected gender roles that are required in a patriarchal society.

The opening line of the poem contains language that subtly describes a lowering of her status with the words “rose” and “dropt” with the emphasis on the abrupt dropt. The use of the word “rose” could also be a twist on the convention of likening women to roses and flowers in general.

Dickinson does not out rightly challenge established gender roles but rather uses sarcasm when she says the woman sacrifices her desires “To take the honorable Work / Of Woman, and of Wife.” On the surface Dickinson seems like she could be endorsing the traditional standpoint of marriage but gradually throughout the poem she provides readers with significant evidence that she is actually opposing that very institution.

The image in the poem becomes all we are left with at the end. The woman’s virtues are compared to pearls and weeds at the bottom of the sea. This is significant when the next lines are considered: “But only to Himself—be known / The Fathoms they abide.” This statement could mean that her husband knows what is contained by her silence, but the meaning Dickinson more likely wanted readers to deduce was that the woman might not realize her own potential. The sea represents the woman’s silence that is instilled due to the pressure of an overarching masculine authority. Dickinson indicates how powerful and veiling the sea can be. It is because of this that one knows how deeply the woman’s desires have been suppressed or if  they might emerge. This idea is significant because it represents the code of silence that women take on. Wives and mothers are expected to sacrifice their physical, mental, and emotional freedom in order to care for their families.

A woman’s sense of duty can be so strong that she might lose her personal identity. It is detrimental to a woman’s identity when she is merely seen as the title she is given by society. She is no longer seen as an intellectual, or even an individual, she is most likely not considered to be a member of her occupation, and that depends on whether she was able to work outside the home at all. Women are seen as the caregivers of the family, forced to abandon their personal goals in order to be successful wives and mothers. The woman in the poem is almost paralyzed by this enforced identity. She is forbidden to vocalize her sacrifice and incapable of reacquiring the “Playthings of Her Life” for they are held underwater, perhaps unknowingly and unable to resurface.

Dickinson presents readers with a different kind of woman in “The Soul selects her own Society.” In this poem we witness a woman who is very selective of her company so much so that she has been known to choose a single person “from an ample nation…Then close the Valves of her attention.” The woman in this poem is substantially different than the first woman I presented. This could be a case of Dickinson’s contradictory nature or the discrepancy may have occurred due to the different class status of the subjects.

Social class has a tremendous affect upon the life choices a person has available to them especially during the time Dickinson lived. This poem could  be more metaphorical than literal in which case the grandiose imagery is representative of how a man gets a woman’s attention. This specific woman might be unimpressed with traditional methods of courtship, she may be very selective of those she is willing to get close to. This image embodies the way women were expected to conduct themselves. They were not allowed to give into their sexual urges or peruse a man they were interested in. Women were supposed to be prim and proper and always act like a lady. Dickinson tells us her feelings toward this type of woman when she compares her to a rock at the end of the poem. Since women are usually associated with fluidity it is interesting that Dickinson presents this woman as something so firm and unmovable as a rock.

If the same poem is read in a slightly different way it becomes a more of a positive view of the woman. She is not at the mercy of her emotions (the fluidity) but rather is steadfast (like the rock) in her convictions. She is not moved by grand gestures and she can decide who she associates with and controls how she is viewed by others. This interpretation yields the embodiment of an autonomous woman. While Dickinson might favor this type of woman over the woman who had lost everything due to her submission to her husband, the tone of “The Soul selects her own Society” makes me question whether or not Dickinson is happy with this sort of compromise. On one hand she has the wife who is lost in her womanly duties and socially imposed identity who therefore remains out of touch with her emotions, and on the other hand she has a strong woman who is forced to lead a lonely, largely unemotional life that is still socially restrictive.

In a starkly different atmosphere Dickinson writes about a woman’s desires, possibly her own desires in, “Wild Nights—Wild Nights.” In this poem Dickinson examines the longing of a lover who is a “Heart in port.” She is not talking about lovers that are together and are currently having these “wild nights” she is describing two people who are far away from one another, she says that “Wild Nights should be / Our luxury” not that they are a luxury. This poem has many interpretations but if it is examined within the context of gender roles and sexuality the poem reads as a statement about the lack of freedom women have in expressing desires. The narrator is “Done with the Compass— Done with the Chart” the compass symbolizes the inherent gender differences that she has been forced to accept, so much so that they become her guide for the way she is expected to respond and compose herself. Gender differences are the result of social influences but they seem almost biological because gender identification influences every aspect of a person’s life from an early age.

The chart that Dickinson’s narrator tells us she is done with represents the code of conduct women are forced to submit to, these are the “rules” of gender. There is an allusion to the punishment of a woman who submits to desire in the line “Rowing in Eden.” Dickinson is referring to the garden of Eden where first sin occurred and a woman was first punished for her longing and desire. It is also significant that it was the first time women were placed in a status below men. This poem offers women a course of action, and suggests that if they abandon their socially accepted behaviors and allow things to occur more naturally they may experience the pleasure that personal freedom can offer. Dickinson does not suggest that she would do this, it is almost as if she is imagining what it could be like if she was not restricted by social norms.

While these poems illustrate a comparison between distinctly different types of women they also rely upon some stereotypes. These poems are very densely packed with sarcasm and wit, it takes a reader who is willing to put some time into decoding their underlying messages. As texts that serve as a platform for change they are ineffective due to their lack of publication and exposure at the time they were written. Dickinson is often described as being ahead of her time, and I think that the life she lived served a greater example to women of her time. Dickinson uses these women to give readers a sense of what a woman should not be, she pokes fun at the rigidity of gender boundaries and offers herself as an example of a more liberated woman.

Since Dickinson never took on the role of wife and mother it makes me wonder if the poems, “The Soul selects her own Society,” and “Wild Nights—Wild Nights” are about her personally. One describes a woman who is very selective of her company and is a mystery to most, and the other poem describes a woman who is longing to be able to express her desires openly.

Emily Dickinson presents her ideas about womanhood in a subtle way; not forcing anyone to change their minds but rather offers her opinions and commentary on her own environment. Her poems have become a resource to women of subsequent generations. She stands out because she did not just talk about being independent and unconventional, she lived according to what she believed a woman could be.

I wrote this essay when I was attending college. Here is another short assignment I wrote about Emily Dickinson and her perception of madness.

5 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson: Unconventional Woman

  1. Pingback: 5 years and 15,000 views (numbers aren’t everything but they make the news!) | blastedgoat

  2. I almost never leave a response, but i did
    some searching and wound up here Emily Dickinson: Unconventional Woman | blastedgoat.
    And I do have a couple of questions for you if you don’t mind. Could it be only me or does it seem like a few of these responses come across as if they are written by brain dead people? :-P And, if you are posting on additional online social sites, I’d like to follow anything new you have to post.

    Could you make a list of every one of all your social pages like your linkedin profile,
    Facebook page or twitter feed?


  3. Pingback: Emily Dickinson, Master of Madness « blastedgoat

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