Questioning the 'Man' and Society's Confinement of Women in Emily Dickinson's Work

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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 fraying away from difficult topics, such as death, sex, and marriage, she highlights a different aspect of life that sets her apart out 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. By doing this, does Dickinson not only call to action the role of women in everyday life, but the patriarchal construct we are living in today.

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.

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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).

Through stating that the Bible is “an antique written by faded Men”, it brings to light two major aspects of religion. One being that religion has been formed by men themselves, and the other being timely out of date. Noticing that the Bible was constructed by men themselves, it sets the construct that women have been constrained by their ties since the earliest written time. Dickinson notices the flaw in this with writing “not to be trusted”, as she sees how divine truths could have been manipulated for men to maintain a natural supremacy over women. In a book titled, Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience by George Smith he states that, The real question is, do not the same considerations apply to women in religious institutions? There are some religions today that believe that women should serve in the pulpit to the same extent as men; that the viewpoints of women are entitled to be heard; that their freedoms should be protected and encouraged; other religions deny this (53).

Smith explores the ideas similarly to Dickinson, but in a more modern sense. He realizes that while men do things, why can’t women do the same things in a religious context. Not only were Dickinson’s thoughts on topics such as this ahead of her time, but her analysis and response to them more helpful and impactful on feminism and people today. Feminists such as Dickinson often consider marriage and sex as the two vital spheres that manifest the subjugation and exploitation of woman by man. Radical feminists believe that a patriarchal husband enslaves woman to domesticity, dependency and motherhood and also deprives her of individuality, self definition, equal dignity and liberty. These major themes can be seen in Dickinson’s writing, where she often outlines marriage and the negative outcomes that can come from it. This can be seen in her poem, “Title divine, is mine” where she states,

Title divine, is mine.

The Wife without the Sign –

Betrothed, without the Swoon

God gives us Women –

Born – Bridalled – Shrouded –

'My Husband' – Women say - (1-6).

With this poem, Dickinson interlinks the aspects of death and marriage by stating “Born - Bridalled - Shrouded” and implying how marriage can overtake the women for a grimly “shrouded” end. She also implies with this writing the role of religion, and how that can play a role into women’s role in a relationship, turning them into the subservient caretaker of the man. In a book written by Philippa Levine titled, “So Few Prizes and So Many Blanks”: Marriage and Feminism in Later Nineteenth-Century England, it states that, “for women, marriage and its effects permeated every aspect of their daily existence and shifted the focus of their emotion and social contacts” (150). Levine comes to agree with Dickinson’s point of view about the controlling nature in which marriage can possess over an individual, feeling oppressive at times. This fact while true during Dickinson’s time period, has become ever more prevalent in today’s society as a greater wave of feminism has swept over the world. Women can now succeed on their own, without the subjugation of the male figure in their everyday life. This can all be drawn back to Dickinson and her work, setting a new notion and societal construct on women’s role.

Along with marriage, Dickinson often brings up the theme of sex within her writing as a sense of empowerment for women during the early nineteenth century. Women during the time were led to feel ashamed of their sexuality, condemned upon by the patriarchy they lived in. While her societal construct condemned this “taboo”, Dickinson found great gratification writing on it. In a poem titled, “Wild Nights - Wild Nights!”, Dickinson states,

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Were I with thee

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury! (1-4).

With the saying “Wild Nights - Wild Nights!” Dickinson connects this to sexual passions within the women herself, having it be a “luxury” of sorts. This repressed sexuality within the women alludes to a greater sense of sexual fulfillment women wanted during the time, but could not receive. In a book titled, What Ought To Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century, written by Carl Degler, it states that, “the nineteenth century was afraid of sex, particularly when it manifested itself within women. Women were taught not to enjoy sex, rather when young girls asked their mothers what they should do on their wedding night, the mother advised ‘Lie there and think of the Empire’” (1467). Sex was dominated by the patriarchy that ruled over them, setting the precedent that women should not only not enjoy sex, but do it “for the Empire”. While sex can be an uncomfortable, and touchy subject to speak on, Dickinson’s clear writing allows the message she is trying to convey on nineteenth century women sexual condemnation.

Another controversial topic Dickinson addresses within her writing has to do with the sense of male sexual violence and rape. In a society that is already dominated by a male majority, and ruled over by a patriarchy, the women tends to be a silent and secret sufferer. Hence, women during the time were subjugated to continual fear of psychological and physical abuse by men. In a poem written by Dickinson herself called, “I am Afraid to own a Body” she states that,

I am afraid to own a Body --

I am afraid to own a Soul --

Profound -- precarious Property --

Possession, not optional (1-4).

Through stating that she is “afraid to own body” and “afraid to own a soul” because of male exploitation of women for sexual acts is quite horrifying. While it is not brought upon frequently, many do not speak about such acts being done in an earlier time period. Through mentioning this did Dickinson not only call to action rape in modern day society, but female exploitation as a whole. In a law review done by Yale law student, Jane Larson, she states, This early and influential attempt to create a politics of sexuality has been little studied by historians of the nineteenth-century women's movement. Feminist efforts to defend girls against sexual injury remain vitally alive amongst feminists in our own times. Yet issues of sexual exploitation still exist (5).

Through exploring and understanding rape culture during Dickinson’s time, Larson is able to help readers understand the circumstances women were living in. Women were not allowed to speak out like today’s world, where famous movements such as “Me Too” have greatly impacted the societal rape culture. Movements such as these can be drawn all the way back to Dickinson, where she pioneered the first backlash on women subjugation by men, allowing for a greater equality to be achieved. The study of Emily Dickinson’s poems has revealed the woman poet not only as the representative woman’s voice of the nineteenth century but also as a formidable literary figure of the female literary tradition. Her poetry reflects a unique female creative voice that expresses woman’s issues with such ingenuity that has never been manifested earlier in women writers’ works before her times. Dickinson explores woman’s viewpoint in her poems questioning and challenging society’s cultural and religious definitions that repress woman. Thus, her poems exhibit the feminist strand before feminism and pave the way of the flowering of feminism in the literary works of great modern women writers. The feminist perspective explored in Dickinson’s poetry revolutionizes the conventional conception of women’s writing and revises patriarchal hierarchies.

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Questioning the ‘Man’ and Society’s Confinement of Women in Emily Dickinson’s Work. (2020, October 20). WritingBros. Retrieved July 14, 2024, from
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