Emily Dickinson’s War Against Puritan New England Gender Roles

Emily Dickinson’s War Against Puritan New England Gender Roles

Emily Dickinson has become one of the most studied poets throughout history. Her life and ideals have come as a mystery to readers, as she was a generally private person, making people’s interest in her widely popular. The myths behind Dickinson – including what she wore, her sexuality, why she never married, among many others – explain why she has been so engaging to many literature enthusiasts. Emily Dickinson wrote on many topics including gender roles and how woman’s power is connected to marriage. In Dickinson’s poems 199, 461, and 754, she builds on gender norms by critiquing the role of wife and the reliance on her husband. She critiques these norms in her writing through her premises of the cult of womanhood, comparing girl to woman, and lastly connecting them with the idea that woman only has power from man.

Dickinson writes about the cult of womanhood in poem 461, “A wife – at daybreak I shall be -,” with the distinction of wife being woman while being single does not mean being woman, but being an immature girl. In order to describe the idea of becoming married as a Sunrise, she writes, “Sunrise – Hast thou a Flag for me” (Dickinson, Poem 461). The imagery in the sunrise being a fresh start to a good day shows the good life ahead as wife after having gotten married. Within this first stanza she describes the good life that she has been told comes with being a married woman, while in the second stanza, Dickinson describes the struggle she has with the idea of achieving womanhood. Showing the narrator’s hesitation with something that she has known all her life, Dickinson writes, “I fumble at my Childhood’s prayer” (Dickinson, Poem 461). She has said her childhood prayer every day for years but seems to hesitate and fumble when marriage is in her near future. The distress that she is facing the night before her wedding shows that being married is not every girl’s dream and it doesn’t need to be a norm. She then writes, “Eternity, I’m coming,” showing the dreaded married life that Dickinson worried about. The word choice of “eternity” is compelling because it allows the reader to understand the full capacity of womanhood. Girl can only be woman when she is married, and married life feels like “eternity,” meaning forever, in Dickinson’s eyes. Betsy Erkkila’s article “Emily Dickinson On Her Own Terms” describes Dickinson’s life including her family, childhood, and where she grew up in Massachusetts. While discussing Emily Dickinson’s thoughts on marriage, Erkkila writes, “As Dickinson began during the 1850s to develop her poetic resources, she came to look upon marriage as a potential threat to her art” (Erkkila, Page 106). This eternity of marriage would destroy Dickinson’s freedom of creating art within her poetry, explaining why she never married during her life. Dickinson explains the cult of womanhood through the stories told of marriage being like a sunrise, but she sees marriage as an eternal loss of freedom. The cult of womanhood can only be achieved through marriage, changing someone from a girl to a woman, within one step having her life changed forever.

In poem 199, “I’m ‘wife’ – I’ve finished that -,” Dickinson writes about girl versus woman, expanding on her ideas of the cult of womanhood. Unmarried females are considered girls while married females are women, who claim their societal role in the cult of womanhood. Writing on these two states of being for a woman – married and unmarried – show Dickinson’s critique of the married state of emotion. When demonstrating the superiority of a married woman over the inferior girl, Dickinson writes, “I’m Czar – I’m ‘Woman’ now -”(Dickinson, Poem 199). The imagery of the word “Czar” shows power and superiority, so when Dickinson uses “Czar” as a metaphor from “woman,” she is arguing the superiority of being married. With these two states of being for a woman, Dickinson can show the battle that she has between the power of woman because she would be considered an unmarried girl, yet she wants the power of a woman. In the same poem, Dickinson writes, “I think the Earth feels so, To folks in Heaven,” writing from the point of view of a woman (Dickinson, Poem 199). She compares woman looking down at girl to being like someone in heaven looking down upon Earth. This comparison, like the metaphor of “Czar,” demonstrates the superiority of the married woman compared to the unmarried girl who has no power. In the last two lines of this poem, Dickinson writes, “But why compare?/ I’m ‘Wife’! Stop there,” which is Dickinson’s way of concluding that as “wife” she should not compare her new life as a woman to her old life as a girl with no power. Connecting back to Betsy Erkkila’s article on “Emily Dickinson on Her Own Terms,” Erkkila argues “that behind Dickinson’s unorthodox behavior and her strikingly original poetry was a shrewd strategy for survival, a means by which she gained at least partial freedom from the close restrictions of Puritan New England society” (Erkkila, Page 98). Marriage would restrict Emily Dickinson from writing poetry so she stays an unmarried girl in order to keep the freedom of being able to write poetry. The idea of girl versus woman, connecting to the cult of womanhood, is an idea that Emily Dickinson challenges because she believes that womanhood is not made from marriage and that being a girl is not an inferior status. She takes these two ideas and brings them together with poem 754, tying them together with the explanation that a woman’s power comes from the man to whom she is married.

Dickinson writes about a woman’s power coming from her husband, while being powerless without a man in poem 754, “My life had stood – a Loaded Gun -.” This adds to her previous explanation of girl versus woman and her ideas of the cult of womanhood. Using the metaphor of woman to a loaded gun, Dickinson writes, “My life had stood – a Loaded Gun -” (Dickinson, Poem 754). A loaded gun is completely useless without its owner who gives it power when pulling the trigger, just as a woman is powerless without a man to supply her power. In this same poem, Dickinson writes, “It is a Vesuvian face,” as she explains life as volcanic. A “Vesuvian face” is an allusion to Mount Vesuvius which erupted in Pompeii, so Dickinson is making the metaphor of the woman to a volcano waiting to erupt when something triggers an explosion within the volcano. Without man, the volcano is just a mountain with no power, but with man, the volcano has the power to wipe out a nation of people. At the end of poem 754, Dickinson writes, “For I have but the power to kill,/ Without – the power to die,” meaning that as a woman, if Dickinson can’t die then she can’t live a full life. This conclusion that woman cannot live a full life when married shows Dickinson challenging gender norms in Puritan New England. Within Betsy Erkkila’s article, she writes, “Dickinson was split between her sense of herself as an independent artist and the demands of domesticity, piety, and submissiveness expected of ‘true womanhood’” (Erkkila, 104). This split between independence versus true womanhood shows Dickinson challenging gender roles and the cult of true womanhood. She didn’t want to marry because she knew that she wouldn’t be able to write. Marriage may have meant power, but it did not mean freedom for Dickinson so she stayed independent to keep her ability to write poetry. Through her arguments of the power given by man, girl versus woman, and the cult of womanhood, Dickinson is able to challenge gender roles and keep writing poetry,

In conclusion, Emily Dickinson builds on gender norms by critiquing the role of wife and the reliance on her husband within poems 199, 461, and 754. She ultimately builds onto this argument through the development of womanhood, unmarried versus married female, and the power of the woman that is given by the man when married. With these ideas in order, she can explain Puritan New England gender roles while also keeping away from becoming part of this binary of the cult of womanhood. In Puritan society, it is told to girls that the only way to have power and to be respected was to get married and perform traditional wife duties. However, Dickinson was not in search of power, rather in search of a way out of this system, in order to stay free from the prison that is marriage. While these gender norms are different today, women are still seen as inferior when unmarried. Mothers become disappointed when their daughters don’t continue this traditional way of living; marrying a man and having children. When mothers today find out that their daughters are not going to marry, plan to marry another woman, or plan on getting married but not having children, it still seems as though the daughter won’t receive the same amount of respect. As one can see, the gender norms that Dickinson wrote about during her lifetime are not as different from today’s gender norms, as one might think.

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