In Her Head: Psychological Criticism and Dickinson

Photo of Emily Dickinson

A photo of Emily Dickinson taken in 1848.


Psychological Analysis, in its simplest form, is the dissection of an author’s works and theuse of these parts to understand their subconscious (Or, sometimes, conscious) intentions. As subjects for psychological analysis go, Emily Dickinson is as good a candidate as any. For much of her fifty-six years of life the poet remained at home and out of the public life. She shared her works mostly through letters with friends and family and, for the most part, rarely communicated with others. The poet kept council with friends or those in her family and her talents as a poet weren’t appreciated during her lifetime.

Now, we don’t want to go too much into the writer’s life. This is a post about psychological criticism, after all, not biographical. But this pension for isolationism can’t be ignored in the analysis and, in a way, forms the main point of Dickinson’s life and subconscious drives. Many of Dickinson’s works focus on loneliness and inward reflection, a habit that can be described as a subconscious, or unintentional, drive towards expressing her own isolationism.

Now, to start, it’s wise to delve into the root of this isolationism in Dickinson. Using bibliographic evidence it is hard to say why Dickinson had such a deep-seated desire to remain at home. Even at a young age she preferred to remain around her family, evident when she left Mount Holyoke Female Seminary when the homesickness became too much. It’s very probable that the desire to not leave home is an unconscious desire born from some past trauma, a topic Cathy Caruth dedicates some attention to in her work. Yet Dickinson’s past is so incomplete and any sign of trauma so buried that it is unlikely to find any source on the topic.

With biographical evidence lacking the written word is the next step. In the title-less “I had been hungry all the years” the speaker details how she, starving for so long, is given a chance to eat but, ultimately, refuses. Now, with psychological criticism you can look at the poem’s subject matter two ways: The food is literal and it is a poem written by someone who is suffering from anorexia or the food is a metaphor, the meal representing the things that the rest of the world enjoys (Everyone eats, after all) and that her presence as one of the “persons outside windows” means that the speaker is an outsider, only ever observing the action of “eating” and never partaking herself.

Social interaction has never looked so delicious.

Now, it could be that Dickinson suffered from Anorexia. The ailment was certainly around at Dickinson’s time and, while there is no evidence to support it, neither is their evidence to deny it. More likely, however, is this idea of the poem tapping into Dickinson’s own feelings of being isolated from society. She is the one outside the window, always watching other people indulging themselves on the pleasures of life. When given the chance to indulge herself in this meal, however, she is tempted but ultimately refuses, finding that she has no appetite for the food.

Using psychological criticism alone we can tell that Dickinson, through whatever early trauma or twist of subconscious imprinting, has lost her ‘appetite’ for social interaction. She is content with her place and is content with her life at home. She surrounds herself with family members who she has already formed bonds with, and for the writer that seems to be enough. And in a way she is fine with that: In the last stanza of the poem she accepts that she has no need for what others think they need to survive and accepts her psychological state, for good or ill.

Biographical Information

Online Poetry Source 


22 thoughts on “In Her Head: Psychological Criticism and Dickinson

  1. Of the various explanations I have heard for Dickinson’s isolation, anorexia is new and, I must declare, intellectually invigorating. Through my sister’s psychological research on eating disorders, I have become acquainted with a limited knowledge of the surprising prevalence of bulimia and anorexia (and combinations of the two) in our society. Viewed mostly as an industrial/post-industrial phenomenon, it would be enlightening to examine the interactions between psychology and food/consumption in pre-industrial/industrializing societies. I wonder also if evidence of physical or sexual abuse appears in critical analyses of Dickinson’s work. Matt, do you the link or name of any of Caruth’s articles about this?

  2. I think that the point of her work being an expression of her own isolation is very significant. It really was her only connection to the outside world. Her strong familial bonds is also something of note. When Dickinson was a girl, her cousin and close friend got sick and died. I’m sure that this at least contributed to whatever trauma damaged Dickinson to the extent that she couldn’t find a reason to leave the house. We should also remember that this was her father’s house, I’m sure she felt connected to her family even if she was living there alone. I strongly agree with the interpretation of “I’ve been hungry all the years”, Dickinson was talking about herself refusing human contact.

  3. Matt, I appreciate your choice to choose Dickinson’s untitled “I had been hungry all the years” poem. I have never read it before, and after doing so, I cannot think of how any other piece could possibly serve as a better template for psychological criticism. (Okay, that’s probably an exaggeration.) But in all honesty, you’ve set my thoughts reeling: first of all, did you consider whether or not the untitled nature of the work could be significant? The following is an interesting article on the subject of Dickinson’s title choices:
    This line from the article really got me: “The public world is the verbal world, and particularly the world of names and titles.” Do you think this idea of societal restriction through names and definitions could relate to Dickinson’s choice (either subconscious or otherwise) to leave this particular piece, about isolationism and separation, without a name?
    Another thought I had after reading your post concerns the metaphor (or so we assume) of the final feast. How perfect that the practice of psychological definition dictates an analysis of desires and deprivations, and this poem speaks of hunger and refusal. I wonder, could we deepen the meaning of the text by thinking more about sublimation and suppression? Could the feast be viewed as an art form, an act of sublimation resulting from repressed wants? And the speaker’s final refusal of the feast– could we relate Freud’s notion of the death drive, or the junction of the desires to live and to die, to the poem’s paradoxical junction of hunger and a refusal to eat?

  4. Mentioning that Emily Dickinson’s isolation to the outside world was very important to acknowledge. The fact that you stated that her trauma she faced might of been the reason for her isolating herself was a very interesting connection. It is hard to dig at the center of the core and truly reveal what Emily Dickinson really went through to turly cause her to keep herself locked in her house from others or to so even have little interaction with others individuals.

  5. This is why word count often messes with my head! One of these days I’ll learn how to consolidate my thoughts to a nice nugget of text that can fit between the two dreaded brackets. Until then, I’ve got to live with expansion via comment boxes.

    Now, onto your point: Hindsight is always 20/20. After reading the article I regret not looking into the titles in the analysis. The fact that Dickinson never titled a vast majority of her works has always confused me. I’ve always been under the impression that she never titled the works because she never had to: Why package them for sale when they were just going to be left in books in a trunk? They were her doodles, in a way.

  6. Anorexics obsess about food and deny their starvation.
    Biographical information reveals that her mother was a bedridden invalid for 30 years. The responsibility for caring for her mother and running the household fell to Emily. This consumed much of her adulthood. Depression and situational narcissism may be a better fit than anorexia. Perhaps combines with the Victorian tendency to romanticize Death.

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