Feminism and Dickinson’s Poetry


According to the Dictionary of Critical Theory, feminism’s “Common core is the thesis that the relationship between the sexes is one of inequality or oppression” and that “All forms of feminism seek to identify the causes of that inequality and to remedy it, but the issue of precisely which agency produces and reproduces inequality is the source of many of the differences between feminists.” To paraphrase the Dictionary of Critical Theory’s definition, feminism in broader terminology is identifying and rectifying the inequalities among the sexes. The Dictionary of Critical Theory assigns feminists to one of two types: socialist and radical. Supporters of socialist feminism elucidate the chasm between the sexes through social interaction and economic construction while radical feminism highlights the injustices by shifting blame on men and sexist societal norms, such as the utopian vision of the nuclear family or patriarchal communities.

Emily Dickinson, one of America’s great poet’s, is illustrated as an archetypal female emblem of intellect and power. Dickinson is most commonly remembered for, or associated with, her unconventional and widely scrutinized self-imposed life style of isolation and consequential outpour of creative and inimitable genius. The greater part of her poetry concentrates on and encompasses ideas, fascinations, and feelings stemming from introspection on death and immortality, as well as brings forth her individual struggle with an ominous, and at times morbid, point of view on existence. In addition to Dickinson’s enthrallment with mortality, her poetry also embraces ideas of feminism and furthermore challenges women’s conventional roles in society. The question that arises is how does Dickinson utilize feminism in her poetry and is it subliminal or forefront? And if subliminal, is it effective or does it only result in re-enforcement of the passive feminine voice and consequently negates the purpose of feminism, which is to identify and rectify inequalities among the sexes.

Let’s explore feminism in Dickinson’s poetry. In specific, I want to analyze and further deconstruct The Bustle in a House, a poem of Dickinson’s we have not assessed in class, to examine her connection to feminism and in particular its function in her poetry.

 The Bustle in a House

 The Bustle in a House

The Morning after Death

Is solemnest of industries

Enacted opon Earth –

The Sweeping up the Heart

And putting Love away

We shall not want to use again

Until Eternity –

The Bustle in a House in its most simplistic and superficial meaning is about the cleaning of a home after a death has taken place. On a deeper level, it portrays the role of women in society, through utilizing the scene of a household and the act of cleaning, both reminiscent of the female function. The Bustle in a House can be, and is in general, regarded as a feminist poem. As a feminist poem, does Dickinson succeed in voicing the oppression of women in our society and furthermore, does she attempt to rectify it? Personally, I think the utilization of the passive voice or the subliminal message of feminism in writing is in-effective. The ability for the significance that is attempting to be relayed can too easily be lost or misinterpreted due to it being hidden beneath the surface of the writing. While Dickinson’s feminist voice in her poetry can be found and understood, I think it would prove further effective if used in a more direct and visible manner.

2 thoughts on “Feminism and Dickinson’s Poetry

  1. The question that you asked, “How does Dickinson utilize feminism in her poetry and is it subliminal or forefront?” is crucial to this analysis of feminism in her poetry. Was Dickinson trying to make a conscious statement or was she unconsciously creating a underlying theme. It is helpful to discuss the issue of what the author was trying to communicate. Perhaps the message was not missing because of the ineffectiveness of the feminist presence, but in that ineffectiveness Dickinson shows her meaning. We assume that Dickinson’s poems are as she intended them, and therefore we assume that the level to which she addresses different issues has purpose. In order to focus on one theme, the author must devalue another. It may prove more effective for Dickinson to address feminist themes more directly and visibly, but I do not believe that would assist her intentions for the poem.

  2. I too think the question you applied to Dickinson’s poem is very interesting. Is the message subtle or obvious? You came to the conclusion that her feminist message was sub-surface, and that fact made the poem less effective. Your conclusion raises a lot of questions for me. If the message is subliminal, how did you discern that it was there? How can anyone? Perhaps this is where close reading comes in, as well as biographical information– the latter you incorporated, I think, with the widely-accepted assumption that Dickinson was a feminist. Secondly, what exactly would it look like if her message was obvious? Poetry isn’t necessarily about making things obvious, or saying things directly. In that regard, I am led to believe that Dickinson must have made the choice to write “subtly” deliberately. She must have thought that there was something to gain in that approach. What does the poem’s format accomplish? For me, the imagery of the woman bustling about the house post-death is more effective than a direct, discernible statement of opinion of fact.

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