Rossetti, the “‘Immurata’ Sister”

Despite being a successful female writer during the mid-nineteenth century and facing social stigmas imposed on women during this time, Christina Rossetti’s poetry does not neatly fit into a feminist framework. Instead, Rossetti simultaneously upholds and criticizes the prescribed gender norms within anti-feminist ideologies. In her poem “An ‘Immurata’ Sister”, Rossetti accepts certain gendered stereotypes as fact, but then depicts death as an escape from these gender norms. By presenting death as a much –desired escape from the stereotype that women are more emotional than men, a stereotype that she accepts as true, Rossetti complicates what it means to be a feminist; she shows that acceptance and discontent can both exist with regards to societal gender norms

While Rossetti largely focuses on themes of life and death in “An ‘Immurata’ Sister”, she first centers her poem around the claim that “men work and think” while “women feel” (517, l. 5). Rossetti separates men and women based on their traditional gender roles and expectations, and consequently reduces women to their emotions rather than their thoughts, actions, and achievements. She complicates this claim in the following lines, however, by writing that because she is a woman characterized by feelings, “[she] should be glad to die” and cease from experiencing all of her complex, womanly feelings (517, l. 6-7). The next four lines begin with the same phrase “And cease from”, followed by a vast array of emotions ranging from hope to dread to pain; her use of anaphora amplifies the word “cease” and emphasizes the absence of these emotions upon death. In the beginning of the second stanza, Rossetti accepts the stereotype that “women feel”, but by the end of this stanza, she implies that death and the absence of feeling are the only way to escape this gender stereotype and achieve true peace. This thematic disconnect in the second stanza reflects her ideological disconnect regarding feminist and patriarchal ideals. Despite acknowledging the relief that will come from death and the absence of stereotypical, feminine emotions, Rossetti never strays from accepting patriarchal gender stereotypes as fact.

The disconnect between these two ideologies leaves death as the only way to escape these conflicting ideas about women and gender. Based on these lived experiences, Rossetti describes both an “empty world and empty I!” (518, l. 23). The world, which acts as the environment for gender power dynamics and stereotypes, and Rossetti herself, who experiences the effects of gender power dynamics and stereotypes, are both “empty” due to their involvement with the oppression of women. Death, however, lacks this “emptiness” because it is uncontrollable and therefore free from gender oppression. Rossetti’s depicted struggle between life and death, then, parallels her ideological struggle between gender norms and gender freedom.


2 thoughts on “Rossetti, the “‘Immurata’ Sister””

  1. It’s really interesting how you have highlighted how the speaking voice of Rosetti’s poem is obsessed with the relief that seems to come from death. I also think it’s interesting to consider how she is thinking about death as a new life as well, and how death “renew[s] their youth.” Perhaps the speaker is thinking through the division of the soul and the body, and how feeling ages the soul so that in death the relief comes when the soul is “unveiled” from the body and can live on without the burdens of feeling too much or feeling left behind.

  2. Excellently argued. I do wonder: is it possible to read this poem as a more straightforward feminist piece? I think the line “Men work and think, but women feel” (line 5) can also be read as an example of Foucault’s observation that power gets internalized. An immurata sister was literally shut up in a wall, after all. To rationalize such a traumatic situation, could the speaker be attempting to persuade herself that “men work and think, but women feel”? I’m not sure myself, but it’s worth considering.

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