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Life and Death as Viewed by Emily Dickinson

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Background of the poem

Most of Emily’s works revolve around the subject of gender roles experienced by women during the 19th Century. Back then, marriages were made out of convenience and not love. Having been subjugated by their caste system, women were not allowed to marry outside of their social class. This led to a variety of arranged marriages, often approved by their parents. Women were also denied job opportunities outside the domestic sphere. Because of the lack of freedom, women were constantly searching for ways to express themselves—such was what writing enabled them to do. Here, Emily Dickinson expresses her thoughts on what a 19th-century marriage looked like.  

Literary devices

Rhyme scheme

Emily’s I Gave Myself to Him contains a metrical pattern of ABCB DEFE GHIH JKLM. This is an unusual syntax pattern since it heavily relies on dashes. Nevertheless, critics have applauded her unusual style.

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Metaphor

Throughout the poem, Emily uses a variety of metaphors to give the viewers a comparative view. She uses the word “contract” to represent marriage, signifying that marriage was more of a financial exchange than an emotional exchange. Emily also uses the word “Purchaser” and “Merchant” to refer to the husband, the breadwinner of the family. She refers to married women as “cargo,” a product bought by men in exchange for providing financial security.

Irony

Emily’s use of the word “sweet” alongside “debt” is ironic because owing someone something can never be sweet.

Tone

The tone in this poem is that of seriousness. She talks about her life, expressing how being married has resulted in an everlasting debt she owes.

Theme

Emily Dickinson’s “I gave myself to Him” contains a central theme of marriage acting as a contract wherein the woman is forever in the debt of returning the financial security men provide.

Overall analysis and interpretation

Back then, women were expected to maintain their sexual purity before marriage. A woman’s purity determined her worth, and even after marriage, women were expected to fulfill their roles of faithfulness. This expectation is seen in, “I gave myself to Him / And took Himself for pay,” the speaker here is a

married woman who has committed her life to her husband, giving her all to him. However, the man only “took himself for pay,” never reciprocating any sort of obligation of love towards the woman. In this line, it shows that women were given expectations within marriage that they had to fulfill, whereas men thought of themselves as enough of a payment for the obligations women showed them.

“The solemn contract of life / was ratified, this way –” The next two lines explain that women who were adhering to the status quo’s expectations fulfilled the contract of marriage. This adherence to one’s obligation determined the quality of marriage present— whether or not it was stable or unstable. Clearly, marriage had acted as a contract.

“The wealth might disappoint / myself a poorer prove” Here, the speaker is aware that the material things her husband provides will never really give her the happiness she longs for. The speaker, however, never uses the word “husband”. Instead, she uses the word “purchaser” – an implication that she is just a mere product bought by her purchaser.

The narrator’s comparison of herself to a product implies that she has accepted the gender roles society has given her. Because the narrator conforms to this expectation, Emily believes that the loss of identity in a woman will soon start to surface. The speaker also refers to herself as a cargo, having duties, such as being loyal and serving her husband, to carry out. This marriage clearly shows a lack of love towards one another, rather, it shows us how marriage acted against love.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker refers to her marriage as a “sweet debt- each night to owe.” Emily uses irony about how the situation is going. A debt that one has to pay every night can never be thought of as “sweet.” Perhaps she is saying that the debt is sweet because she is simply conforming to the roles of a wife—finding happiness in continually serving the husband.

“At least – ‘tis mutual – risk – some – found it – mutual gain –“. The word “some” refers to only a few people finding happiness in it. There was nothing present in the relationship except financial security, but there was no other option but to accept it. Divorce did not exist as courts would favor men, even if a child were involved. Because of this, many women decided to bear their situation lest they would want to lose their child.

“I Felt A Funeral, in my Brain” is a poem exploring the idea of consciousness after death. One of many poems Emily has written on death, this poem uses imagery to send its message across its readers. This poem was conceived during the time Emily experienced many deaths of her relatives, a period wherein she made the statement, “home is so far away from home.” This period is notable for the beginning of Emily’s seclusion from those around her. During her years of seclusion, Emily begins to write seriously and create various poems such as the following: “I Felt A Funeral, in my Brain,” “Because I could not stop for Death,” and many more. One controversial topic, however, is whether or not Emily’s use of death here portrays the death of her physical body or the death of her sanity.

Literary devices

Simile

“A service, like a drum” is a simile because of the keyword like. Here, Emily says that the funeral service is beating like a drum, meaning that the sound is going on and on, a cause of her brain’s numbness.

Metaphor

“As all the Heavens were a Bell” is a metaphor for her being an ear, and the world ringing as bells to reach out and let her listen. Unfortunately, she couldn’t take it anymore, which is why “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” could be a metaphor for her loss of sanity.

Personification

The line “That Sense was breaking through” has been given a human trait because sense cannot break through, therefore it is a personification.

Alliteration

The words “felt” and “funeral” are an example of alliteration, along with “treading,” “treading”, and “till”. “Being”, and “but”, and “silence” and “strange”. “When” and “were”, “beating” and “beating”, “mind” and “my”. This occurrence of the same letter in various lines shows an alliteration.

Tone

This poem contains a depressing tone, as expressed in “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down—” The narrator explains how she finally realizes that it was her own death, causing her to have a mental breakdown.

Point of view

The poem is in the first-person point of view, Emily explains what was going on in her head as she begins to have a mental breakdown.

Theme

The central idea is that the narrator is going through a difficult time. She has been depressed and is now finally shutting down and dying, something she cannot do anything about.

Overall Analysis

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through –

In this stanza, Emily writes everything through a sense of hearing instead of seeing. She says that she felt a Funeral in her brain, indicating that it was an extreme case of loss. She also describes hearing people, the mourners, treading to and fro. She hears and feels their presence. For a moment, she thinks or “senses” that she understands what is happening. Emily uses capital letters for Funeral, possibly signifying that something separate was happening within her. She also capitalizes Mourners, as people; and Brain, representing how her brain exists as a separate entity.

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum –

Kept beating – beating – till I thought

My mind was going numb –

When everything seems to calm down and the mourners are also seated, a Drum enters. The Drum is capitalized because it is perceived as a separate entity bringing the bad news. This drum kept beating and beating until she thought her mind was going to be numb. Numb is also capitalized because it is perceived as a separate entity taking over her mind.

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space – began to toll,

Emily heard a box being lifted and feels a creak across her soul. This could represent her own death, as she could only feel and hear, but not see. Perhaps she is only partly conscious. In the third line, she is being carried in a coffin to a burial place by Boots of lead, the people carrying her. She hears the sound of the boots and feels that she is in space, but once again, cannot see.

As all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear,

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,

Wrecked, solitary, here –

Heaven is ringing bells calling unto her, and Emily, being only an ear, hears the ringing of bells. Silence is capitalized because it is something out of this world confining her. She also says that she has become a strange race, probably signifying that she is not a human and probably dead already. She becomes aware of her loneliness and feels wrecked.

And then a Plank in Reason broke,

And I dropped down, and down –

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –

Here, the speaker is completely aware of what was happening. The Plank is used to symbolize reason, and it broke down, meaning, reason broke through. The funeral was of her own, which is why she can hear and feel everything. She is silent and cannot see because she is dead. This is her description of death. After her realization, she drops and drops until she hits her resting place.

Conclusion

Emily’s description of living as a married woman in “I gave Myself to Him” reflects how several women felt constrained by the 19th Century social expectations. Her cunning use of literary devices, as well as her perception of reality, ignites creative reading to decipher its true intended meaning. Such brilliance, also seen in another of her work “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” likewise gives us a glimpse of what thought-provoking experiences yet to be encountered may look like. Both of her works cater to a wide range of people; from the feminist who strives to be free from patriarchy to the avid philosopher who generates much of today’s think-tank debates. Emily Dickinson’s works have inspired generations after generations of people and are sure to inspire more to come.   

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