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Behavior and Meaning: The Enigma of Emily Dickinson

Sophie F's picture

It is a story, like any other, created from a set of observations. Emily Dickinson's story, however, is complicated by the fact that it concerns a real person, who left behind an enduring body of work, and a personal history mired in oft studied, but little understood complexities. Was Emily Dickinson depressed? Agoraphobic? Bipolar? Or is there another explanation or different meaning that can be ascribed to Dickinson's behavior? It may well not be feasible to draw conclusions about Dickinson's intent by interweaving the facts of her life and the records she left behind given these are at best educated guesses as to what motivated Dickinson to behave in certain ways. Emily Dickinson died in 1886 (1) and since her death has been the subject of great debate. This is bound to be a revisionist history.

A cursory reading of Emily Dickinson leads one to interpret many of her poems as being steeped in New England, mid-nineteenth century Puritanism (1). However, what superficially reads as references to the divine can be extrapolated into a context rooted, yes, in spirituality, but also in the expansive thinking of one yet searching for explanations not satisfied with the existing ones. The extent to which Dickinson actually embraced religion remains elusive and it is a matter upon which critics of her work cannot agree. There are those who interpret her work as being driven by her faith in God and conviction that Paradise could be reached through suffering in this life (2). Other critics point to the fact that she did not join the church to which her father belonged, despite her father's best efforts to persuade her. Dickinson, in fact, was said to have a disdain for authority, including that implied by a belief in God or the construct of religion (3).

Dickinson spent most of her adult life on the grounds of her father's home. She avoided travel, moreover public appearances at all. Her chosen seclusion may have been the mark of a depressed woman or perhaps, as some critics purport, she was attempting to lead a "simple" life without worldly distractions, so she could focus on her writings (1). Not only did Dickinson avoid speaking to people, when visitors came to her father's house, it is said that she hid, and if she did permit company, she spoke to people through a partially closed door (4). Her behavior made her somewhat of an enigma in her day and it can be viewed today no differently. Her motivations cannot now, as then, be known. Undeniably, speaking through a partially closed door is not part of "normal," socially acceptable behavior. However, social constraints that create behavioral norms are not in and of themselves evidence for a certain diagnosis of Dickinson as depressed or psychotic or... Her behavior, from an outsider's perspective has received much scrutiny, but no one explanation serves. She didn't learn to tell time until her mid-teens and expressed an intense desire to remain a child. In her twenties and thirties she wore only white, and increasingly withdrew from others until she barely saw anyone, but her father (4).

As an observation in support of a theory of mind, her aberrant behavior does advance a framework for seeing Dickinson as, at the very least, unconventional and unwilling or unable to succumb to normative behavior. Dickinson had little interaction with the outside world, but maintained numerous lively correspondences through extensive letters exchanged with various people in her life (5). What, for Dickinson, was it about friendship or love or contact with people via mail that was acceptable that she could not justify in personal encounters?

Indeed, one can, of course, never really know the intent of a writer, and, as such, Dickinson's writings seem to reflect the variability of emotion that encapsulates the human experience; this then is reflected in disparate interpretations of her intent as a writer. Thematically, there is a disproportionate amount of her writing that deals with death, suffering, love and God, which some may say are the realms of the poet. However, her treatment of these themes is varied lending itself to an interpretation of Dickinson as a woman who was not rooted comfortably on the earth on which she tread or in her own "self." Her work is triumphant and filled with yearning, and at times, deeply anguished, but this gamut of emotions, as gleaned from reading her poems may well only describe pieces of the puzzle that is Dickinson or may not fit together at all. And despite having lived through the Civil War, in her over 1700 poems, and numerous published letters, there is no mention of this tremendous historical event (4). Was she so isolated from the world both physically and psychologically that she did not take the events of the war to be significant? Was she shielding herself from the tumult of the human condition? Dickinson's world, both literally and as manifested in her work, was a solitary one. Is this evidence that she lived within her own brain, or merely that she used her writing as a platform for her own self-discovery?

Charlotte Perkins Gilman famously penned " The Yellow Wallpaper" to document, though embellished from her actual experience, a chronicle of her entanglement with, as it is now know, "mental illness." Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote ten to fifteen years after Dickinson's death; yet shed light on the quandary faced by women intellectuals in a socio-cultural context that valued their male counterparts more. Indeed, much of Perkins Gilman's "Yellow Wallpaper", while being a testament to her state of mind, is an illustrative description of the "madness" around her (6). She wrote, " I did write for a while in spite of them; but it does exhaust me a good deal-having to be so sly about it, or else meet with heavy opposition. I sometimes fancy that in my condition if I had less opposition and more society and stimulus-but John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about my condition, and I confess it always makes me feel bad. I am glad my case is not serious! But these nervous troubles are terribly depressing" (7).

Perkins Gilman's character in "The Yellow Wallpaper" is forcibly confined in an attempt to attenuate her "madness." Dickinson confined herself to her home and unfurled her wings by pouring words onto the page. Did Dickinson, too suffer from malaise rooted in her role as a female literary talent, as a woman with longing that could only be abated through writing? There might be a parallel between Dickinson's self-imposed confinement and Perkins Gilman's forcible one, but it is not an issue about which there can be satisfactory resolution. Perkins Gilman clearly elucidates her impetus for writing "The Yellow Wallpaper" was to prevent other women from suffering in the throes of mental anguish as she did (6). Behavioral analysis cannot be plainer than a self-disclosed avowal of intent. Even still, the exact machinations of another person cannot be known. And Emily Dickinson did not, at least not in published form, ever explicitly declare intent.

There is much speculation that Dickinson suffered from a mental illness, to which many critics refer and account for her behavior using a variety of diagnostic criteria, depending upon the context and the bent of the critic (8). Perhaps Dickinson retreated into her "self", her own brain, as it were, as a sanctuary, which proved at times to be a place of peace and contentment and at other times a prison.

Judging from the words alone, the following poem suggests an Emily Dickinson troubled by her "self." The first stanza of the poem reads (4) (Appendix A):

I felt a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.

While some critiques of this poem have suggested a "loss of rationality" or "descent into madness," as an explanation for this poem and for Dickinson's behavior, these characterizations seem hyperbolic and unfounded. Dickinson's sensitivity to her own internal state may have driven her to seclusion or may be the result of seclusion. She wrestled with her "self" confined within her body, which was confined within her home, but her state of mind might well be marked by heightened awareness, rather than "loss" of any functioning that is popularly associated with mental illness (4).

This poem can be interpreted in myriad ways and the most common interpretation, indeed, appears to be that of Dickinson as someone out of touch with reality and moreover "mad" (4). Given the connotations of describing one as "mad" it seems a loaded interpretation that may not have observational basis. Certainly, there is evidence that Dickinson led an unconventional life, by the standards of her time, and her poetry, indeed, seems to suggest, if nothing else, a sense of dissatisfaction with herself and the world. It remains unclear and deeply fascinating why Dickinson, in this poem and others, chooses to use "brain" instead of "mind." Brain, as a term, seems to depersonalize an experience, while "mind" in the vernacular is more apt to convey the subjective. In her day, the brain was not likely in and of itself the topic of many poems, but Dickinson adapted it to her venue and addressed it on her own terms, giving meaning to the brain about which readers can only guess. Dickinson's poetry illustrates at times a synchronicity with her brain and a desire to create a world for herself in which she could flourish and at times, her brain seems to work against her best intentions to thrive and be creative.

Another interpretation of "I felt a Funeral in my Brain," is that Dickinson suffered from migraine headaches and the poem is a tribute to the throbbing pain and need for silence characteristic of this neurological phenomenon (9). It's a compelling explanation and one that seems to correspond quite tidily to the experiences of migraine sufferers, but one that, too, may have no grounding in fact (10). There is no documented evidence that Dickinson suffered from migraines. In fact, she did not let a doctor examine her when she was in the final stages of her life; her physician had to diagnose her from the doorway of her bedroom (11).

Dickinson also wrote often about hope and renewal, both in an overtly spiritual context, and, possibly, as a way in which to reconcile conflicting feelings of despair and longing. The opening and closing stanzas of one such poem are as follows (12) (Appendix B):

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors-

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise-

This poem does not provide evidence for a certain assessment of Dickinson's state of mind. It is, however, illustrative of a mind, a self, capable of transcending depression, if she did in fact suffer from it. To "gather Paradise," is a powerful testament to taking one's life into one's hands and using one's imagination to embrace possibility.

The prevailing opinions of Dickinson's work and personal life are based largely on assumptions about behavior and what meaning can be ascribed to behavior. While any of the narratives woven to form an intricate tapestry that was Emily Dickinson's life may have some bearing on Dickinson's personal reality, any one interpretation can only be but speculative. "Meaning" is, indeed, a subjective lens through which to view and make sense of the world or create order, where perhaps order does not exist. Dickinson herself referred to the brain in the following terms (12) (Appendix C):

The Brain - is wider than the Sky -
For - put them side by side -
The one the other will contain
With ease - and You - beside

Since Dickinson lodged her "self" within her brain as but one part of the vast expanse that comprises the brain, who are we to do otherwise in our assessment of Dickinson? It is precisely that we stand beside Dickinson not within her that necessitates, a tenuous understanding of her "self," if any. Her words as printed on the pages of a book and interpreted by a critic and her behavior as recounted in stories of her life are analyzed by people who, like Dickinson, posses the great potential of the brain, but also the limitation of the self as, but a component part of that brain. The limitations of any one interpretation cannot be discounted when evaluating observations that appear to support a particular Emily Dickinson narrative. What gives any one behavior "meaning" is determined by the observer and may be in direct conflict with the person being observed. This suggests that there is an illusory nature to meaning. In an attempt to evaluate and understand Emily Dickinson, about whom so little is known, meaning has been attributed to her poems and her life choices to attain a level of certainty, for there is some comfort or power in certainty. However, there is also meaning in uncertainty and value added by appreciating a collection of disparate observations without heralding one or another as empirically true (13). It is from this platform that a realistic coalescence of the details of Emily Dickinson's life and work must reside. It is from the acceptance of the limitations of the bystander in comprehending the full spectrum of deliberate and unintended potential behavioral manifestations of another person that a full appreciation for Emily Dickinson is found. With broad brushstrokes, one may paint a shadow of a woman, but leave the details to the imagination, to the subjective whims of Dickinson's readers and critics alike. For certainty as end unto itself belies meaning.


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Appendix (all poems by Emily Dickinson)

I felt a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.

And when they all were seated,
A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
My mind was going numb.

And then I heard them lift a box,
And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead,
Then space began to toll

As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.

And then a plank in reason, broke,
And I dropped down and down--
And hit a world at every plunge,
And finished knowing--then-


I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise-


The Brain-is wider than the Sky-
For-put them side by side-
The one the other will contain
With ease-and You-beside-

The Brain is deeper than the sea-
For-hold them-Blue to Blue-
The one the other will absorb-
As Sponges-Buckets-do-

The Brain is just the weight of God-
For-Heft them-Pound for Pound-
And they will differ-if they do-
As Syllable from Sound-


Serendip Visitor's picture

Dickinson spychosis

Great paper! I referenced your work concerning her mental state in a creative writing course pointing out I was not the only one who felt this way.


Agnes Fehlau's picture

Empathic qualities...

I sense that Emily was highly empathic...her seclusion was a protective mechanism, her writing was her soul food.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Dickinson: dwelling in possibility?

"Dickinson's sensitivity to her own internal state may have driven her to seclusion or may be the result of seclusion."

I guess the former, but might say "inclined her to" rather than "driven"

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors-

Perhaps because of greater "Possibility"? See Inverting the Relationship Between Randomness and Meaning, which also cites Fromm.