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An Analysis of Marriage and Gender Roles in Emily Dickinson's Poetry and Life

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The majority of Emily Dickinson's poetry comments directly on the roles and experiences of women in a patriarchal society. Critics who have surveyed the different cultural elements that fed into Dickinson's poetry, have concluded that Emily Dickinson's work was influenced by the women's right movement. In addition, some of these critics believe that some of her poetry can be interpreted as Dickinson's opinion of gender issues. In “Emily Dickinson and Popular Culture”, David S. Reynolds, a new historicism critic, wrote that it's no surprise that the majority of Dickinson's poetry was produced between 1858-1866, “It was a period of extreme consciousness about proliferation of varied women's role in American culture.” It was a time where women were actively searching for more “literary” ways of self expression (Reynolds 25). In her essay “Public and Private in Dickinson's war poetry,” Shira Wolosky, states “Dickinson's modesty, even while it conforms in many aspects with expected and prescribed female behavior, does so with such extremity as to expose and radicalize gender norms.” Her modesty was more “challenging” than conforming, more “explosive” than obedient (Wolosky 170). Both critics, who analyze the different cultural elements that influenced Emily Dickinson are useful up to a point, but both ignore the underlying importance of gender roles in marriage, which is crucial for a full understanding of Emily Dickinson's poetry.

Emily Dickinson found herself within a time period where women were primarily raised to be the accommodating housewife, bound to the household duties of everyday life and social conventions created by a patriarchal society, which continued the division of both genders into different spheres of society. But, Emily Dickinson managed to brake away from these social conventions primarily through her own writing and poetry. Writing was one of the few mediums of self expression that were available for women, writing became the voice of many women. Emily Dickinson's poem, “I gave myself to him,” illustrates marriage as “a solemn contract” where a woman exchanges herself for financial security, depicting her husband as nothing more than a customer. Correspondingly, “Title Divine is mine” denounces the existence of love in marriage as women are “Betrothed -- without the swoon” (F194). Both poems depict marriage as an act of oppression against women who were subjugated by men's efforts to maintain control of the opposite gender through social relations and domestic labor.

Accordingly, this subjugation of the female gender primarily resides within the female's sexual morality, social obligations, and domestic labor enforced by their opposite gender. This subjugation was first generated with social expectations associated with female sexual morality. Females were expected to maintain sexual purity until the day she was married. Virginity was the primary value of a woman. Even if a woman was part of a high social class, she still had the obligation to remain a virgin until she was married. And when the woman married, she was still expected to uphold her purity by remaining faithful to her husband. Fidelity was, in essence, the second step in fulfilling your duties as a woman. The opening lines of Dickinson's poem “I gave myself to him” emphasizes this expectation, “I gave myself to Him-/And took Himself, for Pay” (F426). The speaker is a woman who has just married. She has given herself completely to this man, who is now her husband, and has fulfilled her first step as a wife. But the same commitment is not asked of the husband, who only “took himself, for pay.” In other words, society has not given him the same obligations that are expected of the woman.

These two opening lines illustrate marriage, not as a spiritual or emotional bonding of two lives, but as an exchange of a life. The word marriage is never even used in the poem, instead the third line states that this is “The solemn contract of a Life,” with attention to the word “life.” Marriage is the “contract” where she has given her “life” in exchange for financial security. A contract where the woman is still in “debt” to her husband, despite her exchange; the poem ends with the lines “Sweet Debt of Life-Each Night to owe/Insolvent-every Noon- ” (F426). In other words, by being faithful to her husband and carrying out her domestic obligations, she continues to carry out her part of the contract, yet, it will never be enough to compensate for her husband's part. Even after giving herself completely, she is still portrayed as inferior because of her role in society (which is limited to the domestic sphere) and her financial dependency.

Her “inferiority” as a female was caused by males that dominated society. They created a patriarchal society where women were financially dependent on men. Before the 1900s, private property was mostly controlled by men. If a woman had property, it would be under the control of her husband. Therefore, even if a woman had a type of inheritance, it would be under her husband's control and would still be financially dependent on her husband. If we look even further back in time, women didn't even inherit any property. Hence, this is one of the central causes of female subjugation. A woman who is not able to independently support herself and hold private property, can not stand as an equal to a man who can. And for this very reason, men created an economic society, beneficial only to men. This meant, that marriage was the only option left for women to ensure financial security.

If we refer back to the poem, “I gave myself to him,” the speaker, does not even use the word “husband” but the word “purchaser.” In other words, the wife is no longer a person, but a product, that has been purchased by her husband. By comparing herself to a product, the speaker is letting the reader know that she is aware of her role in society. In turn, Emily Dickinson, is also expressing her own observations of marriage, “In her observation of married women, her mother not excluded, she saw the failing health, the unmet demands, the absenting of self that was part of the husband-wife relationship” (Lowell). What Emily saw was the loss of self-identity in marriage, as the wife conforms to meet her husband's demands, rather than her own desires.

This was another social development and expectation that continue to oppress women in society, the demands of submissiveness. The wife was expected to be submissive and meet her husband's demands, conforming herself to meet her husband's needs. This led to the social belief that women were almost a “second class” that needed to be controlled by the “upper class” of men. Even before marriage, women were still limited, “unmarried daughters were indeed expected to demonstrate their dutiful nature by setting aside their own interests in order to meet the needs of the home” (Lowell). The social images that surrounded the term wife, left women with little options of self expressions. Writing became one of the few outlets for self expression, Shira Wolosky stated, that women predominantly used writing as a form of reflecting “their own domestic imprisonment and costs” (169). As illustrated in the poem “I gave myself to him,” every marriage came with a cost, loss of independence was only one of many things a marriage could cost a woman. The attitudes of men towards the opposite gender created a society that imprisoned them to their domestic obligations. Even if Emily did not marry, she was still a sharp observant of society, Jane Eberwein states, that marriage could mean “submission to a man who might prove unworthy” (Eberwein 217). As the daughter of a prominent family, who had received a proper education, submitting to a man who would be generally seen as someone of lower value, without his gender empowerment, would be both humiliating and degrading. Submission meant the loss of freedom Emily had grown accustomed to.

Subsequently, the issue of submissiveness played a role in Emily's decision to remain unmarried. In one of her letters to Susan she writes, “How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden, whose days are fed with gold, and who gathers pearls every evening; but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world” (letter 193). Emily was aware that even if you are originally happy with the marriage, you will soon become awakened to the reality of it. As you begin to conform to your husband's demands and continuously work on your domestic duties, that initial happiness will begin to fade away. The “material” aspect of the marriage does not equal happiness, it can only take you so far. But most importantly, a “wife” is aware that marriage is a form of imprisonment. Divorce was not an option to a woman who was financially dependent on her husband. Even if she had the economic means to support herself, divorce carried a strong stigma during the 19th century, which made it difficult to get a divorce.

In “I gave myself to him,” the wife is also aware of this, and states her concerns, “The Wealth might disappoint-/Myself a poorer prove” (F426). She is aware that the material aspects of the marriage can only make you happy to a certain extent. In the last stanza, the speaker claims that “Some found it mutual gain,” but the word “some” in used in that same line implies that this is not the case for many. Even though she is financially secured, there is nothing else in the relationship with her husband, but servitude. Because the men control the economics means of women, she has no other option but to accept her conditions. Divorce was not a viable option, especially if there was a child involved. Prior to the 20th century, custody would primarily be given to the father of the child, a mother would rarely gain custody of her child. Because of this, many women endured unhappy marriages out of fear of losing their child.

During early 19th century, the relationship between the two gender resembled that of the proletariat and bourgeois. The men were the social elite who controlled society economically, politically, and most importantly, ideology. Politically, women did not have the right to vote. Women's right activists were not able to achieve the right to vote until 1920. The political limitations set upon women made it difficult for them to make the necessary changes that would allow women to break free from the social constructs that subjugated them to their opposite gender, social constructs supported by the ideology that surrounded the female gender. An ideology that impacted women the most. They could not advance socially or economically, if their roles in society were to be submissive housewives, widows, and nuns. They were bound and limited to the domestic sphere from birth. Their role in society was already defined by men. In “Title divine is mine,” the life of a woman is described in three stages, to be“Born-Bridalled-Shrouded” (F194). The word “shrouded” is used as the last stage for a woman and refers to being hidden; from that day on, she is “shrouded” from society. Her duty is now both to her husband and to her home. She is bound to the domestic sphere, away from the public sphere where only men play a role in. It is a “Tri Victory.” But for who?

The answer is clear in the poem, the “Tri Victory” was for the men who have structured society to work this way. If she has completed the stages set by them, then they have been successful in the continuing oppression of women. And many women did not oppose this, prior to the 19th century. Why? Limitations, and the fact that women valued and believed in what their society and cultured believed in. “Most women would marry men from backgrounds like their own,would live near their home communities in close touch with their mothers, and would find pleasure in maintaining their homes and fulfillment in obeying their husbands and nurturing their children” (Eberwein 214). They were raised to believe that it was in a woman's nature to be dutiful, and for those who opposed it, they were limited by the social constructs put in place to keep them in place. In Emily Dickinson's community,only a small percentage would earn their own living because of the “limited options available to Amherst women whom financial necessity forced into employment” (Eberwein 214). Without a husband, financial security was essential, and with the limitations posed upon them, it also became difficult. And if you did have a husband, employment was only acceptable if you were part of the lower class.

Economically, men had created a continuous cycle of empowerment towards their gender. Like the burgoise, they structured and maintained an economy that would benefit their “class,” while depriving their opposite gender of the same economic benefits. Women, were the proletariats, who were exploited through their unpaid labor. Domestic labor became their wage work with no pay, continuously demanded by the ruling class of men, who used their social advantage to reinforce their economic superiority.

If the ideology that surrounded women had been different, their economic and social standing would not have been the same. But the majority of women believed this facade created by men, this illusion that women were meant to be dutiful to their husbands, that they belonged to the lower social class of “women”. And in order to reinforce this ideology, men used religion, “women were considered physiologically weaker then men, though spiritually stronger” (Eberwein 212). Therefore, religion became a comprehensible tool of support. Even when it came to the few options of employment, the most glamorous vocation in the Amherst community, Emily Dickinson's home, was missionary work. In “Title Divine is mine,”the traditional role of a “wife” is first described as a role given by God to women, when in reality, it was a role created by men masqueraded to fit the image needed to please women; the image of holy matrimony blessed by God.

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Tri Victory (F194)

By putting emphasis, on the religious aspects of the marriage, they are diminishing the truth about marriage. Hence, the role, for women, becomes honorable when a she is born and married; but a “Tri Victory,” for men, when she is successfully born, married, and shrouded from society, believing that this was the role given to her by God.

The speaker of “Title Divine is mine” defies the ideology supported by men. She has seen through this facade, mainly hidden behind religious ideals. She is aware that it is a tool for men to continue oppressing women. During the 19th century, women were central actors in education, social services, and religion, all of which were activities central to the community. Yet, these activities were seen as an extension to the domestic sphere, rather than a part of the public sphere, mainly so, because these were activities predominantly overseen and achieved by women, not men. The spheres that separated the two genders, was in fact, only “figurally geographical.” Shira Wolosky described that the power of domesticity lied in “ascribing women to the private sphere” by by proving to be “a gendered rubric applied to activities not because of their location but exactly because women performed them.” In other words, should one reverse the role to a man, the activity would no longer be private, but public.

Emily Dickinson intentionally created a female voice that strongly opposed the marriage endorsed by the traditional religious doctrine because of her own personal views on the traditional doctrine supported by her community. Dickinson was brought up in a Calvinist household, and from a young age she attended the Amherst's First Congregational church. She became knowledgeable and familiar with the Bible and it's verses, often used in her poetry about God, religion, and death. But Dickinson struggled with her faith; when a wave of religious revivals spread throughout Amherst, Emily was the only one who did not make the public profession of faith needed to become a full member of the church. But this did not stop Emily from having an interest in issues of faith and doubt, which appeared in her poetry with religious themes. Her interests in faith though, did not centralize in old-style Calvinism; Emily found keen interest in the new sermon styles of imaginative religion.

She went to sermons given by Edwards Parker and Martin Leland, even after her father openly disapproved of them. David Reynolds claimed that “ by aligning herself with several of the most progressive religious stylists of the day, Emily Dickinson was launching a silent but major rebellion against the doctrinal tradition valued by her father” (Reynolds 114). Dickinson also became friends with Josiah Holland, whose liberal views were criticized by one conservative paper as “churchless” (Reynolds 114). He inspired Emily to continue trusting her feelings, concerning her faith and her rejection of the traditional doctrine. Emily still had her religious faith, but could not come to accept the traditional doctrine.

Dickinson's rejection of the traditional doctrine influenced her negative views of “traditional” marriage which subjugated women to her husband's will. In “Title Divine is Mine,” the female speaker rejects traditional marriage because she has seen through the facade of “holy matrimony,” however, she does not reject her faith in God. She has decided to claim the “Title Divine,” instead of marrying a man. By doing so, she has gained a higher status than a wife because she has not belittled herself by submitting to the will of a husband.

Title Divine, is mine.

The Wife without the sign-

Acute Degree conferred on me-

Empress of Calvary-

Royal -- all but the Crown!

Betrothed -- without the swoon (F194)

By rejecting traditional marriage, she has become the “wife” without the (earthly) “sign;” the bride of Christ. By choosing to be the bride of Christ, she is proving that she still has faith in God, even after she has rejected holy matrimony. All that she is missing as the bride of Christ, is the “crown.” The crown which refers to the circle of thorns placed on Christ's head before his crucifixion. But even so, she still becomes the “Empress of Calvary,” meaning that like Christ, she accepts “the immensity of the pain” and suffering that comes with her new title, and shows it by “embracing it” (Leiter 215).

Emily Dickinson's poetry illustrated a discontent with the idea of marriage. She was able to witness first hand the way marriage bound women to their respectful homes. When her mother fell ill and could no longer uphold the household responsibilities, the burden fell on Emily for both her mother and the household duties; in a letter to Abiah, she stated “God keep me from what they call households” (Letter 36). Had Emily Dickinson, decided to marry, she would have been bound to the continuous tasks of domestic labor, away from public society. And yet, despite having the freedom to live her life freely, she still chose a reclusive lifestyle, away from the public eye.

This confuses people who admire Emily Dickinson's work. Eberwein notes that this “distances Dickinson from many modern admirers who wish she had been a more assertive woman and a more conscious representative of her sex” (205). Yet, her reclusive lifestyle was her own defiance against the social constructs that oppressed women in society. As Shira Wolosky explained, the reason why she did it with such extremity was because she wanted to “expose and radicalize gendered norms.” Superficially, she appeared as an emblem to the perfect domesticated female, but in reality, it was her own silent rebellion against these social constructs, while poetry became her outcry, her voice.

Through poetry she was able to express her thoughts and creativity and through letters, she was able to keep contact with her loved ones. She was still a person who was connected to the public world, even if she didn't appear to be. Her poetry contains many references to gender issues, the civil war, and shifts in religious views. Reynolds argues, “She was unique among American women of her day in the breath of her awareness of the most experimental tendencies in contemporary American culture” (Reynolds 112). Emily was in touch with people who were in touch with the world, this included her family, Bowles, Higginson and Josiah Holland, etc (Leiter 16). Emily also enjoyed reading books, many which were written by female authors, such as Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Therefore, it would be a misconception to believe that her reclusive lifestyle limited her from being currently aware of public affairs, including gender issues.

Women were beginning to fight for equal rights politically and equal pay. Social and economic issues were at the heart of the campaigns led by women activists. This is not to claim that Emily Dickinson was a public activist, but the majority of her writing occurred during the years where gender issues were a main concern. Her stance on gender issues differed from the public methods of women's right activists. Poetry became her voice, while her seclusion became her public outcry against the oppression of her gender. As Reynolds explained, “Emily Dickinson explicitly rejected the “dimity convictions” of traditionalists and the public methods of women's right activists, while she made the era's boldest quest for specifically artistic exhibitions of woman's power” (Reynolds 126). Unlike her female contemporaries, her artistic “exhibition” created a large variety female personas that spread beyond the stereotypical norms.

Her representative stance on gender issues didn't just represent the typical victim, the struggling woman, or the strong female character, but spread to a larger spectrum of women. Reynolds remarked, “Her real representativeness lies in her incomparable flexibility, her ability to be, by turns, coy fierce, domestic, romantic, pro-feminist, anti-feminist,prudish,erotic” (Reynolds 128). She evaded the gendered norms in society by creating a literary realm that was free of gendered norms. Her manipulations of female stereotypes were done in such an extremity, that it exposed many gendered “norms” and social limitations. An example of this is seen in her poem, “I gave myself to him.”

Myself a poorer prove

Than this my purchaser suspect,

The daily own of Love

Depreciates the sight;

But, 'til the merchant buy,

Still fabled, in the isles of spice

The subtle cargoes lie (F426)

The word “husband” is not used to describe the wife's husband; rather, she uses the words “purchaser” and “merchant.” These words create an image of a transaction, a customer buying the product, rather than a man marrying a woman. Emily didn't just depict marriage as an act of oppression against women, but as form of degradation. The women is not longer a human, but as cargo. To submit to a husband's will meant to lose independence, but to become a “product” meant losing your identity as a human being.

This negative view of marriage coincided with many of the opposing views on marriage that were circulating in American culture during this time. One view, supported the traditional aspects of marriage and submission, appealing to the emotional aspects of marriage, empowerment through the happiness of your marriage and family. The second view opposed traditional marriage, claiming that it lead to economic deprivation, loss of self, and the subjugation of females. Emily Dickinson took both opposing views and created her own personal statement of marriage. (Reynolds 128).

By creating a large variety of personas in her poetry, she was able to create roles that sought empowerment in marriage and those who were deprived of independence because of marriage. Reynolds argued, “the literacy infusion enables her to achieve a far more complete view of marriage than was advanced by either pro-marriage or anti-marriage groups. The message, if any, that marriage is a heavenly state of power in which women gain safety and comfort but, at the same time, lose the painful exhilarating self sufficiency of maidenhood” ( Reynolds 129). This message is clear in “I gave myself to him.” The speaker is aware that she will gain an economic safety net, but she also fear disillusionment and disappointment because money does not equal happiness.

Emily Dickinson brought a new perspective to the views of marriage. Unlike the more radical feminists, she did not completely dismiss the positive aspects of marriage, even when they paled in comparison to their negative counterparts. This allowed Emily to expand as a writer that freed her from the gendered norms in literature. Eberwein even argued, that in order to “avoid sexual pronouns which might limit the range of the poet, she adopted resourceful expedients” (Eberwein 207). While Emily Dickinson did reject any offer to join female activists, she did not do so because she did not believe in women's equal rights,for she was socially aware of the cultural limitations imposed on women. It was due to the fact that she believed women suffragists and social elites, both pursued roles predetermined by men. If men had not created a society that repressed women, women would not have had the need to fight for equal rights. Therefore, men are the cause of the women's right movement and they are the cause of the cultural limitations imposed on women.

Emily chose the only viable option that allowed her to withdraw from such a male dominated society. She made the confines of her home, her shelter from society, only allowing a select few to remain in her personal life. Her choice to remain unmarried allowed her the opportunity to pursue her love for poetry and literature. It allowed her to create a personal space free from any social obligation and limitation, which allowed her to expand her creativity and imagination which can be seen in her poetry.

Work Cited

Eberwein,Jane. “Doing Without: Dickinson as Yankee Woman Poet.”Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Ed. Ferlazzo,Paul. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co.,1984.205-223.Print

Franklin, Ralph, ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP,1999.Print

Johnson, Thomas, ed. Emily Dikinson :Selected Letters. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986. Print.

Leiter, Sharon.Emily Dickinson: A literary Reference to Her Life and Work.New York:Facts on File, Inc.,2007.Print.

Lowell, R. “Emily Dickinson's Birography.” The Poetry Foundation. 2012.Web.03 December.2012 <>

Reynolds, David.”Emily Dickinson and popular culture.”Bloom's Modern Critical Views:Emily Dickinson. Ed. Bloom,Harold. New York: Infobase Publishing,2008. 111-134.Print

Thacker, Stetson. “Kate Chopin and Emily Dickinson's Rebellion Against Patriarchy.”American Fiction.2011.Web.5 Nov. 2012

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