Feminist Argument: Emily Dickinson’s Portrayal of Women in Society

In this essay, two of Emily Dickinson’s poems, “Success is counted sweetest” and “The bustle in a house”, will be analyzed for their common theme of death and the customs surrounding it to illustrate the position of women within society. According to feminist gender criticism, the female perspective is of little consequence to most in a modern, patriarchal society, and traditionally the roles of women are secondary to those of men. This paper will attempt to show how each of these poems illustrates this secondary role of women in society by using death as a metaphor to symbolize women’s separated social position. The first poem, “Success is counted sweetest”, written in the first person perspective, has Dickinson describing women’s experience in society as silent and separate. In the second, “The bustle in a house”, Dickinson describes women’s experience as viewed by patriarchal society using the metaphor of a household cleaning up after a death in the family. It is this separateness, illustrated in “Success is counted sweetest”, that is perpetuated by men’s alienation of women in patriarchal societies, as presented in “The bustle in a house”, that leads to the conclusion that women’s lives are full of loneliness.

The first couplet of “Success is counted sweetest” defines the status of women in society: “Success is counted sweetest/ By those who ne’er succeed.” It suggests that only those who have never achieved success are most able to recognize success in others. For example, women understand the inequality of men holding most positions of power in the United States, such as CEO and political posts, while this inequality remains invisible to those same men holding those powerful positions. The second couplet explains that women know they are perceived as second-class citizens within society: “To comprehend a nectar/ Requires the sorest need.”

The second stanza contrasts women’s acute awareness of their inequality with the majority of society’s lack thereof. Not one “purple host” (in this case the words refer to a large army, with the color purple indicating an association with royalty) could describe the concept of victory even though he was taking up the flag for king and country. Here Dickinson depicts the army as unaware of its cause and not understanding the meaning of the word “victory”. However, as the previous and the third stanzas suggest, women clearly understand the definition of victory because, as stated in the third stanza, she will die before she attains victory. This paradoxical notion of understanding those things that distant to us can be untangled best by imagining we are watching a large game in play. When viewed from up close, one can only see the game pieces. The majority of people see the game this way because they are participants. But women, who are separate from the majority’s experience, see the game from afar because they cannot play. They therefore can watch the strategies as they unfold and understand them more clearly because of their unique and lonely perspective.

The final stanza describes this lonely perspective thus: “The distant strains of triumph/ Break, agonized and clear”. Dickinson’s use of death in this poem serves to show women’s feelings of separation from the norms of society. According to Dickinson, the “sorest need” required to comprehend this “nectar” in the poem is death, and death is the ultimate act of separation in Western society. When we die, we are as isolated as we can possibly be from society. In death, we are completely removed from all participation in life. Dickinson uses the metaphor of death as a separating act to illustrate how life is for women in society.

With this understanding of women’s perspective within society, it can now be examined how women perceive society’s actions toward them. In other words, we can explore how society behaves to make women feel separated and secondary in society. Again, Dickinson uses death as a persuasive metaphor to address this issue in her poem “The bustle in a house”. This poem simply describes the scene of a household cleaning up after a death in the family. The first stanza tells of the automatic, quiet business of removing a dead family member from the household: “The bustle in a house/ The morning after death/ Is solemnest of industries/ Enacted upon earth-/.” The theme of the poem as a metaphor to describe society is clear: “the solemnest industry” in the poem is the process of separating the dead person from the family fold. A form of alienation, this action is similar to the moves made by Nazi Germany to alienate the Jews, or that of America alienating people of color. Here the act of alienation is applied to women. The second stanza describes the details of this “solemnest of industries”: “The sweeping up the heart/” suggests one must pack up his emotions, generally thought to reside in the heart, and store his love specifically away somewhere. Furthermore, that the members of this family will not “want to use [love] again, until eternity”, shows that this alienation is permanent within the world of men. It is only when one reaches the Kingdom of Heaven that one can bring his love out of its dusty box and love all people again. This is how Dickinson describes the total alienation of women within society-it is akin only to death in the way the majority treats women as separated from the games men play.

In short, through Dickinson’s imagery of death the lonely life of women emerges. The most poignant aspect of Dickinson’s use of death is that women only must live under these circumstances. The men of modern, patriarchal societies go through this act of separation only when they die and become unconscious of their state. In “Success is counted sweetest,” Dickinson gives us a glimpse of what it means to experience life as a woman, separated from the successes and victories made attainable only to society’s men. She further shows us the bittersweet wisdom that women come to possess from living this reality. For a woman, living such a hollow existence hurts as much as hearing the trumpets of victory as she lays dying, knowing that she will never be able to celebrate that victory with her comrades. In the same vein, “The bustle in a house” shows the empty, separate, and cold mentality that the majority of society has towards a woman’s position in society. Dickinson’s message in this poem is that women may as well be dead. She again uses death imagery to illustrate her point. The majority of society sees a woman as a dead family member, someone they must forget, sweep up, and someone for whom they must put their love away, never to use again. As depressing as these comparisons may sound, if we consider the lives women lived in the 19th century, it becomes understandable how most would view life this way. Today, by contrast, women’s roles have come closer to being equal to men’s in our society, yet they are still striving for full equality.

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