I wasn’t sure what to expect from Varieties of Literary Criticism, but I love the last four chapters: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, Gender and Queer Theory, and Postmodernism. It can be hard to wrestle with these topics when none have solid definitions, but I’d wager I can get some good future papers out of them anyway. Hooray lit-tra-cha!
In the class we’ve read lots of short fiction and poetry and then looong analyses of that short fiction and poetry. I hadn’t read too much Dickinson in the past, but she’s certainly fascinating especially for how much her works have resonated in culture. It’s great for high schoolers living in the suburbs that like to commiserate.
One example we used to discuss mythological analysis was The Chariot. It was one of my favorite reads of the module so I decided to do my third paper on it from the psychoanalytic point of view.
I was inspired by my literature columnist’s recent J.M. Barrie biography which starts out with a quote blasting anyone who would write about him, because I realize Dickinson would probably not be comfortable with people dissecting her work after her death. Alas, I probably am not the first and definitely will not be the last, I suppose. Enjoy!
Emily Dickinson is one of the more celebrated American poets. Her life was spent mostly in seclusion and she had no intention of publishing her work, yet scholars pour over her writing looking for the meanings of her mysterious words. The school of psychoanalytic criticism discussed in Rob Lapsley’s essay in The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory might offer an interesting perspective on Dickenson’s poem, “The Chariot” (66). In this analysis we’ll apply the theory described in the essay to this poem that relies heavily on imagery discussed in psychoanalysis like an impending imaginary parental figure and the formation of repressed desires; then also consider who this message is meant for, and how the poem refers to Lacan’s concept of alienation/separation.
Psychoanalysis spends some time on the idea of parental figures seen from the viewpoint of the child. The figure of death is like that parental figure: domineering and almost mythic or god-like. Rob Lapsley says these figures populate the child’s imaginary (69). In this poem, Dickinson is helpless to this mythic personification of death. She can’t stop for him, he “kindly stops for” her. Perhaps Dickinson feels a yearning for death, yet at the same time there is also fear. At least when he does come, it’s kindly.
Is this the formation of some repressed desire? Why would Dickinson ruminate on this particular subject? Perhaps she is trying to answer the question of whether she seeks Death and his chariot to heaven. Lapsley talks about how art and literature “can be viewed as compromise formations in which repressed desires find expression in a socially acceptable form” (70). Applying this theory to Dickinson can be problematic since she did not appear to seek social acceptance. Perhaps she was writing to understand herself better.
According to Lapsley, Lacan was very concerned with this question of “Who is speaking and to whom?” (73). Dickinson might be speaking to herself when she says that death will take its time and offer peace and timelessness when she writes “Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet/Feels shorter than the day” in her ruminations. The Chariot has mythological associations as the vehicle that takes a person down the road of life, and these words might show that life was seen as something tedious for Dickinson, and perhaps shows a longing for the endless ride of immortality.
Something can also be gleaned from the idea of alienation and separation in this Dickinson poem. Dickinson is said to have lived her life separated from the outside world. This poem’s narrator does as well when “The Carriage held but just/Ourselves/And Immortality” she spends the remainder of the poem on the inside of the carriage looking out. We also can wonder if putting away her labors and leisure means losing her old identity, what people labeled her as, like when Lacan notes that “subjects often protest at the identity assigned to them” (75).
Through this psychoanalytic point of view, we can understand a bit more about Dickinson’s mind as she wrote this poem. She refers to an imaginary god-like death figure, was possibly working out repressed desires, working out her own feelings about her life and the death that awaits, and possibly felt separated or looked forward to a full separation of herself and the living world.