Psychoanalytic Perspective on Emily Dickinson’s “The Chariot”

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.


Ripe for Analysis

Written and Visual Rhetoric has proven to be a good class to exercise gabbing about some of my favorite interests: comics and Reddit.

Here’s a couple of response papers I wrote. Each student has to present on one of the chapters and I chose “Typography” and picked out three comics from my bookshelf. Two of them had handmade titles and I felt since much of the class has talked about mainstream advertising I felt I should use perhaps a more “mainstream” example like the new Avengers spinoff featuring the character Hawkeye.

You can read my Hawkeye review at Post Defiance and the Tacoma Ledger.

Found Analysis – Typography: Comic Covers


Summer Blonde, Fun with Milk & Cheese, and Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon are three paperback collections of comic books originally released in a serialized magazine format. We’ll look at the typographical elements in their covers to analyze how readers get meaning or a feeling just from the title text by using David Machin’s Introduction to Multimodal Analysis and its chapter on typography (p. 83). These disparate examples are chosen specifically to highlight a difference between hand-created text and computer fonts, and to show how each have flourishes that tell a little about the stories within.

Summer Blonde is a collection of stories from Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve, featuring a set of four slice-of-life human experiences. The cover uses a handwritten letterform for the title likely created by the artist, which fits right in with Machin’s description of the slope characteristic; it looks like script which can have a meaning of  “personal,” “handcrafted,” and that it shows “human touch and care” (p. 98). The human touch might be an interpersonal way to give a reader the idea of this book as a hand-created work of art. This text’s soft, handcrafted characteristics seem to reflect the softer elements of the stories and images in the panels.

Fun with Milk & Cheese is the first volume in paperback collections of Evan Dorkin’s Milk & Cheese comics. This comic features anthropomorphic “dairy products gone bad,” a milk carton and his cohort, a chunk of cheese, as they drink gin excessively and go on various rampages. This title also appears to be hand-created, which can evoke those same feelings of handcrafted care as in Summer Blonde, but we’re definitely getting different emotions since this text is not sloping like script. There is also a much lower sense of regularity here, which Machin says “can mean conformity, restraint, order” (p. 102). The message here exudes madness and chaos rather than the safety of high regularity. The text also has a drawn style with flourishes that can be identified with the shapes of the characters themselves.

Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon is a recently released collection of a new monthly comic book series by Marvel Comics featuring the superpower-less archer hot off his movie appearance in “The Avengers.” Marvel comics tend to be a labor of industry, much like Hollywood movies, so unlike our other two examples it can be difficult identifying designers who create cover elements as the works get released in paperback. So in what appears to be computer-created text we might have the opposite of that personal touch, one of distance and aloofness. Someone might even say it’s less artistic. One of the featured categories Machin talks about is how flourishes can use iconographic imagery (p. 102). The designer here appears to have created the cover using a sans serif font, which Machin identifies with “cutting edge design” (p. 103). This may be used to make a character icon that was created in 1964 seem fresh. The creator has added flourishes to the letters like the arrow on the h and a dot to create a bull’s-eye in the a, strengthening associations with this character and archery, his main attribute as a superhero.

Through this variety of texts we can see a world of meaning existing in just the formation of letters in the titles.  In the realm of comics, titles are a big feature of the cover and have to be used in tandem with images to give the reader a sense of what the interior pages promise in order to sell the product to the reader. These examples show through their differences the warmth of hand-created elements and computer generated text forms. We can also see how text can give an iconic appearance and help tell a story.

Found Analysis – Social Actors: Watermelon Salesmen


This photo was one of the top posts of the popular picture sharing section (known as “/r/pics”) of the hyperlink-sharing news website, Reddit, on the morning of May 14, 2013. This photo features three watermelon salesmen with the headline, “My village’s three awesome watermelon merchants” by submitter “fucdatsit” who reveals in comments that the picture likely was taken in Tulkarem, Palestine. By this writing it has amassed 2779 total “karma points,” the net total number of positive “upvotes” and negative “downvotes” the picture received from users (these are terms that are widely used in the Reddit community). The “/r/pics” community has over three million subscribers, about 11,000 of which are shown to be online as of this writing. The snapshot nature of this picture means that it likely did not go through editing or styling the way a marketing photo might, so this analysis will focus on what made the image appealing to the masses, and how it earned so much precious karma. We’ll use David Machin’s Introduction to Multimodal Analysis and it’s chapter featuring social actors to look at how the user submitting the image chose a proper headline and see how the watermelon salesmen are using gaze to sell their wares (p. 109).

Taking a closer look at the title posted with the image, “My village’s three awesome watermelon merchants” can certainly give insight into why this post became so popular. It says that the submitter created a personal photo, something unique that a regular user of a massive online pictures community might not have seen before. Just by going with the descriptive title, there’s the promise of “awesome,” had this just been a picture of three friendly watermelon distributors exchanging fruits for cash we might feel at least a little let down. Machin mentions early in the chapter that linguistics describing a scene are very important, and uses examples of verbal descriptions often throughout the chapter, and says something can be found about who has the power in the scene by looking at the verbs in the sentence describing the picture (p. 109). However, there is no verb in this title, it’s a fragment. Does this mean there is no power in this scene? Who would we ascribe it to? The salesmen? The photographer? The village? One could even say it’s the reader who has the true power over the image, or rather, the collective voting of all the readers of “/r/pics,” which ultimately determines whether the image will be seen.

This reader will have to meet with the watermelon salesman’s gaze in this photo. Machin describes gaze as, “to what extent we are encouraged to engage with the participants” (p. 110). Just as he hopes to gather customers from the village, the salesman is performing an “awesome” act that beckons the viewer to engage. In the same way they were able to generate huge interest on Reddit, hopefully they were able to stand out in a village market.

This picture shows the importance of the social actors in the photo that earned popularity on a large news site. The user was able to do this by creating a well chosen, if grammatically incorrect, title for the post and the salesmen was able to do this by performing interesting feats.

Hope everyone enjoyed these as much as I enjoyed my grade on them!