A Goth in White: Safety and Identity in the Shadows

A Goth in White: Safety and Identity in the Shadows
© Photograph by Bella Kotak

In a letter Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote to his wife, he quotes Emily Dickinson as saying “If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way”. If we were to take out the word “poetry” and replace it with the word “Gothic,” we would have a perfect definition for Gothic literature. Many critics have looked at the Gothic aspects of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, such as Daneen Wardrop in Emily Dickinson’s ‘Gothic: Goblin and a Gauge’, and Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in ‘The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer’ and the ‘Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination’ have even read Dickinson herself as the embodiment of Romantic Gothic ideals. While it is clear that she was heavily influenced by Romantic writers, both poets and novelists, one must ask why as a Victorian writer she would take on this voice in her poetry. What was it about her situation that caused her to find expression in Gothic tropes?

Before explicating the meaning of her poem “One Need Not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —”, we first much understand what she defines as art. One of the most famous examples of her definition is found in a letter she wrote to Higginson, where she states “Nature is a Haunted House–but Art–a House that tries to be haunted” (Letters 459a). Like much of Dickinson’s work, this one line at first appears to be simple until we begin to peel away the layers of meanings. When looking at the first part of her statement, that “Nature is a Haunted House,” we must first ask under what basis she is constructing this metaphor. In ‘The Dickinson Sublime’, Gary Lee Stonum claims that Dickinson writes poems with the same subjects as having the identical or similar meanings or significances. In regards to her poems on nature, he says she usually “[represents] nature as an unremitting quiddity with which the self must battle to avoid a humbling affront”. While Stonum is referring to her poetry, his reading can help us to better understand her letter as well. If nature represents a sense of being that we must confront in order to find ourselves and be strong in our sense of self, then for nature to be haunted takes on the notion that this sense of being is one that will follow us always, like a ghost and particularly a doppelgänger, that will literally haunt our every movement, destroying us or as he says “humbling” us until we have confronted it.

If we then read the first part of her statement in this way, we now must turn to the second part in order to fully unpack her meaning. To say that art tries to be haunted is saying that art wishes to be like nature in that it is something against which we can better understand ourselves, our beings, or at least that should be its goal. Fred Botting, in his work ‘Gothic’, explains that Gothic literature written during the Romantic era is a literature that shows when “threatened with dissolution, the self, like the social limits which define it, reconstitutes its identity against the otherness and loss presented in the moment of terror”. Botting’s assessment of Gothic fiction and Stonum’s assessment of Dickinson’s nature poetry sound remarkably similar, both putting forth the notion that we define ourselves against something else, against the Other in Botting’s case and against nature in Stonum’s. The lens created by these definitions then supplies us with a way through which we can better understand Dickinson’s poetry.

Once we have established that her writing can be understood by reading it as Romantic Gothic works, we begin to find enriched meaning in her work. Richard Davenport-Hines, in ‘Gothic: Four Hundred Years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin’, defines Gothic as “an aesthetic of interior disorientation and divided selves” (304). Dickinson’s poem “One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted -” shows this notion of an “interior disorientation and divided selves.” In the poem she states that “Far safer, through an Abbey gallop/ The Stones a’chase — / Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter —/ In lonesome Place — ” (J 670). Here we see the notion of the divided self by her mention of a person encountering him or herself somewhere. Not only does she explore this idea of a second inner identity, but in typical Gothic fashion, she claims that this second inner self is one that we should avoid. In fact, Mark Edmundson in ‘Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture of the Gothic’ explains this concept as “The idea of a second self — of a horrible other living unrecognised within us, or loosed somehow into the world beyond […]” (Edmundson 8). Here she uses the image of the doppelgänger in order to show this evil side within ourselves, one from which many of us often hide.

At the end of the poem, she talks about the division between the mind and the body. She says that the body protects itself from “O’erlooking a superior spectre — / Or More —“ (J 670). In this way, she sees the mind as being “a superior spectre” one that is stronger than the body, but one that is frightening as well. Interestingly, she uses a Gothic convention in a way that is opposite to the usual representation of the body/mind divide at this time. In many Victorian works, the mind is privileged over the body. The body is seen as a place of animalistic desires and behaviours. The mind, on the other hand, is the seat of logic and rationality. For an example of this dichotomy and the way the privileging works, one need only look to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. However, since she is writing with more of a Romantic ideology behind her poetry, we find that she is privileging the emotion of the body or the sublime, rather than the rationality of the mind.

In addition to subverting the mind/body dichotomy, her use of the male pronoun here to represent the body is a puzzling one. When discussing the dichotomy of reason versus feeling, the reason is generally associated with the male and feeling with the female. If we maintain our reading that the body is the site of feeling, then she should gender that body as female rather than male. In a traditional Gothic work, usually the gender of the body lost in catacombs and hiding from a threat is a female body. So why would Dickinson give us a male body in this stanza? By looking at the work of Judith Butler, we can use it to better understand what Dickinson is doing here. In “Imitation and Gender Insubordination” Butler claims that “identity categories tend to be the instruments of regulatory regimes, whether as the normalising categories of oppressive structures or as the rallying points for a liberatory contestation of that very oppression” (308). What Butler is arguing here is that our identity, in particular, our gender identity, is one that is placed upon us by those in power in order to control our behaviours or it can be used to subvert that very control as well. This act of subversion is the one that we must consider when doing a Gothic reading of Dickinson’s work.

As noted, women are usually the gender used to show fear and weakness in the face of a Gothic threat. Kate Ferguson Ellis in ‘The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology’ explains, “writers […] consciously used Gothic conventions to expose the evils of autocratic power, especially that exercised by men over women” (xiii). Doing so illustrated the weakness that was ascribed to women by the patriarchy and the lack of autonomy they had within the hegemonic structure. To have a male body then take this position suggests that men, when confronted with female hegemony, if and when it exists, are also rendered powerless by the Other. In this way, the two genders as they are constructed by society are mutually exclusive and unable to combine into a stronger whole. Botting furthers this notion when discussing the role of the Victorian double or doppelgänger in Gothic works: “an uncanny figure of horror, the double presents a limit that cannot be overcome, the representation of an internal and irreparable division in the individual psyche” (93). So we are to understand that it is not only the role of the female gender that is harmed by the societally imposed gender norms, but the male is harmed by them as well.

We also must note her use of the word “haunted” in the poem. If the haunted house of nature is one that forces us to confront our sense of being, then when our mind is the entity being haunted, in order to, as Stonum puts it, “avoid a humbling affront,” we must confront this other self head-on. Unfortunately, not only would losing to this other self be humbling, but not confronting it at all is humbling as well. While she states throughout the poem that it is better not to confront this self, by saying that our mind is haunted by it, she is telling her reader that this second self will continue to dwell in the mind and haunt the individual. In the fourth stanza, she writes “Ourself behind ourself, concealed […] / Should startle most […]“(J 670). This notion of the two selves brings to mind the idea of a fake persona that we feel the need to hide behind rather than show our true self to the world. Going back to our reading of the gender of the body present in the poem, we can see the notion that one may need to hide the way one actually feels internally because that self is unaccepted or powerless in the face of the hegemonic structure that determines such identity roles. We also can see the pain and fear that this hiding of self causes. By the last stanza of the poem, she has suggested a feeling that is both cold, lonely and leaves us with the feeling of powerlessness.

This final feeling that she leaves her reader with is significant in regards to the poem’s role as a Gothic work because she does not give us the typical emotional release or sense of catharsis that Romantic Gothic works were supposed to provide. Fred Botting explains that Gothic works were a “powerful means to reassert the values of society, virtue and propriety […][they] frequently adopt this cautionary strategy, warning of dangers of social and moral transgression by presenting them in their darkest and most threatening form” (7). He further explains, “Terror evoked cathartic emotions and facilitated the expulsion of the object of fear” (7-8). In this way, Dickinson varies from the typical Romantic Gothic format that uses the sublime and the other conventions to enact this catharsis. There is a reason for her variation, as evidenced by a close reading of the last stanza. She ends by saying “The Body – borrows a Revolver –/ He bolts the Door – / O’erlooking a superior spectre – / Or More –“ (J 670). We are never able to see the “superior spectre”; we are never able to confront the terror at the door. Because we are not able to do so, we do not get the catharsis that we are meant to get by reading Gothic works. Instead, Dickinson forces us to deal with the one possible notion, which is that we can never actually face what is evil or detrimental because it is within ourselves. When reading descriptions of her behaviour and her self-imposed seclusion, one can assume that she had some kind of anxiety disorder or even agoraphobia. If she did, then she would have been trapped by her mind, and the mind cannot be confronted physically and it most certainly cannot be overcome with physical objects such as a gun, unless those objects change it permanently through death. So by closing the poem in this manner, she illustrates what it is like to never have the release of confronting one’s enemy because that enemy is ourselves.

Another possible reading of this ending deals with the gender roles mentioned above. As previously stated, the society created these roles to be mutually exclusive, with each gender having its own behaviours and jobs that the other was not to practice. In this way, the two could never be combined. By leaving us with the notion that they cannot be integrated by dictate of the society, and leaving us with a feeling of discomfort and fear, she could be challenging the mutual exclusivity of these roles. In Michel Foucault’s ‘The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction’, he discusses how the gender roles were socially constructed and how homosexuality was defined. What concerns us about his argument is his notion of “‘psychic hermaphrodism’” (101). Foucault explains, “We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was categorized […] less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sexual sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and feminine in oneself. Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul.”

What Foucault is conjecturing here is that during this period, the Victorian period, homosexuality became more than just a sexual act. It was an actual identity, an aberrant one as viewed by the hegemony of the time, that one embodied within one’s psyche. It was not performance but, instead, it was self, one that attempted to take on both genders in an androgynous nature.

This androgynous nature then, the blending of both genders in the psyche, is important in Dickinson’s poetry in general. Quite a few of Dickinson’s poems have her taking on the male role or using male pronouns or nouns with which to refer to herself. As an intelligent woman, her intelligence alone would have marked her as unfeminine, yet she did have stereotypical feminine qualities. In this way, she was herself an embodiment of both genders, of both identities; therefore, she understood the horrific position such a fused identity would create for a person in a culture that was unaccepting of that role. She also then had firsthand knowledge of the struggle one would have gone through to try to negotiate a bridge between the roles within a culture that would not allow one to do so. By taking on the psychological roles of both genders, she does take on Foucault’s “psychic hermaphrodism.”

The ending of her poem then is further problematized by Foucault’s argument that “discourse [of the Victorian era regarding sexuality] can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy” (101). By creating the genders through which to control individuals, the society also created homosexuality or “psychic hermaprodism” and the means through which this seemingly aberrant behaviour could define itself against the hegemonic discourse and thereby naturalise itself. This naturalisation then would remove the aberrant nature ascribed to it (101). In her poem, the two genders hide from one another, and as I mentioned she does not give us the cathartic moment of the two meeting that was typical of the Gothic. By not doing so, she shows that the prescribed behaviour of maintaining the borders between the sexes is one that is detrimental to the psyche. And while the society sees the meetings of the two genders as dangerous, it is that very meeting and potential integration into androgyny that would bring the catharsis necessary for the work to follow the traditional Gothic convention. In essence, then, the poem could be showing the need to get through this fear in order to find the catharsis, because the safest course is not always the best course.

In addition to representing the psychic divide within oneself, she is also, in the words of Fred Botting, “signifying the alienation of the human subject from the culture and language in which s/he was located” (11). What the speaker in the poem has essentially done by hiding from a confrontation with the other self is to lock that self away, thereby alienating it from any outside influence. According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Personal identity […] is at no moment inherent in one but is applicable — is applied — only from outside, après-coup, and by a process of visual assimilation or ‘seeing as’” (262). The self, once it has hidden itself away is no longer “seen” by the culture, and, therefore, is no longer defined by that culture. While that may seem to be a freeing experience at first glance, upon further investigation, we can find that being that isolated, no matter the level of freedom it provides, can also be abjectly lonely.

What is more, as human beings, we often need justification from outside sources, some more so than others. Her correspondences with Higginson and others illustrate that she did reach out for justification and criticism, even if she did not feel the need to find it through wide-scale publication. As such, she would have felt the loss that such self-imposed isolation would have caused.

Not only does the society determine how we are viewed, individuals do as well. A person meets us or sees us for the first time, and that person determines how he or she views us, how we are to be understood, and in so doing that person imposes an identity upon us that is created by him or her rather than by how we see ourselves. Dickinson would have been aware of this contrived identity as a writer. For Dickinson, it was very important for her to define her own identity. Several critics have speculated that she did not publish because she wanted total control of her artistic vision; she did not want her poetry to be altered by male publicists. In ‘Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women’s Verse in America, 1820-1885’, Elizabeth A. Petrino explains “she distinguished herself as the only American Renaissance writer who valued her own conception so completely that she was willing to forgo publication” (20). In this way, she was unwilling to give the control over to anyone else. She wished to establish her own identity, her own boundaries, without having to confront another version of herself that was not her own. In fact, as Daneen Wardrop explains, “Dickinson painstakingly fashioned herself as a persona […]. The only Dickinson we can know well remains the written Dickinson, and the written Dickinson is nothing if not consummately crafted” (3). Because the readers and publishers cannot see the real her due to her constructed persona, because she is hidden away so as to refrain from “O’erlooking a superior spectre — ” she is protected from what it may do to her, how it might change her, but she is also isolated from a community of other authors and publishers that could help her develop her own identity more.

What we need to understand with Dickinson’s poetry then is that she is a bridge between the Romantic’s notion of the Gothic and the Victorian’s notion of it. She borrows from both forms in order to express her ideas to the reader. Once we understand that this is what she is doing, her poems open up to new meanings rather than being enigmas or a terror in and of themselves. The Gothic is known as a literary form that challenges boundaries, both those within us and those within society.

Not only does Dickinson take on these tasks with gusto in her poetry, but she also challenges the boundaries of the Gothic itself by taking two distinct eras of it and combining their particular conventions in a way to force us to see the unreal nature of those boundaries built around our identity and sense of self and our compliance with their restrictions.

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