A Feminist Literary Criticism of Emily Dickinson’s Poem “I ’m wife; I’ve finished that” (Poem #189)
Ardika Rizky Saputri
The purpose of this essay is to analyze the poem of Emily Dickinson, “I ’m wife; I’ve finished that” with feminism literary criticism.
Feminist literary criticism is looking at literature and authors from a feminist point of view. Coming from an understanding that literature is not neutral but reflects political perspectives, feminist literary criticism is linked to feminist politics. It has needed to be strong and angry, at times, to shake up the certainties of male-dominated culture and make a freer atmosphere for women writers and readers (Magezis, 1996: 55 in Elma, 2003: 35)
In the Dickinson’s poem, “I ’m wife; I’ve finished that”, it showed the woman’s difference of freedom when they are married and have not married. It is not amazed if this poem is connected to feminism approach. Feminist scholars have examined Dickinson’s poems and letters in an effort to gain some insight into how the poet responded to the gender-restrictive values of the mid-nineteenth-century patriarchal society. These critics have concluded that while as a person Dickinson succumbed to a life of social marginality and seclusion, as a poet she opened a new frontier of feminine power and assertiveness through her transcendent and imaginative verse.
Feminist scholars have identified a number of Dickinson’s poems which directly comment upon the role and experiences of women within a repressive patriarchal order. In addition, some of these critics have suggested that many more poems can be interpreted as the poet’s opinion of gender issues if one were to assume that the speaker in each verse is a female. For example, Poem 271 (“A solemn thing—it was—I said—”) presents the image of “a woman—white,” which may be a reference to a bride, a novice nun, or a female poet. At the conclusion, the speaker of the poem finds satisfaction in her “‘small’ life,” which some commentators have suggested is a rejection of conventional female roles in favor of pursuing those that she finds more fulfilling. A similar theme of empowerment has been detected in Poem 657 (“I dwell in Possibility—”), which many critics have maintained is a commentary on the ability of the female artist to subvert the oppressive limitations of the patriarchal order through the transcendental power of poetry. Though her poems were not grouped into published collections during her lifetime, Dickinson did sew certain poems into “fascicles,” or small booklets, indicating that she viewed them as related meditations on a central theme. Her fascicle 22, which includes Poem 271, is one example. Scholars have focused on the poems in this fascicle—which reflect on such subjects as domestic life, liberty, human relationships, and spiritual redemption—as verses indicative of Dickinson’s desire to defy the social and gender conventions of her day.
Dickinson’s poetry reflects her loneliness as we know she was seldom left her house and by the 1860s, Dickinson lived in almost total physical isolation from the outside world. The speakers of her poems generally live in a state of want, but her poems are also marked by the intimate recollection of inspirational moments which are decidedly life-giving and suggest the possibility of happiness. Her work was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, as well as her reading of the Book of Revelation and her upbringing in a Puritan New England town which encouraged a Calvinist, orthodox, and conservative approach to Christianity.
Many of Dickinson’s poems discuss female identity in relation to males and her own identity in accordance to religion, nature, life and love. I think some of her poetry could definitely be grounded in the probability that she might have been thinking of her own identity in a society where first the father dominates and then the husband, but where she has experienced neither. When both don’t exist, the patriarchal system has been undercut.
“In I’m wife I’ve finished that” Emily want to show the difference of to be “woman” and “wife”. The statement was said that this poem is about an uneasy-contradictory feeling of a young woman who is turning into a woman, especially a wife that seems “safer and more comfortable”, but stopping her from becoming a full human being with no self empowerment and self identity anymore (Akun from Indonesia in http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/emilydickinson/10150/comments). There is a different position between “woman” and “wife” that show how both of them take steps. For further analysis of this poem will be discussed in the next section deeply.
As mention above we will analyze the Dickinson’s poem, “I’m wife, I’ve finished that” by Feminist literary criticism. As we know in this poem, Emily Dickinson presents a very intricate approach towards marriage. Although we know that Emily had not married yet, she can show how the situation of both of them.
In the first stanza, Emily show that if she becomes a wife, she will finish all of she had done. The labels and titles given to women (“Wife”) and to contrast it to what a woman can never be and a man can (“Czar”) demonstrates this with the sharp puncturing dashes, capital letters and exclamation marks at the end. The inequality of man and woman is clearly shown as well by the change the woman goes through from childhood: “girl” to womanhood: “Wife” characterized by an “Eclipse” in the second stanza. I guess, based on her, it is natural for “woman” to stop at “wife” because as a wife the women must go along with her husband. It is not as freedom as they are a woman that can do everything without interference of others. A woman can become a “Czar”, but a “wife” just only becomes a wife with the husband as her adoration. And often we see the intimidation wife by her own husband in their household. Her life will be dominated by her own husband.
Emily did not marry, but what perhaps is most poignant and really more the issue is not her ignorance and bitterness towards the married state but, after girlhood there is only marriage, and since she is not married, then what is she? It is about identity. The line “It’s safer so” shows that she believed that to have a label, to be ‘typical’, ‘normal’, etc. is to be ‘safer’ and to be more secure of her own identity. She is in flux having never been married and never having a domineering male force in her life, except from her constant issue with her religion/faith, of course dominated by men then.
Emily Dickinson presents a very intricate approach towards marriage. In the first stanza she writes “I’m ‘wife’ – I’ve finished that / I’m ‘Woman’ now – It’s safer so,” what she means here is that now since I am married, I have become complete woman. I think the message that she is trying to convey is that every girl ought to get married in order for her to become a ‘complete’ woman. In the first 3 line Dickinson seems to present a pro-marriage opinion. But in the last line of stanza 1, she writes “It’s safer so,” here is where the ironic messages is put forward. In mid nineteenth century, it was a norm/expected for a girl to get married, have a family, have children and have a typical lifestyle. So in the last line she mocks the society for pressurizing girls to get married.
In the second stanza, Emily called the marriage as an “eclipse” of the woman, though a soft one because of her unsatisfied but culturally obligated feeling on marriage. The inequality of man and woman is clearly shown as well by the change the woman goes through from childhood: “girl” to womanhood: “Wife” characterized by an “Eclipse”. Dickinson is playing feminist. She is saying it is better to be “Woman” rather than “Wife.” Once you make this realization, you will see things as differently as the dead see life on earth. But maybe, she is pointing out that the natural progression of a girl’s life from willfulness to marriage in “the soft eclipse”, almost like she see marriage as a shelter from pain. In this stanza she compares the single-married issue to the earth-heaven scenario. Being single is represented by the ‘harsh’ life and realities of the earth and a married woman’s life is compare to being in ‘Heaven.’
In the other statement from Grace in United States, Emily Dickinson is not finding security with becoming a woman, but insecurities. She does not want to be a wife or a woman and puts these words in quotes because they seem foreign when compared to her. This relates to her family life also because her father did not expect a woman to become of anything and Emily rejected her mother’s identity insisting in her poems that she is an orphan upon herself. In this poem she fantasizes that she did enter in some kind of marriage, but she seems to almost be mocking it.
The same, insecure status applied also to widows. They too throughout history have been of unstable status. Certainly, ‘wife’ was really the only occupation for a woman out of girlhood, and there is definitely a hint of bitterness and regret, but perhaps the bitterness is well deserved. She has no social identity but that of a spinster and no woman would willingly adopt that title that was often the butt of pity or scorn.
And most definitely, I think she did not want to be a wife and I guess she thought to preserve some sense of an identity she had to become a recluse, but there is a sense of a lack of identity when not a wife and not a girl. It is a shame she was not more of an outgoing person challenging social ideals.
The final stanza describes the Emily’s feeling in marriage. She said that the marriage at other side will being comfort as she is pointing out that the natural progression of a girl’s life from willfulness to marriage in “the soft eclipse”, almost like she see marriage as a shelter from pain, but pain is the other kind. This stanza begins with the lines “This being comfort-then/ That other kind was pain,” these two lines transmit a mixed signal suggesting that married life is finally painless or the complete opposite of it
That pain is come from the reality of household. How the couple, man and woman, will unite their want, their habit and their purpose in a nation. And when they can not to unite that, there will be a problem that threats their household. Occasionally, the one will dominate the other. In this case, we are always seeing that the woman is the oppressed side.
Basically, Emily is not satisfied with the marriage life; and that’s why she keeps comparing herself as she says “why compare?” from the beginning to the end of the poem, and the last line “I’m “Wife”! Stop there!” almost sounds like a man’s voice ordering her. However, she ends in a cynical tone: With independence comes pain, so it is natural for women to stop at “Wife.”
She ends the poem with a positive note towards marriage by saying that there is no need to compare both the scenarios since she is now a ‘Wife.’ Here again, she uses the word ‘Wife’ to represent her status. That to me indicates that she is trying to mock the sexist society of the middle nineteenth century.
As we analyze in the above section we know that in this poem Emily Dickinson want to presents a very intricate approach towards marriage. At the first 3 lines, she show her a pro-marriage opinion, but in the last she writes the ironic messages that mocks the society norm in mid nineteenth for pressurizing girls to get married.
She wants to show that the marriage for the girls is like “soft eclipse”. Marriage will give the safer live for the girls that are demanded to them and finally painless, or the complete opposite of it that will cause a pain for them.
I think this poem is presented to mock the sexist society of the middle nineteenth century for pressurizing girls to get married, have a family, have children and have a typical lifestyle.
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