Gender identities in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and in the narrative life of Frederick Douglass

Seminar Paper, 2005

10 Pages, Grade: 65%


Table of Contents:

1. Introduction

2. Gender Identities in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

3. Gender Identity in Frederick Douglass’ The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass. A American Slave Written by Himself

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Before we deal with gender identity it is first of all important to understand the definition of gender. The Oxford Companion to African-American Literature explains it as follows:

“Gender is different from sexuality [sic!]. Sexuality concerns physical and biological differences that distinguish males from females. Cultures construct differences in gender. These social constructions attach themselves to behaviors, expectations, roles, representations, and sometimes to values and beliefs that are specific to either men and women.”

In this following paper I’m going to analyse the different gender identities appearing in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the autobiography of Frederick Douglass.[1] My main focus is concentrated on the use and description of gender in both genres. How are gender identities characterized and how do we get to know them? Which gender does Dickinson use in the chosen poems and how are their identities constructed? Referring to Douglass it is interesting to look at how he constitutes himself as an identity.

Referring to Emily Dickinson, I chose several poems, like “I’m “wife” – I’ve finished that-“, “I felt my life with both hands”, “A Wife- at Daybreak I shall be”, “I was the slightest in the House-“ and “I tie my Hat”.

2. Gender Identities in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

In the lyric poem there is for the most part no description of who is speaking, no embodiment, no development, no introduced “character”. For example, Dickinson’s various personae or self-positionings as “Earl”, “Wife” or “Queen” are known either only by the tone and manner of the text or by self-naming within the poem’s text. Dickinson’s speaker exclaims “A Wife – at Daybreak- I shall be-“ but the poem provides no corroboration of these identity markers. Dickinson neither describes her speakers in narrative terms nor describes their positions as separate from herself, except in the single cryptic comment to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “When I state myself [that is, use “I”] as the Representative of the Verse- it does not mean me- but a supposed person”.[2]

Dickinson is famous for linguistic gaps supplied by syntax, elision, figures of speech and sheer omission. She also opens conceptual gaps between variant constructions of gender- in individual poems and from poem to poem. In these spaces between conventional constructions she presents modifications, diversions, and conditions that are contentious or problematic, and in this fashion she skews and alters gender identities. Dickinson is rarely overt and frequently not literal about gender as inflecting the identity of her speaker. However, her poems are replete with conventional performative signs for indicating that gender is present: costumes, settings, and actions.

I put new Blossoms in the Glass –

And throw the old – away –

I push a petal from my Gown

That anchored there – I weigh

(from I tie my Hat)

I never spoke – unless addressed –

And then, ‘twas brief and low –

I could not bear to live – aloud –

The Racket shamed me so –

(from I was the slightest in the House)

Dickinson’s feminine speakers use their gender to construct and deconstruct their own identities as well as to discuss the performative nature of gender. In “I tie my Hat-“ gender turns out to be an act of simulation. This speaker is an adept performer of the “little duties” of gender conventions. She ties her hat, creases her shawl, and brushes petals from her gown so as, she says in the final poem’s line, “To hold our – Senses – on - .” These are acts of simulation, she explains, because for her “existence – some way back - / Stopped – struck – my ticking – through - .” Yet even after some terrible occurrence that might make any of us feel as if “the errand’s done/ We came to Flesh – upon,” we cannot “put Ourself away/ As a completed Man/ Or Woman - ,” observes the speaker, thus pointedly connecting identity to gender.


[1] Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass. An American Slave Written by Himself.

[2] Martin, Wendy. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2002. 109.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Gender identities in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and in the narrative life of Frederick Douglass
University of Reading  (Department of English and American Literature)
Writing America 2
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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This essay was part of a seminar called "Writing America 2" which a attended at the University of Reading, GB.
Gender, Emily, Dickinson, Frederick, Douglass, Writing, America
Quote paper
Katrin Gischler (Author), 2005, Gender identities in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and in the narrative life of Frederick Douglass, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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