The Emily Dickinson Journal 9.2 (2000) 42-54
[Access article in PDF]
Dickinson's Queer Version of the Birds and the Bees
H. Jordan Landry
As Jane Donahue Eberwein has argued, Puritanism was Dickinson's first language (170). As such, it immersed her in a discourse which over-determined the value, place, and role of both men's and women's bodies. Thereby it sought to shape her subjectivity through saturating her imagination with what philosopher Moira Gatens calls "imaginary bodies." Imaginary bodies are "socially and historically specific [bodies] . . . constructed through a shared language" and "common institutional practices and discourses." 1 One dominant mode by which Puritanism creates imaginary bodies is the discourse surrounding the process of conversion. Typically in Puritan discourse, conversion is represented in the form of an erotic triangle: the "bride" congregant embraces a love of Christ by imitating the male minister's own example. 2 Such a conversion introduces the congregant into a perceptual system structured by an idealization of male bodies and desires for them. In other words, through the process of conversion, the convert inherits a mode of perception that magnifies the positive value of male forms and fully authorizes desire for them. The mere fact that Puritanism's language and practices posit the male minister as the imitative model of conversion to be followed by all congregants and Christ as the final object of desire evidences the way Puritanism privileges the imaginary body of the male over that of the female. 3
In order to disrupt this powerful, reiterated Puritan narrative and wrest herself from its delimited mode of imagining women, Dickinson splices the discourse on conversion together with the simplest of zoological knowledge -- that bees pollinate flowers and that birds fly. Through the use of bird and bee imagery, Dickinson images anew the erotic triangle of male minister-Christ-congregant underlying Puritan discourse. Playing off of Eve Kosofsky [End Page 42] Sedgwick's and René Girard's theory that triangles of desire found narrative, I will argue that Dickinson overlays the Puritan triangle of desire with a zoological frame in order to lesbianize the process of conversion. 4 According to Dickinson, the route out of the encasement of the female body within a rigid Puritan discourse which insists on perceiving the female body in delimited ways, particularly as feminine and heterosexual, is the creation of alterior imaginary bodies, here bird and bee bodies. These bodies propel the imagination outside of reductive and overdetermined narratives and thereby allow for the reimagination of the female form's possibilities, possibilities of desire, corporeality, and sexuality.
The female form's sedimentation within narrative is evident in a variety of Puritan discursive forms. As Teresa de Lauretis argues, in narrative, the hero as male, possessor of desire, penetrates and conquers space, traveling through it; those obstacles he encounters en-route, including the matrix of space itself, largely figure as feminine and female (133-140). This analysis nicely encapsulates the structure of many Puritan narratives concerning conversion. For example, it is neither random nor arbitrary that, in minister Thomas Shepard's world of analogy, the image of a promiscuous woman was erected as the ultimate emblem of the faithless: "That a false, double, treacherous, disloyal heart to Christ can not expect any thing it comes for onto Christ. As it is with a woman, that others do not, yet her husband knows that she is fallen in league with some other man, he will be strange to her and not do anything for her" (Shepard 59). This quote sets up a triangle of an illicit male lover, an adulterous woman, and her husband who is analogically linked to Christ. In this way, any desires and detours that detract the potential convert from the ultimate goal of movement towards the loyal embrace of Christ are cast as feminine in their comparison to an adulterous woman. Further proof of this rhetorical strategy is Christian's pilgrimage to the Celestial City in Pilgrim's Progress in which he neglects his sinful wife in...