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Pain of Silence: Emily Dickinson's Silences, Poetic Persona and Ada's Selfhood in The Piano

From: The Emily Dickinson Journal
Volume 5, Number 2, Fall 1996
pp. 197-201 | 10.1353/edj.0.0145

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

There is a silence where hath been no sound.
There is a silence where no sound may be.
In the cold grave, under the deep deep sea.

"Sonnet: Silence" by Thomas Hood, 1799-1845

Tillie Olsen's Silences first made us aware of the silences and fissures, the I gaps and discontinuities in women's literature and how these operated in the female tradition. But it was not until 1993 that a feminist filmmaker gave form to these silences and fissures in the character of Ada, heroine of Academy Award winning film The Piano. In an interview given shortly after the film was made, Jane Campion imparted that she was influenced by the persona of the poet embodied in Emily Dickinson's poetry in her creation of The Piano's main character Ada. Each—Ada and Dickinson's persona—exists in protest to the patriarchal system which denies or inhibits women's right to self-expression through artistic creativity. Just as Dickinson is the surgeon / artist eloquent in depicting pain, so Ada's face is eloquent in revealing it mutely yet eloquently. Truly her silent haunting pain evokes that spoken of by Emily Dickinson in her poem 1004: "There is no Silence in the Earth—so silent / As that endured / Which uttered, would discourage Nature / And haunt the World." In Ada's life and story that pain haunts the World.

Significantly, one poet of the twentieth century wrote that the poem should be "palpable and must / Like a globed fruit." Since under nine-teenth-century patriarchy virtually a woman's whole meaning was her being (still), a woman in public, a woman in publication must affect passivity and a semblance of genteel silence. The silent Ada is outwardly passive until driven by extreme circumstances to experiment with suicide, whereupon she finds that up from deep inside of her wells a desire to live. Emily Dickinson bore witness to how children were shut up in houses and closets and similarly women were shut up in prose (as fabulists?):

They shut me up in Prose—As when a little Girl
They put me in a Closet—
Because they liked me "still"—

(P613)

Rigidly constricted by stiff petticoats and corsets—and stiffer protocol—a woman's appearance and decorum comprise much of her meaning and social construction. Once Ada's husband has observed her initially on the beach, he attempts no further personal conversation with her: since he has seen her, he believes he knows her already, although he has hardly exchanged a word with her. While Ada may appear passive or submissive because she is non-verbal, musical, and passionate, on the contrary, the persona of Dickinson's poems is a wry commentator on social life in her community and the world even as she becomes increasingly a recluse from those with "Dimity Convictions."

I do not make a reductionist equation between Emily Dickinson's persona with her own individual selfhood. She wrote to Higginson, "When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person"; yet clearly she self-consciously concocted this supposed person as the persona of her poems, anticipating postmodernist feminist sensibility. The ways in which The Piano and Emily Dickinson's poetry constructs and deconstructs the self, creative self-expression and silences are the topics of my paper.

I

Thomas Wentworth Higginson's comment that she was "partially cracked" did nothing to elevate Emily Dickinson's standing in the world of letters; but it has only made her discovery by early twentieth century scholars—and her rediscovery by late twentieth century feminist critics—that much more jubilant and welcome. She wrote, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—" (P1129). Only now are we uncovering that passionate—and occasionally politcal truth—in understanding her poetry. We see exactly how she represented her own individuality in poetry—alternately "the only Kangaroo among the Beauty," (L268 ) "a somber Girl,"(P593) or "I'm Nobody!" (P288). Of course, she was too brilliant, eccentric and capriciously original for the conventional nineteenth-century mind to fathom. Yet today, in the wake of post-modernism, we have decoded and discerned her sense of humor as well...