- Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge
Emily Dickinson’s association with the gothic is not only the stuff of legend but also central to her poetic aims. Her oft-quoted statement, “Nature is a Haunted House — but Art — a House that tries to be haunted” (L459a), provides the vantage point for a fine new book by Daneen Wardrop, Emily Dickinson’s Gothic: Goblin with a Gauge. Wardrop extends the insights of previous critics, notably Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Jane Eberwein, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, and Joan Kirkby, who have delineated gothic elements in Dickinson’s poetry. Wardrop’s book is an impressive contribution to Dickinson studies, illuminating Dickinson’s connections with multiple literary contexts and rich interpretive possibilities in the poems themselves. Wardrop’s discussion is extremely lucid, and her prose is vigorous and graceful.
Pursuing a specifically feminine gothic, Wardrop lays theoretical groundwork for her examination of Dickinson’s craft by explicating a sequence of related texts — E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Sandman,” Sigmund Freud’s analysis of uncanny elements in Hoffman’s narrative, and Hélène Cixous’s feminist “Fiction and Its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche (‘The Uncanny’),” which focuses on the female figure that Freud repressed. Drawing additionally on theorists as diverse as Ann Radcliffe and Tzvetan Todorov, Wardrop probes Dickinson’s “deliberate conflation of haunting form and haunting content” (18) from the perspective of women writers and women readers. Her procedure, and the brilliant organizing principle of her book, is to track the poet “through centuries of gothicism, from eighteenth-century castle-enclosure and the devices of gothic romance convention, through nineteenth-century use of doubling, to the early-twentieth-century existential void” and “the postmodern realm of signification” (152).
Three chapters contribute helpful new maps to territories already well charted by students of Dickinson — imagery of the house, the bride, the threat of rape. Gothic terror, horror, suspense, uncertainty, and awe become the key to Dickinson’s power over her readers, “her ability to ‘transport’ rather than to ‘transcend’” (48). Wardrop emphasizes the liminal. The “doorjamb scene,” she states, “ is the primary gothic scene, whereby some unknown force may [End Page 121] gain access from the outside, or the heroine may be imprisoned on the inside” (23). Like the house, the female is vulnerable, body and soul:
I am afraid to own a Body -
I am afraid to own a Soul -(P1090)
Wardrop glosses the polysemy in Dickinson’s poem: “own” means “possess,” “recognize,” and “confess” (72). Sexual and textual implications of the liminal produce uncanny effects of violence and terror. The bride, Wardrop observes, is a “threshold point” (51). Moreover, if possessed of sufficient dowry, the bride has a profound source of immense potential power. Wardrop carefully interprets the complex ways Dickinson uses the concept of “endowment”; a term tied to the patriarchal legal-economic system is liberated from it when the dower is converted into “Bolts of Melody” (P505) tucked into the hope chest of the artist’s written word (55–60).
Wardrop’s attentive, subtle readings of individual poems are full of rewarding detail and alluring, fresh possibilities. An analysis of “Title divine - is mine!” (P1072), for example, beautifully elaborates the puns in the “supragothic” line “Born - Bridalled - Shrouded,” showing that each member of the triad “functions along with its alter-meaning” to yield “a poetic Tri Victory.” Since the groom is glaringly absent from the poem, the phrase “My Husband,” Wardrop suggests, may refer not “to a human being but instead to a melody” erotically stroked, so that the final line — “Is this - the way?” —rhetorically directs the reader to the poem itself as the answer to the riddle of “this spooky wedding” (64–65). The position of the gothic bride includes not merely the speaker of the poem but likewise its author and its reader, who are engaged in an intricate game of “feint and faint” (75). Intriguing interpretations of this sort, well articulated, offer one of the chief pleasures of Wardrop’s study. Her nuanced...