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  • Dickinson’s Transgressive Body
  • Sandra Runzo (bio)

One could say that Emily Dickinson’s body has been an obsession, both for editors and family members who have been careful in tending to Dickinson’s public presentation and for readers and scholars who have puzzled over the poetic and epistolary drama. Various critical claims have attributed an impossible array of definition to Dickinson’s body, naming it unmothered, virginal, pregnant, lesbian, heterosexual, asexual. Scholar Karl Keller has imagined “Sleeping with Emily Dickinson.” One might recall the many alterations to the 1847/48 daguerreotype in which Dickinson is “feminized” or glamorized with, for instance, curled hair and a ruffly collar. The introductory materials to several early editions of letters and poems stress Dickinson’s many heterosexual romances, 1 and numerous sources report the exertions expended to remove evidence of Dickinson’s affections for women, particularly Susan Gilbert, through extensive mutilation and censorship of letters and poems. 2

Dickinson herself participates fully in the obsessive reconception of her body. The animals, ghosts, and weapons that inhabit the poems all arguably incarnate Dickinson’s body, so that through the continual performances — as animal, ghost, weapon as well as bride, man, martyr (and many other poses) — Dickinson’s masquerading personae explore possibilities of the self, dramatizing the domain of supposition and desire.

Dickinson’s embodiment of numerous female roles — wife, bride, queen, schoolgirl, maid, heterosexual lover, nun, lady, empress, housewife — would appear to place her solidly within heterosexist ideology and conventional social codes; however, her unrestrained assumption of female roles conveys such excess that Dickinson’s ostensibly “inconspicuous” presentation of herself as a woman turns into something else — something incongruous, dissonant, defiant. Dickinson’s hyperbolic assumption of herself as “woman” [End Page 59] prompts the observation that Dickinson viewed gender as performance; moreso, as a series of performances in which her adoption of gendered costumes seemingly appropriate to her becomes parodic. The sense of the theatrical that informs Dickinson’s poems conveys remarkable consonance with recent theories that examine gender and sexual identity in relation to performance. Theorist Judith Butler, for instance, speculates that the “self” is constituted through a “string of performances”: the repeated performance creates a semblance of self-coherence and establishes and circulates one’s sexual and gendered “being.” (The repetition, she notes, also contests any continuity and coherence, each new performance supplanting the previous one.) Asserting that there are no fixed or “proper” gender roles and that what appears to be clear and stable “gender” is the consequence of impersonation, Butler commends the “necessary drag” of gender and sexual identity: “Drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation” (Butler 21). Dickinson’s “string of performances” as “woman” (or as “man,” for that matter) conjoins coherence and instability and proposes that gendering derives from deliberate imitation. Through her writing, Dickinson participates in a ritual of transformation in which her wardrobe as “woman” prepares her appearance on a social and erotic stage — a presence that animates perplexities of femininity and masculinity, of homoeroticism, of heterosexual desire. 3

Moreover, the unease frequently associated with Dickinson’s female personae further signals her interrogation of the naturalness — and desirability — of so-called normal feminine roles: as a “Wife” she lacks the “Sign” (J1072), forfeits “Amplitude, or Awe” (J732) or harbors a “Big” “bandaged” “Secret” (J1737); as a bride she confronts “Apocalypse” (J300); as a Queen she will “reign” and “perish” (J458); as a “Woman” she experiences “this soft Eclipse” (J199). 4 She would seem to repudiate this role of heterosexual conventional woman, although this is the role she repeatedly enacts. Many Dickinson scholars have noted the complex expression of domesticity and feminine virtue in the poems as well as Dickinson’s cunning detachment from them. Gertrude Reif Hughes, for instance, states that although Dickinson “reconstituted the world of women’s work” in her verse, she, importantly, “transcended” the cult of domesticity by being “more of a woman than it could envision” (25, 26). Sandra Gilbert theorizes that Dickinson celebrated the “mysteries” of the household and garden in order to reconstruct her own female religion. In other words, Dickinson...

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pp. 59-72
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