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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

The Secret Life of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: Holyoke

By on September 13, 2010

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

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This essay is part of a series on the dreamscape aspects of Jerome Charyn’s novel, the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. Read the introduction to this series.

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To shut our eyes is Travel.” – Emily Dickinson, 1870.

“…if memory serves, & if it does not, then I will let Imagination run to folly.” The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (17).

(numbers in parentheses refer to pages in the novel)

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It is odd and slightly ironic that one of the most frequent criticisms leveled at The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (hereinafter The Secret Life) was that it suffered from a lack of citing Miss Dickinson’s poetry. While it may be true that there are very few quotations of her poems in the book, from the very first words, we are fully in the realm of poetry, in her own voice (as author Jerome Charyn imagines it):

“Tom the handyman is wading in the snow outside my window in boots a burglar might wear” (17).

It is imagery true to the Emily we know through her poetry.

Moreover, it introduces one of the central characters (and primary resident of Emily’s dreams), the fictitious Tom Harkin (or Tom the Handyman). Tom is an orphan rescued by the headmistress of Holyoke Female Seminary and taken in to be the school’s handyman. He is forbidden any contact with the female students, thus (along with his shock of blond hair) making him instantly the object of Emily’s desire.

In the opening chapter, Emily describes a very dreamlike scene in which she observes Tom trudging through waist-deep snow outside Holyoke Hall. At first mystified by his intention, she soon witnesses him bending down to liberate a tiny doe trapped beneath the snow cover. She had already referred to Tom as “my Calvary” (18). Could it be that Emily sees herself as the doe and Tom her Christ-Deliverer? Throughout the novel it is evident that she longs for deliverance, from her own body, from her social station, from the nature of her times which so limits what a woman might become.

It is intriguing that from the very start she casts Tom as a “burglar.” Later she will encounter him as an actual burglar, carting away the President of Amherst College’s clock in a wheelbarrow. But in what other ways is he a burglar? In the way he threatens/promises to steal her heart, to kidnap her from the prison of her life?

Since Emily refers to Tom as her “Calvary” (a word found frequently in her poems*),  I was reminded that the New Testament calls Christ “a thief in the night,” in reference to his second coming, when he is to “steal away” all those who are his chosen ones. Emily dreams throughout the rest of her life of Tom, her “thief in the night,” appearing in various guises at unexpected times, always with the hope that he has finally come as her deliverer.

That Tom is largely the stuff of dreams is reinforced several times early in the novel. During her brief tenure as a scholar at Holyoke, Emily recalls that “my mind would always drift during Devotions, & I’d think of Tom’s Tattoo” (18). Later, she had a dream of “Esau with his ruddy face & hair. He lived with us at Holyoke as our one & only male scholar. But in my dream Esau had Tom’s Tattoo” (26). Tom’s tattoo is an arrow piercing a heart, but rather than a symbol of love or romance, he tells Emily it is a broken heart. Like Esau, Tom is an outcast, and Emily, herself an outcast of sorts, quickly grasps him as her soul mate.

But her reach for Tom always exceeds her grasp. As quickly as he appears like a “thief in the night,” he disappears again, as do people in our dreams. Upon learning that Tom has left Holyoke without a trace, Emily laments, “I have to dream that Tom felt something…I have to live in the land of conjecture concerning Tom.” Perhaps this is another way in which Tom is the burglar of Emily’s dreams: he steals her heart and then disappears.

This idea of Tom as both object of desire and chief tormentor is brought out in another dream Emily describes. Before relating that nightmare, though, we need to introduce another prominent dream-symbol that appears throughout the novel: the yellow gloves. We first meet them on the hands of Rebecca, the ubiquitous hall monitor and foil of Emily at Holyoke Seminary. They seem to be a symbol of power and authority, as well as of giving and taking. Rebecca uses them to both caress and slap the cheek of Zilpah, her illicit lover. Later Emily sees the gloves in a dream, but on different hands: “In my dreams…I was caressed by a pair of yellow gloves…They belonged to Tom…I wanted Tom to touch me, & the moment he did, I screamed as I had never before” (67). She screams because the gloves, even on the hands of Tom her beloved, remind her of her guilt over her mistreatment of Zilpah.

Tom also serves as a constant reminder to Emily of her rootlessness. Because of her intelligence and poetic sensibilities, she doesn’t fit in her world. “Tom was tribeless,” Emily muses. “Perhaps that was why I seem so soldered to him, as if the two of us wore the same hot bolt. I have all the fruit a name and family can bear, but I might as well have been shaken from some orphan’s tree” 32. In the following paragraph, Emily describes how after much difficulty she taught herself to tell time by imagining the hands of the clock as “the wings of a bird hovering over mountains on the moon.” She describes this as “an orphan’s trick.” Alienated by her gifts from all around her, even family, she must find her own way in the world through imagination and poetry.

*Thanks to The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson Facebook Page curator Lenore Reigel for this insight.

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