By Mark Traphagen on March 13, 2011
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. Click the series name above to see all the entries.
* * * * * * *
“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)
* * * * * * *
As part five opens, Emily returns from more eye treatments in Boston to find her beloved “Confederate,” the Newfoundland dog Carlo lying near death in her room, Emily–as she is wont to do in times of great crisis–slips into a vivid dream. She sees herself astride a youthful Carlo soaring above the rooftops of snow-covered Amherst. “Riding him was like going away to live with a man and sitting on my own trousseau,” she says, but then adds, “Whoever I was marrying couldn’t break into my dream” (244-5). Only Carlo had ever been her true intimate, and the man who might take that place isn’t even on the horizon.
Following Carlo’s death, Emily becomes a “hermit in [her] father’s house” (245). Though the behavior terrifies and disgusts her, she seems powerless in its grip. “Daisy had become her own Haunted House,” she thinks. She only makes appearances when absolutely forced to, and then has strength to do so only because she imagines herself clad in her “full armor of feathers” (250).
One visit in particular both intrigues and unsettles her. One day Mr. Sam Bowles, who had dubbed her “Queen Recluse,” entices her down the stairs to the parlor. His comparison of her to “that narrow fellah in the grass,” an allusion to one of her poems, startles Emily. She sees both Sam and herself as snake-like “unsolid creatures, zero at the bone” (251). But when Sam comes right out and states that the verse was a “snake poem,” Emily bristles, and utters one of the most memorable lines in the book: “Verses do not have a subject, I should think, but a kind of shudder, as if the whole world were born again with the flash of an eye” (252).
I believe that quotation to be original to Mr. Charyn (not borrowed from one of her poems or letters), but it is so authentically in Emily’s own voice that it is hard to believe she never said or wrote it. In any event, it is perhaps the finest one line tutorial on how we should approach a poem ever written.
Dwelling in her self-imposed Haunted House, Emily feels all the more ethereal. “I dance on a precipice, knowing I will fall,” she tells Sam Bowles (252). The house she hides in, though, is made of words. Emily lets on that she knows he is the true author of a popular romance novel published under a female name, and what’s more, it is actually a love letter to her sister-in-law. She reveals that this may be part of the attraction between her and Sam; he too veils his true feelings in words. She hides in her feathers and as the kicking kangaroo; Sam is snail with a humpback. Emily thinks that she knows “how much effort it took for him just to be Mr. Sam” (254). How much effort it takes to be Emily!
Try as she might to hide away, Emily’s will always be found by her old phantoms. When a traveling circus parades past her window, she is convinced that one of the clowns is her Tom, her “blond Assassin, or perhaps his ghost” (256). And then a much more flesh-and-blood phantom appears in her parlor: her old nemesis at Holyoke Seminary, Rebecca Winslow, bringing with her the memory of the infamous yellow gloves. Here Emily learns that the gloves had once been used by Rebecca’s father in both killing and birthing farm animals. They were “instruments of life and death,” and so they were for Emily at Holyoke and beyond. When Rebecca gives them to her, saying that they fit her best, Emily hides them in the attic, even though she thinks “whatever melody I had left was locked into those gloves” (263).
Disturbed by the sudden reappearance of Rebecca, Emily makes one last attempt to make peace with the most haunting phantom in her life, her old classmate Zilpah Marsh, now confined to a lunatic asylum. Emily’s Pa-pa visits Zilpah regularly and uses his influence to try to improve her conditions at the asylum. He finds that Zilpah’s only wish in life is to be a scholar, but it was not to be. Finally, she commits suicide, writing in her own blood on her cell wall an allusion to Emily’s own words: “Zilpah is zero at the bone” (267). Did she frighten and concern Emily so much because they were so much alike? In any case, Emily’s doppelganger and competitor for her father’s affections is in the grave. At least one phantom is laid to rest.
Maybe because of a rare moment of affection and affirmation from her Pa-pa at Zilpah’s graveside, Emily now seems to focus her attentions back on him. But all too soon he is called back to government service. During a last sit in the garden with him, she muses that he is “like a ferocious engine on a lonely track” (272). And perhaps that is a clue to why she continues to be drawn to him despite his coldness: she too is a ferocious engine on a lonely track. A few days after leaving for Boston, Pa-pa dies in his hotel room. While mourning him, Emily once again has a dream of flying, but this time “flying wasn’t much of a revelation. It was as brutal as breathing air” (275).
This section of the novel is brutal as well in its destruction of nearly all Emily clung to in this life. Carlo, Rebecca, Zilpah, and her beloved Pa-pa are all gone. Even Tom fails to reappear the next time the circus comes to town. At the very end, even a visit from her most-treasured secret lover, the Rev. Wadsworth, turns tragic as he announces his grave illness and inability to return Emily’s love. But this bitter scene results in something miraculous. Emily’s sister Vinnie overhears her speaking to Wadsworth about her “Snow.” Seeking out this mysterious Snow, Vinnie ends up in Emily’s room, where she comes upon her hidden poems. And thus they are to be someday revealed to the world.
- The Secret Life of the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: An Introduction
- The Secret Life of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: Holyoke
- The Secret Life of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: Carlo and Currer Bell
- The Secret Life of the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: Sister Sue and the Lost Souls
- The Secret Life of the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: The Vampyre of Cambridgeport
- The Secret Life of the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: Queen Recluse
- The Secret Life of the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: Jumbo