By Mark Traphagen on May 31, 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.
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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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After the death of her father, Emily is haunted in her dreams by a “Monster…with a ruffled, unfamiliar form, yet owning my father’s dark eyes.” Unable to call this Monster “Pa-pa,” she names it “Dark Eyed Mister,” and ponders whether it be an emissary from heaven or the Devil (281-2). Because of its hideous form, she settles on a hellish provenance, but is confounded because the apparition speaks sweetly, with her father’s sense of humor. It is clear that Emily’s dilemma is not theological. God and the Devil are as much her poetic devices as are sun and flowers and birds. For Emily, they represent the great paradox of life, how that which is most beloved can be at the same time that which is most terrible to us.
As her mother descends into paralysis and dementia, Emily herself becomes a Phantom in her own home. She caters to her mother’s delusions that “the Squire” would be home for dinner, but she indulges the fantasy as much for herself as for her mother’s benefit. She admits that her only route to Pa-pa was through Mr. Dark Eyes, but Mr. Dark Eyes refused to answer her call. Yet Pa-pa will come to her at the end of this section, and with momentous consequences.
One night the Monster appears to her in a dream, urging her to go up to the Evergreens (her brother’s house next door), a place she had been avoiding for years. She arrives to find her nephew Ned in the throes of an epileptic seizure. Her brother confesses that he, too, had been visited often by their father in his dreams.
The visit brings her back into contact with her sister-in-law Susan. Emily confesses internally that she has suffered a crush on Susan for years. Imagining Susan to be Cleopatra, Emily casts herself as Shakespeare’s Enobarbus, “who loved his Cleopatra from afar and breathed in Egypt’s purple smoke” (291). Of Enobarbus, Hudson’s The Works of William Shakespeare says, “Enorbarbus is rather the noblest character in the play. His blunt, prompt, rough-spoken sagacity, mingled with a certain slyness of thought, a racy infusion of humour, and a pungent, searching irony of discourse, interpret with remorseless fidelity the moral import of the characters and movements about him” (citation). Is that not an apt description of our Emily?
About this time Emily is utterly befuddled, and somewhat frightened, by meeting herself as a young woman in the person of her niece, Mattie. Mattie, like her mother, is a “Volcano” and is “on fire” (298). She aspires to be a poet, and comes to Emily asking to become her disciple. She even wears a pencil tied to her waste with a string, just like her aunt. Embarrassed that her own “lightnin'” was gone–and perhaps frightened at this embodied reminder of her own youthful passions–Emily finds a dozen excuses to rebuff the child. Mattie angrily accuses Emily of being “crueler than King Saul” (298). The insult hits home, as Emily muses that Saul’s kingdom was one she knew best: “a land of silence where animals were stunned in midair and birds fell like bombs from the trees” (298). How can she teach when her father’s death had stopped her own music? Throughout this section, the deaths of animals recur as powerful symbols.
Emily’s previous suitor Sam Bowles dies, never having his true passions known or requited. But he is soon replaced for Emily by another gentleman caller, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, a widower. Nearly as old as her father, “Phil” as he wants to be called is a most unlikely suitor, yet Emily embraces him. It is a convenient romance for her, as he is only able to visit Amherst twice a year. He takes to calling her “Jumbo,” after the giant elephant in a traveling circus, because she “provokes earthquakes” (303). This (and his proposal of marriage) puts her in mind of the circus and the mysterious clown whom she had decided was her “blond Assassin” Tom, and she comes close to confessing that she might have “wished this Circus clown into being as Tom” (304).
Emily’s life continues to be dominated by her father even after his death. She sees his apparition once again, at the moment of her mother’s death. After her mother vows she will not go to heaven with Emily unmarried, Emily and her sister stage a wedding with the handyman. When she glances at herself in a mirror in bridal veil, it is not the workman she sees beside her as groom, but Pa-pa in his finest frock. When she turns away from the vision, her mother has passed. Emily is once again reminded that Pa-pa was, and likely ever will be, the only man really anywhere near her life.
The sadness in this part of her life is only underscored all the more as the circus returns to Amherst. She sees Jumbo the elephant, her adopted namesake, but Jumbo is in mourning. She has lost her calf, as Emily has lost so much. And then it happens: her house is burglarized and she is certain her Blond Assasin has left his calling card.
The next day she is seen in town for the first time in years, drawn to the apocalypse of the circus in flames. And of course, she finds her Tom, as the Devil incarnate in a clown’s makeup. He confronts her with her guilt over Zilpah, as well as her jealousy, and insinuates that his “wife” was the better scholar because she had to suffer for he learning.
Tom is the Devil at his cruelest, but in him Emily confronts all her own demons. And instead of anger or denial, the confrontation brings her to compassion. She mourns truly for Zilpah, for her aborted baby, and for Tom himself, who would forever mourn his unattainable Mouse. Her achievement of true empathy melts the Devil out of Tom, and he confesses how much Emily came to mean for him, a simple, unlearned handyman touched by poetry. They finally kiss, and both realize that he will never return again. His role in her life is fulfilled. Emily sums up how the dream of Tom had set her free: “The love I had for Tom was itself a wild mask. I wore it only with Tom. But it might be more truthful that the mask wore me. And in its thrall, I was not the old maid of Amherst–but Daisy with the wonton smile” (328).
And at that very moment, Jumbo the elephant, unable to cope with her mourning, falls to the ground dead.
Part six ends with Emily falling into a deep blackness after the death of her young nephew. In her fevered dreams, Pa-pa comes to her on a visit from Boston, bearing a precious gift: a rare mechanical pencil. There is only one course for her; his message is clear. Emily must write.
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Before we leave Part Six, allow me a brief editorial.
These essays, as I wrote in the introduction, are about the dream life of Emily Dickinson as portrayed in the novel. When I published my review of Secret Life, author Jerome Charyn messaged me on Twitter, saying, “It [the novel] really is about Emily’s dream life and you’re the first one to point that out.” It surprised me that even reviewers for major publications failed to see what, to me, seemed so obvious. In a few passages, Charyn even spells it out, but perhaps nowhere more clearly than in this poignant confessional by his Emily in the penultimate chapter of this section:
[Emily is fretting over what she fears may be another visitation from her phantom Tom. She admits she can’t be sure the circus clown she saw was him.] “But that was the disease of Miss Emily Dickinson. I had to invent what I could not ascertain–no, did not want to ascertain. I was the voluptuary who lived on the thinnest air, who survived and conquered through invention alone” (320)
For Jerome Charyn’s Emily Dickinson, imagination, fancy, poetry–these are not avenues of escape, but rather tools a master builder uses to construct a better world, even if that world is an overlay on the “real” world. one that enables survival and conquest. It is very easy for us to forget or trivialize the tremendous obstacles faced by a creative, strong woman in the nineteenth century. Art provides the means by which such a person can imagine a better world, and in a sense call it into being. We need the poets and painters to be prophets who provide the blueprints that the rest of us will only later realize have become the actual building.
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- 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