By Mark Traphagen on May 31, 2011
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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. 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? (more…)