Posted by: mpura | November 29, 2015

Emily Dickinson: “Domestic Angel”?


As many of you probably remember, one of the final pieces of art that we discussed at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum was the photograph entitled, “Emily Dickinson’s White Dress, The Homestead,” by Jerome Liebling. President Pasquerella recently published a brief commentary on the work. She notes that as a philosopher she saw the painting as a discussion of “presence and absence.” She also comments on the current debate on “whether there are minds or souls, in addition to bodies, that can exist independently from our bodies upon death.” Emily Dickinson was most certainly a figure whose mind and soul existed beyond the earthly imprisonment of the mortal body. As can be observed in the Liebling photograph, Emily’s dress, a signifier of her bodily existence, softly disappears into the background. She existed but also existed beyond the visible.

I would like to take President Pasquerella’s commentary a step further. In keeping with our readings that meditate on Victorian domesticity and consumerism, it is interesting to look at this painting and see a potential platform for discussion on Dickinson’s participation and rebellion in the domestic space. In relation to the idea of “presence and absence,” Dickinson was a woman who lived both within and without the Victorian household.

If you ask anyone what comes to mind when they think of Emily Dickinson, they will most likely say the following few words: “recluse,””hermit,””disturbed” and/or “ghost.”Dickinson remains forever, even over one hundred years after her death, confined to her home. It is almost impossible to talk about Dickinson without bringing up her connection to that little yellow house in Amherst, Massachusetts. The photograph emulates this fascination. The white dress, a signifier of Dickinson’s existence, remains, not trapped, but static within the home.The outside reflects itself onto the glass casing,  holding it in place. While Emily’s body remained within the home, her mind expanded far beyond the gates of the homestead. It is almost as if the outside is sucking away the material, suggesting that one is not fully part of the other.

If we think of this photograph within the context of our readings, you might be reminded of Lori Anne Loeb’s chapter “Victorian Consumer Culture,” in her book Consuming Angels. Loeb describes the assigned space for the ideal Victorian woman within domestic life:

“The ‘temple of the hearth, ‘the vestibule of heaven’ depended on the redemptive presence of a ‘household God,’ an ‘angel in the house’-immortalized by Coventry Patmore’s famous poem. The woman was expected to act as a moral regenerator. Closeted within the sanctuary, this angel could nurture purity and dependence; she could retain her asexuality and child-like simplicity. Her cheery prettiness and lady-like accomplishments would make her a dutiful companion” (Loeb, Consuming Angels, p. 19).

Based on Emily’s reputation and actions, she fits the majority of these categories. She spent the majority of her life working in the kitchen, cleaning the house (although her least favorite thing to do), and tending to the gardens. The house always had its ‘angel’ wandering the halls, filling the rooms with the fragrance of ginger bread and freshly cut dandelions. How many days did she spend wearing that white dress; a possible declaration of her purity? She does take on this child-like persona, wearing a signifier of purity, living in that bedroom for almost her entire life. When she was alive and far after she had died, Emily was seen as a ‘angel’ or ‘ghost.’ Amherst society called her the “Myth of Amherst,” peaking out through the windows, “closeted within the sanctuary,” of the household.


But while Amherst society saw her reclusive habits as peculiar she also adhered to what Victorian society expected of women, based on the above description. But with one exception. She was no man’s “dutiful companion.” She of course served as a constant companion to her sister Lavinia and parents. Though, she never gave herself completely. Would she have become the poet that we know today, if at all, if she had married? 

While Dickinson fit within several of the categories befitting a Victorian woman, she found liberation within the confines of her “sanctuary.” Going back to Emily’s mortal body, performing the tasks within the house, her mind on the other hand, extended far beyond its walls. In that room in that dress Emily wrote her poetry. Writing almost 1,800 poems, her subject matter was far from the realm of purity. She is often seen as is described in Loeb’s article, as an “asexual” angel. Her poetry would suggest otherwise. For example:

Wild nights – Wild nights! 
Were I with thee 
Wild nights should be 
Our luxury! 
Futile – the winds – 
To a Heart in port – 
Done with the Compass – 
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden – 
Ah – the Sea! 
Might I but moor – tonight – 
In thee!
You don’t need to do a close reading to understand the possible subject of this poem. Emily was most certainly a sexual being. We will never really know if she ever performed sexual acts but she was most certainly curious about her sexuality. Whether it was the passionate letters to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson or her only recorded suitor, Judge Otis Phillip Lorde, she did not classify herself as a symbol of purity. 
Along with Emily’s sexual curiosity, her overall intellect surpassed the traditional role of the “domestic angel.” It could be argued that she was so ahead of her time in both political and academic sense, that she felt that surrounding Amherst society was not worth her time. A rebel from the beginning, Emily rejected the harsh practices of the church that dictated Victorian middle class life. Living in an ever growing industrial and power hungry world, she sought solace within a microcosm of simplicity; away from all of the distractions and corruption that dominated 19th century America. She saw things better than most. Poetry was the only way to communicate that. 
So when you look at Liebling’s photograph, do you think of the “domestic angel” Loeb describes, or the essence of a woman who escaped the chaotic world of the 19th century? While her dress remains forever a symbol of her bodily connection to the domestic duties of the house, its receding presence suggests that she did not give herself up entirely. 

Work Cited:

Loeb, Lori Anne, Consuming Angels.



  1. I found this post absolutely fascinating in how it addresses two key issues: that of female domesticity and that of the relationship between death and identity. Emily Dickinson is an interesting figure through which to explore these problems, as she played with both ideas in interesting ways.

    You mention the sort of myth that has developed around Dickinson, one that has led many readers and literary scholars to refer to her as, in your words, a “’recluse’, ‘hermit’, ‘disturbed’, and/or ‘ghost’.” This image of Dickinson as one who deliberately cut herself off from the rest of the world in such a way that she becomes more of a spectre than a human being is most certainly the one that I have encountered most in discussions on the subject of her life and poetry. Your blog post, however, resists this a little. The claims you make about Dickinson’s own awareness of her sexuality and agency are particularly interesting, considering that they imply that Dickinson’s “reclusiveness” is a combination of her responding to the societal norms of the time and exerting a similar kind of freedom as what she may have attained through her poetry.

    I’ve also noticed that the persona that most people associate with Emily Dickinson is somehow tied not only to the fact that she lived alone for much of her life (or, at the very least, as you have mentioned, she never submitted to a male suitor), but also to her having spent her entire life confined to Amherst (to the best of my knowledge, she only left Massachusetts once in her life). Other than her writings, her greatest legacy is thus the house in which she lived. Because the woman herself is no longer with us, we re-create her identity based off of what she has left behind. Most notable among these things is the aforementioned house and her possessions which still reside within. This, I think, has caused many to conflate the writer with the space she inhabited perhaps more than she would have cared for. It also leaves us with two major components of Dickinson’s authorial identity: the literary (her poems) and the spatial (the house).

    On the other hand, I can also see how Dickinson herself might have used this to her advantage. As a woman living in the Victorian era, she would no doubt have felt forced into the domestic space by the male-dominated society in which she lived. Based on what you wrote about Emily’s role within the house, she apparently at least partially submitted to the domestic role that would have been expected of her. There is also a suggestion, on the other hand, that her domesticity constitutes some sort of revolt against the very notion of the Victorian woman’s role within the household. While she was playing the part of the “domestic angel”, as you put it, she also used her writing to create a literary identity for herself that is strikingly different from what we would expect from such a figure, one that allows her to reclaim her sexuality and manipulate the conversation surrounding her identity that persists to this day. In doing this, she seems to place the cult of domesticity at odds with the cult of the author that developed after her death, and in doing so gains an increased amount of control over both.

    I was additionally drawn to the idea of “presence and absence” that you discuss in relation to both the photo of Dickinson’s dress and President Pasquerella’s subsequent essay. There seems to be a way in which, upon her death, Emily Dickinson inhabits the house (and, quite possibly, the dress) far more than she did in life. Whereas before she simply lived in the house, now she permeates it. I was surprised when I read this post and learned that Emily’s contemporaries were already thinking of her in relation to the house. In some ways, our cultural perception of Dickinson and the house she lived in has remains unchanged. There are, however, some small differences, specifically in how our fascination with her presence within the house has amplified and, to a certain extent, become focused on abstraction as much as actual space. I often hear people speak of it as though it embodies her, and she it. The great irony here, and the one at the heart of this post, is that there seems to be some way in which Dickinson seems more present in that house now that she no longer lives in it. Her death has not, as one might expect, done anything to remove her presence from the house. This idea is reinforced by the fact that Emily Dickinson pervades the academic culture that we belong to, as well as the American literary canon, far more today than she did in life.

    I find it really interesting that you chose sexuality as an avenue through which to explore Dickinson’s relationship with her reader and her house. Wild Nights is one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems, yet I hadn’t given her sexual identity much thought until I read your blog post. Is there, perhaps, a way in which her isolation within the domestic space sexually empowers her when it occurs on her own terms? The fact that she never married is of particular interest to me, as it affords her a greater amount of control over the space itself while also allowing her to reject conventional misogynistic notions of women’s sexuality that in many ways still pervade our culture.

    Thanks again for this blog post, especially since it gave me a lot of insight into the personal and literary life of a writer who I’ve long admired but have never quite thought about in these terms. It has also raised a lot of questions about the way we retroactively think of the identities of the artists whom we idolize, and about the complicated nature of Dickinson’s relationship with the gender norms of the Victorian era.

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