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“I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” by Emily Dickinson Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Sep 19th, 2021

Introduction

It is normal for human beings to seek popularity in various forms of society, be it a school, workplace, club, or sports arena. Each person craves to carve a niche for himself or herself in society, to become a recognized ‘somebody’. Even here, dreams of superlative excellence are frequently engaged in, as people aspire to become reputed movie stars or famous sports athletes, in both cases becoming the focus of constant adulation from a huge number of adoring fans.

To become a ‘somebody’

In her short poem, “I’m nobody! Who are you?” Emily Dickinson dons the mantle of the speaker in the poem and explores the various nuances involved in being the antithesis of a ‘somebody’, namely, a ‘nobody’. As a ‘nobody,’ the speaker takes on the role of an ‘outsider’ who does not have to be in the public eye. She does not have to endure prolonged intense examination or condemnation of other persons who are probably envious of her general appeal to a wide range of people. She does not need to engage in frivolous games, indulges in pretenses, or go on attempting to become a ‘somebody’. There is no restriction on her continuing to being herself, feeling relaxed, adequate, and experiencing well-being both physically as well as mentally. Most importantly, she is not isolated but grouped with others who are in a similar situation.

The anonymity of a ‘nobody’

In the poem’s first verse, the speaker speaks of how she meets another person seeking the anonymity of a ‘nobody’. The speaker delightedly confers the title of ‘friend’ on her new companion. She is thrilled to have found another ‘nobody’ as it breaks the shackles of her hitherto lonely, unpopular world. Together, her friend and she, two ‘nobodies’ who come together, are now free to derive mutual pleasure from being with one another and from their shared freedom from identification and lack of distinctiveness. As a couple, they cease to be ‘nobodies’ because if one ‘nobody’ has another ‘nobody’ at his or her side, then both of them automatically forfeit their individual ‘nobody’ titles – a fact that the speaker dreads. After all, she finds her position as a ‘nobody’ very comfortable and does not wish to be expelled or rejected by what she perceives as an extended social group of ‘nobodies’. That is why she exhorts her newfound friend to keep their friendship a secret that is to be strictly shared only between the two of them {‘Don’t tell/ They’d banish us, you know’}.

Existence as a ‘somebody’

The pitch of the poem undergoes a dramatic and positive change in the second verse. The feelings of hesitation, concealment, temerity, and insecurity vanish. Those negative feelings are replaced by newfound confidence. The speaker’s confidence stems from having suddenly found out that there are many persons similar to herself who to are ‘nobodies’. The discovery makes her realize that existence as a ‘somebody’ is not such an impressive thing after all. Along with the discovery comes the realization that if a ‘nobody’ has a friend who is discerning and empathizing, who believes in the ‘nobody’ for what he or she is, then the achievement of the ‘nobody’ is more significant than the approval or appreciation of a large number of people or being a part of an ‘in’ crowd. The speaker and her friend, both ‘nobodies’, realize that what they have is something unique because being a ‘somebody’ like most of the others around them would stimulate no interest or enthusiasm in them and would lower the intensity of their individuality. This realization prompts the speaker to say: ‘How dreary to be somebody!’

The speaker goes to put forward an extraordinary similarity in the second verse of the poem. She says that a ‘somebody’ is similar to a frog. She particularly selects the frog to symbolize a public figure because of the tendency of that amphibian to create a large number of noisy sounds. The speaker says that although frogs succeed in commanding visual and auricular attention, they are ultimately noticed only by ‘an admiring bog’, meaning the swamp where they live in. Just as she likens the frog to a public figure, the speaker likens the frog’s environment to the public figure’s environment . Just as the bog is just an impersonal feature of the surroundings and is not a friend of the frog, so also the connection between the public figure and the public is anonymous and alienating, and not at all like a real friendship (Beyondbooks.com). The suggested link in the line ‘How public – like a Frog’ also highlights Dickinson’s extraordinary treatment of language because it combines elements not traditionally looked upon as being together, thereby delivering its meaning more forcefully and effectively (Phillips). The conclusion derived from the comparison is that while a ‘somebody’ may have many people who admire them, it is impossible for that ‘somebody’ to forge a close relationship with those people.

Conclusion

The words of the poem are the products of the intense personal and passionate feelings of Emily Dickinson, who is arguably the most private, secluded, and withdrawn writer in the history of American literature (Beyondbooks.com). Paradoxically, one of the most well-known facts about Dickinson’s life is that she was virtually unknown to the general public. Even though her poems number more than 1,800, only 10 of them were given for publication (Phillips). It is documented that she went on very few trips in her life , generally preferring to spend the full 56 years of her life ensconced within the confining borders of her family’s estate in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle contributed to her feelings of closeness with persons who consider themselves as ‘outsiders’ and not noteworthy people. It is this bond that spawned the small but intensely meaningful poem, (Beyondbooks.com) a poem that represents Dickinson’s most well-known and most humorous justification of the type of spiritual seclusion she preferred in life (Phillips). In another parallel to her own life, the great value of friendship that she extols in the poem is a reflection of the few but vibrant and enduring friendships that Dickinson enjoyed during her lifetime. The much-lauded value of friendship comprises the main theme of Dickinson’s poem, namely, friendship is the most commendable solution to those who consider themselves ‘outsiders’ and ‘nobodies’ (Beyondbooks.com). Fortified by friendship, an ‘outsider’ will find that being a ‘nobody’ is an indulgence that cannot be understood by the dreary ‘somebody’ crowd because they are occupied with the task of ensuring that their names constantly remain in circulation (Phillips).

References

  • “I’m nobody! Who are you?” 2007. Web.
  • Phillips, Brian. “Sparknote on Dickinson’s Poetry.” 2007. Web.
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