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Krestiva and Freud Theories in Dickinson’s Poetry Essay

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021

Psychological approach criticism relies upon psychosocial theories in analyzing works of literature. This link between “literary works and psychological theories brings elements of scientific work into the world of literary criticism” (Kuhns, 1983). We shall look at Sigmund Freud and Kristeva’s theories in order to criticize poems by Emily Dickinson. Psychoanalysis investigates the subconscious mental processes. Other scholars view psychoanalysis as a therapy for treating disorders. According to Freud, society undergoes a sublimation i.e. uses creative processes to channel its unconsciousness. Elements of creative processes involve literary works.

The focus is mainly on gendered pleasure and sexual motives in every individual’s mind as the key driver for people’s actions. Dickinson had these sexual pleasures but had no way of expressing them in society during her term. Therefore, art was the only way Dickinson could exploit to express her gendered sexual desires. Critics argue that Dickinson may have derived sexual pleasure from pain (Kuhns, 1983).

Dickinson’s A Narrow Fellow in the Grass shows unacceptable and elicit a woman’s obsession and desire for a man’s phallus. A “narrow fellow” clearly refers to the snake. Using the unconscious mind of Freud’s theory, we can look at the poem from this point of view, and analyze the poet’s use of symbolism. We can relate this to what we may assume drove Dickinson’s mind and the underlying motive for writing the poem.

Freud focused on libido as energy which results from sexual desire. In this regard, libido influences an individual’s mental processes and maturity. Sublimation results from libido if an individual puts his or her sexual urges in a different context in order to increase their acceptability. When authors make any references to forbidden topics, in poetry language, they become arts.

Dickinson tries to relate and conceal sexual desires in the poem by using the voice of a boy. By concealing her identity, Dickinson shows that the speaker experiences a gendered sexual desire not acceptable in the society of her time. We can disregard the voice of the narrator since the authors use their personas to represent their ideas. This leads the readers into looking at the subconscious ideas of the author. Dickinson either consciously or subconsciously chose such a voice to explore female sexual desires for man.

Dickinson uses symbolism in her poems. The first instant of symbolism is in the first line “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass“. We can relate this to the pubic hair. On the other hand, there is a “shaft“, an opening and closing. The shaft is where the narrow fellow goes. Shaft represents a woman’s sexual organ. At the end of the poem, Dickinson also shows that the shaft receives the narrow fellow with tighter breathing.

Dickinson also refers to premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction in the poem by noting that “It wrinkled and was gone” (Dickinson, 1998). During Dickinson’s time, it was impossible and unacceptable to discuss the dysfunctional erectile. Thus, Dickinson resorts to symbolism to explore female pleasure and premature ejaculation in men, or dysfunctional erectile. The society of her time believed that female sexual always had the positive sexual pleasure. However, she shows the pain of male premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction in women.

The title of the poem A Narrow Fellow in the Grass also shows the sexual connotation. We may assume that it is just a snake in the Grass. However, in literary analysis, we look at the shaft that is opening and closing. These are clear reflections of sexual acts like penetration, rhythm movements, orgasm and withdrawals.

We may assume that Dickinson uses the unconscious sublimation to reflect her ideas of sexual desires and pleasures in her literary work. The poet clearly refers to both male and female sexual organs and pleasures during sexual intercourse or could be a lack of pleasure during sexual intercourse. If we apply Freud’s theory, then we can conclude that Dickinson is unconsciously depicting sexual pleasure matters in a gendered manner from a female point of view.

Emily Dickinson’s poem There’s a certain slant of light also reflects Freud’s psychoanalytic views. Literary criticism applying this theory looks at the unconscious desires Dickinson reflects in her poem. Freud posits that every individual’s mind works on seeking sexual pleasures. In this regard, Dickinson had sexual desires but could not express them openly during her time. She turned to her work to sublimate her sexual desires. From the poem There’s a certain slant of light, we may assume that “Dickinson derived a gendered sexual pleasure from pain” (Brill, 2010).

From a psychological point of view, There’s a certain slant of light that also looks at the minds of the reader when reading a poem. “Whereas the psychoanalytic approach focused on the author and why they wrote what they wrote, the cognitive approach focuses on the reader and how their mind works while reading literature” (Dobie, 2002). To Freud, readers of this poem will also strive to look at sexual connotations in it for pleasure motives. For instance, readers may see the pain in certain lines of the poem.

None may teach it—Any
‘Tis the Seal Despair
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air

Emily Dickinson’s poem The Malay-took the pearl also reflects painful sociosexual relations concerning a patriarchal daughter’s autoerotic desire for the same sex. It shows the suffering of a woman who experiences shame due to her sexual desires for a fellow woman. What makes the case worse is that the woman loses her object of sexual desire to a man. Dickinson uses pearl to symbolize the beloved female, the rival as a pearl diver, and speaker as earl (Dickinson, 1997).

Dickinson uses a male identity to conceal the speaker who is a female. She shows that the speaker wants none other than her sexual desire, which is not a masculine one. This almost reflects Freud’s ideas of humility and sublimation which state that “the humility and the sublime over-estimation of the sexual object so characteristic of the male lover, the renunciation of all narcissistic satisfaction, and the preference for being lover rather than beloved” (Gay, 1992). She is so fearful and considers herself unworthy to the extent of behaving like a man whose sexual desires suffer from the dread of incest. She relies on hopes of prayers in regaining her beloved pearl.

Freud’s ideas of a masculine approach in love relations overemphasize renunciation and humility in ordinary situations. Malay takes the pearl which the speaker desires and this irritates the speaker. However, the speaker risks diving for the pearl which he captures, and wear as an ornament on his “Dusky Breast”.

The persona worries over her sexual desires. She is in a state of limbo. She shows this by pondering over her adventure by transfer, beauty, intimacy, and consummation. This is what the speaker wants to hold on to, as hers and cover herself with as an ornament, but her rival interferes. Dickinson shows a female stifled with a patriarchal position over females. Men have the potential to move quickly and take possessions of their desires. During Dickinson’s time, society does not permit a female to act on her sexual desires particularly on another female. She questions situations in which no one prefers a female (Barry, 1995).

The persona knows that maternity defines feminism. She sees patriarchal force as a source nuisance and the reason why her sexual desires disturb. Dickinson refers to this female attraction to other females as a secret abyss. The persona acknowledges her strong feelings for feminine sexuality only in another female. This alienates her from a society where lesbianism is not a subject of discussion. However, the persona knows too well that lesbianism is rich, hard to get, but if achieved, it gives profound sexual satisfaction. Despite all this knowledge, the persona is unable to get her female object of sexual desire. Instead, the patriarchal hierarchy in a society favors men who can actively pursue what they desire and take it.

When the persona assumes the approach of male to her fetish, the persona equally reduces her female attraction to an object, just like a pearl in the ocean. In addition, she sees “the pearl as suitable for wearing as an ornament around a male, masculine breast and forever becomes a man’s possession held in high esteem” (Dobie, 2002). Though the man takes this female, the persona shows that the attraction is so strong in its isolation. The male figure represents much (what the persona does not have) and strips the persona of her desires.

Literary critics have emphasized recurring ideas in Kristeva’s work. Kristeva focuses on the importance of the maternal and pre-Oedipal in the development of human subjectivity, and the idea of abjection as an explanation for oppression and discrimination. Perhaps the most significant of her theories are relationships between the mother and children during the pre-Oedipal stage, particularly regarding the development of individualism in relation to both languages and plays, and forces or drives, and sudden feeling in use of languages.

Kristeva borrows some of her ideas from the works of Lacan to modify her theories. In her work Revolution in Poetic Language, Kristeva acknowledges that objective language use must not stop a subject of discussion but rather complement it. Kristeva agrees that Freudian psychoanalysis relates to the semiotic dimension of language as “not only the facilitation and the structuring disposition of drives but also the so-called primary processes, which displace and condense both energies and their inscription” (Habib, 2005). During the course of individuals’ development, social structures or families make people experience different constraints, which result in arrangements of forces or energies. Kristeva called these drives or forces as chora.

Still, Emily Dickinson’s poem reflects Julia Kristeva’s theory of chora. This is the early stage of development in a psychosexual sense. People experienced chaotic and mixed elements of feelings, perceptions and various needs. We experienced pleasures without any knowledge of its limit or boundary. Drives are the dominating forces in this period, and the materiality of existence was real.

Though the poem is secretive, it underwrites the masculine mask the poet uses to conceal the feminine identity. Dickinson disrupts her style to take the theory of Kristeva. There are chaotic meanings in the poem which reflect the confusion the narrator experiences. The poem is rich in meaning than the chaos we see in the persona.

Dickinson’s motive for placing “obstacles in the way of smooth reading is not just to hide her libidinal predicament from the vulgar, but to some extent from herself” (Habib, 2005). The reason is to make of the “writing, syllable by syllable and even dash by a dash, the close-worked dramaturgy of her theme” (Habib, 2005). For instance, in the context of her “chagrined admissions, her begrudging yet obtrusive dashes seem an appropriately reluctant mark, snapping linearity over and over in an agitated unwillingness to proceed” (Habib, 2005).

Still more daring are the “syntactic confusions that momentarily superimpose the persona on the Malay, in coition of identities, upsetting the patriarchal consecutiveness of the narrative subject” (Jardine, 1980). For instance, “The Swarthy fellow deceptively succeeds the line “Praying that I might be, Worthy—the Destiny—” quite as if the Malay really cared about the Earl” (Dickinso, 1997). However, Dickinson ends the poem by showing him to be completely oblivious to her anguish. It leaves the reader to link “the flapping, disused modifier of “Praying that I…” to the “I” of the preceding stanza, mentally rearranging the syntax in the process: Fearing the sea and feeling unsanctified to take the Pearl, the persona can only hope and pray that someday she will be worthy to do so” (Dickinson, 1997). Meanwhile, for a cheating instant, the persona has boasted the Malay’s sympathy.

Habib notes that “like thin strips, Dickinson momentarily pushes the lines together in disorder, and the persona does not hide anally that peeps through, which is a yearning and opportunistic desire in her” (Habib, 2005). An imaginary “closeness between the Earl and the Malay crops up again in “And bore my Jewel—Home,” where, from the momentum of the proprietary “my,” “Home” could well be thought to be the persona’s own” (Dickinson, 1997). This is illusory social sweetness in the persona.

There is also unreal intimacy in the following line.

What lot
Had I—the Jewel—got—
Borne on a Dusky Breast—
I had not deemed a Vest
Of Amber—fit—

The use of language enables Dickinson to create chaotic meanings in the poem. For instance, readers can interpret the first three lines as what luck had the persona got both the jewel and Malay. However, this is being nothing, but a wish. Conversely, Dickinson changes this idea “at once by the “correct” one, namely the persona’s elitist and racist scorn that the pearl should be borne there, on that barbarous skin of night, when in her opinion even her own tailored vest does not deserve so fair a gem” (Habib, 2005).

Among all these cases, Dickinson presents a “canny form of meaning i.e. a formal instinct for the sexual desires of vivid meaning” (Dickinson, 1997). At every point, it shows “the persona’s knowledge either conscious or unconscious of stress and hiding places of her sexual desires” (Brennan, 1989). The persona’s little tale agrees with the psychoanalytic view that the narrative is an admission of lack of her ability to express her forbidden desires, and also a way of expressing them through literary work.

In conclusion, the poems of Emily Dickinson show gendered experiences of pain, suffering, and sexual among others. This because only women experienced such forms of discrimination, pain, sexual issues, and suffering. Dickinson shows that women of her time went through such a gendered experience but had no way to express their ordeals. Therefore, she turned to works of art to express such experiences.

Reference List

Barry, P 1995, Beginning Theory: an Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Manchester UP, Manchester.

Brennan, T 1989, Between feminism & psychoanalysis, Routledge, New York.

Brill, 2010, Sigmund Freud: Three Contributions to Sexual Theory, Bartleby, New York.

Dickinson, E 1998, A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, Texts and Contexts: Writing about Literature with Critical Theory, Longman, New York.

Dickinson, E 1997, Emily Dickinson: Everyman’s Poetry, Everyman Paperbacks, London.

Dobie, A 2002, Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism, Heinle, Boston.

Gay, V 1992, Freud on Sublimation: Reconsiderations, State University of New York, Albany.

Habib, M 2005, A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present, Blackwell, Malden.

Jardine, A 1980, ‘Theories of the feminine: Kristeva’, Enclitic, vol. 4, no. 2, pp. 5-16.

Kuhns, R 1983, Psychoanalytic Theory of Art: A Philosophy of Art on Developmental Principles, Columbia University Press, New York.

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him – Did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy, and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone –
Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me –
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality –
But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
(Poetry Foundation)

There’s a certain slant of light

There’s a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair,-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air.
When it comes, the landscape listens,
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘t is like the distance
On the look of death.

The Malay—took the Pearl—”

The Malay—took the Pearl—
Not—I—the Earl—
I—feared the Sea—too much
Unsanctified—to touch—
Praying that I might be
Worthy—the Destiny—
The Swarthy fellow swam—
And bore my Jewel—Home—
Home to the Hut! What lot
Had I—the Jewel—got—
Borne on a Dusky Breasty—
I had not deemed a Vest
Of Amber—fit—
The Negro never knew
I—wooed it—too—
To gain, or be undone—
Alike to Him—One—

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