Skip to main content

The object status of a subject within a narrative is dramatically played out in Dickinson's frequently discussed poem, "My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun -- ." In this poem the subject fears the permanence of the text as much as death, or rather, fears the overdetermination of her subjectivity by the text more than "the power to die."

[. . . .]

The term "identified" elsewhere in Dickinson's poetry and in her culture at large refers to the conversion experience that authorizes the Christian to view his or her life as typified by the narrative of Christ's life. To be able to tell this story, like learning language, permits the individual to be a Christian to another Christian and to herself. Dickinson's poem is told by the object it is about and thus gives expression to the object positions we all occupy within social-symbolic codes. The Christian narrative form in this poem is enacted as the object/instrument life of the gun. The master gives dramatic form to the prior narrative, or master story, which confers identity on the gun. The "Sovereign Woods" designate the limits within which both the master and gun are free, an analogue for the freedom invented by, but limited to, the Christian narrative. But during the process of the poem the object (the gun) increasingly takes on subject status. Already in the second verse the gun speaks "for" the master, which is to say she perceives her function as an extension of his power: his will and figuratively, his voice. But in the mountain's reply to this speech the gun experiences her own singular effect on the world. In the third verse she no longer acts for the master but describes an exchange between herself and the mountain. There is a greater equality between the gun and the mountain than between the master and the gun because they respond to each other's alterity or otherness. Interestingly, this situation of alterity and reciprocity is represented as the elision of narrative (in the loss of a syntactical antecedent to the pronoun "it") in the line "It is as a Vesuvian face / Had let its pleasure through." In recognizing the alterity symbolized by the "reply" of the mountain, which entails that it recognize its own otherness, the gun experiences an identity distinct from her purpose in the master's life (or the master story). In the fourth verse, though she still serves her master by "guarding his head," the gun expresses preference for the pleasure her autonomy and alterity allow her."'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's / Deep pillow -- to have shared -- " to guard the master's head.

But perhaps more significantly, in the next to the last stanza she speaks of herself as bodily. In effect, the master disappears, his story, the prior narrative, eclipsed by the difference rendered as the gun's increasing embodiment.

To foe of His -- I'm deadly foe --

None stir the second time --

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye --

Or an emphatic Thumb --

Again, as was the case in "I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died," the narrative frame is broken by the bodily frame of experience. The object of the story becomes a subject at the same time it comes to perceive itself as bodily. Given this reading of the poem, the ambiguity of the ending, "Though I than He -- may longer live / He longer must -- than I -- / For I have but the power to kill, / Without -- the power to die -- " (like "to see to see") represents the difficulty and relative success Dickinson has in creating a text that will preserve a relationship of equality between herself and her reader, imaged in the exchange between the gun and the mountain within the poem. Dickinson is using a text to free herself from the restrictive and destructive freedom of the Christian narrative frame. We, her readers, come upon her poem as a prior text, which we may read as our master story because it is prior. The danger of inventing a new relationship between writer and reader is suggested in the figures of the gun and the mountain. They are both images of potential violence, and their unchecked pleasure or power, if we take the allusion to the volcano Vesuvias literally, would ultimately be desructive of life. In other words, there is a danger in escaping one form of identity only to become mastered by another. In our desire for identity we bring the words we read, whether those of the Bible or Dickinson's poem, to life. The words that liberate us in turn become the limits of identity. Dickinson's works demonstrate that the only way to prevent oneself from being "framed" by language is to keep writing one's way out.


From "Breaking the Eschatological Frame:  Dickinson's Narrative Acts." Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. 1, No. 1 1992.