Emily Dickinson’s “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” may be read as a reflection of a certain paradox which shapes the female gender role in a patriarchal society. Namely, on the one hand, as is made explicit in Dickinson’s key imagery of this poem of the “loaded gun”, the female remains forced into a role of passivity in this social relation. A loaded gun is precisely not something that itself is in a process of action. Nevertheless, on the other hand, a loaded gun is something that remains with potential, the potential to change the relations of power. In this poem, therefore, Dickinson reflects both the marginalized role of the female in a patriarchal society, as well as the female’s dissastifaction with this role, the potential for resistance.
Dickinson seems to make this thesis very clear at the outset of her poem, by repeating its title in the opening two lines. She writes: “My life had stood – a Loaded Gun/In Corners till a Day.” With this opening, Dickinson stresses the marginal and pacified role of the female in a male dominated social construct. Her immediate reflection on her life is that it “had stood”; Dickinson’s life does not exist in a state of motion or dynamism. Rather, she is in a sense paralyzed, held in place, as shown by the use of standing. From the perspective of feminist theory and a feminist interpretation of the poem, which also considers Dickinson’s status as a female poet, the author is here expressing precisely a marginalization, an inability to affect her surroundings. This is repeated clearly in the symbolism of the loaded gun. A loaded gun is often placed, as Dickinson writes, in the corners, out of sight and out of use. It remains an object that does not play an active role, but only exists on the margins.
At the same time, however, Dickinson, although she conceives of her situation in terms of the marginalization of the female, also gives to the female a potentiality and an activity. She thus chooses an object for the poem that has a clear double meaning: that of a loaded gun. While a loaded gun is something that is hidden away, that is not active, it still remains filled with potentiality. Dickinson’s symbolism of a “loaded gun” means that the object with which she compares her life is not entirely pacified and neutralized. The gun, which is Dickinson’s life is precisely, loaded, which means clearly that it can be fired. In this marginalization, therefore, Dickinson does not see an entirely hopeless situation, but rather the potential for a resistance. This would satisfy what Showalter has called the second phase of gynocriticism, which corresponds to the concept of the feminist, namely that “there is a phase of protest against these standards and values, and advocacy of minority rights and values, including a demand for authority.” (???) Dickinson does not merely accept her resigned and marginalized role: the minority, in this case the woman, also has an innate capability to resist.
Certainly, there is also an ambiguity to the poem, when Dickinson concludes it with the lines “For I have but the power to kill,/Without – the power to die –” Dickinson seems to acknowledge the power of resistance. But there is a sense in which this resistance cannot fundamentally change her own situation, to the extent that she herself is unable to die. This could perhaps reflect that even though the patriarchical system can be resisted, and minorities can speak, these minorities remain marginalized even in resistance. A fundamental and radical change is necessary to fully liberate the female, a change that is so radical that Dickinson compares it to death.
There is thus clear feminist themes in Dickinson’s poem. Dickinson skilfully articulates the paradox of the female position. The female is marginalized, but this does not mean she is powerless. The potential for resistance is inherent to the minority. However, a radical change is necessary for the female minority to truly be liberated.
- Dickinson, Emily. “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun.” The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Ralph W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Retrieved 10 May 2017 at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52737