Node your homework
(AKA magical realism
) is a genre wherein supernatural elements are present in an otherwise realistic environment and presented as mundane themselves. While the genre is best known for its literary aspect, it was originally used to describe a specific German painting style. The term, Magischer Realismus
, was coined by German historian and art critic Franz Roh
in 1925 and was used to describe paintings that were focused on portraying realism with no overt fantastical elements (the goal of which was to portray something so mundane so realistically that it caused the viewer to appreciate the inherent wonder in day to day life— to “stop and smell the roses”). The literary side of the genre came to popularity two decades later during the 1940s and 50s and was concentrated in Latin America.
was a 19th century American poet and is widely regarded to be the most influential American poet. She is well known for her reclusiveness and self-depreciation. During her adult years she rarely left her home and never left the country, and she certainly never went to Germany or Latin America.
Despite the fact that Emily Dickinson died forty years before the emergence of magic realism as a popular style, many of her poems have the hallmarks of the magical realism genre. “Because I could not stop for Death
,” “God permit industrious angels
,” and “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun
” are all examples of this.
But wait, some may say. If Emily Dickinson died decades before the genre was even recognized as a genre, then how could her work have anything to do with it? To which I reply: she didn’t. Or rather, she was obviously not influenced by the genre (though we can freely speculate that she may have influenced the genre herself). The idea that someone could come up with a primordial form of a genre type before the genre itself has reached its formative years isn’t unheard of. Dickinson wouldn’t be the first person to develop this style before the style itself was recognized: Czech writer Franz Kafka
(a story wherein the main character turns inexplicably into a large bug) can easily be thought of as an example of early magic realism.
The second thing people might take issue with is the matter of genre itself. Poetry is not prose and it may strike some critics that applying a literary genre to a work of poetry might not be the appropriate thing to do. But Dickinson's poems — a good number of them, at least— are narratives. They are poems with a story, and in many cases the story presented falls into the realm of magic realism (or even other genres that are not strictly poetical in nature). I would also argue that most poetry in general could be considered prose artfully condensed.
The supernatural elements in a magic realism work are unexplained, and the conflict regarding them (if there is any. Sometimes the supernatural element is not the source of the conflict) revolves around character and environmental reactions to the elements’ presence rather than to the fact that they are supernatural. The genre is often tied with the genre of surrealism because the effect of having sparse unexplained supernatural element in an otherwise mundane work is surreal.
The poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is, depending on the analyst, a rebuttal against the notion purported by the Gothic poetry of Edgar Allen Poe that a woman's death can be something beautiful and poetic (Wolf), a modern retelling of the Persephone myth with the first person narrator representing the Greek goddess and the character Death representing Hades as he leads her to the underworld (Hiltner), a personal meditation of Dickinson's reflecting some trauma in her past (Nesteruk), or an intensely personal look at death that tried to simplify the experience of ceasing to exist into more understandable, human terms (Deppman). But first and foremost, before readers and critics alike can tear through the layers of symbolism and meaning in the poem, it is a story. It is a cohesive narrative intentionally telling a story that Dickinson wanted to exist. And the story presented is about a woman, most likely a young woman, going on a country carriage ride with the personification of death.
At first glance, this may seem overly simplistic. Our critical minds have been trained to immediately discard the first layer of any given work to find the meaning below. But what people often forget is that the narrative is just as important as any underlying meaning the poem may provide. Dickinson took the time to create this story. Perhaps she had a specific, symbolic purpose to do so, but the story is the modus operandi
for that purpose, and the narrative deserves recognition.
The poem begins:
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
My labor, and my leisure too,
And already we readers are given conflicting images. While in the very first line it is entirely possible for a reader to assume the word “Death” is referring to the state of being, and that the capitalization of Death was just some authorial quirk intended for emphasis, in the second line it becomes glaringly obvious that Death is a character. Not only is Death a character, but he is a “he,” he personally knows the narrator, and he drives a carriage.
Incidentally, the first line is also what lets us know that not only is this poem a narrative in its own right, but it is also part of a larger untold narrative we aren’t privy to. The young woman is familiar with death; the line "because I could not stop for death" indicates a familiarity. Sometime before the poem proper began Death had asked her to stop for him, but she was unable to on account of her “labor and her
leisure too,” something that a few other critics have noticed, but not dwelt on.
One of magic realism’s traits is that, aside from the super natural element, the world created is presented as realistic, and that the unusual is striking against the normal setting. The poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” has the requisite mundane background:
We passed the school, where children strove
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
The world is our world. The poem is not presented as though it were taking place in some alien terrain or foreign land. In the world of this poem, there are schools, and children, and fields of grain, and a sun that sets. Those are all familiar, mundane things that serve as the backdrop that makes a carriage driven by the grim reaper (a fitting name here as this poem takes place in a countryside with multiple fields of grain) so striking. And nobody, not the narrator and not the children in the school, finds the living characterization of the great finality that is death driving a carriage down the way odd. Again, as stated, the narrator and Death already have some history together, and if they know each other, who’s to say that others in this rural community don’t know him? Does Death live among them as a human (or something human-shaped).
And that is what magic realism does. Suddenly there are more questions than answers, and nothing regarding the source of this supernatural element will be explained any further than it already has been. Suddenly Death is not just a grim metaphor for the physical demise, or Dickinson’s reaction to living in a culture where “unexpected death was both the principal fear…and the most frequent subject of its poetry” (Wolf 6), although, again, those can be perfectly valid interpretations, but he is also a character in a narrative that stretches beyond what we readers are given on the page.
Another example of magic realism in Dickinson’s poetry is “God Permit Industrious Angels”:
God permit industrious angels
I met one, -- forgot my school-mates,
All, for him, straightaway.
As you can see, the poem is told from the point of view of a child (presumably a little girl) and is framed as a prayer to God asking him to allow some otherwise busy angels the afternoons off. There’s nothing unusual until the third line wherein the girl proclaims to have met an angel before. It is then that the aspects of magic realism begin to show:
God calls home the angels promptly
I missed mine. How dreary marbles,
In a world we must assume is very much like our own, a world with school children and marbles and a sun that rises and sets, we have a little girl who spends her recesses playing with angels and thinks nothing odd of it.
She is not shocked at the revelation that there is a one true God who commands hordes of hard working celestial beings. She is not awed that one of those celestial beings has come down from the heavens to play games with her. In fact, she is quite familiar with this angel, and his coming to play is a regular occurrence, just as his leaving regularly fills her with disappointment. The line “God calls home the angels promptly/At the setting sun” indicates some familiarity with the process. She is playing with only one angel, but knows that God calls all of the angels home at this time, meaning either that it is a regular enough occurrence that she noticed God calling home the angels before meeting hers, or that possibly her angel told her that God always calls them home at that time.
Again, there is the mundane background against a supernatural element that is treated as mundane. Just as no one thought anything odd of Death and his carriage in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” so too does no one think anything odd about the undeniable existence of angels who play with children on their breaks.
The poem “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –“ is different in tone that the previous two Dickinson poems. Even without digging through the layers of meaning and symbolism present in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and sticking strictly to the narrative, it was a calm poem (later turned to melancholy) about an easy carriage ride. “God Permit Industrious Angels” likewise was a short poem about a child’s prayer that can fairly be described as “cute.” “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—“ is begins:
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
The Owner passed – identified –
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him –
The Mountains straight reply –
And do I smile, such cordial light
Had let its pleasure through –
To foe of His – I'm deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
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 –
This poem is quite violent when compared to the other two, which makes sense as the narrator is a gun. Here she is remorselessly killing deer and is proud of how deadly she is. She “speaks for him” and the mountains echo with the sound of her gunshot. This is a far cry from a child playing with angels and a woman going on a date with Death.
The narrator in the poem has been described as a remorseless sexual and “satanic” perversion and a play on the relationship between sex and violence. (Larson 19) She has been described as everything from a representation of a woman full of pent up aggression finally finding freedom in the form of violence to Dickinson doing, well, this:
[Dickinson doing] something quite subversive in situating a domineering sado-masochistic woman self as the center of the metaphorical relationship between gun and male hunter. The underlying implication is that there is no democracy in this world, no benign relationship without hierarchy and without the risk of being exploited. (Larsen)
But for a moment, disregard the interpretations of the deeper meaning held within the poem. Read the poem again as a story. Suddenly our main character isn't just an allegory for a young woman full of pent up aggression, or some sexual metaphor for sado-masochism, she's a sentient gun. She’s a sentient gun who has been found and now belongs to a hunter. The joy she feels (exemplified in “our good day done” and her smiling) that to some may indicate sexual perversity in the poet now is simply the natural joy that comes when someone does what they were created to do; she is a gun, she was made to kill, and now that she is shooting again, she finally feels complete.
Like the other poems, this is a snippet of a much longer, untold, and unexplained narrative. Where did the gun come from? Why is it sentient? Furthermore, does the hunter know she is sentient? This is the first poem wherein the story is being told by the supernatural element itself. What is the rest of the story? Well, we won't know, because this poem is the only glimpse of that story we'll have.
And that is another aspect of magic realism. Fantastic, unexplained elements presented in an ordinary way in an ordinary setting are by nature only a fragment of the complete narrative as we never see their beginnings, and Emily Dickinson was very good at providing us these glimpses. She was a magic realist before magic realism was extant
Cynthia Griffin Wolff. "ImPertinent Constructions of Body and Self: Dickinson's use of the Romantic Grotesque." The Emily Dickinson Journal 2.2 (1993): 109-23. Web.
Jed Deppman. "Dickinson, Death, and the Sublime." The Emily Dickinson Journal 9.1 (2000): 1-20. Web.
Ken Hiltner. "Because I, Persephone, could Not Stop for Death: Emily Dickinson and the Goddess." The Emily Dickinson Journal 10.2 (2001): 22-42. Web.
Peter Nesteruk. "The Many Deaths of Emily Dickinson." The Emily Dickinson Journal 6.1 (1997): 25-43. Web.
Ide Hejlskov Larsen. "Emily Dickinson Challenges American Myths:." The Emily Dickinson Journal 4.2 (1995): 62-86. Web.