Emily Dickinson’s poem 754, or “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -,” can be read as dealing with the inner turmoil of the speaker, and the presence of some inner consciousness in conflict with her outward appearance. The image of “Him” as repeated throughout the poem is representative of certain aspects of her own personality, qualities and needs which have been identified culturally and psychologically with the masculine, and which she consequently perceives and experiences as masculine.

Therefore, Dickinson must reconcile the feminine and masculine sides of herself if she is to live as a unified, complete person. The presence of both masculine and feminine aspects in the psyches of men and women has been referred to as a man’s anima, or female aspect, and a woman’s animus, or male aspect. This poem explores Dickinson’s relationship with her animus as a sense of “other,” a separate being from herself that must be assimilated within her to form an integrated identity.

In this poem, Dickinson presents herself as everything that the “typical woman” is not: cruel not pleasant, hard not soft, emphatic not weak, one who kills rather than one who nurtures. And in the end, just as significant, she is proud of it. She faces the difficulties and the risks of redefinition and self-empowerment, becoming more than she was before. However, in doing so she risks defining herself as aggressive, unwomanly, and potentially lethal.

Dickinson sees the animus as her savior from a life of subjection, in a society in which women are often confined to assigned roles and limited aspirations. She writes of a life stuck “in corners (2)” until the day that she is rescued from this existence by her personified animus. The release of her power and expression depends on her being “carried away” by her “Owner” and “Master.” Even further, the surrender of her womanhood transforms her into a weapon – a loaded gun – and in return his recognition and adoption “identifies” her. She now has relinquished, at least temporarily, her femininity in favor of a harsher, more masculine character.

In her transformation into a gun, the speaker has adopted the traits of the hunter, the typical male. She and her animus “roam in Sovereign Woods” to uniquely masculine aims – to hunt and to conquer. They “hunt the Doe (6)”, representative of the traditionally docile and victimized female, and thus pervert nature from the feminine viewpoint. Instead of reaching out to nature to engage basic physical and spiritual needs, the hunter reaches out with the hands of a violent predator, to possess and subdue. Dickinson uses this relationship as a metaphor for the relationship between man and woman. Thus, she wishes to rise above her social standing and become a more dominant creature. The death of the doe suggests the sacrifice of her womanhood, to be replaced by stronger male traits. She wants the independence of will and power of mind which her allegiance with the hunter makes possible, causing her to become a “deadly foe (17)”.

With the “good Day done (13)” she returns to stiffly guard her “Master’s Head (14)”. The speaker then says that it is better this than “to have shared (16)” his pillow. Dickinson implies no sexual metaphors or descriptions in the poem, suggesting that she eschews the conventional sexual and domestic role expected of women. She does not hesitate to relinquish her duties as a lover, wife, or mother, choosing instead a more free and unrestricted lifestyle.

However, the speaker appears to gain more than simply the strength and willpower of a man in this union. The animus serves as Dickinson’s male muse, and engagement with him unlocks the speaker’s artistic creativity. In her, the artist and the hunter combine through inspiration to form the poet. The hunter allows the “Loaded Gun (1)” to explode, and release its energy, while the artist possesses traits such as a “cordial light (8)”, a “Vesuvian face (11)”, a “Yellow Eye (19)”, and an “emphatic Thumb (20)”, which reveal her sympathetic heart, her expressive face, her perceptive eye, and her shaping hand, respectively. Her “Vesuvian face” brings to mind destruction and menace, though, rather than happiness and good tidings. When she “lets her pleasure through (12)”, it is a threatening image, as if to suggest that she has let go of her inhibitions and will become wholeheartedly destructive, rather than simply acting in order to preserve her own sense of self, as seen previously. The poet thus experiences her inspiration as a violent occurrence, such as a gun-shot or a volcanic eruption.

The speaker of this poem is presented with a choice – be the hunter or the doe. The paradox, though, is that in killing the doe she is also victimizing the feminine side of herself. Nevertheless, she chooses the independence and freedom of the hunter, and is thus transformed into something beyond the typical woman of Dickinson’s day. She has a definite mind of her own, and the ability to act on her opinions and desires. With the help of her animus and “Master,” she has escaped the tight corners of her life, and is now free of the restrictions that society has placed on women such as her. However, although she has inwardly achieved this new courage and autonomy, in outward appearance she still faces the limitations of society. Therefore the woman must be reconciled with her animus within, in order to become a whole person capable of greater achievements. The poem is thus about the woman as artist, the woman who must deny her femininity, even perhaps her humanity, if she is to achieve the fullness of her self and the fullness of her power in her art.

This essay was written Feb. 2004 for the NYU class “Literary Interpretation.”

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