The house was one of Dickinson’s most important metaphors. Dickinson used the image of a house to explore psychological interiority. There is no other writer more closely associated with their home than Emily Dickinson. Anecdotes from friends, family, neighbors and the poet herself provide the biographical foundation for Dickinson’s reigning image as an eccentric recluse devoted to her interiority. When taken together, these stories depict a woman who is acutely aware of her spatial surroundings, whether she is listening to the parlor piano from the shadows of a hallway, lowering gingerbread baskets from her bedroom window, or conversing with visitors from around corners or behind partially closed doors. Deliberately choosing to remain invisible within the family homestead’s interior chambers. Dickinson used space in unusual, unconventional, and even whimsical ways.
Emily Dickinson rarely left her father’s house and grounds at 280 Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, after the age of thirty, only venturing as far as the hedges of the family estate. Looking through windows was her primary mode of relating to the landscape around her, aside from working in the garden and walking the grounds of the property. Dickinson was fortunate to live in a house with numerous windows. The Dickinson Homestead had approximately seventy-five windows.
Two of Dickinson’s letters, poems, and recollections of others confirm that her interactions with her home’s windows were numerous and richly associative throughout her lifetime, infused with a playful imagination, ritualistic significance, and strong emotional attachment. “I cannot walk to the distant friends on nights piercing as these, so I put both hands on the window-pane, and try to think how birds fly, and imitate, and fail,” Dickinson wrote in a letter to her friend Mary Bowles in 1859. 3 In 1884, the poet wrote to her friend Elizabeth Holland, “I have made a permanent Rainbow by filling a Window with Hyacinths…”
The Gothic homes in her poems are repositories for dreams and nightmares, making the text’s sense of reality ambiguous and connecting the Gothic to the fantastic. They are also the site of clashes between different ideas about how society should be structured, particularly regarding the role of women. As a result, any approach to examining the meaning of home in Dickinson’s poetry must begin with a discussion of the Gothic, women’s roles in nineteenth-century society, and uncanny space.
Furthermore, the dualistic nature of the house is as important in the Gothic works Emily Dickinson read as it is in her poetry. Jane Eyre’s houses, for example, defy Jane’s expectations of comfort: Lowood does not provide adequate shelter; her aunt’s house does not provide love or familial affection; and, finally, Thornfield Hall is both brilliantly illuminated and obviously concealing a plethora of secrets, with its locked attic rooms and strange noises echoing in the walls. These houses challenge Jane’s definition of home, instill in her a deep anxiety about the space of the home, and represent the problematic relationships she has with those who share those structures with her. Dickinson, influenced by her reading of literature such as Jane Eyre, may have incorporated this problematic image of home into her poetry.
Interiority, for Dickinson, was more than just a physical enclosure. By attending to the domestic interior that housed her literary production, she was able to advance its recurrent themes of joy, despair, death, time, and poetry through metaphors. One important historical justification exists for emphasizing Dickinson’s literary construction of interiority against the backdrop of the poet’s ancestral home. The growing distinction between public and private space enabled the rise of interiority in nineteenth-century America. Houses became extremely privatized during Dickson’s time as commercial labor moved out of the home and into the town or factory. When Dickinson began writing her poetry, the domestic interior as a private haven where one could withdraw from public view was a relatively new cultural ideal.
Home is described in the poem as a religious situation as well as an earthly manifestation of marriage. The terms “Covenant” and “Hymn” both refer to religious situations, with hymns being songs of praise to God and covenant referring to either the Covenant of Works bestowed on Adam and his descendants or the Covenant of Grace with the Second Adam and his elect for deliverance from their transgressions. The “pretty ways” and the speaker’s “awkwardness” then combine to imply marriage, a more earthly manifestation of “covenant.” Bennett notes that “the pretty ways of the covenant” of marriage are shadows of heavenly things; the “patterns of things in heaven” are realized in the unity of Christ and Church, husband and wife.”
The transformation from a state of safety to one of fear, from life to death, and from stability to instability establishes these poems as exemplary of Dickinson’s Gothic home motif. Especially in “I learned—at least—what Home could be—,” the speaker begins with the promise of establishing a home in both this world and the next, imagines activities with her partner across morning, noon, and evening, but ultimately doubts the circle’s fulfillment.
Dickinson’s poetry frequently reflects the complicated relationship between the speaker and the house/home. There are social values of hospitality, gentility, distinction, joy, and comfort associated with a happy home, but also anxieties, guilt, and fears behind the doors and windows, inside the chambers, and beneath the gables of the houses in her poems. The architecture of a house, which circumscribes the speaker’s psyche as well as the action that takes place within it, evokes home as a place representative of a secure identity.
Domestic scenes are thus intimate while also inherently ambiguous. The imagery of the house uses building symbolism to anchor impossibly ambiguous concepts like “possibility” and other ambiguous terms like “remembrance,” “despair,” and “eternity” that can only be present and interpreted within her mind. While houses and their contents represent the social order’s home, the speaker’s accepted and beloved home remains as elusive as these concepts.