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Deconstructive Psychoanalytic Criticism on A Narrow Fellow in the Grass

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                             A Narrow Fellow in the Grass

                                     Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

                                                           A narrow Fellow in the Grass

                                                            Occasionally rides—

                                                            You may have met Him—did you not
                                                            His notice sudden is— 

                                                           The Grass divides as with a Comb—
                                                           A spotted shaft is seen—
                                                           And then it closes at your feet
                                                          And opens further on— 

                                                         He likes a Boggy Acre
                                                        A Floor too cool for Corn—
                                                        Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot—
                                                        I more than once at Morn 

                                                        Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
                                                        Unbraiding in the Sun
                                                        When stooping to secure it
                                                         It wrinkled, and was gone— 

                                                       Several of Nature's People
                                                      I know, and they know me—
                                                      I feel for them a transport
                                                      Of cordiality— 

                                                      But never met this Fellow
                                                      Attended, or alone
                                                     Without a tighter breathing
                                                      And Zero at the Bone— 

The mysterious poem,  A Narrow Fellow in the Grass written by Emily Dickenson, can arouse our psychological cordiality, “a tighter breathing”, and “Zero at the bone” with the writer. How can the cordiality come into being? What kind of complicated feeling the writer was holding when she wrote the poem? Here I am going to elaborate the poem with the deconstructive psychoanalytic criticism.

The poem's cold power lies in literalness. In the poem, Dickenson depicted a vivid image of a narrow fellow sneaking through the grass. Maybe we are also very familiar with the circumstances when a narrow fellow once passed by, all of a sudden, totally out of our expectation, the grass divided as with a comb, then it closed at your feet, and opened further on. “You may have met him, -- did you not” will lead us to search our memory for the similar image, the grass divided and you could see a spotted shaft, weren’t you? The narrow fellow liked a boggy acre, a place even too cool for corn, which would add more chilling cold to the poem. In the following narration, the writer told us when she was a child, she had more than once, and barefoot, at morn, passed a whip – lash, laying straight in the sun like a rope, but when she stooped to pick up it, it wrinkled and was gone, which would definitely added more mysteries to the poem and triggered us to reflect, did the narrow fellow really exist somewhere, or it was just our illusion? For “several natures’ people I know, and they know me,” she could feel the transport of the cordiality, they knew each other and they were so close to each other. As for the last stanza, “but never met this fellow, attended or alone, without a tighter breathing and Zero at the bone” why the writer had this kind of feeling when she met the narrow fellow? At the surface level, it may because she believed the narrow fellow was dangerous and may attack her all of a sudden. While, more than that, we can sense it is because of the deception of the narrow fellow that makes her feel insecure and dubious. Familiar and close though they are, she still feels uncertain about the existing of the narrow fellow.

Through our analysis, we can notice that the writer hold a suspicious or dubious eyes towards the narrow fellow, which can be interpreted by applying to the theory of unconsciousness or the trauma theory. According to Tyson,

“Psychoanalytic criticism emphasizes the existence of the unconsciousness of the painful experiences and emotions. We develop the repression and defense, but sometimes our defenses break down and we then experiences anxiety, such as suspicion, fear, etc. in the long run, our core issue will come into being, which will shape our characters and personality.”  

Looking deep into the writer’s childhood and life experience, we can find the trauma of the writer, the death. It is also because of the painful trauma that gradually increases her fear of loss and abandonment. The writer’s other poems, such as “my life closed twice before its close” tells us the great loss she has experienced in her life. She is so familiar with the death since she has witnessed the death of her beloved ones, one is her good friend, and the other is the man she loved sincerely, also the passing away of other people since her home is located near a graveyard. This kind of familiarity also arouses huge fear about death. Therefore, she is also tortured by the complex feeling, cordiality and fear. Therese Dolores McFadden once said,

She writes of the awful fear which grips the soul at the approach of the enemy: The soul has bandaged moments When too appalled to stir; She feels some ghastly fright come up And stop to look at her, This ghastly fright might be the blinding realization of her limitations, a sudden flashing insight into the all too transient nature of life.

The bandaged moments were the real emotion of the writer towards death. In the poem, we know that the writer hold breathe and with the zero at the bone when the narrow fellow approach her. Her mind has already been beaten by the death badly, wounds wrapped with bandages, which is too vulnerable and sensitive for any kind of danger.

We can make the conclusion that the writer was afraid of being hurt or attacked by the sudden lose. She fears of death, but she also wants to be intimate with death. Why this complicated feeling came into being? One of the greatest comforts religious belief can offer is to assure us that we will not die alone and that after we die we will not be alone: God the Father will be there for us and with us. Our Heavenly Father will not abandon his children even when everyone else we know has done so. Will the God be with us and is it possible that we will enjoy the after – death life? After so many traumas, the writer was suspicious about the religion and religious preach. We can have a clear view about it if we take careful study about it.

There are many images in the poem. For the most obvious image “The narrow fellow”, the snake, or the serpent, the creature that tempted Eve in the Bible, may be interpreted as the human Sin or the Satan, at first sight. There are four images that represented the Snake, the narrow fellow, the spotted shaft, whip – lash, nature’s people. And the Shaft means a spear or arrow. The whip – lash is an instrument to punish people who commit criminal. Here, it attaches some religious meaning, means one of suffers one has to take after his death in the hell as a result of his sin during his life time. For human’s origin sin, they have to pay off it during the life time or they will inevitably been whipped. The living environment of the serpent, Grass, according to the British slang, it means the betrayer, Judas, accuser, stool pigeon. Human all have the dark side, which hide in the grass. The narrow fellow is fond of the boggy acre; a floor to cool for corn. The Floor means the certain unalienable Rights endowed by their Creator. The corn means something sentimental.

The Acre the holiest city of the Baha’i Faith, Three core principles establish a basis for Baha’i teachings and doctrine: the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the unity of human kind.

The belief that God reveals his will through divine messengers, whose purpose is to transform the character of humankind and develop, within those who respond, moral and spiritual qualities. These two lines tell us the writer’s feeling towards the narrow fellow. He likes the dark and wet place as his holy city, and insists the holy rights which leave no capacity for human sentiments. From the description, we may feel confused about the really identity of the narrow fellow. We may ask how Satan can have the holy Power to whip and punish people. If it can be the God, this two lines reflected the God’s cruelty and inhuman. In the next narration, the writer or a boy met something just like a whip – lash, so he stooped to pick it up, it wrinkled and gone. The child here was deceived by the narrow fellow; therefore, he was dubious about the real existence of the narrow fellow. In a sense, it reflected the writer’s suspicion about the Holy Spirit, Holy Right, and the God Father. In the following lines, “Nature’s people” is the key word, which represents the intimacy and indispensable between the writer and the narrow fellow, as if the narrow fellow is part of our nature. Thus, there is a transport of cordiality between them, which reminds me the image of God. According to the Bible, God will be with you and God loves you. Till now, we can feel the paradox in the writer’s mind. She was confused and dubious about the relationship between man and God. Analysis helps us to draw the conclusion about the image of God. God is mystery and intimacy, omnipotence and incompetence, cruel and kind. God is like the narrow fellow in the grass, disappear when you want to touch it or when you need it, but there is a kind of familiarity between human being and God as if he is just beside us. Bible has that God has made seven promises to man,

One of them is God has promised His people eternal life (John 10:27, 28). In closing, let me appeal to you to live so that the promises of God will be yours, another is God has promised us victory over death. He first resurrected Jesus by way of assuring our resurrection.

From it, we may find the God seems to be omnipotent that can secure and protect human being. While the writer is suspicious about the power of God, because she is so helpless when she witnesses the death of her loved ones, God disappeared. The writer believes God is not so powerful and can save all good natured or innocent people with her friends miserably gone. Whip – lash and spotted shaft are the tool God use to punish man, God is cruel at some extent.

“Zero at the bone and a tighter breath” is the writer’s reflection towards God. We can interpret it as the reverence towards God. How can be the reverence? For this question, we may come back to the third and fourth stanza in the poem. When she was a child, she was once deceived by the narrow fellow or God. At that time, she thought the narrow fellow or God was naïve and kind, but later she found actually God was cruel with man. “Zero” came from the repulsive feeling the snake has brought to us. Just as Barbara B. Hull has said,

I ask, "What makes these creatures so repulsive?" (I encourage specific details, how the creatures look, sound, feel, be-have; what they symbolize; and what associations they hold for humans.

What’s more, the fear came from the deception of religion. Religion tells us that there is the so- called origin sin. Religion promises that you can go to paradise and enjoy your after –death if you obey the religious regulation and restrain your desire, on the other hand, the one who destroys the religious rituals and commit crimes in his life, he will be thrown into the hell and suffer from the eternal fire and eternal darkness. Though the religion has the good intention, his ways of restrain is actually deceptive to man. From the psychoanalytic criticism, we can know that once we have the idea that something is dangerous, we fear it next time when we meet it. So it is the reason why we afraid of snake or religion when we meet it again. Here is a funny story which will help us to understand it clearly. 

5 monkeys were locked in a cage, a banana was hung from the ceiling and a ladder was placed right underneath it. As predicted, immediately, one of the monkeys would race towards the ladder, to grab the banana. However, as soon as he would start to climb, the researcher would spray the monkey with ice-cold water. But here's the kicker- In addition, he would also spray the other four monkeys… When a second monkey tried to climb the ladder, the researcher would, again, spray the monkey with ice-cold water, As well as the other four watching monkeys; This was repeated again and again until they learned their lesson: Climbing equals scary cold water for EVERYONE so No One Climbs the ladder.

The experience is called The Monkey Banana and Water Spray Experiment which is impressive and meaningful. This is the religious psychological impact leaving on man, which can surely limit people’s action.

The writer holds a complex attitude towards religion. She knows religion is illusion just like the untouchable snake. Because of the distance between God and the writer, so there is a kind of reverence. Whereas, in many of Dickinson poems, we may find many familiar faces of God, who sometimes behaved as an old neighbor living near you, sometimes walked across the street you may have come cross. Just as the poem has said, occasionally rides, you may have met him,--did you not, I know, and they know me; Emily Dickenson knew that God is with us. Why he did not appear when my friends were in need, and I was in desperate pray for help? So she expressed her complex emotion towards God. She believed the existence of the God, but she cursed the rituals of the religion because of the deceptive of the religion. She was herself a paradox combined with suspicion and hope. Though the suspicion was one of the major themes, her great hope and courage was really an inspiration for all of us. She believed that man can be in heaven and enjoy his after – death life, which is a strong hope for the future and for the happiness of her beloved ones. Dickenson is a strong – minded woman, who will never yield to death, though has suffered from great loss and defeat from the fate. She, a woman of Earnest Hemingway’s courage, can be destroyed but never can be defeated. As a reader, I am really moved by her temperament or elegance. Facing death, she is so courageous, she admits her fear but more than that, she takes the hope for a bright after – death life to challenge death. She believes that death is only a necessary process for human being.

Just like other poems by Emily Dickenson, the poem “a narrow fellow in the grass” shows us the writer’ attitudes towards religion and Death through her vivid depict about the snake, which leads us follow her psychology and thought. Her psychological analysis is helpful for our understanding about the poem. At last, we sweep all the possibility and draw the conclusion that the narrow fellow was actually the image of God, which is both familiar to the writer and far away from her, both a cruel heartless man and a kind, gentle papa. Maybe the narrow fellow is a kind of illusion created by us, which would disappear when we stretch our hands to touch it, therefore, there is no need to fear or timid. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. For the death, it is also our nature’s people, we will die someday, it is certain, and no one can be eternal. What we can do is to make full use of our life and keep hopeful. All of these make up the writer’s paradox thoughts. Dickenson presented her attitude towards God and Death, a kind of strong inspiration for us, which tells us to be strong and to strive, never yield to the evil or Satan.  

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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  • Are you an English major? What kind of job can you find? 2015-3-14 20:28

    I can well imagine you had your hands full the moment when you started this post .Nowaday it is difficult to find a job that you want .I think what is most important is if the job is most suitable for you ,which relates to knowledge of self .The other day I read one of your posts ,about "A dream in Red Mansions ",I found it  is too much for me  who is n't English major and only have a diploma in vocational studies ,so I left no comment on it  .I think you are sure to get on in life .By the way I am n't active here and spend some time on persona paper ,mylot ,etc.Good Luck !

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