The Soul selects her own Society— Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Critics note that poem 303 was written in 1862, the year Dickinson made her decision to withdraw from the larger world. The poem, read in this simple way, simply states the need to live by one’s own choice. This reading, perfectly acceptable in itself, overlooks several important phrases which have larger implications.

The first of these curious choices of language is “divine Majority,” in line 3. “The Soul” of line 1, not merely “a soul” or a person, shuts her door not only to people at large but also to the majority, even those who bear the stamp of divine sanction. Read this way, the poem also indicates the poet’s decision not to join the society of the Elect, this even though “an emperor be kneeling” on her doormat. The conduit of grace, an analogy favored in the sermons of Jonathan Edwards, becomes “the Valves” of the soul’s discrimination.

Though she remains “unmoved,” the soul is neither nihilistic nor solipsistic. Even as the capitalized letter implies zero, the soul chooses “One” then becomes deaf to all entreaties “Like Stone.” To insist that this necessarily indicates preference for a Unitarian rather than a Trinitarian view carries the interpretation to a theological level that the poem’s language will not sustain. Nevertheless, selectivity in all matters, including religion, is something the poet clearly favors.

On a complementary level, one notices the carefully crafted description of the woman not at home to any callers, except one or at most a few. Read this way, which merely supplements the other possible alternatives, the poem states the preference to live in a way unlike that of most nineteenth century women, spurning the conventions of social obligation and what society expects, even though an emperor might attempt to persuade her to join the larger group.

The Soul selects her own Society— Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

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Vendler, Helen Hennessey. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.