illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

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What is the binary opposition of "life" versus "death" in the poetry of Emily Dickinson?

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A binary opposition is a way of thinking about two things that would seem to be strict opposites; as opposites, they are mutually exclusive and cannot both occur simultaneously. Theoretically, something cannot be both terms in a binary at one time, because its two terms are opposites. For example, we...

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A binary opposition is a way of thinking about two things that would seem to be strict opposites; as opposites, they are mutually exclusive and cannot both occur simultaneously. Theoretically, something cannot be both terms in a binary at one time, because its two terms are opposites. For example, we might consider the binary on/off: if something is on it cannot also be off, and if something is off it cannot also be on. In addition, there is also an implied hierarchy whereby the first term in the binary is the privileged term. Consider the binary male/female. Female is defined against male and has less privilege. In Emily Dickinson's poetry, I would argue that the binary opposition of life/death really doesn't hold up. They are not mutually exclusive terms.

Let's look at her poem "I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -": in this poem, the speaker has already died, and she is able to describe how it felt, what was going on, what she did, who was there, and so on. However, the very fact that she is narrating the poem after her death shows that she is not, strictly speaking, completely dead. Further, Dickinson's poem "Because I could not stop for Death -" presents a similar sort of speaker. She describes what it felt like to die and suggests, in the final stanza, that it has been "Centuries" since she died. The fact that she has died and yet still speaks and remembers and is conscious implies that Dickinson does not subscribe to a binary way of thinking about life and death. Death, in her poetry, is often not the end of life but, rather, a beginning of a new kind of life.

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