What is the meaning of Russell Banks' use of Emily Dickinson's poem 1563 in The Sweet Hereafter?  

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In The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks shows how many different members of a community try to make sense of a senseless tragedy. While some people have a better idea than others of why it might have occurred, no one has the full picture.

The aftermath includes the continued damage inflicted on survivors and the families of the dead by the truth and, perhaps even more, by lies. As pain and bitterness shape the various reactions and motivations for the stories about the accident, we learn about the weight of having carried those lies.

Dickinson's poem says we learn our emotional truths through actions as well as words—the human heart learns about Nothing from gifts and words, the Nothing that keeps us moving forward. Nichole, in particular, had learned a dark view of the world and uses her words for revenge, a kind of negative gift, on her father.

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Russell Banks' novel, The Sweet Hereafter, like William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, approaches a single incident by viewing it from the viewpoints of multiple narrators. This multiplicity of vision gives the effect of revealing the response of the community as a whole to the tragic centrepiece of the novel, thus shifting the focus of tragedy from individual emotional response to transformation of a community.

Emily Dickinson's poem 1563, "By homely gift and hindered Words", functions as an epigraph, and highlights the theme that is created by the narrative structure. The poem emphasizes that although "homely gifts" and words which do not conform to the standards of eloquence may not create grand narratives, the "nothing" they communicate, by their very reticence, shapes and transforms the world. In the novel, this may refer to the way that the halting perceptions of individual narrators point to an unspoken composite of the community as a whole that is transformed by the accident.

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