Defenestration of Prague

by Susan Howe

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863

The oblique narrative development of the poem yields few clues to the structure of the work. The aim of the poem is not to tell a story but to reenact the process of thinking about one woman’s experience of being kept by a man. The passive role of Stella suggests analogous situations of other oppressed or denied women, including the American poet Emily Dickinson, who remained a recluse in her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Cordelia, Lear’s daughter, who remained faithful to a father who disowned and condemned her. Other women enter the discourse as memory sifts through the pattern of the abused or persecuted female across Western history.

The title of the work is never directly engaged by the text but signifies a historic principle of oppressive authority from which one is to infer the situation of the Western female. The “Defenestration of Prague” refers to an incident in 1618 when Protestant Czechs hurled two Catholic representatives of the Hapsburg empire to their death, thus beginning the Thirty Years’ War in which Protestant and Catholic forces across Europe fought for religious and political supremacy. The Catholics won under the combined banners of France and Austria, and the Hapsburgs crushed Czech culture and language and imposed Catholicism as the state religion. The incident marks the beginnings of modern warfare and the spread of imperial aggression across Europe, forces that continue to shape Western life today. From another perspective, the incident illustrates the aggressions of raw power and the desperate plight of subjugated people. When this is translated into sexual history, one sees the parallel in the bright and public career of Jonathan Swift and the shadowy existence of Hester Johnson in their long but inconclusive relationship.

Howe’s interest in taking up this story of a love affair outside of marriage is manifold. On the one hand, it is a study of the female’s sacrifice of independence and autonomy for love. It is made clear to the reader that Hester Johnson inherited property and a small trust that would have enabled her to live a sufficient life on her own. Instead, she chose to live for Jonathan Swift, as his lover and housekeeper, and to abide by his rules of secrecy in their relationship, thereby suffering the silent rebuke of other women who disapproved of the arrangement. Howe explores throughout the sequence Johnson’s possible motives for enduring these hardships of a romance without benefit of matrimony or social status.

The most compelling explanation is for the adventure itself; the trip to Ireland is reenacted lovingly through Howe’s fragmentary, multilayered narrative. Howe’s contention is that an era of female exploration of the world was opening on both sides of the Atlantic, and women accommodated to oppressive circumstances in order to expand their knowledge and horizons. Historical complexity is preserved in another contention that while women roamed into wilderness country their oppression by men was uppermost; in the same era, women were both shackled to antiquated social roles and driven to the frontiers of society and self-knowledge by wanderlust. That explains as well Howe’s interest in Dickinson’s life and art, where this same paradox is evident. Dickinson, as Howe remarks emphatically in her study of the poet, My Emily Dickinson (1985), so engaged poetry that it led her “self to a transfiguration of gender,” while remaining the prisoner of her bedroom and family house.

Indeed, the hidden text behind Defenestration of Prague lies in this subsequent critical study of another woman in captivity. Both Johnson and Dickinson were forced into reclusive and passive lives to escape from the exigencies of marriage and...

(This entire section contains 863 words.)

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child rearing, which would have sapped their intellectual energies and dulled their spirits. The worse hardship for both was the fate of marriage itself. That explains at bottom why these women endured such paltry circumstances for their lives; they were avoiding a worse fate as wives and mothers in an age that sorely abused these functions.

The taunting argument of Defenestration of Prague is that Howe cannot locate the real vein of sense in her subject because Johnson did not record it in any usable form. She had lived her life in patient solicitude of her successful male lover, and what she confided in her letters has vanished from the archives of her correspondents. In a way, the sequence served as preparation for studying another life that was recorded (and brilliantly) two centuries later than Johnson’s—that of Dickinson. Between these two women, Howe seems to say, one has a sliver of evolutionary evidence of the rebirth of the female in modern Western history. The nineteenth century saw the rise of female literary genius in the work of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and Emily Brontë, both featured in My Emily Dickinson, as well that of Mary Rowlandson, whose captivity among the Indians was recorded in her Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, published in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1682. Each of these women, according to Howe, explored the frontiers of the human psyche from the female point of view. Howe herself must be counted among them as a formidable explorer of this territory.