In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, both Tom and his pal Huck Finn get the chance to witness their own funerals and experience the heartfelt loss of those they leave behind. After creating the evidence of their feigned death, they are lucky enough to experience what most people have fantasized about at one time or another, they observe the world’s response to their leaving it. They are able to see and hear the sobbing mourners crying over how much they will miss them; how unfair it was for their short lives to be ended so soon, and so on. Nevertheless, the boys are not dead, and their experience is fully external, the fantasy complete without the actual loss of life.
In “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” Emily Dickinson also employs the perspective of a deceased narrator although in this case the experience is fully internal, and there is no rejoining the living to exploit what is learned at the ceremony. In fact, Emily Dickinson’s narrator’s disembodied voice is so internalized it cannot make sense of the experience in any way other than to feel it inside her brain in the form of footsteps and drum beats. It is a completely claustrophobic affair, where the narrator is at the center of the experience, yet completely detached from it. Dickinson’s from-the-grave narrator is most limited in her experience because she has no context from which to build the meaning. She has only the muffled sounds of footsteps and the creaking of the box, her coffin, from which to draw any inferences about her predicament. Once the ability to build meaning becomes clearly futile, the voice collapses in on itself, dropping down and away from meaning until she “finishe[s] knowing.”
The two most popular interpretations of the poem are: it is a poem about the transition from life to death; and it is a poem about the loss of reason, a slipping into a senseless void of insanity. Arguably, Emily Dickinson might have conceded that these are in fact not opposing views at all. Whether it is death or insanity, Dickinson sees it the same: the incapacitation of a transmitter’s receiver leaves meaning ungrounded, floating senselessly in the void.
It is a curious thing to go to the trouble of granting a narrator the power to speak from the grave and then not allow her to make sense of anything. For readers trying to assert some meaning, perhaps this is the narrator’s ultimate function: to dramatize that being is defined as one’s ability to make sense of the world around him or her. In a later poem, “This is my letter to the World,” Dickinson offers thanks to nature for having provided her with the tools necessary to assert some sense to the universe: “The simple News that Nature told— / With tender Majesty.” In, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” her narrator is cut off from the world and “the simple News” of it, leaving her very little from which to derive an interpretation of her situation. The voice from the coffin is sealed off from the metaphors and concrete expressions of truth exhibited through nature and the world surrounding Dickinson’s typically very speculative narrators.
Stanza one opens with the paradoxical notion of a concrete experience that takes place entirely at the nexus of abstract being, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” The choice of the word brain over the word mind is significant, for the mind is not a physical organ but a process that occurs within it. Therefore, the process of the brain, the ability to make sense of the surrounding world and even a person’s existence within it, seems to be breaking down to its most base elements, its container.
Lines two and three of this first stanza move into a description of the funeral service, ignoring the limitations that it has established for itself in the first line by being only a brain. With the...
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