I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

by Emily Dickinson

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Student Question

How does Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—" compare to Porter's "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall"?

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Both Dickinson's poem and Katerine Anne Porter's poem compare in several literary aspects:


Thematically, these works are both examinations of the time of death and what one experiences.  For Dickinson's speaker it is an examination after death, while for Granny, it is a present moment that her body is

a deeper mass of shadow in an endless darkness and this darkness would curl around the light and swallow it up.

Death is an experience that Granny finds "cruel" and she cannot "forgive it." But, unlike Dickinson's speaker who "could not see to see," Granny takes a deep breath and "blew out the light" actively going into the next life. Still, despite these differences, both the speaker of the poem and Granny experience what one critic calls "a violation of expectations" as Granny can see no signs and Dickinson's speaker switches from hearing the fly buzz to being unable to see.

There is also the theme of "God and Religion" in both works. In "I Heard a Fly buzz--when I died" Dickinson examines the question of what becomes of the soul.  "When the King/Be witnessed" connotes Christ and the reunion of the soul with its maker. However, with the mention of the blue fly in the last stanza, the suggestion of Beelezebub and the decay of death raise the question about the immortality of the soul.  In "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," religious motifs prevail throughout the narrative, also.  While Granny's thoughts turn to prayer and she feels "easy about her soul," she still struggles with accepting some form of salvation.  For instance, as the priest anoints her feet in Extreme Unction, Granny thinks, "...will you stop that nonsense?" Later, she prays in her "violence of expectations,"

"So, my dear Lord, this is my death and I wasn't even thinking about it."


In Dickinson's poem, there is a confounding of images and symbols.  The speaker from the grave recalls "Heaves of Storm" within herself and from those who are exhausted in their grief for the deceased as they anxiously await "the King"; however, the image of the "King" is ambiguous as it seems at first to mean the Saviour, but in the final stanza the "fly" suggests Death and even Beelezebub.  Likewise, Porter's narrative waivers with religious allusions that do not satisfy the question of religion as a comfort in death. There are images of the rosary, six bottles of wine for Sister Borgia, the Hail Mary prayer and Father Connolly murmuring in Latin and tickling Granny's feet as he anoints them, but death is "clammy and unfamiliar" at the same time.  Sensory imagery passes through Granny's thoughts, as well as through Dickinson's speaker's. Granny is cold, she sees a fog rising over the valley and

marching across the creek swallowing the trees and moving up the hill like an army of ghosts,

and the day turns from green to blue gray with a breeze "whispering"  as a "gray gauzy shadow" passes through her memory. And, for both works the "storm" of grief is present with the light of sight flickering out as Granny finds her body curled within herself while Dickinson's speaker "could not see to see."


Although a short poem, "I heard a fly Buzz--" has a speaker who is uncertain of the after life.  She has prepared her will and seen to her worldly affairs, but is stunned by death's outcome. So, too, is Granny, who finds death "dusty," and "cruel" and
"unforgivable" as she blows out the light. Both are unsure of interpreting symbols.

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