two abstract figured looking at each other

I'm Nobody! Who Are You?

by Emily Dickinson
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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 859

Emily Dickinson’s short poem beginning “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” is typical of her work in many ways. It is brief; it is untitled; it is whimsical and thought-provoking; and it also displays her characteristic disregard for conventional punctuation and sentence structure (or “syntax”).  The poem not only addresses individuality and nonconformity but also exemplifies them in its content and style.

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The poem begins, as so many of Dickinson’s poems do, with a paradox in the first line: “I’m Nobody!” To claim that one is a nobody reveals that one is a somebody, that one exists and has an independent identity, even if that personal identity is defined by an absence of social identity. The claim that one is nobody may suggest that one is disregarded by others, but it may also be a way of asserting one’s humility and freedom from narcissism or self-centeredness. Ironically, if the speaker feels that she is “Nobody” because others ignore her, then her poem is a way of defying that kind of treatment—a way of making sure that she is indeed noticed. In the very act of saying “I am Nobody,” she calls herself to our attention.

The second half of line 1 asks, “Who are you?” Although the speaker is ignored or humble, or both, she is not unfriendly. She immediately reaches out to the unnamed “you,” a reference perhaps to the reader. It is as if the speaker were trying to establish a dialogue with another person who can never respond. Thus, paradoxically, her attempt to communicate has the effect of emphasizing her isolation. The whole first stanza can be read as an attempt by the speaker to break free of the isolation, the sense of non-importance, the sense of being a “Nobody” that has been imposed upon her.

In the second and third lines, the speaker suggests that if “you” are also considered (or consider yourself) a “Nobody,” then a mutual lack of conventional identity is the basis for a possible friendship. Again, since there is no way for “you” to respond to the speaker’s question, the speaker is, in a sense, engaged in a paradoxical dialogue with herself. However, the poem may be said to “speak to” anyone who has ever felt isolated or alone or neglected; the speaker speaks not only for herself but also for anyone else with similar feelings. She thus establishes a kind of communication even though literal communication is obviously impossible.

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Line 3—“Then there’s the pair of us!”—reflects the speaker’s sense of humor, as does line 4, by emphasizing a kind of comic paranoia. The speaker wants to reach out to the unnamed “you,” but she does not want to be part of a larger, uncongenial society whose values differ from her own. Isolated herself, her ideal relationship is with another person who is similarly, willingly isolated—a person who prizes independence and nonconformity as much as the speaker does.

In the second stanza, there are no longer any explicit references or addresses to "you," the other person. Instead, the speaker seems either to meditate or to think aloud. She thinks it “dreary” to be a “Somebody.” The word “Somebody” may imply either a person who is part of the crowd or a person who aspires to fame or recognition. Once again the speaker’s sense of humor appears when she mocks any persons who publicly proclaim their names and themselves. She likens such persons to frogs croaking in a bog (ll. 6-8). The imagery is amusing and also a bit sarcastic.

One might argue that the tone of the poem, especially in the second stanza, is slightly retaliatory. Since the speaker feels ignored or unappreciated by others, she will attack their values and their behavior. Ironically, the speaker may be engaged in the same kind of judgmental thinking from which she seems to have suffered. Also, she claims to desire her privacy, yet she feels the need to criticize the supposedly foolish behavior of the very people who ignore or condemn her. Furthermore, her attitude seems to reflect the attitudes of those she mocks: They feel the need to proclaim their presence as frogs do; she feels the need to write a poem calling attention to her own existence and independent values. The fact that she mocks others by comparing them to frogs suggests that she does not really consider herself a “Nobody” at all.

The poem displays Dickinson's wit, her humor, her beliefs, and her sense of independent worth. She may be a “Nobody” in the eyes of others, but the skill of her literary artistry demonstrates that she is a “Somebody” in the eyes of anyone who values clever, thought-provoking poems (including, presumably, herself). Thus the opening assertion—“I’m Nobody”—is contradicted in numerous ways by the very poem that follows.

As is true of many of Dickinson’s poems, everything about this work seems simple, including its diction, its structure, its syntax, and its rhyme scheme. Like many other apparently simple poems by Dickinson, however, this one also provokes a great deal of thought the more one considers it carefully.

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