Madness Versus Sanity
The main, or at least most obvious, theme of this poem deals with the argument over the definition of sanity and its opposite, madness. Sanity is an ambiguous term. It takes on its definition from its surroundings. What is considered sane in one society might be defined as crazy in another. The passage of time also alters the definition.
Dickinson is also correct in pointing out that the majority classifies what is sane and what is not. In any group, rules of conduct are determined by the majority. Deviation from this standard cannot be tolerated if the majority of the group is to “prevail.” In some way, those who object must be ostracized or else they will threaten the group’s goals. Although the words “sanity” and “madness” have definite meanings recognized by modern readers, in Dickinson’s time, these concepts were often used when discussing women’s rights or the attempts to suppress them.
The individual versus the group is a perpetual battle for balance. For the creative spirit to expand and explore, the individual must be given the freedom to think differently from the traditions of the group. Innovations occur when imagination is unconfined.
This said, it is easy to understand Dickinson’s concerns for the needs of the individual. She was an artist and therefore had a unique way of thinking. The pressures on her to conform were powerful. Not only was her voice out of place in her community but also her era. For her to be confined to the manners of the women who surrounded her would be akin to a spiritual death. Though the majority prevailed, she had the strength of her individuality to help her maintain her vision, but it is likely that she was often told how dangerous it was.
An implied theme of this poem is rebellion. Although Dickinson does not discuss whether she rebelled against the majority rule, the reader can infer that she is at least thinking about it. If she has contemplated the concepts behind the ambiguity of madness and sanity, then she has most likely considered going against the rules of the majority. From her opening statement that...
(The entire section is 558 words.)