“Because I could not stop for Death”

The first two lines of poem 712:                                                                                    “Because I could not stop for Death– / He kindly stopped for me–” gained new meaning after we discussed the social norms of the time regarding courtship and gentlemen visitors. For a moment in class, I wondered if the speaker was suicidal but “could not stop for Death–” that is they were unable to complete their suicide. Now, I see their lack of agency–their inability or lack of desire to “stop” as a reflection gendered expectations in courtship. It typically would have been the men initiating courtship–and Death does so “kindly.” This word indicates that the speaker desired or was not directly opposed to Death initiating their courtship; the speaker waiting for Death to make a move that would be unusual for her to make in the world that Dickenson writes in.

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