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Symbol Analysis

OK, so death is not a new concept to us but Dickinson does a good job making it fresh and strange by having death take the form of a man. You might be tempted to think of the grim reaper, with his black cloak and dangerous-looking scythe (the curved sharp thing he's always carrying around), but, no, Dickinson's Death is a real smooth operator. He's the kind of guy who would hold the door open for his date and offer her his coat on a chilly night. Dickinson uses the character of Death as an extended metaphor to examine what real death might be like.

  • Lines 1-2: Death is introduced right away as the leading character and focus of the poem, performing a human action – stopping for someone on his way. If this were a play he'd be cast as the leading male role who gets a lot of lines. Substitute Death for any guy's name: "Because I could not stop for Tom – / He kindly stopped for me." Now, the beginning of this poem seems like the first meeting of two lovers. This personification of death as a male suitor continues throughout the poem. What does that say about the speaker's thoughts and feelings about death?
  • Line 5: Now that we've established Death as a human character who represents actual death, let's start making those connections every time he reappears in the poem. In this line we know that the character Death is driving along slowly. What might this action mean when we apply it to thinking about real death? Well, it's definitely not a quick death, like from a gunshot wound or a gory decapitation. Perhaps this could be something more similar to death from a long illness, or slowly dying of old age in one's sleep. Dickinson doesn't really say, but we can look at the evidence she does give us to make educated guesses.
  • Line 8: Further character development shows us that Death is polite and courteous. So if we were going to continue to relate this to the real thing, we'd probably come to the conclusion that this end wasn't too painful, and that the speaker (the one dying) didn't put up any struggle.
  • Line 9: The "He" (referring to Death) has now changed to "We." This might be a hint that the two have joined and that the speaker is actually dying.
  • Line 17: This marks the end of their journey, where Death has brought her home. This might, in more literal terms, mean that the speaker is no longer dying but is in fact dead, and laid to rest in her grave.

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