Study Guide

Because I could not stop for Death Themes

By Emily Dickinson

  • Mortality

    Mortality is probably the major theme in this poem. It's all about the speaker's attitude toward her death and what the actual day of her death was like. Dickinson paints a picture of the day that doesn't seem too far from the ordinary (that is, if you're used to having a guy named Death take you out on dates). The speaker isn't scared of death at all, and seems to accept it.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why couldn't the speaker stop for Death? What makes her incapable and him capable of stopping?
    2. Why do you think the speaker is so willing to die? What kind of person is ready to die?
    3. How did you feel when you read the first stanza? How did you think the rest of the poem would turn out? Were your expectations correct?
    4. How long do you think the carriage ride takes? What clues does the poem give you?

    Chew on This

    The speaker isn't really relaxed about her experience with Death; she's terrified.

  • Immortality

    That's right, two opposite themes – Mortality and Immortality – occupy this poem. We find out that the memory of the speaker's death day is being told centuries into the afterlife. So, in this poem, Dickinson explores the idea of perpetual life. In this poem there is life after death, which offers an explanation as to why the speaker's so calm about everything. Death's not the end, just one step closer to eternity.

    Questions About Immortality

    1. What kind of afterlife do you imagine the speaker is telling the story from?
    2. What makes the speaker so certain she will continue on after death? (Immortality is mentioned right away, in the first stanza.)
    3. Do you think the speaker misses her life on Earth, or do you think she's happier where she is?
    4. Do you agree that horses' heads signal "Eternity"? Are there any other animals you think might be capable of signaling the afterlife? Why?

    Chew on This

    Even though Dickinson doesn't specifically name it, the speaker is in Heaven.

    The horses mentioned in the poem were actually angels, carrying the speaker to the afterlife.

  • Spirituality

    Well, the speaker is a ghost, which means Dickinson had to believe in some sort of life after death (and we do know that she grew up in a Christian family). But she leaves specific religious references out of the poem, and we don't know if the speaker is recalling the memory of her death from Heaven, Hell, or somewhere else; we only know that it's a place beyond this world.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. What do you think passing the children and the fields of grain meant to the speaker on this journey?
    2. Do you think the speaker knew it the man was Death right away, or only in hindsight? Why?
    3. What do you think the "House" was like? Is it really just a plain old coffin? Is it the "house of God"?
    4. Do any of the speaker's behaviors or attitudes remind you of any religious attitudes you know of? Which ones?

    Chew on This

    The formality of their slow progressions is supposed to mirror a traditional religious death procession.

    The spirituality of the speaker belongs to no formally-established religion, but is her own personal belief system.

  • Love

    The poem doesn't really address love head-on, but it certainly gives us a glimpse into courtship (a.k.a. dating) and romantic love. If you exchange "Tom" or "Joe" for "Death" here, this could be a pretty good example of dating for the 1800s. The speaker's tone in the poem makes the reader believe the speaker does not fear death, but feels the opposite toward it. If the poem did not explore death with an underlying theme of love, the acceptance of death might eventually be hard for the reader to believe.

    Questions About Love

    1. Why didn't the speaker and Death ever speak?
    2. Think about what she's wearing. Does her outfit remind you of a wedding gown at all? Or a fancy outfit? What do you think this means?
    3. Is the love between the speaker and Death romantic love, or something else? What could it be? What evidence in the poem makes you think so?
    4. Do you think Death is really gentlemanly, or is this just a front to get her to go along with him?

    Chew on This

    The speaker knew about the date beforehand and that's why she's dressed up and not at all surprised to see Death.

    The speaker hasn't really passed into an afterlife, but lives in the "house" with Death.