Study Guide

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – Themes

  • Violence

    "My Life had stood" is all about our speaker’s relationship to violence. Without knowing what it is that the speaker would kill, and without knowing exactly what would kill her, we know for sure that the speaker is wrestling with her own power and with the idea that she is capable of taking life away. Spurring this violence is anger. When you think of violence, you probably think of a punch in the face, and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, violence can come in many different forms. There’s spiritual violence, psychological violence, emotional violence – anything that can count as "abuse." Violence is not always physical, so it doesn’t necessarily leave a scar you can see. More often than not, it’s more complicated than it appears.

    Questions About Violence

    1. Is violence good, bad, or somewhere in between in this poem?
    2. According to this poem, how is violence a sign of courage?
    3. How is violence a sign of weakness?
    4. Does violence hurt the one being violent? If so, how?
    5. How is writing an act of violence?

    Chew on This

    The speaker seems to destroy things outside of herself with violence when, in reality, she is self-destructive.

  • Power

    Power is influence. A guy with a gun has a lot of power, or at least thinks he does. A leader with public speaking skills has power. Power is always a two-sided equation. Something or someone has power over someone or something else. That is, a king without a kingdom isn’t very kingly. Our speaker’s life is like a gun, and so we know that she has power. Our speaker is the one in control of language in this poem, and so she has a certain power over us. However, the scary thing about being in power is that it can be taken away at a moment’s notice. We watch our speaker struggle to gain control throughout this poem, and we watch her serve a far more powerful "Owner" and "Master" by guarding him as he sleeps.

    Questions About Power

    1. Is violence a source of power?
    2. In what ways do gender roles serve as sources of power in the poem?
    3. What might Dickinson mean by "the power to die"?
    4. What gives her the power to kill?
    5. Taking into account her reference to a volcano ("Vesuvian"), how is a volcano both with and without power?
    6. How is poetic genius a form of power? How does the poem relate to power?

    Chew on This

    The speaker’s anger makes her feel very powerful; however, without it, she is confronted with her own weakness.

  • Gender

    We don't know whether the speaker is a man or a woman in "My Life had stood," but there are certain clues in this poem that suggest a conflict between male and female identities. For example, the pronouns in the poem are all male pronouns (him, his, and he). And we know that a doe (the animal the speaker hunts) is a female deer. The exact meaning of this poem might be obscure, but we can be pretty sure that there’s a conflict between masculinity and femininity.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Why is "The Owner" male?
    2. Is this poem about male dominance?
    3. Is this poem about female dominance?
    4. How does gender play into issues of power in the poem?

    Chew on This

    The female speaker is the slave of the male "Master," allegorizing the chauvinistic society of Dickinson’s time.

    Dickinson’s speaker is a powerful woman who is in no way oppressed by the male presence in the poem.

  • Mortality

    In "My Life had stood," the theme of mortality is closely tied to the transition from life to death. The speaker wrestles with the idea of death approaching (whether suddenly or slowly). In some ways, she tries to look past death into the unknown. In this poem, we watch our speaker contemplate how easily life can be taken away, while she considers her own role in either preserving or destroying life.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why is there a question as to whether she will live longer than "He"? What’s the significance of that?
    2. What does it mean to have the "power to die"?
    3. In what ways may "the power to die" not be about death at all?
    4. How would the power to kill make you feel?

    Chew on This

    The power to kill functions as a distraction from the speaker’s own mortality.