Analysis of Much Madness is Divinest Sense by Emily Dickinson
Through paradox, symbolism, and tone, the speaker in Emily Dickinson’s “Much Madness is Divinest Sense" defies the majority’s perception of nonconformity by recognizing the rationality and treatment of nonconformists. Even though such remarks will be considered as a danger to society, this reveals the speaker’s value for individuality over obedience to the beliefs and norms of the majority.
The first two lines of the poem set up a paradox, a contradicting idea central to the whole theme of the poem. “Much Madness” is a characteristic deemed towards those considered insane or mental. However, in this poem, the speaker connects such madness to the “divinest Sense - To a discerning Eye -." Here, the speaker is saying that many things that are perceived to be madness are sane. The reverse is equally true, as the things that are perceived to be sane are madness. The speaker adds that for a person to distinguish the two, a person needs to possess good judgment. The words “discerning Eye” refer to the people that possess the skill to think clearly. Discern, as a word, encompasses recognizing minor details and identifying differences in similar and contrasting ideas. In this poem, the speaker does the same, by distinguishing between the societal sane and insane. With this, the speaker presents themselves as a “discerning Eye”, capable of making such a distinction. Moreover, since “Eye” is capitalized, it refers to a person, which may be the speaker.
The speaker then continues to convey how members are perceived by society. The speaker establishes “Assent - and you are sane - Demur - you’re straightway dangerous - And handled with a Chain -” to illustrate the treatment of conformists and nonconformists. If one obeys, they are sane, and if they disagree, they become dangerous. Once they are dangerous, they must be confined using a chain. The speaker uses the chain to symbolize violent imprisonment and restriction for the sane or the nonconforming. This chain forces the members back into their place, and nonconformists are unable to follow their way in society. Since a chain is a metal object, it is challenging to detach oneself which is what the speaker is emphasizing. The speaker emphasizes the fact that once they are caught in the chain, they are oppressed and restricted with no possibility to escape.
Within the paradox and symbolism, the speaker uses a hostile tone to express a value for individuality over conformity. In every line of the poem, the speaker implements a dash to not only express a pause but a sense of a hostile tone. This causes the reader to go back and consider what the speaker is attempting to convey. With a hostile tone, the speaker is conveying disagreement with the current system of affairs. As the “discerning Eye,” the speaker is able to distinguish between the sane and mad and communicate her anger towards how the sane and mad are treated. The speaker is not in support of the harsh treatment for the sane and proposes “Much Sense - the starkest Madness” to highlight that the more “sense” one has, the madder they are. Since in this term, means to be conforming and obeying societal rules. In this poem itself, by expressing anger with this societal norm, the speaker is not conforming. As apparent in this poem, the speaker recognizes these actions as being worthy “handled with a chain” but also knows how to distinguish between the sane and the mad. The speaker continues forth with this perspective knowing that embracing individuality is not madness while “Much Sense” is.
Society’s treatment of nonconformists is utterly disapproved of by the speaker. In my understanding, the speaker’s sentiment is valid because this take on not supporting individualism is unacceptable. In no instance, does not sharing the same opinion as the majority make a person mad. Such societies who discourage differing perspectives are absurd, in the sense that the majority lacks the ability to recognize the intelligence of the "dangerous." In such a society, it is most divine to go against collectivism and embrace individuality rather than suppressing the inner voice.