“God knows what is in my heart. He doesn’t need me to be in pews to remind him.”
While watching A Quiet Passion I was struck by how well Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon) would fit in with today’s “spiritual but not religious” sentiment. Her thoughts (and poetry) were often on thoughts of significant theological import, but she seemed to want nothing to do with any outward participation in church.
Death and eternity are a constant presence and topic in her thoughts. This gives some people the idea that she is a morbid writer. However, in the film we are reminded that death was handled in a much different way in that time than today. It was the norm that people would die at home with family. It was a part of life, and a part of life that seemed to fascinate Dickinson.
The 19th Century American poet was something of an unknown at the time. After all, women were not expected to be writers. Yet she spent most of her life as a semi-recluse, spending her time on her poems, most of which only came to light after her death. This film gives us an overview of her life, from school (where she begins to show her ambivalence toward religion) through her time where she always lived with her family. She is content to be with the family of people she loves. Thoughts of marriage and a new family don’t appeal to her.
Dickinson is portrayed in this film as witty and intelligent. Early on she makes friends with other women and they have wonderful conversations. Dickinson is shown to be something of a proto-feminist. (She notes at one point, when slavery is being discussed that “gender is slavery”.)
But as the film progresses she retreats more and more into her home—and even her room. When a potential suitor comes, she only speaks to him from the door to her room, where he cannot even see her. As time passes she becomes more melancholy. She also becomes more judgmental and cruel in how she relates to those (even in her family) who do not live up to her ideals.
From a faith perspective, of interest in this film are the religious themes that seem so important to Emily, even though she does not want the trappings of the church—indeed, often rebels against anything churchly. The themes she brings up besides death and eternity, as mentioned above, include sin, salvation, and the interplay of atheism, agnosticism, and humanism. It is not that she was irreligious and anti-religious—many of her poems have overtly religious themes—but her spiritual musing are not what was common in the church of her time. However, there may be many today who find within her spiritual understandings something they can identify with.
Photos ccourtesy of Music Box Films