The Hidden Guilt and Fear in Richard Cory

This essay analyzes an element of Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson. I enjoyed getting to psychoanalyze the speaker’s motives.

Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson is about a seemingly impeccable, enviable man, who surprisingly kills himself at the end. While the poem’s overall sound and format is rhythmic and easygoing, it deals with the heavy topic of suicide. This duality between the meter and the meaning echoes speaker’s detachment from their underlying feelings of guilt and fear.

Superficially, Richard Cory sounds pleasant and cadenced. Each quatrain is a rhyming couplet, and the meter is mostly iambic pentameter, save for line 3. The rhythmic quality creates a false sense of predictability that is in direct opposition to the surprise ending, and thus provides dramatic effect. The duality between the overall sound and plot creates a distance between the two that mimics the distance between the speaker and the tragic ending. This distance allows the speaker to sidestep his guilt and fear, which are only revealed through subtleties in the poem. The vague and inclusive “we” the speaker refers to themselves with in lines 2, 11, 12, and 13 also seems detached from the tragedy at hand.

From a Freudian perspective, the speaker’s casual language could be evidence of a defense mechanism, specifically reaction-formation, that causes an individual to hide their true emotions by acting the opposite of how they feel[1]. The speaker in Richard Cory seems to experience guilt and fear after Richard’s suicide. They placed Richard Cory on a pedestal because they saw him as “a gentleman from sole to crown” (L3) and “richer than a king” (L9). However, this admiration likely turned out to be very isolating for Corey. People stared at him when he walked down the street, and when he said good morning, all people did was respond in “pulses” (L7). Because the speaker only admired Richard Corey for superficial things like appearance and wealth, he didn’t realize how much Richard Corey was struggling. For this oversight, the speaker feels guilty, which is shown when he says the suicide occurred on “one calm summer night.” This implies that the death was a complete shock, thus absolving the speaker’s guilt for not realizing beforehand that something was wrong. Although this distancing was what probably drove Richard Cory to suicide in the first place, the speaker uses it to relieve their guilt.

Even more difficult to overcome than guilt is fear, which the speaker also experienced in response to Richard Cory’s suicide. The line “so on we worked, and waited for the light” has a dual meaning. First, “the light” means Richard Cory’s life and fortune, which the speaker desiress to experience for himself. Because Richard Corey seems happy, the speaker believes they too will be happy if they become more like him. But because of this veneration, it was alarming to realize how deeply unhappy Richard Cory was. To see someone who has everything you want who’s still unhappy is unsettling because you realize maybe it’s not worth wanting. For the speaker, it was likely terrifying to realize what could have happened if he had followed in Richard Cory’s footsteps. The line also reveals the speaker’s underlying fear he says they “waited” for the light (L13). This suggests that they were powerless and simply waiting for their desires to come to them. After Richard Cory’s suicide, however, the speaker may have realized that the light wasn’t worth waiting for, and thus felt they had nothing to look forward to.

The very structure of Richard Cory is meant to highlight the idea of appearance vs reality, since the regular meter is in contrast with the content. This theme is reinforced by the fact that Richard Cory seemingly has it all, yet kills himself.


[1] I learned this in my Psychology 101 course

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