Study Guide

Medusa

by Sylvia Plath

Medusa Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

As “Daddy” exorcises the powerful father, the companion poem “Medusa,” written four days later, casts off the engulfing mother in order to free the emergent self. Medusa is a genus of jellyfish, and Judith Kroll has pointed out that Plath’s mother’s name, Aurelia, is a synonym for medusa. In this poem the scene suggests a delayed birth, a watery womb-world where the jellyfish’s tentacles continue to enwind and stifle the speaker, despite her desire for separation. Picturing herself as a ship chased by the medusa, she asks, “Did I escape, I wonder?” The medusa is compelling: “My mind winds to you/ Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable.”

If the father is cold and distant in “Daddy” but sharply outlined and precise, in “Medusa” the mother is a blob without definition. She is “Fat and red, a placenta/ Paralysing the kicking lovers.” She complains of suffocation and renounces the mother as she has the father in her desire to be herself. With the epithet “Blubbery Mary,” the image slides from sea to church: “I shall take no bite of your body,/ Bottle in which I live,/ Ghastly Vatican.”

The mother-medusa is swollen and grotesque; she presents a model of martyrdom and negativity whose attraction must be denied if the speaker is to be potent as an individual. Thus the poem concludes with a demand for the medusa’s withdrawal:

Green as eunuchs, your wishesHiss at my sins.Off, off, eely tentacle!There is nothing between us.

For Plath, reaching selfhood does not involve the introjection of the parent figures but necessitates their rejection. This is the message of both “Daddy” and “Medusa.”

Medusa Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Anderson, Robert. Little Fugue. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. New York: Longman, 2001.

Bundtzen, Lynda. Plath’s Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

Butscher, Edward, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Sylvia Plath. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Hughes, Frieda. Foreword to Ariel: The Restored Edition, by Sylvia Plath. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Middlebrook, Diane. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—a Marriage. New York: Viking, 2003.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Wagner, Erica. Ariel’s Gift. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.