Sylvia Plath American Literature Analysis
Plath’s poetry has a two-level audience—some readers are drawn to her work for its sensationalism, its willingness to share details of nervous breakdowns, sexual embarrassments, and attempts at suicide. This aspect of her work has resulted in many imitators. On another level, her poems and stories, by showing the reactions of a raw-nerved, hyperaware individual to an indifferent, if not hostile, environment, provide a sensitive interpretation of universal vulnerabilities. Plath’s strongest poems invoke archetypal figures and stories in a way that reenergizes early childhood images of the evil parent, the human sacrifice, and all forms of death-bringers.
The subject of Plath’s poetry is Plath. Her feelings for her loved and hated father, her suicide attempts, her anger at the world, and her existential loneliness are described in sharp detail. The poems rage or speak up faintly from a well of despair. Occasionally they scream a furious triumph over the forces that oppress her. These outcries are direct and unmediated by art, as the final lines of the devastating poem “Daddy” illustrate:
There’s a stake in your fat black heartAnd the villagers never liked you.They are dancing and stamping on you.They always knew it was you.Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
Many of the poems express the need for purification—for a death followed by a rebirth. “Lady Lazarus” touches on her suicide attempt at twenty and looks toward her third, successful attempt at thirty; including a near-drowning at ten, the poem ritualizes suicide as an act of purification. The work is cited by those who argue that Plath did not intend her third attempt to be successful but wanted to be found just in time and revived, as she had been before. “Dying,” she says, “Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.” It could be said that Plath’s basic subject is the art of dying.
Stylistically, the poems changed as her emotional intensity increased. Her first poems were carefully structured, delicately rhymed pieces, but she soon learned to do violence to form to produce tough, forceful poems that were spare and cutting. Her early poems were characterized by sharply detailed nature imagery, with verbs carrying much of the burden of description.
“Point Shirley,” essentially an elegy for her grandmother, begins
From Water-Tower Hill to the brick prisonThe shingle booms, bickering underThe sea’s collapse.Snowcakes break and welter.
Later on, after the grandmother’s absence is noted, the poet returns to the natural scene with more verb-dominated detail:
The waves’Spewed relics clicker masses in the wind,Grey waves the stub-necked eiders ride.
The rhymes are almost-rhymes (collapse/ leaps/ chips; against/ danced/ lanced). The off-rhymes and the alternating long and short lines suggest the rhythm of the sea, a movement that provides a subtle counterpoint to the argument of the poem.
The later poems are more direct, more personal, and far less pictorial. Nature images are pressed casually into the service of an emotional immediacy:
I am incapable of more knowledge.What is this, this faceSo murderous in its strangle of branches?
The last poems are dominated by images of wounds and mutilations, surgical operations, Holocaust victims, and illness. The final poems become incandescent in their suffering; Jew and Nazi become a metaphor for the relationship between Plath and her dead father and in fact the whole male, oppressive society. The natural world that was at first Plath’s delight and absorption now becomes permeated with human pain, as in “Poppies in October”:
Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts,Nor the woman in the ambulanceWhose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly.
All barriers between the metaphoric and the real, the interior and exterior world, blur as Plath approaches her final act of self-deliverance.
Her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, shows the same confrontation between its hypersensitive woman persona, Esther Greenwood, and a hostile world. Written in England during the period after the birth of Plath’s children, the novel describes the events that led up to her breakdown in 1953. Particularly vivid in her novel is the growing feeling of detachment from herself that she must have shared with her protagonist: Esther pictures herself as “a hole in the ground,” “a small black dot,” a vacancy. When she looks at herself in mirrors, she does not recognize herself but sees the image as someone else.
Like the poetry, The Bell Jar is dominated by death and the oppressive male world that pulls Esther deathward. Esther’s deterioration is chronicled from her New York experience, which Plath experienced when she won the Mademoiselle contest, back to Boston, where she sank deeper and deeper into depression, through her institutionalization and treatment, up to her release from the asylum as cured. The style reflects the content, as scenes become shorter and more disconnected to reflect Esther’s progressive loss of contact with reality. The poems’ preoccupation with purification and their confounding of life with death are also present in the novel. These recurrent, even obsessive themes are perhaps most directly described when Esther tells what happened when she tried to commit suicide, as Plath herself had done at twenty, by climbing into a hole in the cellar:Cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths. Wrapping my black coat around me like my own sweet shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them. . . . The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.
The Bell Jar
First published: 1963
Type of work: Novel
An individualistic and egalitarian-minded young woman struggles with the suffocating conformism of the 1950’s.
In The Bell Jar, the veil of fiction over the story of Plath’s own life is so thin that her mother fought its publication in the United States, writing to Harper & Row that “practically every character represents someone—often in caricature—whom Sylvia loved; each person had given freely of time, thought, affection, and, in one case, financial help during those agonizing six months of breakdown in 1953.” Nevertheless, the story has the appeal of the novel, and it uses the conventions of fiction in the structuring of the experience it narrates.
The heroine, Esther Greenwood, is looking back (like Holden Caulfield, J. D. Salinger’s even more famous misfit) on the events leading up to her mental collapse. As in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), readers will be split as to what is to blame for the breakdown—the self or the world. Through Esther’s eyes are recorded the events of the early 1950’s: McCarthyism, “I Like Ike,” the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, the relative tameness of 1950’s New York City. To the eyes of Esther, come to New York as the winner of a magazine contest to be guest editor of Ladies’ Day, the real world is exclusively male and has no place for her.
Women writers create fluffy fashion articles. Women English majors should learn shorthand. The only other option readily available, wifehood, is little more than death-in-life, a self-obliteration as certain as the fate of the rug her boyfriend’s mother made out of pretty scraps, then put on the floor to become “soiled and dull and indistinguishable from any mat you would buy for a dollar in the five and ten.”
The richness of detail re-creates the 1950’s in their patriotism and naïveté. The standard female responses to the time period are represented in Esther’s fellow contest winners, such as the innocent optimist Betsey, and Hilda, the right-wing zealot with a flair for housewifely economies. At least partly because Esther believes that there is no use for her talents, which are not in one of the standard female lines, she goes into a decline. Her inability to embrace any accepted woman’s role is demonstrated in a symbolic scene in which she throws her new clothes, one by one, out the hotel window, so that “flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the grey scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.”
Back at her home in Boston, the depression deepens, and flashbacks to her experiences with her boyfriend and her college years give more insight into the nature of her alienation. She is unable to accept that there is a double standard for sexual behavior—that her boyfriend Buddy is expected to be sexually experienced and she is not. In all the relationships she sees or participates in, the woman appears to be a puppet or plaything for the man. Yet Esther does not want to give up her sexuality for her art, either. Unable to choose between mutually exclusive options, she is paralyzed. Trying to write a novel about someone trying to write a novel, she creates one paragraph. She investigates far-fetched career and education possibilities and gives up. She never changes her clothes. She is in a state of clinical depression, just as Plath was after her trip to New York for Mademoiselle. Her thoughts turn to suicide.
As the protagonist becomes more and more fragmented, the novel begins to mirror her inner world, its scenes becoming shorter and transitions being suppressed so that scenes are juxtaposed as they are in Esther’s mind. The jumps in time and space are a key to Esther’s inner world, a world in which birth is death, death is birth, and the ultimate loss of self is both the greatest fear and greatest desire. The association of death with freedom occurs again and again. Headlong speed, careening wildly down a hill on skis, is the only thing that makes Esther happy. The chance of getting out of herself, away from the prison of self that is represented by the bell jar of the title, comes with this speed; the mad flight is followed by a crash and pain—a small death.
More and more obsessed with death, Esther collects news clipping about...
(The entire section is 4540 words.)
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