Sylvia Plath Essay - Critical Essays

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 suicides and reacts to only that part of any conversation that could possibly be related to suicide. An important element of the whole novel, the humor of the self-deprecating narrator, is ever-present in the descriptions of the events leading up to the major suicide attempt, such as a discussion at a beach picnic in which Esther tries to get her blind date to tell her how to get at a gun:I rolled onto my back again and made my voice casual. “If you were going to kill yourself, how would you do it?” Cal seemed pleased. “I’ve often thought of that. I’d blow my brains out with a gun.” I was disappointed. It was just like a man to do it with a gun . . . “What kind of gun?” “My father’s shotgun. He keeps it loaded.” “Does your father happen to live near Boston?” I asked idly.

After the conversation, Esther does swim out and try (most ineffectively) to drown herself. The scene is followed by the flashback to an attempt to hang herself that morning—an attempt that left her “walking about with the silk cord hanging from my neck like a yellow cat’s tail and finding no place to fasten it.”

The true attempt, however, is described as a serious, almost mystical event: This death is a return to the womblike hole in the cellar where, after taking the pills, she is swept away into darkness. She is then reborn: “The chisel struck again, and the light leapt into my head, and through the thick, warm, furry dark, a voice cried, ’Mother!’”

The rest of the novel explores her treatment at the state hospital and then at the private hospital that her novelist patroness sends her to, and it is perhaps less believable that Esther recovers from the illness. Her recovery is signaled by various events: She learns to admit her dislike of her mother and her mother’s role, and she loses her virginity, therefore making her equal to Buddy. She feels that the bell jar that had been stifling her has, at least for a time, lifted. The final scene is the reconciliation ritual with the world. She is about to be interviewed by the doctors and dismissed from the hospital as cured. Many readers, however, will find her as lost and alienated as she was at the beginning.

The Bell Jar is striking in its appeal. It is a Salingeresque tale of a young woman who does not accept things as they are and will not compromise. The events and realities of the 1950’s are seen in sharp, grotesque detail through the curved glass of Esther’s bell jar.

“Black Rook in Rainy Weather”

First published: 1960 (collected in The Collected Poems, 1981)

Type of work: Poem

Unexpected, startling beauty is the gift of self-renewal that may be called miraculous.

An early work that is one of the few life-affirming Plath poems is “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” a description of a bird in a tree that uses terms of the heavenly (“angels,” “radiance,” and “miracles”) to describe things of this earth. One of the most frequently anthologized early poems, it demonstrates the gift of the visual. Like many of the poems in The Colossus, it is formally controlled. It uses a unique stanza form of five-line stanzas with repeating rhymes of Abcde throughout the poem; off-rhymes are common. (For example, the a-rhymes are “there,” “fire,” “desire,” “chair,” “honor,” “flare,” “fear,” and “occur” from the beginning to the end of the poem.) This pattern helps to convey the impression that this is a diminished world with haphazard arrangements.

Seeing a “wet black rook/ Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain,” the observer reflects that she no longer looks for intention in nature. She no longer believes that there is some kind of “design” in the world, that natural phenomena bear God’s signature. She admits to wanting some kind of communication with the Other: “I desire,/ Occasionally, some backtalk/ From the mute sky.” Yet she is willing to accept the physical delight of the occasional natural revelation in its place, the “minor light” that may transform an ordinary object into a vision: “As if a celestial burning took/ Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then.”

It is these unexpected transformations, these “hallowing[s]” of the daily, that redeem time “by bestowing largesse, honor,/ One might say love.” The rook, with its shining feathers, may be reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s windhover, whose beauty expresses God’s grandeur, but the rook’s transcendence is less clearly attributed. Still, it is a redemption for the watcher, who hopes to be relieved from boredom and despair by beauty.

The poem concludes that, despite the dullness of the ordinary, miracles do occur “If you care to call those spasmodic/ Tricks of radiance miracles.” The observer realizes that it is her part to be observant, to endure “the long wait for the angel,/ For that rare, random descent.” Even this poem is not overly optimistic: The scene is rainy, the weather “desultory,” and the season one “of fatigue.” The miracles of transformation can be neither predicted nor controlled. Nevertheless, they do occur, and they redeem time from emptiness, filling it with purpose, even love. Within this limited affirmation, the poem becomes one of Plath’s more positive statements.

“The Disquieting Muses”

First published: 1960 (collected in The Collected Poems, 1981)

Type of work: Poem

The poet is graced not by the traditional figures of inspiration but by the bizarre, distorted visitors of a surrealist painters.

Written in 1957, when most of Plath’s work was still in formal verse, “The Disquieting Muses” is an unnerving explanation of alienation and otherness. The title, as Plath explained, refers to a painting by the artist Georgio de Chirico—a painting of three faceless dressmaker’s dummies with elongated heads who cast eerie shadows in a strange half-light. “The dummies suggest a twentieth century version of other sinister trios of women—the Three Fates, the witches in Macbeth, [Thomas] De Quincey’s sisters of madness,” she commented. The equation suggests that the poet associates women, distortions, inspiration, magic, and poetry.

The poem is written in eight-line stanzas containing roughly four stresses per line and some rhyme, notably rhyme of the fifth and seventh line in each stanza. The poem is addressed to “Mother,” who tried to teach her daughter a limited and accepted art, telling her stories of witches who “always/ Got baked into gingerbread” and praising her piano and ballet exercises. The mother, too, tried to teach her children how to keep irrational forces at bay, chanting at the hurricane winds that threatened to blow in the windows. The power of unreason is too strong, however; the art it engenders too compelling.

Like Plath’s other parent poems, this one blames the parent, at least in part, for the situation of the poet. Mother failed to invite some “illbred aunt” or “unsightly cousin” to her christening, thus provoking the anger of the uninvited. The daughter is thus set apart, unable to continue the mother-daughter tradition of benign, trivial art. She could not dance with the other schoolgirls in the “twinkle-dress” but “heavy-footed, stood aside/ In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed/ Godmothers, and you cried and cried.”

The conclusion of the poem indicates that the girl is still surrounded by her otherworldly company, the distorted muses, who are witches, fates, visitors from the world of madness. She indicates that she has learned not to betray her difference:

“No frown of mine/ Will betray the company I keep.” The surrealist painting is reminiscent of Salvador Dali’s deathscapes, although not so explicit as they in its message. The poem suggests that to be an artist is to look at eternities and infinities, and that this gift—in the speaker’s case, caused in part by her mother’s oversight—is a curse rather than a blessing.

“Stings”

First published: 1965 (collected in The Collected Poems, 1981)

Type of work: Poem

The bees sting a bystander in the transfer of a hive; this shakeup in the bee world facilitates the renewal of the queenship, a renewal in which the speaker participates.

One of a series of poems based on her father’s (and subsequently her own) knowledge of beekeeping, “Stings” uses the behavior of bees within their hive as an allegory for her own obsession with death and renewal. A free-verse poem, “Stings” describes the transfer of the bees to the woman who is their new owner. During this transfer, the bees sting a third person, a scapegoat figure; the stinging of the scapegoat enables the hive to renew itself and replace or awaken its sleeping queen.

In this hive there are drudges, “unmiraculous women” who are only interested in things of the household/hive, and there is a sleeping queen. The speaker refuses to identify with the drudges: “I am no drudge/ Though for years I have eaten dust/ And dried plates with my dense hair.” She identifies with the queen, old and worn out, or more accurately with the queenship: The queen dies and is replaced by another queen, but the queenship is immortal, going through generation after generation.

When the bystander is stung, he takes away the pain and exorcises the male at once. The bees that stung him—they are presumably a part of her, too—“thought death was worth it”; their sacrifice was needed to exorcise the male. The rebirth, or recovery, follows: “I/ Have a self to recover, a queen.” Now that the scapegoat is gone, the queenship, glorious, can revive, with power and dominance and nothing of the drudge:

More terrible than she ever was, redScar in the sky, red cometOver the engine that killed her—The mausoleum, the wax house.

This poem, written a year before “Daddy,” expresses much of the same theme, but here the theme is presented through the metaphor of the hive. The hive expends part of itself to expel the male and free the queen. The queen, liberated by the removal of the male, is triumphantly empowered.

“Daddy”

First published: 1965 (collected in The Collected Poems, 1981)

Type of work: Poem

The dead father who has suffocated his daughter for thirty years of her life is exorcised.

“Daddy” has an ironically affectionate title, for this poem is a violent, discordant attack on the dead parent. One of the poems Plath wrote in the feverishly active last six months of her life, “Daddy” is a reworking of the evil-father theme so prominent in her poems. Because her father died when he still had mythic power to the child, the woman must deflate and exorcise the father figure somehow. She must go through a symbolic killing of the powerful ghost in order to be free.

In contrast to the subtle rhythms of her earlier work, this poem’s movement is direct and obvious. It uses harsh, insistent rhyme to hammer its message home. Its banging, jangling rhythms unnerve the reader and lodge in the mind. It relies on one repeated rhyme, an “oo” sound that becomes a cry of pain. Read aloud, the poem sounds like a chant, a ritual chant of exorcism and purification. In this poem and some others, Plath seems to be using words for their apotropaic value—as charms to ward off evil.

A series of metaphors presents the relationship between father and daughter in graphically negative terms. Progressively throughout the poem, he is a “black shoe” in which she has “lived like a foot” for thirty years; he is a Nazi and she a Jew; he is a devil and she his victim; he is a vampire who drinks her blood. The vampire and the victim are perhaps the most telling images, for she sees him as a dead man draining her living blood, calling from the grave for her to join him. When she believes that she has broken his thrall, she announces victoriously, “The black telephone’s off at the root,/ the voices just can’t worm through,” mingling images of telephone and grave.

The poem telescopes the events of Plath’s life in her recurrent pattern of contamination and purification. The father was unreachable when alive; she could not talk to him: “The tongue stuck in my jaw,” the speaker says. “It stuck in a barb wire snare./ Ich, ich, ich, ich.” The repetition of the German word for “I” expresses that she could not articulate herself and establish her individuality, and it reinforces the German-Jew image while sounding like something flapping, painfully ensnared.

“I was ten when they buried you,” she says. (Plath was eight when her father died.) “At twenty I tried to die/ And get back, back, back to you,” she continues. Unable to find and escape him simultaneously that way, she tried a kind of voodoo: She married a man like her father and separated from him, thus “killing” both the husband and the father. The end of the poem is a triumphant assertion of rejection and freedom: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”

Like the ending of The Bell Jar, this triumph seems to be contradicted by Plath’s suicide four months later. Perhaps more accurate in reflecting her state of mind is the ambivalence in an earlier stanza:

No God but a swastikaSo black no sky could squeak through.Every woman adores a Fascist,The boot in the face, the bruteBrute heart of a brute like you.

“Medusa”

First published: 1965 (collected in The Collected Poems, 1981)

Type of work: Poem

The monstrous, distorted mother-figure is rejected so that the self may find freedom.

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.”

“Edge”

First published: 1965 (collected in The Collected Poems, 1981)

Type of work: Poem

Perfection, for the woman who has accomplished her fate, is death.

“Edge” is dated February 5, 1963; a week after it was written, the poet was dead. It is possible to consider the poem a suicide note. The often-anthologized poem is not only a statement that the writer will commit suicide; it also contains subtle suggestions about the relationship between art and life and death.

“Edge” is a free-verse poem that maintains a formal appearance through its use of twenty paired lines. “The woman is perfected,” begins its description of the dead woman. The reader is reminded of the “perfection” in the early poem “Medallion,” in which the snake is translated by death into art: “The yardman’s/ Flung brick perfected his laugh.” The dead woman of “Edge,” too, is a sort of artifact; endowed with the paraphernalia of tragedy, she has transcended life and become something else:

The illusion of a Greek necessityFlows in the scrolls of her toga,Her bareFeet seem to be saying:We have come so far, it is over.

The dead children are there with her: “Each dead child coiled, a white serpent.” Death is the work of art she has made of her life. Yet the poem represents a splitting of consciousness. The moon, her muse, seems to be a symbol of mind that is detached from the individual self, and the moon “has nothing to be sad about.” The poem seems to see the individual life as realized through death and turned into art through death. Yet the moon, symbol of inspiration (and of the female mind), continues to shine.

Nevertheless, although the poem may suggest some kind of immortality or transcendence through its personified moon, the image that remains with the reader from this final poem is of a deathlike stillness.