Sylvia Plath Short Fiction Analysis
Like her poetry, Plath’s short fiction is characterized primarily by its mythic dimension. It reveals a profound fascination with dream and ritual, and their connection to artistic endeavor. Similarly, both her poetry and fiction are strikingly allusive. Regardless of its subject matter or genre, the body of Plath’s work concerns the aura of mystery and myth surrounding major transitions in human life. Her stories typically concern the ambivalence people feel during transformative experiences, and they seek to characterize that ambivalence.
Ted Hughes asserts in his introduction to Plath’s short fiction collection Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams that her fiction also tends to be highly autobiographical. In fact, Plath withheld much of it from publication during her lifetime, fearing the reprisals of those who might recognize themselves and disapprove of her portrayal of them in her work. Plath’s protagonists are almost universally female, which also suggests that she wished to remain at the center of even her most exotic and experimental stories.
As do many fiction writers, Plath frequently recycles characters and motifs from previous works. A number of her earlier short stories in ways appear to function as prototypes for her most developed work, the later novel The Bell Jar. For example, both The Bell Jar and “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” depict traumatic experiences with electroshock therapy, although each differs significantly in style and tone. Henry in “Sunday at the Mintons’” and The Bell Jar’s Buddy Willard possess a similar tendency toward dogged, uninspired rationality. Both “Mothers” and The Bell Jar center on the experiences of a protagonist named Esther, who is often interpreted as Plath’s alter ego. Similarly, Esther struggles in both works with her fears and misgivings about motherhood and female identity.
“Sunday at the Mintons’”
Plath’s earliest story to merit critical attention, “Sunday at the Mintons’” reflects in prose the stylistic tendency of her early poetry toward control and order. Written in third person to heighten its pervasive sense of restraint, the story focuses on the relationship between two parentless, retired siblings—the compulsive, “fastidious” Henry and his “impertinent,” daydreaming sister Elizabeth. Having been forced late in life into each other’s care, the pair confront their many differences in personality and perspective during an evening meal and stroll by the ocean.
Plath’s discipline as a poet becomes markedly evident in this story, particularly toward its conclusion. In the climactic scene, Elizabeth loses a treasured brooch, given to her by her deceased mother, while leaning absently into the evening tide. When Henry treads stiffly but dutifully into the water to retrieve it, he is leveled by an unexpectedly strong “black” wave. Elizabeth, unable to deny the humor in the situation, takes the opportunity to muse lyrically about her brother, whom she compares to “Neptune sitting regally on a wave with his trident in his hand and the crown on his blown white hair.” Henry, the unlikely object of her mythic fantasy, returns from the sea dripping wet, brooch in hand. His gesture underscores the story’s awareness of the tension between rigidity and spontaneity in human experience.
“Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”
Brazenly satirical and consciously allegorical, “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,” written in 1958, differs markedly in approach from Plath’s other fiction. The story was composed around the same time as The Bell Jar and is akin to the novel in subject matter. Like The Bell Jar, “Johnny Panic” concerns Plath’s deep fear of electroshock therapy, with which she had a number of horrific experiences in her lifelong battle with depression. However, while the depiction of her experiences with the therapy in the novel is primarily straightforward, in “Johnny Panic” it is woven into an allegorical tapestry that is decidedly more surrealistic and Kafkaesque. The story’s unnamed narrator, a clerical worker in a psychiatric ward, is caught by one of her supervisors, a psychiatrist, copying accounts of patients’ dreams into a secret notebook, which she fancifully calls “Johnny Panic’s Bible of Dreams.” A self-proclaimed “lover of dreams,” she seeks what, to her mind, is a clearer understanding of the collective unconscious through these stolen dream accounts. She describes the unconscious as a “lake” into which “people’s minds run at night the sewage farm of the ages.”
The narrator is promptly whisked away by the doctor into electroshock therapy, which she chides as an attempt “to unseat Johnny Panic from his own throne.” The story ends with her first treatment, the narrator left “shaken like a leaf in the teeth of glory,” her namesake Johnny Panic beckoning her in “a nimbus of arc lights on the ceiling overhead.” The story’s ambiguous, irresolute ending reflects the narrator’s own ambivalence toward both the shame and sanctimoniousness of her illness. At points she flaunts her condition playfully before the reader like a badge of honor; at others she hides it self-consciously like her purloined book of dreams.
“The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle”
Written in 1959, “The Fifteen-Dollar Eagle” contains some of Plath’s boldest experiments with subject matter, description, and characterization. Written in first person, but with relatively little interpretive intrusion on the part of the narrator, the story meticulously describes the inner workings of a tattoo shop. On the insistence of her “steady man” Ned Bean, the narrator visits the shop of Carmey, a colorful and matter-of-fact tattoo artist, where she furtively explores the part-ritualistic, part-clinical exhibition of Carmey’s craft.
The narrator tentatively observes Carmey as he tattoos two men—one a seasoned sailor, the other a naïve schoolboy. Each man’s unique reaction to this exotic, seminal experience sets up the story’s central dynamic, which involves the tension between the pride and fear associated with this archetypal but enigmatic ritual. Plath describes the ritual memorably, in a story rich and perceptive in its passion for detail and description.
Plath’s last completed story, “Mothers,” written in 1962, deals with two of the most prevalent motifs in her fiction, hypocrisy and motherhood. The story concerns Esther, a young mother who, having recently moved to the English countryside, seeks to involve herself in her new community by attending a “Mothers’ Union” meeting at the local church. Through a litany of disillusioning experiences with superficial and self-important “church people,” Esther eventually establishes a more satisfying, meaningful relationship with Mrs. Nolan, an outspoken, endearing divorcée. Ironically, Mrs. Nolan has been summarily excluded from the Mothers’ Union because of the church’s disapproval of divorce. Still, she forges an unlikely but intimate bond with Esther, who shares her sense of alienation and innate sense of being tagged an “outsider.”
“Mothers” is among Plath’s most pointedly autobiographical stories. Written at a time when marital frictions between her and husband Ted Hughes had led to their separation, the story likewise has Esther and husband Tom “arguing loudly and freely” as the story begins. Similarly, “Mothers” presents an almost pathological preoccupation with hypocrisy. This is portrayed primarily in the character of the absentminded, solicitous village rector, who embodies the fundamental lack of sincerity and conviction Esther regards as endemic to organized religion. “Mothers” clearly reflects the struggles Plath herself endured late in her life as she fought to forge a new identity in the wake of marital conflict, single parenthood, religious skepticism, and depression.