Plath, Sylvia (Feminism in Literature)
Plath is widely considered one of the most emotionally evocative and compelling American poets of the postwar period. Although Plath gained only modest critical success during her lifetime, after her suicide at the age of thirty and the subsequent publication of her poetry collection Ariel (1965) she achieved widespread acclaim as a poet. This status was affirmed when Plath's posthumously published Collected Poems (1981) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982. Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel titled The Bell Jar (1963), which, like her poetry, reveals an intensely personal struggle with self-consciousness, bold metaphors for death and sexuality, and a pioneering examination of societal limitations experienced by women. A complicated literary personality whose biography is nearly impossible to disentangle from her writing, Plath has often been regarded as a confessional poet, though her deeply personal lamentations often achieve universality through mythic allusion and archetypal symbolism. Viewed as a cathartic response to her divided personae as an artist, mother, and wife, Plath's works have been heralded by feminist critics for illuminating the personal and professional obstacles faced by women in the mid-twentieth century. These factors, combined with her tragic death, have made Plath an iconic figure whose popular fame has nearly equaled her literary acclaim.
Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932, the eldest child of Otto Emil and Aurelia Plath. Her father was a German immigrant who served as a professor of entomology at Boston College. An undiagnosed diabetic, Otto died in 1940 after complications resulting from surgery to amputate his leg. His death devastated Plath, who was then eight years old, and the sense of betrayal she felt following his passing would later become a major theme in her writing. While in her teens, Plath began to publish poetry and short fiction in various magazines, including Seventeen and the Christian Science Monitor. A precocious and highly motivated student, she received a scholarship and attended Smith College beginning in 1950. There, she continued to earn academic distinction and in 1953 she was selected to serve as a student editor for Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. Due to the stressful conditions of the guest editorship and the subsequent rejection of her application to a Harvard short story class taught by Frank O'Connor, Plath lapsed into a severe depression which culminated in her first suicide attempt. After overdosing on sleeping pills, she was hospitalized and received psychiatric care, including electroshock therapy to treat her depression. Plath convalesced and received outpatient psychiatric treatment for several months before returning to Smith College and graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English in 1955. That same year, Plath received a Fulbright scholarship and enrolled in Newnham College in Cambridge, England. There, she met English poet Ted Hughes, whom she married after a brief courtship in 1956. After completing her master's degree at Cambridge in 1957, Plath settled with Hughes in the United States, where she taught English at Smith College and attended poetry workshops given by Robert Lowell at Boston University. In 1959 Plath and Hughes returned to England, where she gave birth to their first child, Freida. Her first book of poetry, The Colossus, appeared in 1960. In 1961 she began work on The Bell Jar, which was published in London two years later under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. In 1962 Plath gave birth to a second child, Nicholas. That same year, she learned that Hughes was having an affair with another woman, and the two separated. During the divorce proceedings, Plath moved to a London apartment with her two children, where she became increasingly despondent. On February 11, 1963, she committed suicide by inhaling gas from her kitchen stove.
Commentators have generally agreed that Plath's literary oeuvre is remarkable for its unrestrained emotional intensity and its ubiquitous incorporation of personal detail inspired by the author's own life experiences. The Bell Jar, Plath's only novel, is perhaps her most explicitly autobiographical work. It recounts events strikingly similar to Plath's demanding student internship at Mademoiselle, her suicide attempt, and her subsequent psychiatric rehabilitation. The novel's protagonist, Esther Greenwood, becomes dissatisfied with her work at a New York magazine and struggles to develop her self-identity in opposition to conventional female roles. After strained encounters with several men who attempt either to manipulate or to subjugate Esther, she leaves New York and returns home, where she becomes depressed and attempts suicide. Esther is then hospitalized and undergoes electroshock treatment, eventually improving enough to return to school, although another breakdown threatens. Throughout the book, Esther seeks her own identity by comparing herself to other feminine archetypes whom she encounters, including a benevolent female doctor who is instrumental in her rehabilitation and a lesbian acquaintance who ultimately commits suicide. In the course of the novel, Esther also ponders the traditional expectations placed upon women and displays a strong aversion to the prospect of a stifling domestic existence as a mother and housewife.
Critics have observed that Plath's first poetry collection, The Colossus, displays an overriding preoccupation with estrangement, motherhood, and fragmentation within contemporary society. Many have further asserted that the collection demonstrates Plath's mastery of traditional literary forms while bearing the influence of confessional poets such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. Several of the poems in this collection introduce Plath's obsession with the symbol of the father figure, who is treated with scorn and rage but who is also invoked as a muse. The starkly direct poems in Ariel—many of which were written in the months and weeks prior to Plath's death—address similar subjects to those in The Colossus but display a more distinctive voice and a less formal style. Critics have pointed out that psychic distress is signaled through brutal self-revelation, violent imagery, and macabre associations, including disconcerting references to Nazis and the Holocaust. "Lady Lazarus" features a speaker who addresses "Herr Doktor" and references lampshades that Nazi torturers fashioned from the skin of their victims. The poem's central metaphor, the resurrected Lazarus from the Bible, has often been read as a reference to a woman who has survived several suicide attempts. The closing declaration of the woman's ability to "eat men like air" sounds a note of revenge against the male figure the speaker identifies as her "Enemy." Similar references are found in "Daddy," where the poetic voice associates both her father and husband with Nazism and herself with Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The title poem, "Ariel," displays Plath's intricate use of color imagery. It encompasses a forceful move from darkness to light that has been interpreted as a woman speaker transforming herself into the male image of the arrow. The poet's ongoing fascination with death is sounded in many of the Ariel poems, including "Edge," which presents a vision of a dead woman holding two dead children and noting the woman's "smile of accomplishment."
Most critics have acknowledged that Plath's poems display an accomplished technical acumen and a brilliant, yet stark insight into severe psychological disintegration and harrowing existential anxiety. Many have also asserted that despite its overall gravity, her poetry exhibits an appealing undercurrent of irony and dark humor in its treatment of morbid themes. However, some commentators have objected to what they perceive as Plath's histrionic display of emotion, inaccessible personal allusions, and nihilistic obsession with death. These critics have further averred that her use of horrific events as metaphors for personal anguish might be considered gratuitous and inappropriate. Regardless of the critical debate about the merit of Plath's themes and motifs, feminist scholars have championed the poet for her pioneering efforts to expose the absurdity of conventional feminine models and her attempts to establish equal footing for women writers in a male-dominated publishing industry. Indeed, critics have identified The Bell Jar as a groundbreaking female version of the typically masculine coming-of-age novel and hailed the book's incisive portrayal of the frustrations felt by a talented and ambitious young woman in a profession dominated by men. At least one critic, Diane S. Bonds, has challenged this notion, arguing that Esther's experience represents the concept of a separative model of selfhood. Bonds concluded that because Esther fails to cultivate a network of positive, non-hierarchical relations, especially with other women, within the challenging parameters of her masculine environment she is likely to re-experience the alienation that led to her suicide attempt. Joyce Carol Oates (see Further Reading) has also written of this alienation in Plath's poetry, contending that it represents outmoded Romantic ideas that identify the human condition as one of isolated competition. In this context, Oates has characterized Plath's poems as "regressive fantasies" that speak of a separate self rather than a universal one. Most feminist critics have affirmed, however, that insurmountable masculine oppression is what led to Plath's obsessive preoccupation with alienation. Kathleen Margaret Lant has asserted that "Ariel" serves as an analogy for Plath's role as a woman poet and argues that the female speaker's attempt to transform herself into a more masculine figure ultimately proves futile. Similarly, other scholars have discussed "Lady Lazarus" in the context of this struggle, with Maureen Curley (see Further Reading) contending that the poem serves as a commentary on the difficulties faced by female artists and Laura Johnson Dahlke (see Further Reading) concluding that the speaker's conflict with "Herr Doktor" represents a struggle against male dominance that ultimately ends in defeat. Christina Britzolakis has extended this gender conflict to society as a whole, arguing that Plath addresses a much larger issue than mere feelings of alienation and futility in the face of male domination. According to Britzolakis, Plath's poetry can be seen as an exhibition of ironic self-reflection in response to the widespread cultural objectification of women as mere commodities for mass consumption.
The Colossus (poetry) 1960
Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (radio play) 1962
The Bell Jar [originally published under pseudonym Victoria Lucas] (novel) 1963
Ariel (poetry) 1965
Crossing the Water: Transitional Poems (poetry) 1971
Crystal Gazer and Other Poems (poetry) 1971
Winter Trees (poetry) 1971
Letters Home: Correspondence, 1950-1963 (letters) 1975
The Bed Book (juvenilia) 1976
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, and Other Prose Writings [edited by Ted Hughes] (short stories, prose, and diary entries) 1977; also published as Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts [enlarged edition] 1979
Collected Poems (poetry) 1981
The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962 (diaries) 1982
Sylvia Plath's Selected Poems (poetry) 1985
Plath: Poems (poetry) 1998
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962 (journals) 2000
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SOURCE: Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar, pp. 215-23. 1963. Reprint. New York: Perennial Classics, 1999.
In the following excerpt from The Bell Jar, the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, reflects on motherhood as she visits a doctor's office to be fitted for a birth-control device.
I waited for the doctor, wondering if I should bolt. I knew what I was doing was illegal—in Massachusetts, anyway, because the state was cram-jam full of Catholics—but Doctor Nolan said this doctor was an old friend of hers, and a wise man.
"What's your appointment for?" the brisk, white-uniformed receptionist wanted to know, ticking my name off on a notebook list.
"What do you mean, for?" I hadn't thought anybody but the doctor himself would ask me that, and the communal waiting room was full of other patients waiting for other doctors, most of them pregnant or with babies, and I felt their eyes on my flat, virgin stomach.
The receptionist glanced up at me, and I blushed.
"A fitting, isn't it?" she said kindly. "I only wanted to make sure so I'd know what to charge you. Are you a student?"
"That will only be half-price then. Five dollars, instead of ten. Shall I bill you?"
I was about to give my home address,...
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SOURCE: Britzolakis, Christina. "The Spectacle of Femininity." In Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning, pp. 135-56. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.
In the following essay, Britzolakis surveys Plath's poems as examples of ironic self-analysis in response to the cultural objectification femininity as a commodity fit for mass consumption.
Although Plath is often celebrated as the poet of anguished authenticity, she can equally be seen as harnessing the expressive conventions of the lyric cry for a language of elaborate inauthenticity. Her rhetoric encodes a spectacular relation between poet and audience, foregrounding questions of sexuality and power in ways which have only recently begun to be acknowledged. The later Plath in particular makes her distinctive black comedy by crossing Orphic myths of the inspired poet with an ironic deployment of stereotypes of alienated or objectified femininity. In this chapter, I shall argue that the ironic specularity or self-reflexivity at work in Plath's language is an effect not merely of literary history, or of the literary market, but also of a culture of consumption in which images of women circulate as commodities. The visual objectification of femininity has now become a familiar theme of feminist cultural criticism and practice, especially in the area of film and...
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SOURCE: Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Plath’s Poems about Women.” In Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life, pp. 95-105. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999.
In the following chapter from her critical biography of Plath, Wagner-Martin offers an overview of Plath’s poems involving female figures, noting the poet’s emphasis on the themes of physical perfection, fertility, barrenness, and motherhood.
Even while the reader can find in Hughes’s lists some themes that would feed into Plath’s poetry, the discrepancy between those collective lists and the poems she began writing, and continued to write, starting in 1959 is noticeable. Whereas most of Hughes’s ideas for subject matter were historically or geographically based, with a strong component of trees, animals, and natural scenes, many of the poems Plath wrote during these years were about women—women either achieving or non-achieving, and particularly women either fertile or barren. Working directly from Frazer’s premise in The Golden Bough that pregnant women bespeak fertility, she crafted poems that glowed with positive imagery about both pregnancy and about babies. And working just as directly from the polar opposite concept in the same source, that a barren wife “infects” her husband’s garden with her own sterility, she wrote repeatedly about barren women who were unfruitful by their own...
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KATHLEEN MARGARET LANT (ESSAY DATE WINTER 1993)
SOURCE: Lant, Kathleen Margaret. "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34, no. 4 (winter 1993): 620-70.
In the following excerpt, Lant asserts that "Ariel" is an analogy for Plath's role as a woman poet and argues that the female speaker's attempt to transform herself into a more masculine figure ultimately proves futile.
The work which most perfectly embodies Plath's conflicting sets of figures concerning power and nakedness is "Ariel" (October 1962), for this poem shows how Plath's metaphorical universes collide but also how her mutually exclusive systems of representation give rise to some of the most effective and beautiful poetry she wrote. Plath noted in her journal that she was privileged to listen to Auden discuss his view of Shakespeare's Ariel as representative of "the creative imaginative" (Journals 77), so one might assume that in this poem she is revealing something about her own view of creativity. (17) What is curious is that the creativity which emerges so energetically here is ultimately undone within the context of the poet's own presentation of that creativity.
M. L. Rosenthal points...
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DIANE S. BONDS (ESSAY DATE 1990)
SOURCE: Bonds, Diane S. "The Separative Self in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar." Women's Studies 18, no. 1 (1990): 49-64.
In the following essay, Bonds examines how Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of The Bell Jar, represents the concept of a separative model of selfhood and contends that because Esther fails to cultivate a network of positive, non-hierarchical relations, especially with the other women, she is likely to re-experience the alienation that led to her suicide attempt.
As Paula Bennett has written, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar offers a brilliant evocation of "the oppressive atmosphere of the 1950s and the soul-destroying effect this atmosphere could have on ambitious, high-minded young women like Plath."1 It has not been widely recognized, however, that the "soul-destroying effect" of Plath's social context is dramatized as vividly by the putative recovery of the heroine as by her breakdown and attempted suicide. The novel presents the transformation of Esther Greenwood from a young woman who hates the idea of serving men in any way to one who appears to earn her exit from the asylum by committing herself, albeit unwittingly, precisely to that project. In the first half of the novel, the pervasive imagery of dismemberment conveys the...
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Tabor, Stephen. Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Meckler Publishing, 1987, 268 p.
A helpful bibliography of essential works by and about Plath.
Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath, New York: Viking, 1991, 402 p.
Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1991, 235 p.
A biography of Plath considered by critics to be empathetic and thorough.
Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, New York: A. A. Knopf, 1994, 207 p.
Highly regarded psychoanalytic study of Plath's life and work that examines the shortfalls and conflicts involved in any biographical endeavor.
Middlebrook, Diane. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—A Marriage. New York: Viking, 2003, 361 p.
Provides an assessment of the partnership between Ted Hughes and Plath, asserting that the strong creative impulses within both poets resulted in a dynamic and powerful combination.
Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia...
(The entire section is 924 words.)