Themes and Meanings

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“Death & Co.” is a poem about life and death. How does a woman with a troubled relationship to both life and death envision the moment when death comes to visit her? How does her poetic vision of this complicated scene get articulated? References to death abound in Plath’s poems (she attempted suicide three times, the last successfully), yet her differing figures of death reveal a fascination more with how the living view death itself than with what they imagine death to be like after life. One may wonder if this is a kind of madness. In her many poems that address the theme of death (especially her last poems, collected in Ariel), the images are frightening and surreal. Still, the poetry out of which “Death & Co.” comes is not without a kind of history. Emily Dickinson wrote harrowing poems on madness and dying, while Theodore Roethke, Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Hayden Carruth all have explored similar subject matter.

The common theme among Plath’s “death poems” is, interestingly, the ambivalent attitude toward death they reveal. In “Death & Co.,” the ambivalence takes the form of a speaker who seems part of a dramatically staged performance of being in wait for death while revealing an assertiveness, wit, ingenuity, and sheer life force in attempting to outwit death. She performs even though she is faced with the suffering and pain of personal failure (how badly she photographs and her dead babies) as well as inherited cultural myths. The speaker avoids confessional or self-pitying overreactions. In fact, the performing self suggests underlying feelings of comedy.

“Death & Co.” is also about poetry as a process of discovery and reaction. As the poet reveals the speaker’s fantasy (or her madness) about death as a slowly savored, dramatic show of loss, pain, and personal diminishment, readers see that the shifting sensibility offers a close-up scrutiny of just how one is shaped by and impelled to shape her material. In her occasional narrative asides (“I am red meat,” “I am not his yet,” “I do not stir”) it is not clear whether she speaks to an audience or to herself. What is important is not to whom she addresses her monologue but that she experiences this performance as an emotionally charged process of discovery and reaction. The self-conscious performance, then, becomes a substitute for a fixed identity, suggesting that for Plath any attempted literary shaping or definition of self is inadequate and unfinished.

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