In the poem, the main character is an unnamed dead woman who, according to most literary analysts, has committed suicide. Though this act may seem desperate, her appearance is described as content. The author writes that her body "wears the smile of accomplishment" and that, in this dreadful act, she is somehow "perfected." Even the smallest details hint at the fact that this death was a release from whatever painful experiences she had as a woman and as a mother; this is seen when her bare feet are imagined to be saying, "We have come so far; it is finally over."
The reader is also introduced to dead children who are described as lying next to the dead woman. The narrator compares their position to their mother as one of "white serpent[s]" who are "coiled" in—close to the woman who gave them life. The image of the serpent suggests that, in some way, these children were an antagonistic force in their mother's life. Perhaps their presence—along with the taxing responsibilities of motherhood that were required of her—played a part in the woman's decision to end her life. As they lie next to their mother, they are compared to petals of a rose that is closing in on itself. This is also an image that symbolizes the death that is the central image of the poem.
The moon is another character in the poem. The speaker personifies her as a figure who looks on impassively on this scene of death. The moon is unmoved emotionally—she has seen this tragic turn of events before. This fact is seen when the narrator comments that that the moon "has nothing to be sad about" and "is used to this sort of thing." This implies that many women have walked the earth who preferred death to a life of obedience and subservience to both their husband and their children.
Plath's own suicide happened very soon after this poem was written. Many literary analysts have argued that the woman in the poem was, in fact, Plath herself. The inclusion of the children also causes many to speculate that Plath considered killing her own children as part of her suicide plan.
Regardless of whether or not these speculations are true, the poem itself is a bleak statement about the sense of entrapment and internal struggles that many women go through in life. The poem suggests that, for many women, death was the only escape from a world where they felt suffocated and were convinced it was hopeless to try to change their earthly circumstances.