Plainwater Themes

The main themes in Plainwater are womanhood, fathers and daughters, and history and historicity.

  • Womanhood: Several parts of the collection deal with the question of what the world expects of women. Further, Carson asks what it is to be a woman—particularly a woman artist.
  • Fathers and daughters: Among the several familial relationships explored in Plainwater, that between fathers and daughters is perhaps the most fraught and unknowable.
  • History and historicity: Carson, a classicist, often probes how (and whether) it is possible for modern people to feel we understand those who lived centuries ago.


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Last Updated on May 18, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 983


The theme of womanhood—of what it means to be a woman, of how women through time have suffered, and of how difficult it can sometimes be for the modern woman to understand herself as such—pervades this book. Female poets and writers, especially Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and the Brontë sisters, are referenced repeatedly by Carson, who interrogates the relationship between their gender and their art. What does the world expect of women today? What has it expected of women throughout history? Why should viewers have been transfixed by the spectacle of Sylvia Plath’s mother on television, discussing how her daughter’s poetry had “hurt” her (“Short Talk on Sylvia Plath”)?

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In “Canicula di Anna,” the mysterious Anna is a woman who is the object of “hunger” from the men around her. Her relationship with her father is fraught; she is judged by those who know little about her as being “sinful” and punished for having made her own decisions.

Later, in part 5 of Plainwater, similar judgment is leveled at the speaker for having become a sexual being (that is, for being human): the speaker states that she has always struggled to remain without gender, keeping her body as “flat” as possible in order to ease her father’s mind. When her father, as his mind begins to deteriorate, refers to her as a “woman,” it unsettles her. When she meets the man she falls in love with against her will, she notes that she menstruates for the first time in years.

It is as if the nature of the speaker’s womanhood is caught between the opposing wills of two men in her life: she moves away from her father and into the arms of a lover with whom she feels lonely, but for whom she feels a desire which terrifies her. His proximity forces the physically female functions of her body to resume, while at the same time, his interests in ancient China and in concubinage seem to define him and preoccupy her. He has an interest in her gender that is tied up in its masculine aspects, asking her to dominate him sexually. Yet at the same time, her lover forces her to confront her own womanhood in a way she distrusts—because womanhood has always been distrusted by society.

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Fathers and Daughters

Plainwater touches upon various familial relationships. It alights, for example, on the relationship between Sylvia Plath and her mother, and upon the sibling relationship between the speaker in part 5 and her brother. However, this sibling relationship does not become solidified until adolescence, and the key topics of conversation between brother and sister are “sex and our father.” The speaker’s father is the defining feature of her life, of her brother’s life, and of their life together. When his mind begins to disintegrate, the speaker’s reaction is to embark upon a “pilgrimage” with another man for whom she has no carnal feelings, seeking a different “faith” now that her faith in her father’s constant presence has been shaken.

The troubled relationship between a father and his daughter does not only appear in the final section of the book. On the contrary, such relationships can be identified in several other places, particularly in the poem “Canicula di Anna,” in which the mysterious Anna is said to have killed her father. This is the reputation Anna has drawn; as the poem proceeds, it becomes clear that it is simply an accusation that has been leveled against her by members of her family who feel she should have been more obedient to her father. Anna’s determination to marry a man her father disliked, followed by a “sinful” pregnancy, shocks her father so much that he dies.

There is a clear echo between this story—of a father who cannot countenance his daughter as a sexual being—and that of the speaker in the final section of the book, who has suppressed her own gender for her father’s comfort. However, rather than dying, as Anna’s father does, the father in part 5 simply begins to enter the “madness” of dementia, a state that even further unsettles his relationship with his daughter. As he scrawls on her poetry that it is “GARBAGE,” the speaker notes that he expresses far more now than he did before his illness and questions whether what he is externalizing in his diminished state is actually the truth of who he is.

History and Historicity

Historicity—the question of the accuracy of historical accounts—is one of the primary concerns of the first part of the book. Specifically, Carson uses the medium of the Mimnermos fragments to explore how far we can ever understand the thoughts and behavior of somebody who lived thousands of years ago and whose writings survive to the present day only in fragments. How did people think and behave so many centuries ago? Is it possible to scrutinize them usefully through a modern lens?

Carson repeatedly blurs the lines between the ancient and the modern throughout this book. She has an interviewer interrogate Mimnermos, the classical Greek poet, as if he were a guest on a talk show. She introduces elements of the modern, such as Chicago and East Berlin, into supposed classical fragments. Later in the book, she sets a poem ostensibly in fifteenth-century Italy but then has its heroine, Anna, depart on an airplane. She includes a story about the timeless Camino de Santiago pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela between two sections of narrative seemingly set in twentieth-century North America.

History, here, is neither a linear nor a stable narrative. Carson visits and revisits the idea that we might never understand history, particularly when it remains incomplete. This does not make it unique, however: just as we embellish history to interpret it and make it real, we use imagination to understand even the people closest to us.

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