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.
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”)?
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.
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...
(The entire section is 983 words.)