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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.

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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.

Principal Works

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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

Primary Sources

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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, where I would probably be by the time the bill arrived, but then I thought of my mother opening the bill and seeing what it was for. The only other address I had was the innocuous box number which people used who didn't want to advertise the fact they lived in an asylum. But I thought the receptionist might recognize the box number, so I said, "I better pay now," and peeled five dollar notes off the roll in my pocketbook.

The five dollars was part of what Philomena Guinea had sent me as a sort of get-well present. I wondered what she would think if she knew to what use her money was being put.

Whether she knew it or not, Philomena Guinea was buying my freedom.

"What I hate is the thought of being under a man's thumb," I had told Doctor Nolan. "A man doesn't have a worry in the world, while I've got a baby hanging over my head like a big stick, to keep me in line."

"Would you act differently if you didn't have to worry about a baby?"

"Yes," I said, "but …" and I told Doctor Nolan about the married woman lawyer and her Defense of Chastity.

Doctor Nolan waited until I was finished. Then she burst out laughing. "Propaganda!" she said, and scribbled the name and address of this doctor on a prescription pad.

I leafed nervously through an issue of Baby Talk. The fat, bright faces of babies beamed up at me, page after page—bald babies, chocolate-colored babies, Eisenhower-faced babies, babies rolling over for the first time, babies reaching for rattles, babies eating their first spoonful of solid food, babies doing all the little tricky things it takes to grow up, step by step, into an anxious and unsettling world.

I smelt a mingling of Pablum and sour milk and salt-cod-stinky diapers and felt sorrowful and tender. How easy having babies seemed to the women around me! Why was I so unmaternal and apart? Why couldn't I dream of devoting myself to baby after fat puling baby like Dodo Conway?

If I had to wait on a baby all day, I would go mad.

I looked at the baby in the lap of the woman opposite. I had no idea how old it was, I never did, with babies—for all I knew it could talk a blue streak and had twenty teeth behind its pursed, pink lips. It held its little wobbly head up on its shoulders—it didn't seem to have a neck—and observed me with a wise, Platonic expression.

The baby's mother smiled and smiled, holding that baby as if it were the first wonder of the world. I watched the mother and the baby for some clue to their mutual satisfaction, but before I had discovered anything, the doctor called me in.

"You'd like a fitting," he said cheerfully, and I thought with relief that he wasn't the sort of doctor to ask awkward questions. I had toyed with the idea of telling him I planned to be married to a sailor as soon as his ship docked at the Charles-town Navy Yard, and the reason I didn't have an engagement ring was because we were too poor, but at the last moment I rejected that appealing story and simply said "Yes."

I climbed up on the examination table, thinking: "I am climbing to freedom, freedom from fear, freedom from marrying the wrong person, like Buddy Willard, just because of sex, freedom from the Florence Crittenden Homes where all the poor girls go who should have been fitted out like me, because what they did, they would do anyway, regardless.…"

As I rode back to the asylum with my box in the plain brown paper wrapper on my lap I might have been Mrs. Anybody coming back from a day in town with a Schrafft's cake for her maiden aunt or a Filene's Basement hat. Gradually the suspicion that Catholics had X-ray eyes diminished, and I grew easy. I had done well by my shopping privileges, I thought.

I was my own woman.

The next step was to find the proper sort of man.

Christina Britzolakis (Essay Date 1999)

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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 photography.1 Long before notions of the 'gaze' became current in cultural debate, however, Plath's poetry explored the ambivalent alignments of woman with both consumer and commodity.

The Spectacle of Femininity: The Question of Style

One of the stock themes of Plath criticism is the stylistic transformation which the Ariel poems represent in relation to The Colossus: from an academic formalism heavily influenced by the New Critics towards a more colloquial, immediate voice, depending less on discursive logic than on a logic of elliptically juxtaposed, startling images. Alicia Ostriker sees this change of style as a form of 'Americanization'. A risk-taking technique which insists on the 'cutting edge' of immediate factual reality, 'a kind of journalism of obsessions', is, she argues, a peculiarly American one, also practised by Thoreau, Whitman, Williams, and Frost.2 The language of Plath's later poems undoubtedly draws upon the 'flashy' naturalistic idiom of contemporary American speech. But this change of stylistic register cannot be seen merely in terms of liberation from a tradition-bound academicism, which thereby inserts Plath into another tradition: that of American literary anti-traditionalism. The project of 'making it new', of renewing and paring down the language of poetry, is a feature shared by a range of different modernisms. It has even been seen as part of the definition of literary history itself.3 The narrative of Plath's stylistic development as a process of leaving behind or shedding the trappings of literary history is therefore a deceptive one, even when Plath's own figurative strategies seem to underwrite it.

For some of Plath's critics, as we have seen, the stylistic 'break-through' of Ariel is part of a narrative of authentic self-realization or self-destruction. For others, however, it unleashes charges of theatricality and sensationalism. For example, David Shapiro deplores her reliance on cliché, hyperbole, and melodrama; Hugh Kenner claims that 'all her life, a reader had been someone to manipulate', and Philip Hobsbaum identifies her 'faults of style' as 'verbal conceit' and 'emotive sensationalism'.4 The later Plath has even been seen as an aestheticist, a poet of decadent sensation rather than of immediacy. One of the most striking features of her later style is, after all, the foregrounding of the individual detail, often at the expense of the larger syntactic unit. In 1968, Arthur K. Oberg, noting the recurrent fin-de-siècle iconography in Plath's work, hailed her as the prophet of 'a new Decadence'. He saw certain features of the Ariel poems as axiomatically Decadent: the association of aesthetic perfection with death; the attraction towards stasis and 'sculpted form'; the 'self-generating and self-sustaining' quality of the images; the internalization of objective reality and consequent 'loss of an available world'; and the 'histrionic exhibition of herself and her wounds'.5

The critical debate about Plath tends to be organized around an opposition between expressive depths and tawdry surfaces, between 'high' and 'low' culture. Yet it is this very opposition which her 'Decadent' style puts into question, since it situates itself as part of a culture in which self-revelation or self-expression has itself become a cliché. Plath cannot, as Jacqueline Rose has pointed out, be 'made into an emblem for the flight of poetry—poetry as the expression of a transcendent selfhood, poetry as rising above the dregs of the culture which it leaves behind'.6 Although at one level her Decadent tactics, such as the decomposition of 'organic' narrative into individual detail, purport to remove the artist from 'vulgar' or prosaic reality, at another they are revealed as entirely compatible with popular culture. They form part of a verbal landscape saturated with visual spectacle and the melodramatic plots of mass culture. The Decadent cult of artifice, performance, and libidinal excess becomes a metaphor for the aestheticization of everyday life in consumer culture, which, indeed, it anticipates.

Plath's formation as a poet coincides with the point at which modernism began, in the 1950s, to be canonized and institutionalized within the Anglo-American academy. At the same time, a debate about the origins and effects of mass culture was in progress, tending to position it as the antagonist of true culture.7 Clement Greenberg's opposition between true art and kitsch, Dwight MacDonald's description of mass culture as a 'spreading ooze', and Theodor Adorno's critique of the 'culture industry' all contributed to the prestige of modernist anxiety and alienation during the Cold War, as a trope of aesthetic resistance to totalitarian ideologies.8 The category of the 'classic' was being constituted in reaction against, but also as a product of, consumer society. High culture was thought to be in need of protection and custody, if the mass media with their 'unchecked circulation of high and low' were not to have 'the effect of transforming all culture into mass culture'.9

Plath's various styles imply a self-consciously appropriative and factitious, 'postmodern' relation to literary tradition; her poetry seems to consume culture as a random assortment of styles which circulate promiscuously. In a famous essay, 'Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', Frederic Jameson sets up an opposition between 'pastiche', which he sees as characteristically postmodernist, and 'parody', which is properly modernist; while the latter assumes a norm, from which it deviates, the former is neutral and unmotivated, void of the critical distance which is capable of positing a norm, that is, 'blank parody'.10 Pastiche embraces the depthlessness of the simulacrum; it presupposes 'the effacement … of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high culture and so-called mass or commercial culture'.11 By contrast, parody clings to modernism's adversary role as a critique of social reality.12

The element of pastiche in Plath's work turns 'style' into a dialogue with commodity culture that undermines the hierarchies of value implicit in the concept itself. However, Jameson's opposition between parody and pastiche, like the larger opposition of modernism and postmodernism to which it is linked, is notoriously difficult to sustain, and nowhere more so than in relation to Plath. If at one level her poems embrace the depthlessness of popular culture, at another they are, in the words of Terry Eagleton's 1985 rejoinder to Jameson's essay, 'still agonizedly caught up in metaphysical depth and wretchedness, still able to experience psychic fragmentation and social alienation as spiritually wounding'.13 I am not arguing, then, that Plath's work abolishes critical distance in some postmodernist carnival of schizophrenic 'intensities'. On the contrary, through the dominant trope of 'confession' Plath charts the operations of power upon the subject and upon language in intensely negative terms.

Style and the Woman

As a writer, Plath framed herself, and was framed, within a highly gendered literary market in which 'pulp' writing was associated with femininity and truly literary writing with masculinity. Andreas Huyssen has pointed out the historical tendency of modernism to position mass culture as its feminine 'other'. The 'imaginary femininity' assumed by many male modernist artists repudiates the strenuously active, self-defining bourgeois subject of modernity, while maintaining 'the exclusion of real women from the literary enterprise and … the misogyny of bourgeois patriarchy itself'.14 Flaubert's famous statement, 'Madame Bovary, c'est moi' positions 'woman (Madame Bovary) … as reader of inferior literature—subjective, emotional and passive—while man (Flaubert) emerges as writer of genuine authentic literature—objective, ironic, and in control of his aesthetic means'.15 With the institutionalization of modernism, and the consequent watering down of its oppositional status, this distinction—always a defensive and imperilled gesture, as Huyssen shows—becomes well-nigh impossible to maintain. Moreover, many of the ethical imperatives, such as the internalization of patriarchal authority, which structure the separate constitution and validation of male and female subjectivity in bourgeois society, are themselves eroded by the culture of consumption.16 Images of women circulate in both modernism and 'mass' culture as objects of identification and desire. As we have seen, Plath ironizes this collusion by exploiting the association of femininity with masquerade, with seduction and false representation. In her poems, the speaking subject invents and reinvents herself as an ensemble of staged and theatrical identities which range across both high and low culture.

Amongst the images of women which appear most frequently in Plath's poetry are those of the prostitute, the female performer and the mechanical woman. In male-authored fin-de-siècle literature, these figures serve, as Rita Felski has pointed out, as emblems of a crisis of modernity, signalling an ambivalent response to the rationalizing, technological vision of capitalist progress.17 Plath appropriates these images for her exploration of the fractured and crisis-ridden identities of woman as poet, wife, mother, consumer, and commodity-spectacle. In 'Fever 103°', for example, the quasicinematic 'cutting' from one apparently self-generating image to another corresponds to a series of rhetorical masks assumed by the peaking subject, who remodels herself endlessly, sometimes in the image of masculine desire, sometimes in that of her own. Performance and intoxication seem to feed upon each other in a kind of erethism of images, plotting a transcendence parodically redefined as an erotic, indeed orgasmic event. The parody of spiritual purgation and transcendence evokes Baudelaire's poem 'Élévation', in which the poet counsels his spirit to 'Ascend beyond the sickly atmosphere | To a higher plane, and purify yourself'.18 The speaker of 'Fever 103°' arrogates to herself both the disease and the cure, the foggy, splenetic resentment of the time-bound self and the virile aspiring spirit. As in 'Ariel', the shedding of layers of 'impure' selfhood is seen as an autoerotic process. Notwithstanding its powerful sexual charge, this self-delighting language is fuelled by a Nietzschean will to appearance. The speaker becomes, successively, a lover 'flickering' with the fever of desire, a starved ascetic or saint who is 'too pure' for lovers, and an exotic object d'art with a high market value ('My head a moon | Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin | Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive'). She oscillates between the positions of artist and artefact, consumer and commodity. Amongst the explicitly theatrical incarnations assumed are the fin-de-siècle figure of the dancer Isadora Duncan, and the Virgin Mary. These roles are explicitly assumed for an audience, for the lover/reader to whom the poem is addressed:

The beads of hot metal fly, and I, love, I

Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,

By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean.
Not you, nor him,

Not him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)—
To paradise.

The culminating moment in which the 'I' asserts its transcendence is a revelation of pure kitsch—'I | Am a pure acetylene | Virgin'. The conceit yokes together the 'white heat' of industrial technology with the Madonna's halo, parodying the Marian iconography of submissiveness and meekness; this is a Virgin burning with the fiercely corrosive, precisely directed flame of a blowtorch. Hyperbole in Plath's work tends to align itself with kitsch, which Theodor Adorno calls 'a parody of catharsis'.19 In this case it is a cult image that has been mechanically reproduced, making it the very apotheosis of insincerity: the virgin Mary as prostitute.

The self as pure invention, as the libidinally charged 'flickering' play of images: what could be more postmodern than this? Yet to represent these disposable 'selves' as 'old whore petticoats', i.e. as prostitution, is to invoke an older, ethical language of modernity. In exploiting the creative possibilities of illusion and spectacle—in producing herself as an ensemble of images for an audience—the speaker risks colluding in her own cultural objectification. Her ironic pleasure in this process is revealed as intimately in league with commodity fetishism. In 'A Birthday Present', the power of endless self-transformation is attributed to the mysterious object of the title, which is feminized through recurrent images of veiling and unveiling. The mystical, even transcendent character of the birthday present recalls Marx's description of commodity fetishism.20 It marks a shift towards a non-representational aesthetic; the status of 'nature' is no longer given, no longer rooted in a recognizable life-world, but uncanny. As Elizabeth Wright argues, the uncanny 'makes us see the world not as ready-made for description, depiction or portrayal (common terms used to say what an artist or writer does), but as in a constant process of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction'.21 This uncanny world, where nature threatens to do a disappearing act, is also the world of commodity culture, which thrives on images which endlessly veil and defer the truth.

Yet the seductive variety of the birthday present conceals a relentless logic of abstract equivalence, the logic of the 'adding machine', which erases all distinctive attributes of self and world.

Walter Benjamin's essay, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', famously argues that photographic technology transforms the mode of reception of art, abolishing what he calls the aura of the artefact, the cultic distance between the artefact and its viewer.22 In Plath's later poetry the pathos of lyric subjectivity is constantly undercut by the reproduced image. The element of compulsive visualization, the piling up of images with what Calvin Bedient calls an 'optic desperation', cannot be understood in terms of print culture alone.23 These images have a hallucinatory vividness inseparable from a culture saturated and erotically charged with simulacra. In 'Fever 103°' the lines 'Greasing the bodies of adulterers | Like Hiroshima ash and eating in. | The sin. The sin' allude to a scene in Alain Resnais's film Hiroshima Mon Amour (1961). Exotic and brilliantly coloured plants and flowers, including spotted orchids, camellias ('Fever 103°'), tiger lilies ('The Night Dances'), and sea anemones ('Lesbos') form a décor, a Decadent iconography drawn from the collective imaginary of the mass media. The phantasmagoria of Ariel implies an ambiguous interdependence between aesthetic appearance and commodity fetishism.

Movie Nightmares

What I have called the 'phantasmagoria' of Plath's poems is, in part, an effect of her ironic exploitation of the 'sensationalist' or 'subliterary' resources of the Gothic mode. M. L. Rosenthal complains that poems such as 'Stopped Dead', 'The Tour', 'Eavesdropper', and 'A Secret', 'are hard to penetrate in their morbid secretiveness', 'make a weirdly incantatory black magic against unspecified persons and situations', and 'often seem to call for biographical rather than poetical explanations'.24 These 'weird' scenarios recycle key motifs of Gothic popular culture, drawing on cinematic as well as literary texts, to probe the nightmarish underside of the Cold War suburban dream of normality. Their satirical target, like that of many contemporary thrillers and horror films, is the stifling family-centred and ethnocentric conformity of the 1950s small-town idyll. Frederic Jameson points out that 'Gothics are … ultimately a class fantasy (or nightmare) in which the dialectic of privilege and shelter is exercised: your privileges seal you off from other people, but by the same token they constitute a protective wall through which you cannot see, and behind which therefore all kinds of envious forces may be imagined in the process of assembling, plotting, preparing to give assault; it is, if you like, the shower-curtain syndrome (alluding to Psycho) '.25

The cross-cutting of images in Plath's later poems generates a series of quasi-cinematic narrative moments. In 'Berck-Plage', 'A green pool opens its eye, | Sick with what it has swallowed—| Limbs, images, shrieks.' Another horror-film moment occurs in 'A Birthday Present' when a dismembered body turns up in the innocuous guise of a birthday present: 'Let it not come by the mail, finger by finger.' Old love letters are described as 'unroll(ing) | Sands where a dream of clear water | Grinned like a getaway car' ('Burning the Letters'). In 'Stopped Dead', the speaker addresses a murderous male companion, 'out cold' beside her in a car 'hung out over the dead drop' of a cliffside. The 'Eavesdropper' peers through windows, harbouring murderous designs on her neighbours, in a malicious parody of the suburban ethos of good-neighbourliness which recalls Hitchcock's Rear Window (1953).

The paradigmatic Gothic film scenario converts the threatened murder or victimization of a woman into fetishistic spectacle. Many of Plath's poems work ironic variations and reversals on this theme. 'Stopped Dead', for example, echoes the plot of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), where the young suburban heroine, Charlie, finds out that her beloved and long-lost uncle, newly arrived in 'our town', is the murderer of wealthy widows. 'Who do you think I am, | Uncle, uncle? Sad Hamlet, with a knife? | Where do you stash your life?' asks the poem's speaker. In Shadow of a Doubt, Uncle Charlie is indeed a 'sad Hamlet, with a knife', who at one point makes a speech railing against the corruption of women which has turned the world into a 'foul sty', 'a filthy, rotting place'. By threatening to expose his criminal identity ('I know a secret about you, Uncle Charlie'), the heroine uncovers his psychic weak spot, the paranoid instability that underlies his violence towards women.26

'The Detective' draws upon the conventions of the detective story or film, in which a purely instrumental, masculine rationality typically applies itself to that most Poe-like and Hitchcock-like of themes, the murder of a woman. In its drive to construct an intelligible narrative, a 'case', the detective story must annihilate the materiality of the body. The woman's mouth, breasts, children, and finally 'the brown motherly furrows, the whole estate' undergo a 'vaporization'; Holmes and Watson 'walk on air'. In 'The Courage of Shutting-Up', the figure of the artistic-scientific male expert is replaced by that of the tattooist, representative of the 'primitive' aesthetic rituals of popular culture: 'A great surgeon, now a tattooist, | Tattooing over and over the same blue grievances, | The snakes, the babies, the tits | On mermaids and two-legged dreamgirls'.

For Plath, the world of 'two-legged dreamgirls' is the suburban ideal home, occupied by the perfect couple, where the sanitizing language of ladies' magazines reigns. In the surreal marital drama of 'A Secret' a 'dwarf baby' is discovered imprisoned in the bureau drawer where the 'lingerie' should be. The emergence of this monster unleashes a disgusting female sexuality: 'It smells of salt cod, you had better | Stab a few cloves in an apple, | Make a sachet or | Do away with the bastard'. In 'The Tour', the Ladies' Home Journal world of domesticity, women's work, and women's talk is satirized by the baleful mimicry of a witch-like persona who conjures madness in the familiar. The 'maiden aunt', who is shown round the speaker's house, becomes the victim of a gleeful circus sideshow of horror. This cartoon Gothic uses the nursery-rhyme rhythms and italicized verbal gestures of children's books:27

O I shouldn't put my finger in that
Auntie, it might bite!
That's my frost box, no cat,
Though it looks like a cat, with its fluffy stuff, pure white.
You should see the objects it makes!
Millions of needly glass cakes!

Fine for the migraine and bellyache. And this
Is where I kept the furnace,
Each coal a hot-cross stitch—a lovely light!
It simply exploded one night,
It went up in smoke.
And that's why I have no hair, auntie, that's why I choke
Off and on, as if I just had to retch.

The exploding oven and the refrigerator which hovers between wild animal and domestic 'appliance' mock a suburban cult of normality underpinned by a paranoid fantasy of absolute instrumental control over nature. As in 'Kindness', there is a bitter confrontation between an older woman cast as the guardian of convention, and a younger, resentful, initiate into domesticity. The satirical malice directed against the female culture of domesticity and housework gains its edge from Plath's own powerful and disillusioned investments in this very culture.

In 'Eavesdropper' the parodic target is the suburban ethos of good-neighbourliness, a world of spying and prying doppelgängers. In this Browningesque monologue, a tour de force of extreme solipsism and paranoia, the speaker arrogates to herself witch-like powers, such as the ability to kill her neighbours through sympathetic magic. The dystopian setting of 'Eavesdropper' is 'a desert of cow people | Trundling their udders home | To the electric milker, the wifey, the big blue eye | That watches, like God, or the sky | The ciphers that watch it'. In this bizarrely involuted and flattened vision, people become automata, 'cyphers' that can be permutated with the animals they farm and the machines they operate, under the surveillance of an all-seeing 'big blue eye'. The 'schizophrenic' perspective of these poems produces a quasi-Brechtian alienation effect, confronting the reader with a world locked into the frozen grimace of cliché.

Writing from the Heart: True Confessions

One of the most distinctive features of Plath's later poetry is the predominance of the first person singular, the strongly inflected 'I', which has often led critics to see her as a 'Confessional' poet. The 'Confessional' view of Plath groups her with Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and John Berryman as part of a movement towards a poetics of disclosure. It takes its cue from Plath's remark in a 1962 interview with Peter Orr that she had been 'excited' by Lowell's Life Studies (1959), with its 'intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal emotional experience'.28 The 'Confessional' thesis configures the diverse careers of these poets around a shared moment of revolt against the New Critical orthodoxies (especially the doctrine of poetic impersonality) in which they had been schooled. The term 'Confessional' itself was first used in 1959 by M. L. Rosenthal, in a review of Lowell's Life Studies.29 In The New Poets (1967), he expanded the review into a general thesis about contemporary poetry: 'the private life of the poet himself, especially under stress of psychological crisis, becomes a major theme. Often it is felt at the same time as a symbolic embodiment of national and cultural crisis.'30 In Life Studies, Lowell had broken New Critical taboos by reconstructing details of his family history within a loosely psycho-historical interpretive framework. Rosenthal assumed, as did Al Alvarez, that the consequences of modernization—consumer society, mass culture, technology, and global warfare—were implacable enemies of poetic subjectivity, squeezing it into a corner where only subjective neurosis could prove the poet's autonomy: 'The intensity and purity of a realization are the measure of poetic sense and success. Thus the alienated sensibility reclaims the world on its own terms.'31 To hear himself speak, the poet must purify his insights, filtering out the noise of the mass media and the clash of social idioms. Yet the notion of a 'Confessional' style is, of course, inconceivable without the culture of True Confessions, of journalistic scandal and popularized Freudianism. While reacting against the New Critical distinction between the 'speaker' or 'persona' and the poet as biographical individual, between public and private, the earliest theorists of confessional poetry reinstated at another level the New Criticism's founding hierarchical oppositions between subjective value and society, inner authenticity and external facticity.32

Recent restatements of the 'Confessional' thesis have continued to align it, as Rosenthal and Alvarez had done, with the earlier Romantic-Symbolist conception of the poète maudit, and to organize it around the exemplary case of Robert Lowell. Paul Breslin sees Plath's poetry as bent on the self-destructive pursuit of absolute authenticity, yet at the same time finds her guilty of rhetorical manipulation and sensationalism, of 'teasing the reader with half-veiled revelations' instead of transmuting autobiography into myth; her poetry constitutes 'a damning indictment of the whole confessional project'.33 Jeffrey Meyers sees Lowell and his contemporaries in heroic-masculine terms as a Nietzschean cursed generation, cultivating extremities of experience and aggressively competing with each other in the art of madness.34 The complex negotiations of gender, literary tradition, contemporaneity, and popular culture at work in the trope of 'confession' have therefore remained largely unexamined.

Amongst Plath's papers at Smith College is a typescript about her participation in a contest to write a 'true confession', which I quote below:

friday I got an idear. I am now in the midst of writing the biggest true Confession I have ever written, all for the remote possibility of gaignigh (that word the lady said is gaining, as in weight) filthy lucer. a contest in True Story is in the offing, with all sorts of Big Money prizes. being a most mercenary individual, because money can buy trips to europe, theaters, chop-houses, and other Ill Famed what-nots, I am trying out for it. all you have to do, the blurb ways is write the story of your life or somebody else's life from the heart. and a sexy old heart it is. grammar and spelling mistakes won't count in the judging, says the rules, only it must be written in english, and not on onion skin paper or in pencil … anyhow, sylvia just finished the roughdraft of a whopping True Confession of over 40 (you can count them) pages, trying to capture the style, and let me tell you, my supercilious attitude about the people who write Confessions has diminished. it takes a good tight plot and a slick ease that are not picked up overnight like a cheap whore, so tomorrow, I rewrite the monstrosity I have just illegitimately (everything gets done amid great conflict) delivered.35

This confession about writing a 'true Confession' generates two versions of the authorial subject: a 'good girl' and a 'bad girl'. Whereas the former sees writing as an end in itself, the latter is a 'mercenary individual' who writes for motives of 'filthy lucer'. Popular culture is explicitly feminized; to write true confessions 'from the heart' is to become a gross body addicted to the fleshly pleasures of consumption ('that word the lady said is gaining, as in weight'). Even the mass of typographical and/or spelling errors seems to ventriloquize the sloppy, dissolute identity of 'sylvia' the trash writer, who is denied the dignity of a capital letter, and whose narrative is reduced to the abstract exchange value of 'over 40 pages'. Most importantly, writing for mass consumption is seen as prostitution, which at the end of the passage gives rise to a monstrous and illegitimate birth. Yet it is also an important avenue to professional success and financial security; although it invalidates the writer's aesthetic pretensions, it gives her a certain amount of economic muscle in the literary market-place. The metaphor of prostitution marks Plath's ambivalence towards popular culture and her investment in High Modernist rituals of impersonality, which stressed the importance of transmuting the raw materials of personality into the perfection of art. As a 1956 letter to Aurelia Plath (LH 211) puts it: 'When I say I must write, I don't mean I must publish. There is a great difference. The important thing is the aesthetic form given to my chaotic experience, which is, as it was for James Joyce, my kind of religion, and as necessary for me … as the confession and absolution for a Catholic in church.' Whereas mass culture is stigmatized by association with the debased tastes of the female consumer, literary culture becomes the site of a sacred authority.36

The trope of self-revelation assumes a listener. In Plath's later poems, the positing of an authentic 'I' tends to slide into theatre, into what George Steiner calls a 'rhetoric of sincerity'.37 The poet's unstable and ambiguous relationship to her audience is anticipated by Baudelaire, who famously accosts his reader in the introductory poem to Les Fleurs du mal as 'Hyprocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère'.38 Plath echoes Baudelaire's line in 'Eavesdropper', where the voyeurism of the prying neighbour caricatures the 'confessional' complicity between poet and reader: 'Toad-stone! Sister-bitch! Sweet neighbour!'. Her later poems are often addressed to a named or unnamed interlocutor, a 'You' whose implied presence shapes the poem's narrative ('The Other', 'A Birthday Present', 'A Secret', 'The Applicant', 'Daddy', 'Medusa', 'Lesbos', 'Stopped Dead', 'Eavesdropper'), and whose relation to the 'I' is defined by various modalities of antagonism, rejection, or disavowal. This register of demand inscribes the speaking subject as structurally incomplete, or 'jealous', dependent upon a loved/hated other: a lover, a father, a mother, a reader.

Michel Foucault's analysis of cultural history gives confession a central place as the discursive structure that has historically constituted the notion of a subject possessing interiority, deep feelings, and a personal history. The Christian apparatus of confession is seen as the catalyst for a proliferating discourse about sexuality which has the effect not of liberating but of policing identity, and especially sexual identity, within the dominant structures of the 'episteme'.39 True Confessions popular culture can be seen in these terms as a Freudianized discourse of licensed transgression or scandal, centred on the spectacle of the pure/impure, redeemed/prostituted female body. In the era of Senator McCarthy's witch-hunts, the word 'confession' had, in addition, a powerful political resonance, linking insurgent, inadequate, or deviant sexuality with Communism. Another social apparatus of confession in the 1950s, of which Plath had intimate and traumatic knowledge, was, of course, institutional psychiatry, a technology for the 'cure' of psychic disorder.

Many of Plath's later poems are organized around tropes of institutional or bureaucratic violence which summon up a nightmare vision of a wholly organized and administered world. In these dystopian scenarios of confession, the 'I' alternates between the positions of confessor and penitent. Confession is linked with machines that literally inscribe the flesh with a text: 'The secret is stamped on you, | Faint, undulant watermark. | Will it show in the black detector?' ('A Secret'); 'O adding machine—| Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it go whole? | Must you stamp each piece in purple, | Must you kill what you can?' ('A Birthday Present'). 'The Other' is made up of a sequence of surreal images of crime, detection, and interrogation, circulating between speaker and addressee, and undermining the distinction between them. In 'The Jailer', the speaker declares herself an 'Indeterminate criminal' who 'die[s] with variety—| Hung, starved, burned, hooked'. In 'The Applicant' she satirically assumes the voice of a corporate 'Big Brother' interviewing a candidate for admission to the organization. A grotesque assortment of anatomical substitutes and surgical prostheses become the qualifications required for 'marriage' to the corporation, recalling D. H. Lawrence's 'Editorial Office', in which an applicant for the post of literary critic is asked if he has been surgically sterilized.40 The 'corporate' voice is crossed with the rhythms of the pop song and advertising jingle; a mannequinlike 'ideal woman' is presented to the applicant in a bitter echo of Cliff Richard's 1959 hit song 'Livin' Doll': 'A living doll, everywhere you look. | It can sew, it can cook, | It can talk, talk, talk.'41 The woman is a mechanical appliance which accrues exchange value like a market investment. At the same time she is a commodity-spectacle to be consumed, a fetishistic 'poultice' or anodyne for masculine lack: 'You have a hole, it's a poultice. | You have an eye, it's an image.' In this Kafkaesque world, the 'image' of a reified and sanitized femininity—of the mechanical woman—plays a crucial role in cementing the paranoid-bureaucratic relationship between applicant and organization. It serves as metaphor for a wider violence of which the applicant is victim as well as perpetrator.

'Lady Lazarus' and Literary History

Although Plath's 'confessional' tropes are often seen in terms of a Romantic parable of victimization, whether of the sensitive poetic individual crushed by a brutally rationalized society, or of feminist protest against a monolithic patriarchal oppressor, her self-reflexivity tends to turn confession into a parody gesture or a premiss for theatrical performance. The central instance of the 'confessional' in her writing is usually taken to be 'Lady Lazarus'. M. L. Rosenthal uses the poem to validate the generic category: 'Robert Lowell's 'Skunk Hour' and Sylvia Plath's 'Lady Lazarus' are true examples of 'confessional' poetry because they put the speaker himself at the centre of the poem in such a way as to make his psychological shame and vulnerability an embodiment of his civilization.'42 The confessional reading of the poem is usually underpinned by the recourse to biography, which correlates the speaker's cultivation of the 'art of dying' with Plath's suicidal career. Although Plath is indeed, at one level, mythologizing her personal history, the motif of suicide in 'Lady Lazarus' operates less as self-revelation than as a theatrical tour de force, a music-hall routine.

With 'Daddy', 'Lady Lazarus' is probably the single text in the Plath canon which has attracted most disapproval on the grounds of a manipulative, sensationalist, or irresponsible style. Helen Vendler, for example, writes that 'Style (as something consistent) is meaningless, but styles (as dizzying provisional scepticism) are all … Poems like 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' are in one sense demonically intelligent, in their wanton play with concepts, myths and language, and in another, and more important, sense, not intelligent at all, in that they wilfully refuse, for the sake of a cacophony of styles (a tantrum of style), the steady, centripetal effect of thought. Instead, they display a wild dispersal, a centrifugal spin to further and further reaches of outrage.'43 Here, the element of 'wilful' pastiche in 'Lady Lazarus' is measured against a normative ideal of aesthetic detachment. Yet the poem's ironic use of prostitution as the figure of a particular kind of theatricalized self-consciousness—of the poet as, in Plath's phrase, 'Roget's trollop, parading words and tossing off bravado for an audience' (JP 214)—calls for a reading which takes seriously what the poem does with, and to, literary history.

Like 'Lesbos', 'Lady Lazarus' is a dramatic monologue which echoes and parodies 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'. The title alludes, of course, not only to the biblical story of Lazarus but also to Prufrock's lines: 'I am Lazarus, come from the dead, | Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all'. Like Eliot, Plath uses clothing as a metaphor for rhetoric: the 'veil' or 'garment' of style. By contrast with Eliot's tentative hesitations, obliquities, and evasions of direct statement, however, Plath's poem professes to 'tell all'. Lady Lazarus deploys a patently alienated and manufactured language, in which the shock tactic, the easy effect, reign supreme. Her rhetoric is one of direct statement ('I have done it again'), of brutal Americanisms ('trash', 'shoves', 'the big strip tease', 'I do it so it feels like hell', 'knocks me out'), of glib categorical assertions and dismissals ('Dying is an art, like everything else'), and blatant internal rhymes ('grave cave', 'turn and burn'). As Richard Blessing remarks, both 'Lady Lazarus' and 'The Applicant' are poems that parody advertising techniques while simultaneously advertising themselves.44 The poet who reveals her suffering plays to an audience, or 'peanut-crunching crowd'; her miraculous rebirths are governed by the logic of the commodity. Prufrock is verbally overdressed but feels emotionally naked and exposed, representing himself as crucified before the gaze of the vulgar mass. Lady Lazarus, on the other hand, incarnates the 'holy prostitution of the soul' which Baudelaire found in the experience of being part of a crowd; emotional nakedness is itself revealed as a masquerade.45 The 'strip-tease' artist is a parodic, feminized version of the symbolist poet sacrificed to an uncomprehending mass audience.46 For Baudelaire, as Walter Benjamin argues, the prostitute serves as an allegory of the fate of aesthetic experience in modernity, of its 'prostitution' to mass culture. The prostitute deprives femininity of its aura, its religious and cultic presence; the woman's body becomes a commodity, made up of dead and petrified fragments, while her beauty becomes a matter of cosmetic disguise (make-up and fashion). Baudelaire's prostitute sells the appearance of femininity. But she also offers a degraded and hallucinated memory of fulfilment, an intoxicating or narcotic substitute for the idealized maternal body. For the melancholic, spleen-ridden psyche, which obsessively dwells on the broken pieces of the past, she is therefore a privileged object of meditation. She represents the loss of that blissful unity with nature and God which was traditionally anchored in a female figure.47 Instead, Benjamin argues, the prostitute, like commodity fetishism, harnesses the 'sex-appeal of the inorganic', which binds the living body to the realm of death.48

Lady Lazarus is an allegorical figure, constructed from past and present images of femininity, congealed fantasies projected upon the poem's surface. She is a pastiche of the numerous deathly or demonic women of poetic tradition, such as Poe's Ligeia, who dies and is gruesomely revivified through the corpse of another woman. Ligeia's function, which is to be a symbol, mediating between the poet and 'supernal beauty', can only be preserved by her death.49 Similarly, in Mallarmé's prose poem 'Le Phénomène Futur', the 'Woman of the Past' is scientifically preserved and displayed at a circus sideshow by the poet.50 For Plath, however, the woman on show, the 'female phenomenon' is a revelation of unnaturalness instead of sensuous nature, her body gruesomely refashioned into Nazi artefacts. Lady Lazarus yokes together the canonical post-Romantic, symbolist tradition which culminates in 'Prufrock', and the trash culture of True Confessions, through their common concern with the fantasizing and staging of the female body:

I rocked shut

As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.

The densely layered intertextual ironies at work in these lines plot the labyrinthine course of what Benjamin calls 'the sex appeal of the inorganic' through literary history. They echo Ariel's song in The Tempest, whose talismanic status in Plath's writing I have already noted. Plath regenders the image, substituting Lady Lazarus for the drowned corpse of the father/king. The metaphor of the seashell converts the female body into a hardened, dead, and inorganic object, but at the same time nostalgically recalls the maternal fecundity of the sea. The dead woman who suffers a sea change is adorned with phallic worms turned into pearls, the 'sticky', fetishistic sublimates of male desire. In Marvell's poem of seduction, 'To His Coy Mistress', the beloved is imagined as a decaying corpse: 'Nor, in thy marble vault shall sound | My echoing song: then worms shall try | That long-preserved virginity: | And your quaint honour turn to dust; | And into ashes all my lust.'51 In T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, the refrain 'Those are pearls that were his eyes' is associated with the drowned Phoenician sailor, implicit victim of witch-like, neurotic, or soul-destroying female figures, such as Madame Sosostris and Cleopatra.52

Lady Lazarus stages the spectacle of herself, assuming the familiar threefold guise of actress, prostitute, and mechanical woman. The myth of the eternally recurring feminine finds its fulfilment in the worship and 'martyrdom' of the film or pop star, a cult vehicle of male fantasy who induces mass hysteria and vampiric hunger for 'confessional' revelations.53 Lady Lazarus reminds her audience that 'there is a charge, a very large charge | For a word or a touch | Or a bit of blood | Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.' It is as if Plath is using the Marilyn Monroe figure to travesty Poe's dictum in 'The Philosophy of Composition' (1846) that 'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world'.54 The proliferation of intertextual ironies also affects the concluding transformation of 'Lady Lazarus' into the phoenix-like, man-eating demon, who rises 'out of the ash' with her 'red hair'. This echoes Coleridge's description of the possessed poet in 'Kubla Kahn': 'And all should cry Beware! Beware! His flashing eyes, his floating hair!'55 The woman's hair, a privileged fetish-object of male fantasy, becomes at once a badge of daemonic genius and a flag of vengeance. It is tempting to read these lines as a personal myth of rebirth, a triumphant Romantic emergence of what Lynda Bundtzen calls the female 'body of imagination'.56 The myth of the transcendent-demonic phoenix seems to transcend the dualism of male-created images of women, wreaking revenge on 'Herr Doktor', 'Herr God', and 'Herr Lucifer', those allegorical emblems of an oppressive masculinity. Yet Lady Lazarus's culminating assertion of power—'I eat men like air'—undoes itself, through its suggestion of a mere conjuring trick. The attack on patriarchy is undercut by the illusionistic character of this apotheosis which purports to transform, at a stroke, a degraded and catastrophic reality. What the poem sarcastically 'confesses', through its collage of fragments of 'high' and 'low' culture, is a commodity status no longer veiled by the aura of the sacred. Lyric inwardness is 'prostituted' to the sensationalism of 'true confession'. The poet can no longer cherish the illusion of withdrawing into a pure, uncontaminated private space, whose immunity from larger historical conflicts is guaranteed by the 'auratic' woman. As I shall argue in the next chapter, for Plath the female body, far from serving as expiatory metaphor for the ravages of modernity, itself becomes a sign whose cultural meanings are in crisis.


  1. See Laura Mulvey's pioneering essay, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen, 16, 3 (Autumn 1975), 6-18. Mulvey later qualified her binary opposition between active male spectators and passive female objects of the gaze in 'Afterthoughts on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"', in Visual and Other Pleasures (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), 29-37. See also Rachel Bowlby, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (London: Methuen, 1985), 27-34; Griselda Pollock, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988); Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Culture (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1988); and Laura Mulvey, 'Some Thoughts on Fetishism in the Context of Contemporary Culture', October, 65 (Summer 1993), 3-20.
  2. Alicia Ostriker, '"Fact" as Style: The Americanization of Sylvia', Language and Style, 1, 3 (Summer 1968), 201-11. See also Stanley Plumly, 'What Ceremony of Words', in Alexander (ed.), Ariel Ascending, 13-25.
  3. Paul de Man, 'Literary History and Literary Modernity', in Blindness and Insight, 142-65.
  4. David Shapiro, 'Sylvia Plath: Drama and Melodrama', in Lane (ed.), Sylvia Plath, 45-53; Hugh Kenner, 'Sincerity Kills', in Lane (ed.), Sylvia Plath, 33-44; Philip Hobsbaum, 'The Temptation of Giant Despair', Hudson Review, 25 (Winter 1972-3), 612.
  5. Arthur K. Oberg, 'Sylvia Plath and the New Decadence', in Edward Butscher (ed.), Sylvia Plath (London: Peter Owen, 1979), 177-85.
  6. Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago, 1991), 8.
  7. The contributors to Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (eds.), Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (New York: The Free Press, 1957), included Ortega y Gasset, Dwight Macdonald, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe, Theodor Adorno, and Marshall McLuhan.
  8. Clement Greenberg, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch', in Rosenberg and White (eds.), Mass Culture, 98-107; Dwight MacDonald, 'A Theory of Mass Culture', ibid. 59-73; Theodor Adorno, 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception' (1944), in Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (London: Verso, 1979), 120-67.
  9. Jed Rasula, 'Nietzsche in the Nursery: Naïve Classics and Surrogate Parents in Postwar American Cultural Debates', Representations, 29 (Winter 1990), 51. See also Andrew Ross, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989), 42-64.
  10. Frederic Jameson, 'Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', New Left Review, 146 (1984), 65.
  11. Jameson, 'Postmodernism', 54.
  12. Jameson's view of the 'critical' vocation of modernism is indebted to Theodor Adorno's notion of a modernist 'dissonance' which 'negates' or criticizes reified social relations. See Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984).
  13. Terry Eagleton, 'Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism', in Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985 (London: Verso, 1986), 143.
  14. Andreas Huyssen, 'Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism's Other', in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (London: Macmillan, 1988), 45.
  15. Huyssen, After the Great Divide, 46.
  16. See Craig Owens, 'The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism', in Hal Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1985), 57-82; Linda Nicholson (ed.), Feminism/Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1990); Margaret Ferguson and Jennifer Wicke (eds.), Feminism and Postmodernism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).
  17. Rita Felski, 'The Counterdiscourse of the Feminine in Three Texts by Wilde, Huysmans, and Sacher-Masoch', PMLA 106, 5 (1991), 1094-105.
  18. Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal, trans. Richard Howard (London: Picador Classics, 1987), 14.
  19. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 340.
  20. Karl Marx, 'The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof', in Karl Marx: A Reader, ed. Jon Elster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 63-75.
  21. Elizabeth Wright, 'The Uncanny and Surrealism', in Peter Collier and Judy Davies (eds.), Modernism and the European Unconscious (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990), 265.
  22. Walter Benjamin, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), 211-44.
  23. Calvin Bedient, 'Sylvia Plath, Romantic', in Lane (ed.), Sylvia Plath, 10.
  24. M. L. Rosenthal, The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 88.
  25. Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), 289.
  26. Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943), cited by Tanya Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York: Methuen, 1988), 108.
  27. See, in particular, Ted Hughes's Meet My Folks! (London: Faber and Faber, 1961).
  28. Sylvia Plath, 'Interview' (30 Oct. 1962), in Peter Orr (ed.), The Poet Speaks (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), 167-8. The interview notes the influence not only of Lowell's Life Studies, but also of Anne Sexton, with whom Plath had attended Lowell's poetry seminar in Boston in 1958. On the impact of Sexton's poems on Ariel, see Heather Cam, '"Daddy": Sylvia Plath's Debt to Anne Sexton', American Literature, 59, 3 (1987), 29-31, and Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell (New York: Random House, 1982), 183.
  29. M. L. Rosenthal, 'Poetry as Confession', Nation, 190 (1959), 154-5.
  30. Rosenthal, The New Poets, 15. Al Alvarez's preferred term was 'Extremist Poetry'. See Alvarez, 'Beyond all This Fiddle' (1967), in Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955-1967 (London: Allen Lane, 1968), 3-21.
  31. Rosenthal, The New Poets, 17. See also Al Alvarez, 'The Fate of the Platypus' (1958), in Beyond All This Fiddle, 59-66, and A. R. Jones, 'Necessity and Freedom: The Poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton', Critical Quarterly, 7 (Spring 1965), 11-30.
  32. See Walter Kalaidjan, Languages of Liberation: The Social Text in Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).
  33. Paul Breslin, The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 97, 99. For another attack on Plath as exemplar of the worst excesses of 'Confessional' poetics, see Hobsbaum, 'The Temptation'.
  34. Jeffrey Meyers, Manic Power: Robert Lowell and his Circle (London: Macmillan, 1987).
  35. Sylvia Plath, 'Typescript on writing a true confession', Unpublished Journals, 5 Apr. 1953, Smith. Typographical and spelling errors are transcribed.
  36. Compare Cleanth Brooks's reference to 'the young lady who confesses to raptures over her confessions magazine' in The Well-Wrought Urn (New York: The Cornwell Press, 1947), 233.
  37. George Steiner, 'Dying is an Art', in Newman (ed.), The Art of Sylvia Plath, 212. Emphasis added.
  38. Charles Baudelaire, The Complete Verse (London: Anvil Press, 1968), i. 54.
  39. See Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, i, trans. Robert Hurley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990). See also Jeremy Tambling, Confession: Sexuality, Sin and the Subject (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990).
  40. D. H. Lawrence, The Complete Poems (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 582.
  41. The song, whose chorus-line is, 'Got myself a walking, talking living doll', was at number 1 in the British hit parade for four weeks, 1-29 Aug. 1959. See Paul Flattery, The Illustrated History of Pop (London: New English Library, 1973), 129.
  42. Rosenthal, The New Poets, 82.
  43. Helen Vendler, 'An Intractable Metal', in Alexander (ed.), Ariel Ascending, II. See also Breslin, The Psycho-Political Muse, 108-9.
  44. Richard Allen Blessing, 'The Shape of the Psyche: Vision and Technique in the Late Poems of Sylvia Plath', in Lane (ed.), Sylvia Plath, 68.
  45. Charles Baudelaire, 'Les Foules' (1861), in The Poems in Prose, trans. Francis Scarfe (London: Anvil Press, 1989), 59.
  46. References to prostitution are more explicit in the drafts of the poem. Draft 1, p. 2, includes the lines: 'Yessir, yessir | Though the doctors say its rare | Each time I rise, I rise a bloody virgin'. Alternatives given for the deleted phrase 'bloody virgin' are 'blooming virgin' and 'sweet whore'. Draft 1, p. 4, includes the lines: 'And there is a charge, a very large charge | For a night in my bed'. Ariel Poems MSS, 23-9 Oct. 1962, Smith.
  47. See Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (London: New Left Books, 1973), 56, 166, 171-2, and 'Central Park', trans. Lloyd Spencer, New German Critique, 34 (Winter 1985), 1-27.
  48. Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 166. On Benjamin's use of the prostitute figure, see Angelika Rauch 'The Trauerspiel of the Prostituted Body, or Woman as Allegory of Modernity', Cultural Critique, 10 (Fall 1988), 77-88; Christine Buci-Glucksmann, 'Catastrophic Utopia: The Feminine as Allegory of the Modern', in Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (eds.), The Making of the Modern Body (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), 220-9; and Susan Buck-Morss, 'The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering', New German Critique, 39 (Fall 1986), 99-140.
  49. Edgar Allan Poe, 'Ligeia' (1838), in Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Dent, 1908), 155-69.
  50. Stéphane Mallarmé, Mallarmé's Prose Poems: A Critical Study, trans. and ed. Robert Greer Cohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 23-9.
  51. Andrew Marvell, The Complete Poems, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1985), 51.
  52. Eliot, Collected Poems, 63-79.
  53. Marilyn Monroe's death on 5 Aug. 1962 antedates the composition of 'Lady Lazarus' (23-9 Oct. 1962). 'Lesbos' (18 Oct.) also contains allusions to the star system: 'In New York, in Hollywood, the men said, 'Through? | Gee baby, you are rare.' | You acted, acted, acted for the thrill.'
  54. Edgar Allan Poe, Poems and Essays (London: Dent, 1927), 170.
  55. S. T. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. H. J. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 103-4.
  56. Lynda K. Bundtzen, Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983), 43.


1. Primary Sources


Sylvia Plath, 'Typescript on writing a True Confession', Unpublished Journals, 5 Apr. 1953.

2. Secondary Sources

Adorno, Theodor, Aesthetic Theory (1970), trans. C. Lenhardt (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984).

——and Horkheimer, Max, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), trans. John Cumming (1972) (London: Verso, 1979).

Alexander, Paul (ed.), Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath (New York: Harper and Row, 1985).

——Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (New York: Viking Penguin, 1991).

Alvarez, A., Beyond All this Fiddle: Essays 1955-1967 (London: Allen Lane, 1968).

Baudelaire, Charles, The Complete Verse, 2 vols., trans. Francis Scarfe (London: Anvil Press, 1986).

——Les Fleurs du mal (1857), trans. Richard Howard (London: Picador Classics, 1987).

——'Les Foules' (1861), The Poems in Prose, trans. Francis Scarfe (London: Anvil Press, 1989).

Bedient, Calvin, 'Sylvia Plath, Romantic', in Lane (ed.), Sylvia Plath, 3-18.

Benjamin, Walter, 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', in Illuminations (1955), trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), 211-44.

——Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: New Left Books, 1973).

——'Central Park', trans. Lloyd Spencer, New German Critique, 34 (Winter 1985), 1-27.

Blessing, Richard Allen, 'The Shape of the Psyche: Vision and Technique in the Late Poems of Sylvia Plath', in Lane (ed.), Sylvia Plath, 57-73.

Bowlby, Rachel, Just Looking: Consumer Culture in Dreiser, Gissing and Zola (London: Methuen, 1985).

Breslin, Paul, The Psycho-Political Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).

Brooks, Cleanth, The Well Wrought Urn (New York: The Cornwall Press, 1947).

Buci-Glucksmann, Christine, 'Catastrophic Utopia: The Feminine as Allegory of the Modern', in Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (eds.), The Making of the Modern Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 220-9.

Buck-Morss, Susan, 'The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering', New German Critique, 39 (Fall 1986), 99-140.

Bundtzen, Lynda K., Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983).

Butscher, Edward (ed.), Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work (London: Peter Owen, 1979).

Cam, Heather, '"Daddy": Sylvia Plath's Debt to Anne Sexton', American Literature, 59, 3 (October 1987), 29-31.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. H. J. Jackson, The Oxford Authors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

Collier, Peter, and Davies, Judy, (eds.), Modernism and the European Unconscious (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990).

Eagleton, Terry, 'Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism', in Against the Grain: Essays 1975-1985 (London: Verso, 1986), 131-47.

Eliot, T. S., Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, 1936).

Felski, Rita, 'The Counterdiscourse of the Feminine in Three Texts by Wilde, Huysmans, and Sacher-Masoch', PMLA 106, 5 (1991), 1094-1105.

Ferguson, Margaret, and Wicke, Jennifer (eds.), Feminism and Postmodernism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992).

Flattery, Paul, The Illustrated History of Pop (London: New English Library, 1973).

Foster, Hal (ed.), Postmodern Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1985).

Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, 3 vols. (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), i.

Greenberg, Clement, 'Avant-Garde and Kitsch' (1946), in Bernard Rosenberg and David Manning White (eds.), Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (New York: The Free Press, 1957), 107-20.

Hamilton, Ian, Robert Lowell: A Biography (New York: Random House, 1982).

Hobsbaum, Philip, 'The Temptation of Giant Despair', Hudson Review, 25 (Winter 1972-3), 597-612.

Hughes, Ted, Meet My Folks! (London: Faber and Faber, 1961).

Huyssen, Andreas, 'Woman as Mass Culture: Modernism's Other', in Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, and Postmodernism (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), 44-62.

Jameson, Frederic, 'Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism', New Left Review, 146 (July-Aug. 1984), 53-92.

——Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991).

Jones, A. R., 'Necessity and Freedom: The Poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton', Critical Quarterly, 7 (Spring 1965), 11-30.

Kalaidjan, Walter, Languages of Liberation: The Social Text in Contemporary American Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

Kenner, Hugh, 'Sincerity Kills', in Lane (ed.), Sylvia Plath, 33-44.

Lane, Gary (ed.), Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Lawrence, D. H., The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence, ed. Vivian de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts, 2 vols. (London: Heinemann, 1964).

MacDonald, Dwight, 'A Theory of Mass Culture', in Rosenberg (ed.), Mass Culture, 59-73.

Mallarmé, Stéphane, Mallarmé's Prose Poems: A Critical Study, trans. and ed. Robert Greer Cohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

De Man, Paul, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (London: Methuen, 1983).

——'Literary History and Literary Modernity', in Blindness and Insight, 142-65.

Marvell, Andrew, The Complete Poems, ed. Elizabeth Story Donno (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972; rpt. 1985).

Marx, Karl, 'The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof', in Karl Marx: A Reader, ed. Jon Elster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 63-75.

Meyers, Jeffrey, Manic Power: Robert Lowell and his Circle (London: Macmillan, 1987).

Modleski, Tanya, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York: Methuen, 1988).

Mulvey, Laura, 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema', Screen, 16, 3 (Autumn 1975), 6-18.

——'Afterthoughts on "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema"' (1981), in Laura Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1989), 29-37.

Newman, Charles (ed.), The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1970).

Nicholson, Linda (ed.), Feminism/Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1990).

Oberg, Arthur, 'Sylvia Plath and the New Decadence', Chicago Review, 20, 1 (1968), 66-73. Rpt. in Butscher (ed.), Sylvia Plath, 177-85.

Orr, Peter (ed.), The Poet Speaks (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

Ostriker, Alicia, '"Fact" as Style: The Americanization of Sylvia', Language and Style, 1 (Summer 1968), 201-12. Rpt. as 'The Americanization of Sylvia', in Wagner (ed.), Critical Essays, 97-109.

Owens, Craig, 'The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism', in Hal Foster (ed.), Postmodern Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1985), 57-82.

Plumly, Stanley, 'What Ceremony of Words', in Alexander (ed.), Ariel Ascending, 13-25.

Poe, Edgar Allan, Tales of Mystery and Imagination (London: Dent, 1908; rpt. 1981).

——'The Philosophy of Composition', in Poems and Essays (London: Dent, 1927; rpt. 1987), 163-77.

Pollock, Griselda, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and the Histories of Art (London: Routledge, 1988).

Rasula, Jed, 'Nietzsche in the Nursery: Naïve Classics and Surrogate Parents in Postwar American Cultural Debates', Representations, 29 (Winter 1990), 50-77.

Rose, Jacqueline, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago, 1991).

Rosenberg, Bernard, and White, David Manning (eds.), Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America (New York: The Free Press, 1957).

Rosenthal, M. L., 'Poetry as Confession', Nation, 190 (1959), 154-5.

——The New Poets: American and British Poetry Since World War II (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967).

Ross, Andrew, No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture (New York: Routledge, 1989).

Shapiro, David, 'Sylvia Plath: Drama and Melodrama', in Lane (ed.), Sylvia Plath, 45-53.

Silverman, Kaja, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Culture (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1988).

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Tambling, Jeremy, Confession: Sexuality, Sin and the Subject (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990).

Vendler, Helen, 'An Intractable Metal', New Yorker, 57 (15 Feb. 1982), 124-38. Rpt. in Alexander (ed.), Ariel Ascending, 1-12.

Wagner, Linda (Wagner-Martin) (ed.), Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984).

Wright, Elizabeth, 'The Uncanny and Surrealism', in Collier and Davies (eds.), Modernism and the European Unconscious, 265-82.

Linda Wagner-Martin (Essay Date 1999)

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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 doing: a woman who had had abortions became, for Plath, the Other. (Nothing is simple here: we have Plath’s comment in her college journal that “I do not want primarily to be a mother,”1 and biographer Paul Alexander contends that Plath had aborted their first child, a few months after her marriage to Hughes.)2 As a corollary to the barren women theme, Plath also wrote several poems that criticized the artifical ways women maintained their beauty (e.g., “Face Lift ,” “The Rival ”).

A systematic emphasis on physical beauty was inherent in this set of poems, for the 1950’s privileged the thin, the emaciated, the illnourished. Because of her height, Plath could carry somewhat more weight than the Twiggy model-thin women who starved themselves to be fashionable; but at the time she delivered Frieda, her weight—usually 135 to 137 pounds—had climbed to 155; when Nicholas was born in January, 1962, Plath weighed 170 pounds. Although she remained attractive in her pregnancy (one of Ted’s friends wrote that as the time neared for Frieda’s birth Sylvia was “a woman blazing with life and good spirits”),3 her use of the adjective “cowlike” in several of her poems about babies and mothering reflected the way she knew society would view her large, nursing, body. It was a new problem for her, one that stemmed entirely from maternity and its processes.4

From early childhood, Plath had been a “good eater.” As her journal entries and letters to her family show, she finds food—and eating it— interesting. She grew up very conscious of the cost of things; knowing that the Sunday roast cost $0.41 a pound made her feel as if she were eating pennies. Similarly, her childhood letters from camp are hardly more than descriptions of what food has been served at each meal, and the comment that she ate it all.5 As a college woman, her life was still ruled by necessary economies (one has only to look at the accounting of what she spent in each year at Smith to see the way she tracked minute amounts of, for instance, $2 for postage stamps, or $1.50 for cleaning).6

Chary about any spending, Plath would not invest money in food and then leave it on her plate. Because she and Hughes had so little spendable income, especially during the early years of their marriage, her habits of accounting for every dollar were reinforced. She loved the luxuries— London’s “sour cream and cream cheese”7 not to mention the Fortnum and Mason chicken pies— but she knew they were just that, luxuries. It also seems plausible that the fierce argument she had with her sister-in-law occurred over the fact that Plath was usurping a daughter’s place, perhaps by eating too much.8

To a surprising extent in Plath’s later poems, this dichotomy of the thin, mannequin styled woman set against the comfortably well-fed motherly female is played out. In a 1961 poem, “Heavy Women ,” she describes the “Irrefutable, beautifully smug / As Venus …” women settling in “their belling dresses.” Their pregnancies bring such satisfaction that they smile to themselves, listening “for the millennium, / The knock of the small, new heart.” Nature blesses them too, in other ways, as Plath writes that “Over each weighty stomach a face / Floats calm as a moon or a cloud.” Hooded in “Mary-blue,” these women live happy and contented lives among their “Pinkbuttocked infants.” At a distance, “far off, the axle of winter / Grinds down.”9

Written just a week earlier, “Morning Song ” re-creates the joyous mothering occasioned by the infant who wakes during the night. Although the mother-persona describes herself as “cow-heavy and floral / In my Victorian nightgown,” her significant quality is her ability to hear, to sense her newborn’s need. “I wake to listen: A far sea moves in my ear. / / One cry, and I stumble from bed … ”10 Disdainful of what fashion-conscious observers might think of the motherly body, the persona knows that her love for the child is the essential characteristic.

During that same week, Plath writes the poem titled “Barren Woman ,” and it interestingly reverts to the intricate images of some of her earlier poems. The opening word is “Empty” and the structure the poet then envisions is museumlike, echoing, “blind to the world.” Even the flowers here, which are forbidding lilies, “Exhale their pallor like scent.” A place of deadness, the space that the barren woman represents is the site not of celebration but a place where “nothing can happen.”11 For a short poem, “Barren Woman ” consists of a great many images, all underscoring the notion of being barren, fruitless.

“Face Lift ,” which Plath admitted was about Dido Merwin’s plastic surgery (and about which Dido later recalled Plath’s curiosity),12 extends the themes of the measures the barren woman will take to enhance her beauty. Written in the voice of the woman who has had the surgery, the poem recounts her much-married history, the easy anesthesia, and the secrecy of the hospitalization: “For five days I lie in secret, / Tapped like a cask, the years draining into my pillow. / Even my best friend thinks I’m in the country … ” The net result is, as the persona says with elation, “I grow backward. I’m twenty.” In the last stanza of the poem, addressing her former self as “Old sockface, sagged on a darning egg,”13 she wishes that self dead. Although the persona has been reborn, the irony of the poet’s tone undermines her self-congratulation.

Plath wrote to friends late in 1962, after Hughes had left Court Green to live in London with Asia Wevill, “the woman he is with is on her third husband and has had so many abortions she can’t have children. She is part of this set of barren women… that I am glad to get rid of. I guess I am just not like that … ”14

Wrestling with the fact that her sister-in-law had accused her of being selfish and piggish, Plath wrote a poem about the beautiful Olwyn titled simply “The Rival .” In draft, the poem consists of three sections, but only the first appears in Ariel and Collected Poems. Although Plath never saw her sister-in-law again after the argument of the 1960 Christmas in Yorkshire,15 she knew that the closeness that existed between Ted and his older sister was not going to be diminished by physical absence—that her beautiful sister-in-law was, in fact, a rival.

The poem is filled with vivid yet metallic images of the invasive woman, “Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes … dying to say something unanswerable.”16 Given to debasing people, “making stone out of everything,” preying on everyone (“No day is safe from news of you”), the rival remains her exquisite self. It is in this 1961 poem that Plath reinforces the pattern of identifying the moon with coldness, with inhuman responses; yet when the rival is compared with the moon, the rival is even less human. This is the poem’s decisive opening: “If the moon smiled, she would resemble you. / You leave the same impression / Of something beautiful, but annihilating.”

Part 2 of the poem contrasts the aloof beauty with the speaker, a woman “corruptible as a loaf of bread,” whose virtue is that she has “a baby you like.” The rival sits beguilingly in a distant room, while the young mother “crawled on all fours, A sow or a cow” to play with the smiling child. Living away from England, the rival now writes to them “with loving regularity,” her letters—typically filled with “dissatisfactions”—are “expansive as carbon monoxide.”17

Part 3 describes the persona’s longing to escape from the force of the rival’s personality. Her home is filled with the killing gas of memory; the horizon is preoccupied with the rival, and the sea “keeps washing you up like an old bone.” The truth is that the rival is as indestructible as a diamond. Yet because the diamond is such a valued object, the persona will wear her at the center of her forehead, marked forever as a victim.

In the corner of the first page of the draft, Plath has listed other poem titles; “The Rival ” comes first, followed immediately by “Face Lift .” In a pattern strangely prescient, Plath has set up the contrast that she will write about and around almost to the time of her death. Late in 1962, with “Mary’s Song ” she returns to the mother theme, but this time the mother persona is obsessed with the possible harm the world may do to her child. For all its crystalline beauty, the poem “Child ” also echoes with tones of worry and fear; its closing image leaves the reader with “this troublous / Wringing of hands, this dark / Ceiling without a star.”18 As Plath had written in “Winter Trees ,” her life is now absorbed by “Memories growing, ring on ring / Knowing neither abortions nor bitchery,”19 and therefore, “Truer than women.”

Closely related to “Winter Trees ” is Plath’s poem “Brasilia ,” the manuscripts of which show the kind of intertextual borrowing that occurs in many of the very late poems. (Lines deleted from the center of “Brasilia ” become the opening stanza of “Childless Woman ,” a different kind of contrast—sharper, bloodier, dominated by the blood-letting spider which utters “nothing but blood— / Taste it, dark red!”)20 The watchful mother in “Brasilia ” who swims under the defenseless child is herself a prehistoric fish, an “old coelacanth … Out-of-date and bad luck to the fisherman / Nearly extinct.” Once she too dies off, the child will be “one of the new people / motherless, fatherless.”21 What he awaits will be the destruction she sees on the horizon.

One of Plath’s most moving poems, “For a Fatherless Son ,” also draws from imagery of destruction, trees that carry death rather than life, and the core image of the child’s life, the absence of his father. The shifts of focus and mood in the poem’s opening lines lead the reader through the simple statement of loss, intensifying in the “death tree” metaphor. The contrast of the baby’s grabbing the mother’s nose—emphasized with unexpected words such as “dumb” and “stupidity”to suggest his voicelessness—brings the reader back to normalcy, but only for a time. Quickly into stanza three, the poet describes the way the child will “touch what’s wrong.”22 As if she cannot pull back herself from the edge of her realization, she lists in a crabbed series three surrealistic images: “The small skulls, the smashed blue hills, the godawful hush.” Replete with the -s linkage— small, skulls, smashed, hills, hush—the poet takes the reader away from the 1’s in the first image, drawing the poem to the hush of its ending. The turn of the last line cannot counteract the assonantal mood of quiet sorrow, of absence both literal and metaphoric.

While in these manuscripts, the mother has also left the child, the finished poems give the woman a living identity. In the poem “Childless Woman ,” forbiddingly, the woman “achieves” a body that is “ivory,”23 bloodless, as she becomes herself a rose—and, significantly, not a live woman. In “Amnesiac ,” Plath points to the pretended forgetfulness of the husband/father, the man who has left his family, so that he can “travel, travel, travel” with “the red-headed sister he never dared to touch.” Here she fuses the barren woman of the affair with his forbidden sister (emphasizing for the reader, “Barren, the lot are barren!”), and turns the poem into a comedy as the two travel with “scenery / Sparking off their brother-sister rears.”24

In “The Fearful ,” Plath is even more direct: she accuses the woman in question of hating “The thought of a baby— / Stealer of cells, stealer of beauty— / / She would rather be dead than fat , / Dead and perfect, like Nefertit … ”25 And the protagonist of “Lesbos ” also suffers from having “blown your tubes like a bad radio / Clear of voices and history.”26 The reader is not surprised when this woman suggests to her friend, the poet-persona, that she get rid of both her kittens and her small daughter.

A long poem, “Lesbos ” includes a number of unexplained references, but the last section describes the persona-mother’s reaction to the woman who continually advises her: “Now I am silent, hate / Up to my neck, / Thick, thick. / I do not speak. / I am packing the hard potatoes like good clothes, / I am packing the babies, / I am packing the sick cats … ” Persisting in her only real ambition—to be a good mother to the children she has borne—the persona has to leave the sterile woman, relinquishing her offer of friendship, wiping her out of her consciousness.

In March of 1962, all the knowledge Plath had acquired about pregnancy and childbirth, and social attitudes toward both, came to fruition in her magnificent—and radical—radio play about three women in a hospital maternity ward. Because Hughes had made both good money and important literary contacts through the BBC productions of his radio plays, Sylvia was eager to become one of their playwrights. Douglas Clever-don was a talented, earnest producer, responsible for airing Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, a work Plath had long admired. To know Cleverdon would be exciting, she thought, and the subject matter of the unique “Three Women ” was certainly near to hand—and her own. She had only birthed Nicholas Farrar a short six weeks earlier.

What Plath achieves in choosing three different kinds of pregnancies—one miscarriage, one full-term delivery in which the unmarried mother would give the baby up for adoption, and one delivery in which the mother would take the child and raise it—is the canvas for a spectrum of physical experiences and attitudes. The bereavement of the woman who miscarries is poignant, separated as she is from her husband and the men of the office in which she works. Male behaviors here are truly obtuse, and metaphorically, men’s bodies are described as flat. Or in the monologue of the woman, “That flat, flat, flatness from which ideas, destructions, / Bulldozers, guillotines, white chambers of shrieks proceed, / Endlessly proceed … ”27

It is the Third Voice that has no place for the child. Surprised by her pregnancy, she repeats, “I wasn’t ready.” Angry at the smug male doctors who deliver these children, wanted or unwanted, she contends, “what if they found themselves surprised, as I did? / They would go mad with it.” Her anger subsiding, she watches her “red, terrible girl,” “crying,” “furious,” Scratching at my sleep like arrows, / Scratching at my sleep, and entering my side.” Her leave-taking is an amazing poem. Packing the clothes “of a fat woman I do not know,” she is surprised—now—at how vulnerable she has become: “I am a wound walking out of hospital. / I am a wound that they are letting go.” Pained and hollow, she realizes that “I leave my health behind. I leave someone / Who would adhere to me: I undo her fingers like bandages: I go.”

The heart of the long poem rests in the solemn happiness of the First Voice, the woman who gives birth to a long-wanted child. As she speaks before delivery of her time (“I am slow as the world. I am very patient”), she brings the gentle humor of fulfillment into the juxtaposed tones of the work: “When I walk out, I am a great event. / I do not have to think, or even rehearse. / What happens in me will happen without attention … / Leaves and petals attend me. I am ready.”

When her pains begin, fear overtakes her equanimity; the “calm before something awful” is shattered. “A seed about to break,” she feels the first tug of the “cargo of agony … inescapable, tidal.” After the long labor,

There is no miracle more cruel than this.
I am dragged by the horses, the iron hooves.
I last. I last it out. I accomplish a work …

Hard-earned satisfaction suffuses the mother’s reaction as she sees the boy. She hardly notices the “red lotus [that] opens in its bowl of blood;” rather, she croons to the angry infant:

What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
I have never seen a thing so clear.
His lids are like the lilac-flower
And soft as a moth, his breath.
I shall not let go.
There is no guile or warp in him. May he keep so.

Amid the two other women’s complaints, this lullaby of the First Voice continues, almost to the end of the poem. One of the most beautiful lyrics in twentieth-century poetry occurs toward the end of “Three Women ,” in the passage of the loving mother which begins, “How long can I be a wall, keeping the wind off? / How long can I be / Gentling the sun with the shade of my hand … ”

Never predictable because of the juxtaposition of the three voices, speaking at very different emotional places and tempos, “Three Women ” conveys women’s reactions to childbirth or miscarriage with more variety than the uninitiated might expect. Sheer hatred darkens the speech of the Second Voice, the woman who has miscarried again and again. Her vengefulness takes in the patriarchal world, including her husband. She is hopelessly self-centered: “I am bled white as wax, I have no attachments. / I am flat and virginal, which means nothing has happened … It is I. It is I— / Tasting the bitterness between my teeth. The incalculable malice of the everyday.”

The vacuity after the pain of leave-taking saddens the reader. Will the Third Voice ever come to be human again? The birth of her child is only a fast-fading memory: “I had an old wound once, but it is healing. / I had a dream of an island, red with cries. / It was a dream, and did not mean a thing.”

The secure joy of the First Voice, as she watches her son sleep, both begins and ends the poem. “I am reassured. I am reassured … I am simple again. I believe in miracles.” Her blessing for her child is that he be normal, not exceptional. Wanting to protect him, feeling powerless to keep him innocent, the voice explains, “It is the exception that interests the devil. It is the exception that climbs the sorrowful hill.” Rather, her wish is that he be common, “To love me as I love him, / And to marry what he wants and where he will.”

A strange ending for the First Voice, so soon recovered from the ordeal of childbirth: would she be worried about her son’s marriage, unless she were haunted by thoughts that her husband’s family does not love her, and perhaps that her family does not think she has made a suitable match either. Or perhaps the persona herself worries about the suitability of that match, fraught as it is with angry fights and physical brutality? As focused as the text manages to be on the three child-bearing women and their poetry, their responses to the life events that are handed to them, fated for them, elements of Plath’s own life at the time manage to creep in. While she keeps the woman who miscarries from being objectionable in herself, recasting her as a sympathetic woman rather than an intentionally barren one, she clearly favors the pregnant woman who takes her child home to care for. Women who give birth assume a lifetime of responsibility, with love to leaven the weight of that care. There could be no equivocation about that responsibility—or about that love.

To be considered along with these autobiographical emphases is the pattern Sandra Gilbert finds that connects “Three Women ,” or “Three Voices ” as it was originally titled, with the three women characters in Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves. With some remarkable similarities between the language of Susan, Rhoda and Jinny and Plath’s three speakers, and with knowledge of the fact that she much admired and loved Woolf’s work, Gilbert’s point is plausible.28 It also is comforting to see that a woman writer would turn to another women writer for imaginative help in creating effective and poetically real female characters. As a composite of Plath’s hospital experience, her reading life, and her own emotional understanding of becoming a mother, “Three Women ” is the most impressive long poem Plath had written, or would write. It was also a powerful precursor to the later works that also evolved from her conceptualization of a single idiomatic voice. Here, the voices are largely calm and sympathetic. But the stridency and despair of the Second Voice will soon become all too familiar.

By the late fall of 1962, the time of “The Munich Mannequins ” (a poem which was earlier titled “The Bald Madonnas ”), Plath becomes more autobiographical as she assigns a German cast to the beautiful, heartless barren woman. (Because of the distinctively ethnic name of Hughes’s new lover, Assia Guttman Wevill, Plath chose to describe objectionable things as German in many of her late poems; she also takes onomatopoetic jabs at the sibilance of “Assia.”) After its revealing title, this stark poem opens, “Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.”29 The poem is loaded with metaphors of coldness, poisonous gas, sterility, snow, and nakedness (and the sibilance of the s’s in sulfur loveliness, smiles, sacrifice and snow, used three times in key positions to signal death). Spreading like a poison gas, the mannequin’s inhumanity infects her male companion; together, in “Munich, morgue between Paris and Rome,” the two lovers are pictured as “Naked and bald in their furs, / Orange lollies on silver sticks,” but—because they have frustrated the life force— ‘Intolerable, without mind.’

This poem connects subliminally with another written in January of 1963, called enigmatically “Totem ,” a recitation of various kinds of killings that seem to take place in Smithfield. The killings go beyond hog butchery, however, and include the killings of children as well as the rabbits that have become Plath’s own totem for innocence. As the persona notes tersely, “There is no mercy in the glitter of cleavers.”30 As might be expected in the context of her other writing, “Totem ” contains abortion imagery, as well as a litany of sacrifice ritual from Radin’s African folktales. The Anansi spider returns, mirrors chart events, cobras hypnotize the viewer, and death seems inescapable.

In several of Plath’s February poems, among the last half dozen she composed before her suicide, the dichotomous imaging of good-mother, not-mother disappears. Absorbed into a less angry and less tenuous way of looking at the world, Plath’s categories meld into larger notions of calm. In “Kindness ,” the poet cryptically describes the acts of the good godmother caring for the children, “Sweetly picking up pieces!,” and bringing the persona “a cup of tea / Wreathed in steam.”31 Caring for equates with the tenderness that Plath has long used as a positive description in her writing. Even without the intertextual response to Hughes’s BBC play about dead rabbits and the rabbit killer carrying two roses to his new lover, “Kindness ” rings a different chord in her gallery of women’s portraits. As the concluding line of the poem emphasizes, it is Dame Kindness who proffers her beloved children to the persona: “You hand me two children, two roses.” That this line is given the closing position, one of sure emphasis, undercuts the importance of the previous two lines, which are often quoted, “The blood jet is poetry, / There is no stopping it.” In effect, the presence of the two children does stop that blood loss, or at least blunts it. If the persona were in a position to choose, the structure of the poem— with its ending line restatement of “two children”—makes clear what her choice would be.

“Edge ,” the last poem attributed to Plath before her suicide is also about a mother and her children. Drawing from the opening line of “The Munich Mannequins ,” that “Perfection is terrible,” here the persona shifts her lens. Terrible it may be, or perhaps it is “terrible” in the sense of creating terror as a parallel to “awful” as a means of inspiring awe, but the poem opens with a sentence that has a clearly positive effect, “The woman is perfected.”32 A significant change occurs in the composition of this poem from draft stage to final version: in the draft, the perspective is of viewers high above the scene, looking down on the body of a dead woman. At that time the poem was titled “Nuns in Snow” and the observers are nuns, traveling as if on a pilgrimage to view the dead woman. From that perspective, the later countless images of a woman’s being nunlike, being pure, coalesce in the impact of this tautly crafted work.

Critic Mary Kurtzman notes that Plath relied on her knowledge of the Tarot cards (a Western Tarot based on the Hebrew Cabala, replicating the 22 paths on the Cabalistic Tree of Life, each standing for a “state of consciousness and spiritual unfolding”) throughout her last years of writing, using the pack as an organizing principle as early as the chapter arrangement of The Bell Jar . She attributes the positive effect of “Edge ” to the fact that its details and form suggest that Plath was drawing on the High Priestess card as model, and the role of the High Priestess was to experience the “highest possible union with the Goddess or God (Tarot divinities are both female and male).” Such union is labeled “Isis perfected” and Kurtzman notes that someone wrote ISIS on the final typescript of the poem “Edge .”33

She also speaks to the choice of the word “illusion” and concludes that Plath was explaining that, although the Scorpio sign which was her astrological marker might suggest a fated suicide, such a link was illusory: Kurtzman then reads the poem’s last four lines as the reason for the suicide, which may well have been chosen to avoid another hospitalization, complete with its terrorizing electroconvulsive shock. As the blacks “crackle and drag” in the treatment, the woman would lose the heart of her life—both the full creative powers of her mind, and, as a socially mandated result, the custody of her beloved children. In the poem, the woman has protectively folded her children back into her body—from which they came.

The poem’s imagery suggests that her symbolically taking the children back is as natural as a rose closing its petals at night; her act is part of that necessity that mother’s lives are governed by. Had the poem been longer, had the woman persona been given speech before her death, she might have echoed the moving lines from the [“Three Women ”]’s First Voice:

How long can my hands
Be a bandage to his hurt, and my words
Bright birds in the sky, consoling, consoling?
It is a terrible thing
To be so open: it is as if my heart
Put on a face and walked into the world.34

If only the child could be spared that world, if only the poem’s persona could have been spared it. But, if Kurtzman is correct about the symbology of “Edge ” (and other of Plath’s late poems), the persona here has “accomplished” what she set out to do, find a mystical unity with the spiritual world, and she has thereby finally escaped—by journeying to the edge of the known world—that world that so increasingly frustrated her, and her writerly ambition.


1. Sylvia Plath, Journals, p. 74.

2. Paul Alexander, Rough Magic, p. 252.

3. Daniel Huws, Comments on 1987 Wagner-Martin manuscript.

4. Marilyn Yalom in her Maternity, Mortality and the Literature of Madness touches on this only obliquely; somewhat strangely, though perhaps reflective of the 1950s attitudes about maternity, Plath’s letters do not mention her physical appearance during or after pregnancy.

5. Sylvia Plath, various letters from childhood and adolescence to her mother, The Lilly Library, Indiana University.

6. Sylvia Plath, notebooks, Smith College Rare Books Room archive.

7. Sylvia Plath, letter to Helga Huws, October 30,1961.

8. Paul Alexander, Rough Magic, p. 252.

9. Sylvia Plath, “Heavy Women,” Collected Poems, p. 158.

10. Sylvia Plath, “Morning Song,” Collected Poems, pp. 156-7.

11. Sylvia Plath, “Barren Woman,” Collected Poems, p. 157.

12. Dido Merwin, “Vessel of Wrath: A Memoir of Sylvia Plath,” Appendix II, Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame, pp. 329-30. I have numerous letters from Ms. Merwin written during the mid-1980s attesting to her consistent view of Plath’s character.

13. Sylvia Plath, “Face Lift,” Collected Poems, pp. 155-6. See Susan Van Dyne’s discussion of this poem in Revising Life.

14. Sylvia Plath, letter to Helga and Daniel Huws, late December, 1962.

15. Paul Alexander makes this claim in Rough Magic, p. 252.

16. Sylvia Plath, “The Rival,” Collected Poems, pp. 166-7, and manuscript drafts (of the three-section poem) from The Lilly Library, Indiana University. Quotations not from the published poem are from the manuscript.

17. The metallic imagery is reinforced with the description of the rival’s “steel complexion,” which connects with the inhuman “people with torsos of steel” in “Brasilia.’

18. Sylvia Plath, “Child,” Complete Poems, p. 265.

19. Sylvia Plath, “Winter Trees,” Complete Poems, pp. 257-8. In manuscript, the line is “No face-lifts, abortions, affairs.” (New York Public Library, Berg Collection, poetry exhibition, 1996).

20. Sylvia Plath, “Childless Woman,” Collected Poems, p. 259.

21. Sylvia Plath, “Brasilia,” manuscript drafts in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library; final version in Collected Poems, pp. 258-9.

22. Sylvia Plath, “For a Fatherless Son,” Collected Poems, pp. 205-6. In manuscript, the poem was titled “For a Deserted One” (Smith College Rare Books Archive).

23. Sylvia Plath, “Childless Woman,” Collected Poems, p. 259.

24. Sylvia Plath, “Amnesiac,” Collected Poems, pp. 232-3; manuscript versions, Smith College Rare Book Room.

25. Sylvia Plath, “The Fearful,” Collected Poems, p. 256.

26. Sylvia Plath, “Lesbos,” Collected Poems, pp. 227-30; a poem written about the same time, “The Tour,” has less vitriolic imagery, but it still writhes with irritation at superior women and their attitudes.

27. Sylvia Plath, “Three Women,” Collected Poems, pp. 176-87; individual quotations are not cited in notes. That spring Plath wrote to Olwyn that she was excited to be doing “longer stuff,” and happy to be back in her study, which she calls “my poultice, my balm, my absinthe” (undated, 1962, p. 1, Lilly Library, Indiana University).

28. Sandra M. Gilbert, “In Yeats’ House: The Death and Resurrection of Sylvia Plath,” Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath, ed. Linda W. Wagner, pp. 217-18.

29. Sylvia Plath, “The Munich Mannequins,” Collected Poems, pp. 262-3.

30. Sylvia Plath, “Totem,” Collected Poems, pp. 215-16.

31. Sylvia Plath, “Kindness,” Collected Poems, pp. 269-70.

32. Sylvia Plath, “Edge,” Collected Poems, pp. 272-3, and draft versions housed at Smith College Rare Books Archive. See Van Dyne, Revising Life, and Mazzaro, Postmodern American Poetry, p. 162.

33. Mary Kurtzman, “Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and Tarot,” Centennial Review, Summer 1988, pp. 286-95.

34. Sylvia Plath, “Three Women,” Collected Poems, p. 185.



Plath, Sylvia, The Collected Poems of Sylvia Plath, ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

———, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Frances McCullough. New York: Dial Press, 1982.

Extensive manuscript material and correspondence at both the Lilly Library, Indiana University, and the Rare Books Room, Smith College (the largest Plath archives), as well as University of Texas, The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Collection; Emory University Rare Books Room; the Houghton Library at Harvard University; and the Berg Collection, New York Public Library. The author’s own file of interview transcriptions, correspondence, and other materials date from 1982 to 1996.


Alexander, Paul, Rough Magic. New York: Viking, 1991.

Gilbert, Sandra M., “In Yeats’ House: The Death and Resurrection of Sylvia Plath,” Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath, ed. Linda W. Wagner, pp. 204-22.

Kurtzman, Mary, “Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and Tarot,” Centennial Review, 32 (Summer 1988), pp. 286-95.

Mazzaro, Jerome, “The Cycles of History: Sylvia Plath (1932-1963),” Post-modern American Poetry. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980, pp. 139-66.

Stevenson, Anne, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Van Dyne, Susan R., Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.


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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 to the basic conflict of the poem in observing that "In a single leap of feeling, it identifies sexual elation (in the full sense of the richest kind of encompassment of life) with its opposite, death's nothingness" (74). In fact, however, Plath is not conflating two opposing states of being; instead she is capering dangerously between metaphorical designs which seem to consume the poem from within. Obviously the movement of the poem is very powerful and very positive since the speaker proceeds from stillness and ignorance ("Stasis in darkness" [239]) toward light at a very rapid pace. The speaker moves with some potent force—a horse, a sexual partner, some aspect of herself—which compels her, and given the title and Plath's remarks concerning Auden, we can assume that this force must relate to some aspect of Plath's creative self. The speed of the journey is such that the earth "Splits and passes" before the speaker, and even those delicious and tempting enticements that come between the creator and her work are not enough to impede her; they may be "Black sweet blood mouthfuls," but the speaker of the poem consigns them to the category "Shadows," things which threaten the vision (light) and power of her creative surge.

The female force of the poem flies through air, and suddenly she begins to engage in that most essential of poetic acts—at least for the writers of Plath's generation; she removes those restrictions which threaten her gift. She tosses her clothing off like a rebellious Godiva and rides free, fast, unclothed, and fully herself toward her goal:

Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies. (239)

And she reaches a moment of apparent transcendence: "And now I Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas." Her epiphany is associated with traditionally female symbols. (We might make a connection between the wheat and Demeter, goddess of agriculture, or between wheat and the mother earth. The sea, moreover, certainly seems closely connected with female cycles and with the female symbol of the moon.) Her moment of triumph, moreover, is conveyed in verbs which may suggest—if sexuality is at all to be considered appropriate here—female rather than male sexuality. To foam and to glitter have arguably much more resonance when considered in terms of female orgasm than in terms of male orgasm. The energy of these verbs is great, but it is a more sonorous and sustained energy than a directed, explosive, and aimed burst. To make use of Luce Irigaray's paradigm, woman's sexuality and woman's pleasure are not "one" but "plural" because "woman has sex organs more or less everywhere" (28).

But now the speaker enters a different metaphorical paradigm. Her final "stringency" is removed, "The child's cry / / Melts in the wall," and she can become more powerful only by moving her fully exposed (naked) female self toward the power which she so covets, the power of light and heat and vision—the sun. To make this journey she must transform herself from wheat and water to something much more dangerous and traditionally powerful—an arrow. And here Plath is forced—by the desire of her speaker to assert herself, to move and fly—to appropriate an inappropriate figure for her speaker's flight: the speaker of "Ariel" becomes an arrow. She transforms herself into the most potent figure of the patriarchal symbolic order—the phallus. The arrow is clearly a figure Plath associates, somewhat resentfully, with masculine power. In The Bell Jar, Buddy Willard's mother tells him that a man is "an arrow into the future" and that a woman needs to be "the place the arrow shoots off from" (79). Esther's response to Buddy's reiteration of Mrs. Willard's platitudes is that she, Esther, wants to be that arrow: "I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself" (92). In "Ariel," Plath demonstrates the consequences for the female artist of such proud and self-affirming desires when these desires are couched in the only symbolic structures available to her.

While the speaker of the poem may call herself the arrow, while she might arrogantly lay claim to that title, she is still female, still the wheat and the water, still naked and exposed and vulnerable. It is important to note that once the speaker begins her flight, she is no longer the arrow; her femaleness has ineluctably reasserted itself. Inescapably female, she is

The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.

And dew must be consumed by the power of the sun. The speaker of the poem is fully aware that her urgent desire for the power she has arrogated for herself is destructive to her as a woman, for she refers quite deliberately to her journey as suicidal. What is perhaps most tragic about both the speaker of this poem and about Sylvia Plath as the creator of that speaker is that the impulse toward self-disclosure, the desire to move toward the eye/I of awareness, is destined to destroy both of them. In Western culture the unclothed female, whether it be the self-disclosing creator or the emblematic and naked female subject, can be a symbol only of vulnerability and victimization, even when the audience to the glorious and hopeful unveiling is the self.

Placing "Ariel" in a feminist context, Sandra Gilbert argues that the "Eye" toward which this poem moves is "the eye of the father, the patriarchal superego which destroys and devours with a single glance" ("Fine, White Flying Myth" 259). But such a reading, by ignoring the play on words of "eye" and "I," leaves unremarked a central ambiguity in the poem and underestimates Plath's commitment to her female subject and her wild and creative commitment to her own art. The speaking subject here is not just moving toward a powerful male entity, the sun; Plath's speaker is moving implosively toward herself as well, toward the eye/I that has become the center of her universe, the focus of her attention. The tragedy of Plath's work, however, is that she has conceived of this overwhelmingly omnipotent figure in the only metaphors available to her—those of the masculine poetic tradition. In this tradition, power is the sun/god, as Gilbert has observed, and to be fully revealed before him, to be naked before this God, is the most transcendently powerful act a human can perform. But when you are female, when you burn with your own sun and expose yourself confidently to that sun, you are consumed. Your body, your self, is still vulnerable. It will be destroyed. The most telling irony of the poem is that the masculine God of patriarchal discourse has been displaced here by the "I" which is the speaker herself. And the female speaker has become the phallic arrow which impels itself toward that sun. But such a journey into knowledge will prove deadly—because the language, the signifiers of that journey dictate that it must be so for the speaking subject who is still "dew," still female. Even when the father is replaced, his words speak for him, his language secures his position: the dew will be dispersed by the sun.

Clearly, the energies and anomalies of Plath's poetry can be related to her experiences as a poet who is also a woman. Sympathetic feminist critics, attempting to explain the tensions of a poem such as "Ariel," have seen Sylvia Plath as a victim of what Suzanne Juhasz calls "the double bind of the woman poet" (1): "Plath suffered in an extreme form from the woman artist's need to reconcile her two roles, woman and poet; from the necessity of living with what may seem her two selves" (88). Juhasz feels that Plath struggled in her poetry with this wrenching conflict but that she never resolved it, adding, "Her death … proves the impossibility of what she set out to do" (114). Paula Bennett refers as well to opposing forces in Plath's work when she asserts that Plath was troubled by "the conflict between the needs of her gender and the requirements of her genre" (My Life 99). While Bennett concludes that these internal conflicts finally destroyed Plath, Lynda Bundtzen, who also finds Plath's work indelibly marked by the tensions Plath felt as woman and writer, asserts that her best works represent a resolution of the conflicts she experienced between "her art and her life." Bundtzen goes on to observe that in her last poems Plath reimagines a world where she could live as a woman and an artist: "She translates social and psychological constraints on women into physical and sexual terms, so that we come to understand not only what it may feel like to live in a woman's body, but also how this affects her inventive freedom and control of the world around her" (42). Bundtzen's more positive readings notwithstanding, the overwhelming force of most such studies seems to fall with those who find Plath endlessly conflicted in her creativity.

Works Cited

Bennett, Paula. My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1990.

Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Women and Culture Ser. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1983.

Gilbert, Sandra M. "A Fine, White Flying Myth: The Life/Work of Sylvia Plath." Shakespeare's Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Ed. Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979. 245-60.

Juhasz, Suzanne. Naked and Fiery Forms: Modern American Poetry by Women, A New Tradition. New York: Harper, 1976.

Newman, Charles, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1970.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper, 1971.

——. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper, 1981.

——. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Frances McCullough and Ted Hughes. New York: Dial, 1982.

Rosenthal, M. L. "Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry." Newman 69-76.

The Bell Jar

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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 alienation and self-alienation leading to Esther's breakdown and suicide attempt. In the second half of the novel a pattern of symbolic rebirth is superimposed on a narrative which in its details suggests that Esther purchases her "new" self by the discontinuance of any relations that might threaten by means of intimacy or tenderness the boundaries of a self conceived as an autonomous entity, as a separate and "separative" self.

Contemporary feminist theory has questioned the validity of this model of the self. Catherine Keller, for example, has recently drawn on theology, philosophy, psychology (including the work of Nancy Chodorow and Carol Gilligan), and literature, to demonstrate in impressive detail the historic collusion between the notion of a separate subject or bounded, autonomous self and the cultural forces that have oppressed women.2The Bell Jar vividly illustrates that collusion by proposing, through its representation of Esther's recovery, an ideal of a self uncontaminated by others. But such a conception of the self denies the undeniable: the relationality of selfhood. The recovery which Plath constructs for her heroine reenacts the dismemberments obsessively imaged in the first half of the novel; I would argue that it merely leaves Esther prey to defining herself unwittingly and unwillingly in relation to all that remains to her: culturally-ingrained stereotypes of women. Critics for the most part seem to have brought to the novel the same assumptions about the self which inform Plath's book, assumptions deriving from a separative model of the self.3 Thus they have failed to recognize what the novel has to teach about the effects of our cultural commitment to that model.

In the first part of Plath's novel, both the commitment to the separative self and the effects of that commitment are woven into the text through the pervasive imagery of dismemberment. This imagery suggests Esther's alienation and fragmentation as well as a thwarted longing for relatedness with others and for a reconnection of dismembered part to whole. A signal example of this imagery is the image of a cadaver head which occurs on the first page of the novel:

I kept hearing about the Rosenbergs over the radio and at the office until I couldn't get them out of my mind. It was like the first time I saw a cadaver. For weeks afterward, the cadaver's head—or what there was left of it—floated up behind my eggs and bacon at breakfast.… I felt as though I was carrying that cadaver's head around with me on a string, like some black, noseless balloon stinking of vinegar.4

This image anticipates and comprehends the disembodied faces that Esther repeatedly encounters, faces always associated with the threat of the loss of self. She repeatedly confronts her own unrecognized or distorted image in the mirror, mistaken on one occasion for "a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman" (16), looking "like a sick Indian" (92) on another; a third time, in the hospital after her suicide attempt, she thinks she is looking at a picture of another person, unrecognizably male or female, "with their hair … shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head" (142). The faces of others hover over her or float in front of her eyes with startling frequency: the face of Buddy Willard hanging over her after her skiing accident, announcing with some satisfaction "'You'll be stuck in a cast for months'" (80); the face of Joan Gilling floating before her, bodiless and smiling, like the face of the Cheshire cat" (192), an image that comes to Esther immediately before she learns of Joan's suicide by hanging; on the next page her mother's face floating "to mind, a pale reproachful moon" (193).

It is possible that the precursor of these and other apparently disembodied heads is the head of the baby born in the traumatic episode in which Buddy Willard, a medical student, takes Esther into the delivery room to witness a birth. The episode, a flashback, is permeated with images of dismemberment: the stomach of the woman in labor sticks up so high that her face cannot be seen; the baby's head is the first thing to appear in the delivery, "a dark fuzzy thing" that emerges "through the split, shaven place between [the woman's legs], lurid with disinfectant" (53). The images of dismemberment seem to be linked as well to the image of "a baby pickled in laboratory jar" (10-11) which occurs at the end of the first chapter. If, as Jung has taught us, the baby is an archetypal symbol of the self in crisis, then the image of the pickled baby, along with the images of dismembered body parts, accurately conveys the nature of Esther's crisis: each of the various paths open to her will require that she dispense with, leave undeveloped, some important part of herself. Imagistically the novel makes this point through scenes like that in the delivery room where the emergence of the infant's head is accompanied by the "decapitation" of the mother.

Thus at the beginning of the novel, as Esther walks along the New York streets "wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves" (1), her musing is not merely a response to the electrocution of the Rosenbergs but to her own growing sense of alienation from the cultural demands and images of women with which she is daily bombarded during her guest editorship at Ladies' Day. These seem implicitly to reinforce the lessons of the preceding year, especially those of her relationship with Buddy Willard, suggesting that she must mutilate or deform herself through mating, marriage, and motherhood. It is not entirely surprising then that she begins to see the city as a collocation of dismembered body parts: "goggle-eyed headlines" stare up at her "on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway" (1). Her friend Doreen, too, is presented as such a collocation: "bright white hair standing out in a cotton candy fluff and blue eyes like transparent agate marbles, hard and polished and just about indestructible, and a mouth set in a sort of perpetual sneer" (4), "long, nicotine-yellow nails" (4) and the breasts which pop out of her dress later at Lenny's apartment (14). The dismembered animal parts that decorate that apartment—the white bearskins, the "antlers and buffalo horns and [the] stuffed rabbit head" with its "meek little grey muzzle and the stiff, jackrabbit ears" (12)—are tokens of the sexual hunt in which it is assumed all the young guest editors at Ladies' Day will gladly play their parts, oozing enthusiasm, like Betsy, about learning the latest way "to make an all purpose neckerchief out of mink tails" (23).

Feeling as "cut off" as these excised animal parts from the culture which expects her participation in this hunt, Esther is haunted by images suggesting the self-mutilations of marriage and motherhood. She recalls the way in which Buddy Willard's mother weaves a beautiful rug only to detroy its beauty in a matter of days by using it as a kitchen mat. The message is clear to Esther: "…

I knew that in spite of all the roses and the kisses … what [a man] secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for [the wife] to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen mat" (69). Her reaction against this form of mutilation is clear in her violent sensitivity upon her return home to the presence of Dodo Conway, a neighbor who had gone to Barnard and who is now pregnant with her seventh child. The vision of Dodo, "not five feet tall, with a grotesque, protruding stomach.…Her head tilted happily back, like a sparrow egg perched on a duck egg" (95), elicits from Esther the following reaction: "Children made me sick.… I couldn't see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to" (96).

Esther sees Dodo as a grotesque collection of unrelated and incompatible parts, a vision which we may read as a projection of her own sense of self. It is crucial to emphasize at this point in the argument, however, that the imagery of dismemberment in The Bell Jar does not simply communicate Esther's psychic disturbance or a set of feelings characterizing a certain point in her history; the imagery also implies a certain model of the self. Imagery focusing our attention on part-whole relations (or dis-relations) presupposes that the self is a bounded entity, something with separate and distinct existence and of which certain kinds of things may be said: it is a whole; it may have parts or members; if some of these parts or members are removed, then the entity is not whole; neither are the severed parts, from this perspective, wholes. The model of the self implied by the imagery of dismemberment, in short, coincides with the model of a bounded self, an autonomous subject, that has dominance in our culture.

The notion of a separate, bounded self of course corresponds to our sense of being locked into our own bodies, of being separate and distinct entities. But it is important to stress that the model of an autonomous bounded self does not represent the only way in which the self may be conceived, and according to some theorists it does not represent the most accurate way of conceiving selfhood. Catherine Keller compellingly argues for the possibility of a relational model of selfhood that does not preclude a sense of differentiated identity or imply, as some feminists have argued, submersion of the self in others. Based on the assumption that the self is constituted in and through relationships with others, the relational model rejects subject-object dualism (and the system of hierarchical oppositions in which it is embedded), and it recognizes the fluid, permeable boundaries of self.5 Conceived then not as an entity, but as a nexus of relations, the self might be imaged through metaphors of webs and linkages. Conceived not as a substance, but as a process, it might be imaged through metaphors of fluidity.

Or, conversely, a predominance of images of webs, linkages, process and fluidity, might imply an entirely different conception of the self from that informing The Bell Jar. That such metaphors are absent from Plath's novel suggests how thoroughly dominated by the separative model was the novelist's imagination. One image of linkage, of apparent significance because of its location in the last paragraph of the novel, is qualified by the paragraph which precedes it:

Pausing, for a brief breath, on the threshold I saw the silver-haired doctor … and the pocked, cadaverous face of Miss Huey, and eyes I thought I had recognized over white masks.

The eyes and the faces all turned themselves toward me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.


The reminder in the image of Miss Huey of the cadaver head which obsesses Esther, the recalled image of eyes floating over masks—there is little qualitative difference between the vision represented here and that at the beginning of the novel, though the narrator's tone may have changed. The magical thread does not so much provide a link to others constitutive of the self as it does a line to those who hold the power of release from daily confrontation with the self and its agonies.

Despite the ambiguities of the closing of The Bell Jar, critics have been surprisingly willing to accept that Esther is in some positive sense "reborn" even if her future is uncertain. In the final episode, when Esther readies herself to meet the board of doctors who will certify her release from the hospital, she behaves as if she is preparing for a bridegroom or a date; she checks her stocking seams, muttering to herself "Something old, something new.… But," she goes on, "I wasn't getting married. There ought, I thought, to be a ritual for being born twice—patched, retreaded, and approved for the road, I was trying to think of an appropriate one …' (199). Critics who have been willing to see a reborn Esther have generally done so without ever questioning the propriety of the reference to a "retread" job.6 Linda Wagner, for example, ignores this passage and concentrates on subsequent paragraphs, where the image of an "open door and Esther's ability to breathe are," Wagner writes, "surely positive images."7 Susan Coyle writes that the tire image "seems to be accurate, since the reader does not have a sense of [Esther] as a brand-new, unblemished tire but of one that has been painstakingly reworked, remade"; Coyle claims that Esther has taken steps that "however tentative, do lead her toward an authentic self that was previously impossible for her."8 Notonlydothecomments of Coyle and Wagner ignore the implication of choosing the tire image in the first place; they also miss an affinity of the passage with one I quoted earlier in which Esther views wifehood in terms of service as a kitchen mat. The tire, like a kitchen mat, presents us with a utilitarian object, easily repaired or replaced, as a metaphor for a woman. It is worth observing that a patched, retreaded tire may be ready for the road, but somewhere down the highway the owner can expect a flat. Now "flatten out" is exactly what Esther suspects—or had suspected—women do in marriage. Yet it is precisely for marriage that Esther seems confusedly to be preparing herself in the final episode as she straightens her seams. It is true that she withdraws her reference to marriage, but despite her disclaimer, it seems to me, a retread job can only be a travesty of rebirth.

The metaphor of rebirth or a second birth is thus especially suspicious because of the way in which the tire image obliquely forces us to associate Esther's new lease on life with role expectations that contributed to her breakdown in the first place: the domestic servitude that Esther painfully recognizes "as a dreary and wasted life for a girl with fifteen years of straight A's" (68). Although Esther's breakdown may have sources lying buried in the past along with her father, the novel makes it sufficiently clear that she is torn apart by the intolerable conflict between her wish to avoid domesticity, marriage and motherhood, on the one hand, and her inability to conceive of a viable future in which she avoids that fate, on the other.

Plath's inability to resolve that conflict in her own life is well known. In an essay entitled "Sylvia Plath's 'Sivvy' Poems: A Portrait of the Poet as a Daughter," Marjorie Perloff concludes:

The first shock of recognition produced by Sylvia Plath's 'independence' from her husband and her mother was the stimulus that gave rise to the Ariel poems. But given the 'psychic osmosis' between herself and Aurelia Plath … given the years of iron discipline during which Sylvia had been her mother's Sivvy, the touching assertion [in "Medusa"] that 'There is nothing between us' could only mean that now there would be nothing at all.9

Whatever the biographical validity of Perloff's argument, it may help us to define a pattern that has not been discerned in The Bell Jar. Esther's movement toward her breakdown entails a series of rejections of or separations from women who, though they may be associated with some stereotype of womanhood unacceptable to Esther, have nurtured some important aspect of her evolving identity; as I want to show, the supposed cure which she undergoes is actually a continuation of a pattern in which Esther severs relations precisely with those whose presence "in" her self has been constitutive. Such a series of rejections may dramatize a deluded notion that an autonomous and "authentic" self may be derived through purging the self of the influence of others, but there is good reason to suppose that the process actually means that little or nothing would remain to Esther, as means of modeling identity, except forms of womanhood offered to her by the very stereotypes she has sought to elude. The irony here is that in the attempt to avoid dismemberment, disfiguration or mutilation of the self, the heroine undergoes a process of self-dismemberment.

The novel provides another metaphor for the process I am describing in the repeated binge-and-purge episodes of the first portion of the novel. In chapter 2, Esther vicariously participates in Doreen's debauche with Lenny, then returns to the hotel and a bath of purification; the pattern is repeated when Doreen returns, to pass out in a pool of her own vomit. Chapter 4 presents another purgative cleansing; after gorging on caviar at a luncheon, Esther is leveled by food poisoning, an experience which makes her feel "purged and holy and ready for a new life" (39). Shortly after this purgation, she announces: "I'm starving" (40).

In somewhat a similar manner, I am arguing, Esther embraces relations with most of the women in the novel only to cast them off, as if they constituted a foreign presence within the purity of her own identity, some threat to her integrity. Doreen, for example, speaks to her with a voice "like a secret voice speaking straight out of [her] own bones" (6), but after the evening in Lenny's apartment, Esther decides to have nothing to do with her. A similar pattern is repeated with every female character in the novel, including Dr. Nolan, the psychiatrist who brings about Esther's recovery, and Esther's mother.

Esther's aversion from her mother is obvious, ascending in stridency from the mild understatement, "My own mother wasn't much help" (32) to the murderous fantasy inspired by sharing a room with her mother: one sleepless night, after staring at "the pin curls on her [mother's] head glittering like a row of little bayonets" (100), Esther comes to feel that the only way she can escape the annoying sound of her mother's faint snore "would be to take the column of skin and sinew from which it rose and twist it to silence between [her] hands" (101). Even though Esther at one point wishes that she had a mother like Jay Cee, the editor for whom she works at Ladies' Day, her ambivalence toward Jay Cee and other women who have nurtured her talents is profound—and it appears to derive, quite simply, from their supposed unattractiveness to men. Of Jay Cee, Esther says "… I liked her a lot.… [She] had brains, so her plug-ugly looks didn't seem to matter" (5); but sentences later, after admitting that she cannot imagine Jay Cee in bed with her husband, Esther changes her attitude abruptly: "Jay Cee wanted to teach me something, all the old ladies I ever knew wanted to teach me something, but I suddenly didn't think they had anything to teach me" (5). A similar reflection recurs near the end of the novel in a scene where the lesbian Joan Gilling lounges on Esther's bed in the asylum and Esther's revery seems to lump the unattractive, the manless, and the woman-loving together. She remembers:

… the famous woman poet at my college [who] lived with another woman—a stumpy old Classical scholar with a cropped Dutch cut. When I told the poet that I might well get married and have a pack of children someday, she stared at me in horror. "But what about your career?" she had cried.

My head ached. Why did I attract these weird old women? There was the famous poet, and Philomena Guinea, and Jay Cee, and the Christian Scientist lady, and lord knows who, and they all wanted to adopt me in some way, and, for the price of their care and influence, have me resemble them.


This passage focuses our attention on the immersion of Plath/Esther in what Adrienne Rich has called the "compulsory heterosexuality," the pervasive heterosexism, of our culture.10 It also reinforces our awareness that despite her intelligence, imagination and professional ambition, Esther's sense of identity as a woman is predicated on finding "the right man."

That Esther categorizes Jay Cee, Philomena Guinea, and the woman poet at college (who is never named)—along with the Christian Scientist lady whom she does not know—as weird old women who want to save her is a way of rejecting these women's very real contributions and potential contributions to her own evolving identity. The claim would seem to be at least partly a projection of her own desire to be saved from becoming like these women with whom she shares certain talents, capacities, and interests. I want to suggest that there may be a kind of psychic dismemberment signified by the separation of self thus from one's nurturers; denying their influence is like peeling off layers of her own self—or cutting off important members. It is especially important to notice in this regard that the point where Esther turns her back on Jay Cee coincides with the diminishment of her sense of competence, which becomes increasingly worse as the weeks pass in New York. In rejecting the "weird old women" who want to save her, she appears to become increasingly disempowered; that is, she appears to lose touch with the talents and skills that these women nurtured.

Esther's recovery involves a reinstitution of the problems that led to her breakdown. If, as I have already suggested, the reconstructed Esther is a retreaded tire doomed to go flat (and probably on the same highway that brought her to the asylum in the first place), that is partly because her cure perpetuates the disease. The recovery process of this heroine merely extends the series of separations from or rejections of others which seems to have played an important part in bringing about her breakdown.

By the closing pages of the novel, two meaningful relations with women are open to Esther, relations with her friend, Joan Gilling, and her psychiatrist, Dr. Nolan. The first of these relations is terminated decisively by the character's suicide, which renders irreversible Esther's prior rejection of that character. In the penultimate scene of the novel, Esther attends Joan's funeral, wondering, she tells us, "what I thought I was burying" and listening to the insistent "brag of [her own] heart"—"I am, I am, I am" (198-99). Since Esther springs to new life as Joan is buried, it would be difficult not to conclude that Plath is putting aside, burying, some unacceptable part of her heroine: Esther has even explicitly identified Joan as "the beaming double of my old best self" (167). Like the metaphor of a retread, however, this comment exemplifies "the uncertainty of tone" that, according to Rosellen Brown, "manages to trivialize … [the novel's] heavy freight of pain."11 If the passage hints Esther's awareness that her "old best self" is peculiarly vulnerable to disintegration precisely because of the intolerable psychic conflict produced by trying to meet cultural expectations of women, it also—to the extent that it is sarcastic—distances Esther from Joan and from the painful feelings that she shares with Joan.

Until the revelation that Joan is involved in a lesbian relationship, that young woman is associated with a potential for intimacy that seems more positive than negative. Joan replaces, as Esther's neighbor, Miss Norris, with whom Esther shares an hour of "close, sisterly silence" (156). Joan's intimacy with Dee Dee is associated with improving health (pace Vance Bourjaily, who writes that a "relapse" is indicated by Joan's "lesbian involvement"12—the novel simply contradicts this). Esther even feels free to curl up on Joan's bed on first encountering her at the asylum, though she admits to having known Joan at college only "at a cool distance" (160).

After discovering Joan with Dee Dee, however, Esther's treatment of Joan begins to be marked by a blatant cruelty, as when Esther tells Joan, "'I don't like you. You make me want to puke, if you want to know'" (180). A less explicit cruelty, implicating not merely the character Esther but the author Plath, pervades the scene where Joan seeks medical attention for Esther's hemorrhaging after Esther's encounter with Irwin. Esther/Plath clearly has one eye on humiliating Joan. Because Joan is allowed to surmise that the bleeding is some mysterious menstrual problem rather than connected to Esther's loss of virginity, she is made to look like a bumbler. She has difficulty explaining the problem clearly enough to get emergency aid, a problem which of course increases the danger to Esther, but a pun seems more important here than prompt medical assistance. When Joan asks about the man who has dropped Esther off, Esther says: "I realized that she honestly took my explanation at face value … and his appearance [was] a mere prick to her pleasure at my arrival." The oddity of her mentioning, in circumstances where every beat of her heart "pushed forth another gush of blood" (189), Joan's pleasure at her arrival is matched by what looks like a kind of desperation to hide from Joan the cause of the hemorrhaging.

The peculiarities of this scene create ambiguities about Esther's motives and suggest confusion on Plath's part. Still Plath's imagery hints at a causal link between Esther's hemorrhaging and Joan's death. Often described before this episode in terms of horse imagery, Joan is here described as a "myopic owl" (190) in an image that appears paradoxically to reveal what it intends to obscure: Joan's knowledge of the cause of Esther's suffering and the trauma of the rejection that Esther's suffering represents. Similarly, the structuring of the narrative implies a link between Joan's death and Esther's rebirth. Before she gets to the Emergency Room, Esther remembers "a worrisome course in the Victorian novel where woman after woman died, palely and nobly, in torrents of blood, after a difficult childbirth" (189). The birth that is brought about here, however, is not that of a strong new self but of an Esther who gives in to her fear of the love and nurturance of women—exemplified by Joan's role as nurse in this scene—an Esther who buries her capacity for identification with women and accepts the very stereotypes which have been the source of her pain.

As "the only purely imagined event in the book,"13 the inclusion of Joan's unexpected and unprepared for suicide immediately following this episode, is, as Paula Bennett has written, "necessitated not by the novel's plot, themes, or characters but by Plath's own emotional understanding of her text. Joan, the woman who loves other women and who, therefore, can pursue a career and independent life without benefit of man or marriage, must be disposed of if the demons that haunt Plath's/Esther's mind are to be exorcised as well.…"14 The nature of those demons may partly be implied by the descriptions of the lesbians in the novel: not only the "stumpy" old Classical scholar, already mentioned, but the "matronly-breasted senior, homely as a grandmother and a pious Religion major, and a tall, gawky freshman with a history of being deserted at an early hour in all sorts of ingenious ways by her blind dates" (179). Such images indicate the "weirdness," the unattractiveness, to Plath of any female behavior deviating from heterosexual, patriarchal norms: Esther says of Joan, "It was like observing a Martian, or a particularly warty toad" (179).

It seems a kind of narrative reaction to these images that in the episode following those in which they occur, Esther has herself fitted with a diaphragm. So compelling is the logic of her desire to avoid pregnancy that we do not feel spurred to ask why she would at this point want to have anything to do with a man in the first place. But it should be noted that her encounters with men have been nearly devastating: her father deserts her by dying when she is very young; much more recently in the novel, she is knocked down in the mud, mauled, practically raped by a man who marks her face with blood; in another, a flashback to an occasion where she ends up inspecting Buddy Willard's genitals, all she can think of is "turkey neck and turkey gizzards" (55). The man she sets out to seduce (Constantin) falls asleep un-aroused by her, and the male psychiatrist to whom she turns for help practically electrocutes her. This pattern of pain and disappointment is merely confirmed by her experience with Irwin, who creates for her, in deflowering her, a possibly life-threatening medical emergency.

It is a sad irony that precisely at the point in The Bell Jar where the action seems to call for at least a temporary turning away from men or from seeing herself in relation to male sexuality, if only to provide for some period of reflection and healing on Esther's part, the novel turns more decisively than ever away from women and toward men. Critics have not, however, generally recognized this irony; the typical reaction has been to accept at face value that the purchase of a diaphragm is an important step in the direction of independence. While contraconception surely frees Esther from fears which no women should have to suffer, my argument is that we need to question the validity of the notion of independence offered through this episode.

In killing off Joan, Plath cancels for Esther the possibility of tenderness—outside the relatively impersonal therapeutic relationship—clearly symbolized by Joan's lesbianism. That possibility is named by Dr. Nolan, the only character in the novel treated with unambiguous respect. When Esther asks this psychiatrist "What does a women see in a woman that she can't see in a man," Dr. Nolan replies with one definitive, authoritative word: "Tenderness" (179). Plath dramatizes both the yearning for tenderness in Esther and the way in which Esther is cut off from that yearning, but there seems to be little authorial awareness of the disjunction. The novel presents the possibility of tenderness between women in a story Esther recounts about two "suspected" lesbians at her college: "'Milly was sitting on the chair and Theodora was lying on the bed, and Milly was stroking Theodora's hair'" (180). An image of this sort of caress occurs at another point in the novel, significantly in connection with a male who is probably a homosexual.15 When Constantin, the simultaneous interpreter whom Esther fails to seduce in New York, reaches out at the end of the evening to touch her hair she feels "a little electric shock" and tells us: "Ever since I was small I loved feeling somebody comb my hair. It made me go all sleepy and peaceful" (70). This touch is arguably the only tenderness Esther experiences in the novel, yet her response to the similar contact between Milly and Theodora is this: "I was disappointed.… I wondered if all women did with women was lie and hug" (180).

In her aversion to Joan, Esther denies what the text nonetheless reveals: the possibility of a healing "tenderness" and "weirdness" that the relation of Joan and Dee Dee represents. As we have seen, this denial is authorially endorsed by Plath's invention of Joan's suicide. Suggesting that Joan represents Esther's "suicidal self" or—more exotically but no more helpfully—"the inverted Victorian side of Esther," critics with a Freudian orientation have linked Esther's recovery to a splitting off of an unacceptable portion of the self dramatized by Joan's suicide.16 While a splitting off undoubtedly occurs, the nature of what is split off is ultimately ambiguous. Furthermore, splitting off appears to be a major symptom of the disorder from which Esther suffers. The novel dramatizes a tragic self-dismemberment in which the heroine, because of her very strengths and aspirations, appears to split off those components of herself that represent patriarchally-defined expectations of women, projecting these aspects of herself on her mother, her grandmother, Dodo Conway, Mrs. Willard, and the young women who are guest editors with her at Ladies' Day, especially Doreen and Betsy. Although she consciously rejects the influence of these others, she must still unconsciously be dominated by the patriarchal images of womanhood that she rejects; otherwise she would not need also to split off those qualities and impulses in herself that do not meet patriarchal expectations—all that goes counter to conventional femininity and is therefore "weird." These she projects upon Jay Cee, Philomena Guinea, the unnamed famous poet at her college, and finally Joan. Her systematic rejection of these leaves her quite possibly "with nothing" in the same sense that, as Perloff argues, Plath was left with nothing after rejecting the beliefs she inherited from her mother.

Dr. Nolan appears to play a special role in Esther's "cure," but several reservations about that role ought to be made. Combining the attributes of patriarchally-defined femininity and professional accomplishment, Dr. Nolan is set forth by some readers as an ideal role model for Esther, but the last thirty years have taught us to question this sort of image which can merely compound the oppression of women by leading them to assume expectations traditionally held of men as well as those held of women: Plath herself provides a highly visible example of the tragic consequences of uncritically embracing this model which encourages the belief that women can "have it all." Furthermore, the novel leaves ambiguous the extent of Nolan's contribution to the recovery. Although the trust she engenders in Esther undoubtedly counts for a great deal, the electroshock therapy and the psychic dismemberment involved in the process appear to get equal if not more credit for Esther's improvement. Finally, whatever the depth of Esther's indebtedness to Dr. Nolan, the relationship appears to be largely terminated by Esther's release from the hospital.

Thus, at the end of the novel, far from having moved in the direction of an "authentic self," Esther has been systematically separated from the very means by which such a self might be constituted: relationships with others. Her high heels and "red wool suit flamboyant as [her] plans" (199) clearly signal a renewed and energized willingness to enter the sexual hunt that so dispirited her during her summer in New York. Esther's seeming preparation to reenter the hunt for "the right man" is accompanied by the strong suggestion that the right man is one with whom she may avoid emotional attachment. (Esther says gleefully, after realizing that Irwin's voice on the phone means nothing to her and that he has no way of getting in touch with her again, "I was perfectly free" [198].) In other words, Esther's identity, the boundary of her self, has been secured by her isolation.

The Bell Jar makes apparent the oppressive force (at least for women) of the model of separative selfhood which dominates patriarchal culture. The novel dramatizes a double bind for women in which, on the one hand, an authentic self is one that is presumed to be autonomous and whole, entire to itself and clearly bounded, and yet in which, on the other hand, women have their identity primarily through relationship to a man. It is the increasing tension of this double bind for Esther which results in her breakdown; her release from the asylum, I have argued, is marked by a restoration of the double bind at a different and tolerable level of tension. The experiences of both Esther and Joan suggest that escape is not possible through conscious rejection of the expectation that a woman find herself in a man; in my reading, Plath's novel hints that the expectation is, in that instance, likely to be heeded at a more deeply unconscious level. (This would be a possible explanation of Joan's unexpected suicide, and the idea is supported by the imagery of the closing episode as I have analyzed it.) Yet the other alternative, to reject the model of separative selfhood and embrace a relational model, involves—in the cultural context portrayed by Plath—the restoration of the traditional plight of women: subservience to or submersion in others.

The way out of the dilemma is a relational conception of selfhood in a world of non-oppressive, non-hierarchical relations. But we do not live in such a world (yet), and our culture offers few means of imaging non-oppressive, non-hierarchical relationality. It is in signaling the paucity of such means, the unavailability of such images at least to someone like Plath but by extension to many women in our culture, that The Bell Jar has special importance. Images of lateral relationships among women, i.e. images of female friendship, provide one means, but as I have argued, Plath seems compelled in this novel eventually to reject all such images. In this context, the introduction of Joan specifically as a lesbian becomes very important. Joan's lesbianism and suicide appear to belong to a small number of "invented" features of the novel. That Plath rejects Joan by killing her off is a sign of the novelist's domination by the cultural norms that, I believe, destroyed her; that she created Joan as a lesbian in the first place, however, especially in a novel so dominated by autobiographical fact, might plausibly be viewed as a last desperate imaginative reaching toward some viable image of non-hierarchical relationality. Having rejected all the other woman-woman relationships available to her from her experience, Plath turns finally to invention, which—controlled by stereotype as it is—proves no more successful than autobiographical fact.

It is important for feminist critics to discern such emancipatory impulses or gestures wherever they occur in women's writing. We need to bring them into focus and to assess where they succeed and the conditions of their success or failure. But I would suggest that critics are less than well-equipped to undertake such work if they remain uncritical of their own discourse, for example, the way in which it is permeated with terminology implying that the self is an autonomous, bounded entity. Paula Bennett, who rightly calls the ending of The Bell Jar "unbearably factitious," provides an example of such terminology when she writes that "… Plath herself seems to have gained little from her experience at the psychiatric hospital. She returned to Smith … hollow and uninte-grated at her core."17 Bennett's language here ("hollow," "core"), founded as it is upon the dichotomy of inner and outer, implies subject-object dualism and all the patriarchally-freighted oppositions that it brings in its wake. It is difficult to write about the self in our culture without making use of terms implying the very dualisms on which patriarchy is founded. Yet if we cannot entirely dispense with such terminology—and I do not believe that we very well can—we can be aware of its metaphoric nature and of the assumptions that it covers.

When we become aware of the limits of our metaphors for selfhood, we become more attuned to those employed by the writers we study. Only when such awareness is brought to bear upon The Bell Jar, for instance, do we become fully appreciative of the way in which the novel dramatizes the destructive effects of a commitment to the separative model of the self. When such awareness is brought to bear upon the writing of women less tragically constricted than Plath by stereotypes of women, it may enable us to discern alternative metaphors and images for the self, the very means by which the dominant model of the self in our culture may be transformed into one conducive to the validation of women.


  1. Paula Bennett, My Life a Loaded Gun: Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics (Boston: Beacon, 1986), p. 124.
  2. Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self (Boston: Beacon, 1987). The term "separative self" is taken from Keller, p. 9; also see p. 26. The groundwork for feminist questioning of models of the self is provided in Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) and Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982). Also relevant is Mary Beth Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger and Jill Mattuck Tarrule, Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1986).
  3. The only critic I am aware of who has raised a question about the consequences of Plath's commitment to the bounded, individualistic ego is Joyce Carol Oates in "The Death Throes of Romanticism," in Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath, ed. Paul Alexander (New York: Harper, 1985), pp. 26-45. The poet Louise Glück has alluded to an obsession with boundaries in Plath; see "Invitation and Exclusion," Antaeus, 47 (Autumn 1982), 154.

    It is interesting that Paula Bennett, whose reading of the novel corresponds to mine in many details, claims that for Plath "the only way to life was through fusion and the consequent erasure of the separate self" (115, emphasis added). The separative impulse that I trace in this essay and the longing for fusion, Bennett's concern in the passage quoted, appear to be two aspects—two alternating consequences—of the model of the self I am calling the separative model. The relational model sketched in Keller's book relieves the self of oscillation between such poles.

  4. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Harper, 1971), p. 1. Subsequent references to Plath's novel with be cited parenthetically in the text.
  5. This is Keller's thesis; see, for example, 2-4, 153-54.
  6. Two treatments of the novel by critics skeptical about Esther's recovery are Bennett's chapter on the novel in My Life a Loaded Gun and Lynda K. Bundzen, Plath's Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983), pp. 109-56.
  7. Linda W. Wagner, "Plath's Bell Jar as Female Bildungsroman," Women's Studies, 12 (1986), 64.
  8. Susan Coyle, "Images of Madness and Retrieval: An Exploration of Metaphor in The Bell Jar," Studies in American Fiction, 12 (1984), 171.
  9. Marjorie Perloff, "Sylvia Plath's 'Sivvy' Poems: A Portrait of the Poet as Daughter," in Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry, ed. Gary Lane (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979), p. 175.
  10. See Adrienne Rich, "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence" in Blood, Bread and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985 (New York: Norton, 1986), pp. 23-75.
  11. Rosellen Brown, "Keeping the Self at Bay," in Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath, ed. Paul Alexander (New York: Harper, 1985), p. 122.
  12. Vance Bourjaily, "Victoria Lucas and Elly Higginbottom," in Ariel Ascending, ed. Paul Alexander (New York: Harper, 1985), p. 138.
  13. Edward Butscher, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (New York: Seabury, 1976), p. 342. Quoted by Bennett, p. 130.
  14. Bennett, p. 130.
  15. Bourjaily, p. 149.
  16. Christopher Bollas and Murray M. Schwartz, "The Absence at the Center: Sylvia Plath and Suicide," Sylvia Plath: New Views on the Poetry, ed. Gary Lane (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 200; Gordon Lameyer, "The Double in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar," Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work, ed. Edward Butscher (New York: Dodd, 1977), p. 159.
  17. Bennett, p. 132, p. 131. My point is not to fault Bennett's terminology but to suggest that we be aware of the implications of the metaphors we use in our criticism. Both Wagner and Coyle use language implying the separative model of selfhood in contexts that demand closer scrutiny of such metaphors than does Bennett's argument.

Further Reading

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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 Plath, London: Viking, 1989, 413 p.

A comprehensive account of Plath's life and literary career.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987, 282 p.

Biography of Plath providing access to previously unseen journals and letters.


Alexander, Paul, ed. Ariel Ascending: Writings about Sylvia Plath, New York: Harper and Row, 1985, 217 p.

A collection of criticism on Plath's life and writing, including essays by Helen Vendler, Alicia Ostriker, Joyce Carol Oates, Rosellen Brown, and others.

Axelrod, Stephen Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words, Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990, 257 p.

Provides criticism through the means of "a biography of the imagination."

Bentley, Paul. "'Hitler's Familiar Spirits': Negative Dialectics in Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy' and Ted Hughes's 'Hawk Roosting'." Critical Survey 12, no. 3 (2000): 27-38.

Addresses Plath's use of Holocaust imagery in "Daddy" and compares the poem to Hughes's "Hawk Roosting," another poem that is often interpreted as a commentary on events in World War II.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath, Method and Madness, New York: Seabury Press, 1976, 388 p.

A critical and biographical study of Plath's writings and her life.

Curley, Maureen. "Plath's 'Lady Lazarus'." Explicator 59, no. 4 (summer 2001): 213-14.

Maintains that "Lady Lazarus" serves as a poetic commentary on the difficulties faced by female artists and also contends that the poem plays upon a second biblical character named Lazarus in addition to the well-known figure that Jesus returned to life.

Dahlke, Laura Johnson. "Plath's 'Lady Lazarus'." Explicator 60, no. 4 (summer 2002): 50-2.

Asserts that the speaker's conflict in "Lady Lazarus" with the Herr Doktor character represents a struggle against male dominance that ultimately ends in defeat, despite the defiant closing lines of the poem.

Hedley, Jane. "Sylvia Plath's Ekphrastic Poetry." Raritan 20, no. 4 (spring 2001): 37-73.

Focuses on Plath's poems that concern visual works of art.

Kendall, Tim. Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study, London: Faber and Faber, 2001, 235 p.

Book-length study of Plath that emphasizes her writing rather than the biographical details of her life.

Oates, Joyce Carol. "The Death Throes of Romanticism." Southern Review, 9, no. 3 (summer 1973): 501-22.

Identifies Plath as part of the Romantic tradition in literature, seeing her poetry as a representation of outmoded ideas that identify the human condition as one of isolated competition.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992, 288 p.

Psychoanalytic study examining Plath's life and work, focusing on feminism in relation to her writing, among other topics.

Van Dyne, Susan R. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poems. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993, 206 p.

A feminist examination of many of the poems in Ariel, focusing on the processes of their writing and revision.

Vendler, Helen. "Sylvia Plath: Reconstructing the Colossus." In Coming of Age as a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath, pp. 115-54. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Examines the poem "Edge" in an effort to defend Plath's work against charges that it lacked vision and suffered from contradictions.

Wagner, Erica. Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2001, 256 p.

Critical study presenting analysis of Plath's poetry and life through a study of Ted Hughes' poetry.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, 171 p.

Examines the process by which Plath developed herself as a writer, including analysis of her early reading and writing habits.

Wagner, Linda W. "Plath's The Bell Jar as Female Bildungsroman." Women's Studies 12, no. 1 (1986): 55-68.

Maintains that The Bell Jar fits into the tradition of youthful coming-of-age novels, though it also stands apart because the protagonist is female.

Zivley, Sherry Lutz. "Sylvia Plath's Transformations of Modern Paintings." College Literature 29, no. 3 (summer 2002): 35-56.

Analyzes Plath's poems that were inspired by paintings by Henri Rosseau, Paul Klee, and others.


Additional coverage Plath's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 1; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 34, 101; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 9, 11, 14, 17, 50, 51, 62, 111; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 6, 152; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Exploring Poetry; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 1; Poetry Criticism, Vols. 1, 37; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 15; Poets: American and British; Reference Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 96; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; and World Poets.

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Plath, Sylvia (Poetry Criticism)


Plath, Sylvia (Vol. 1)

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