Sylvia Plath

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Wendy Martin (essay date 1973)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2660

SOURCE: "'God's Lioness'—Sylvia Plath, Her Prose and Poetry," in Women's Studies, Vol. 1, 1973, pp. 191-8.

[In the following essay, Martin provides both a brief overview of The Bell Jar and examples of Plath's poetry to illustrate the autobiographic and social context of her work. Challenging the "negative and even hostile judgment of Plath's politics" levelled by some critics, Martin extols Plath's talent and influence as "one of the leading American women poets since Emily Dickinson."]

In recent years, cultists have enshrined Sylvia Plath as a martyr while critics have denounced her as a shrew. Plath's devotees maintain that she was the victim of a sexist society, her suicide a response to the oppression of women, and her poetry a choreography of female wounds. Conversely, critics such as Elizabeth Hardwick and Irving Howe complain of her "fascination with hurt and damage and fury." Hardwick can't understand how Plath could persist in her bitterness toward her father years after his death and implies that it was sadistic, or, at best, self-indulgent, to publish The Bell Jar.

Echoing Hardwick, Howe accuses Plath of not "caring" or even being "aware of anyone but herself" and asserts that her poetry is "unmodulated and asocial." Complaining that in "none of the essays devoted to praising Sylvia Plath, have I found a coherent statement as to the nature, let alone the value, of her vision," Howe also dismisses Plath's work. This negative and even hostile judgment of Plath's politics obscures the fact that she is one of the most important American women poets since Emily Dickinson; therefore, it is imperative that her work receive attention which is unbiased by sentimentality or authoritarianism.

Born on 27 October 1932 in Boston, Sylvia Plath grew up near the sea in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Her father, a professor of biology at Boston University and author of a respected treatise on bumble bees, died when she was eight; her mother who had been a graduate student in German when she married Otto Plath, taught medical secretarial training at Boston University in order to support the family.

Plath was awarded a scholarship to Smith College where she wrote fiction and prize-winning poetry; as a winner of the Mademoiselle College Board Contest, she spent a month in the summer of 1953 in New York City as a guest editor. Later that same summer, she became acutely depressed and attempted suicide. After receiving extensive psychiatric treatment as well as shock therapy, she returned to Smith and graduated summa cum laude in 1955. Sylvia was then awarded a fellowship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she met Ted Hughes, also a poet, in February 1956 and married him in June, a few months before her twenty-fifth birthday.

Sylvia and Ted moved to the United States in the summer of 1957; she taught at Smith College for a year but decided to give up teaching because it took too much time for her poetry writing. The Hughes then moved to Boston where Sylvia audited Robert Lowell's poetry classes with George Starbuck and Anne Sexton. In December 1959 Sylvia and Ted returned to England and their first child was born in April 1960; she continued to write, alternating the baby-sitting with Ted. During this time, she began writing her novel, had a miscarriage, an appendectomy, and became pregnant again; her second child was born in January 1962 shortly after their move to Devon. The following year, Sylvia decided to move to London with the children; Ted remained in Devon. When The Bell Jar was published in January 1963 under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, she was hard at work on her Ariel poems. One month later on 11 February 1963 during the coldest winter in London since 1813–14, Sylvia Plath killed herself; she was thirty-one years old.

What is striking about Sylvia Plath's biography is that she was an accomplished writer, wife, and mother; she even described herself as a "triple-threat woman." Friends describe her as energetic, efficient, and cheerful and often express surprise or are shocked by the isolation, confusion, searing pain and anger in The Colossus (1960), Ariel (1965), Crossing the Water (1971), and Winter Trees (1972), her four volumes of poetry.

Apparently, Sylvia Plath played her social role so convincingly that few guessed at the intensity of her despair, but her novel, which is largely autobiographical, illuminates the sense of isolation conveyed by her poetry. In spite of the fact that The Bell Jar has been on the national best-seller list for over a year, it has received very little serious critical attention; this critical lapse is especially surprising in view of the fact that it is an extraordinary first novel paralleling F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise or Hemingway's In Our Time.

Not since Kate Chopin's The Awakening or Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps has there been an American novel which so effectively depicts the life of an intelligent and sensitive woman eager to participate in the larger world, who approaches experience with what amounts to a deep hunger, only to discover that there is no place for her as a fully functioning being. Like Chopin's Edna Pontellier and McCarthy's Margaret Sargent, Esther Greenwood struggles to develop the strength to survive in a world where women are alienated from themselves as well as each other (it is this alienation that Doris Lessing explores in The Golden Notebook which was published in 1962).

The Bell Jar chronicles Esther Greenwood's rite de passage from girlhood to womanhood, and explores such subjects as sexual initiation and childbirth which are, for the most part, taboo in women's fiction. Superficially, Esther Greenwood appears to be the 1950's model college girl, but she feels claustrophobic in the world of ladies' luncheons and fashion shows which she must attend as guest editor for a magazine in New York City.

Esther expects more from life than free complexion and hair care advice and would rather be in a bar than a beauty salon. But her nightclub experiences with her glamorous friend Doreen and disc jockey Lenny Shepard serve only to teach her that in order to live outside the ladies' luncheon circuit, a woman must attract an escort in order to experience the larger world. Sickened by this parasitic femininity, she resolves to get by on her own; she wants to see life for herself: "If there was a road accident or a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory jar for me to look at, I'd stop and look so hard I never forgot it."

On her return to Boston, her mother informs her that she hasn't been accepted to a writing program that was important to her, and she resigns herself to writing her thesis while living at home. At this point, Esther's world begins to fall apart; she has rejected the passive femininity of Doreen, but the other women in her life fail to provide her with viable alternative life-styles. Her mother advises her to learn shorthand, but Esther is determined to dictate her own letters. Her resolutions notwithstanding, there are no outlets for her enormous energy and potentially constructive aggression; she turns this energy inward, becomes morbidly depressed, and tries to kill herself.

The "stale and sour" climate of Esther's inner world reflects the stifling conditions of her external life: the bell jar is a symbol for the internal chaos and despair produced by excessive external prohibitions. Ironically, there are carefully detailed rituals and traditions regulating virginity and defloration in Esther's world, but there were insufficient guide-posts for intellectual development and creative accomplishment. There was no one in Esther's world to help her break out of her confinement—her boyfriend Buddy demands that she remain a virgin but insists that a poem is a "piece of dust."

Life outside the academy leaves Esther with the choice of being an adjunct to a man and mother to a "big cowy family," or a pioneer in uncharted social and emotional territory. Esther's fear and anxiety get the best of her, and it takes extensive therapy to enable her to emerge "patched, retreaded and approved for the road." When she is finally able to rejoice in pure being, "I am, I am, I am," the external world is still threatening, but at least she is her "own woman," and this hard-won independence enables her to withstand the taunts of people like Buddy: "But who will marry you now?"

In spite of the often grim events of The Bell Jar, the novel is frequently humorous: at the elegant luncheon given by wealthy Philomena Guinea, Esther drinks the contents of the fingerbowl, cherry blossoms and all, assuming that it was Japanese after-dinner soup; about to receive her first kiss, she positions herself while her date gets a "good footing on the soil," but does not close her eyes. Plath's narration of Esther's gaffs is brilliant, and her skill provides ample evidence of her commitment to fiction. In an interview with Peter Orr for the British council in October 1962, Plath commented that, unlike poetry, fiction permitted her to luxuriate in details; she also said that she viewed The Bell Jar as her apprentice effort and planned to write another novel. In the same interview, she stated that she composed her poems to be read aloud and admitted that The Colossus privately bored her because the poems in that volume were not composed for oral presentation.

To hear Sylvia Plath read her own poetry is truly a thrilling experience: her voice was full-bodied, vibrant, and authoritative. Her voice creates the impression that she was not hysterical, timid, or easily subdued. Hearing her read makes it obvious that being a poet was central to her existence—"The actual experience of writing a poem is a magnificent one," she once said, and the immense vitality of her reading underscores the energy of her poems.

Savage anger and bitterness frequently spring from Plath's poems: "Lady Lazarus," "The Applicant," "Daddy," "The Beast," "Zookeeper's Wife," "Magi" are monuments to her rage. "I made a model of you,… A man in black with a Meinkampf look … And I said I do, I do…. So daddy, I'm finally through"; "Daddy" turns on retribution; yet it expresses the release of immense energy that occurs with the decision to break away from emotionally damaging relationships. In An American Dream, Norman Mailer experiences the same release when he kills his wife Deborah and metaphorically as well as literally breaks away from her domination: "… and crack the door flew open and the wire tore in her throat, and I was through the door, hatred passing from me in wave after wave, illness as well, rot and pestilence, nausea, a bleak string of salts. I was floating."

Male writers are permitted to articulate their aggression, however violent or hostile; women writers are supposed to pretend that they are never angry. Sylvia Plath refuses to honor this concept of feminine decorum and dares to express her negative emotions. "Beware … Beware … Out of the ash … I rise with my red hair … And I eat men like air" ("Lady Lazarus"). Plath chooses to be true to her experience and to her art rather than to the traditional norms of feminine experience.

Plath's anger gives her strength to face her demons: "Nightly now I flog apes wolves bears sheep … Over the iron stile. And still don't sleep." ("Zookeeper's Wife"). But if Plath's poetry is often an exorcism, an effort to stave off madness, it also modulates longing and fear: "I am inhabited by a cry … Nightly it flaps out … Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing … That sleeps in me." ("Elm").

Critics frequently point out Plath's love/hate for her father, but they rarely mention her mother. This is a major over-sight because the loss of mother-love haunts Plath's poetry and is the basic cause of her profound despair: "Mother, you are the one mouth … I would be tongue to" ("Who"); "The mother of mouths didn't love me" ("Maenad"); "Mother of beetles, only unclench your hand" ("Witch Burning").

Born under the sign of Scorpio, Plath speaks of the "motherly pulse of the sea" in an essay entitled "Ocean 1212-W," and here she again laments her abandonment: "Hugging my grudge, ugly and prickly, a sad sea urchin … I saw the separateness of everything. I felt the wall of my skin: I am I. The stone is a stone. My beautiful fusion with the things of this world was over."

Plath was two and a half years old when her brother was born, and like many sensitive children of that age, she felt replaced by her brother and rejected by her mother. Her father's death when she was eight undoubtedly aggravated her already acute sense of loss. The working through of Oedipal and sibling conflicts in Plath's writing is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her diary, "I used to think of him (her father) and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back to me sometimes, but differently. I believe this to be true—that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act."

In addition to childhood losses, the conflict between domestic and artistic interests, and the lack of financial security as well as health problems undoubtedly left Sylvia Plath extremely vulnerable to depression and suicidal impulses. Lacking favorable or at least serious critical response to her work must have been difficult and painful. Certainly interviews which described her as an "attractive young suburban matron … in a neat oatmeal colored suit of wool jersey … a living realization of every young college girl's dream" must have been discouraging.

One of Plath's last works "Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices," which appears in Winter Trees, is set in a maternity ward and seems to celebrate, in part, fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood along with acceptance, or perhaps resignation, to a women's domestic identity. It concludes, "I am a wife … The city waits and aches. The little grasses … Crack through Stone, and they are green with life." Again, Plath echoes Virginia Woolf; "And now with some pleasure I find that it is seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down." Shortly after this 8 March 1941 entry, Virginia Woolf weighted with stones, walked into a tributary of the Thames to drown.

Like Woolf, Plath made desperate efforts to balance on the "razor edge" of the opposing forces of life and death. Kali-like, Sylvia Plath's poetry embodies the profound interrelationship of destruction and creation. Whether or not she could have moved toward a strong affirmation of life as did Anne Sexton in Live or Die is a question her readers will never be able to answer.

A. Alvarez in his memoir of Sylvia Plath argues that she was by nature a risk-taker and that her suicide was her last gamble: "Having worked out the odds were in her favor, but perhaps, in her depression, not much caring whether she won or lost. Her calculations went wrong and she lost." Alvarez points out that Plath left the doctor's number near her, that the au pair girl was due to arrive early in the morning, that the man who lived below was an early riser. Plath could not have realized that the gas that suffocated her would sedate him so heavily that he didn't hear the frantic knocking of the au pair girl or that this delay would cost her her life. Yet, the moment she decided to turn on the gas jet, an irrevocable chain of events occurred which caused the "jet blood" of poetry to stop forever.

Sylvia Plath was one of the first American women writers to refuse to conceal or disguise her true emotions; in articulating her aggression, hostility, and despair in her art, she effectively challenged the traditional literary prioritization of female experience. In addition to being a novelist and poet, she was a pioneer and pathfinder.


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Sylvia Plath 1932–1963

(Also wrote under pseudonym Victoria Lucas) American poet, short story writer, diarist, radio dramatist, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Plath's career through 1996. See also Sylvia Plath Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 9, 14, 17, 111.

Sylvia Plath is renowned as one of the most powerful American poets of the postwar period. Her acclaimed poetry and prose are characterized by intense self-consciousness, accusatory despair, and disquieting expressions of futility and frustration. A complicated literary personality whose biography is nearly impossible to disentangle from her writing, Plath is frequently 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 vivid and often shocking verse reveals the psychological torment associated with feelings of alienation, inadequacy, and abandonment. Her semi-autobiographic novel The Bell Jar (1963) and highly charged verse in The Colossus (1960) and Ariel (1965) won widespread critical appreciation and continue to attract scholarly analysis. The posthumous publication of her poetry in The Collected Poems (1981) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Since her tragic death, Plath has inspired a generation of women writers and feminist critics as a leading voice against female subordination and passivity in modern society. A poet of remarkable force and ability, Plath exerted an indelible influence on American literature as a self-possessed visionary and casualty of her art.

Biographical Information

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Plath was the eldest child of Aurelia and Otto Emil, a German-born professor at Boston University who authored a notable treatise on bumblebees. An undiagnosed diabetic, Otto died in 1940 after complications resulting from surgery to amputate his leg. Upon her husband's death, Aurelia secured a teaching position at Boston University where she trained medical secretaries. Shaken by the loss of her father, Plath took an early interest in creative writing and began to publish poetry and short fiction in various magazines, including Seventeen and the Christian Science Monitor. A precocious and highly mo-tivated student, Plath attended Smith College on a scholarship beginning in 1950. There she continued to win academic distinctions and was selected in 1953 to serve as a student editor for Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. During the same year, she lapsed into an episode of severe depression, culminating in a suicide attempt for which she was hospitalized and treated with electroshock therapy. Under psychiatric care, Plath returned to Smith College the following year, completed an honors thesis on Fedor Dostoevsky's fiction, and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English in 1955. The next fall Plath set off for Cambridge, England, to attend Newnham College on a Fulbright Scholarship. While overseas, she met poet Ted Hughes, whom she married in June of 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 worked briefly as a medical secretary at a Massachusetts psychiatric clinic. Plath attended a poetry workshop with Robert Lowell at Boston University in 1958 and spent several months at the Yaddo writing colony in New York the following summer. In 1959 Plath and Hughes returned to England where she gave birth to their first child, Frieda Rebecca. Plath published The Colossus, her first book of poetry, in October of 1960. After recovering from a miscarriage and appendectomy in 1961, Plath was awarded a Eugene F. Saxon fellowship and began work on The Bell Jar, which appeared in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Several months after the birth of their second child, Nicholas Farrar, in 1962, Plath and Hughes separated as a result of Hughes's infidelities. After a failed reconciliation, Plath moved to a London apartment with her two children where she became increasingly depressed and despondent, although it was at this time that she produced some of her finest poetry. Her sense of isolation was exacerbated by an unusually harsh winter, nagging illnesses, and the strain of single parenthood. In February of 1963, Plath took her own life by inhaling gas from her kitchen stove. Several posthumous volumes of Plath's poetry appeared over the next two decades, including Crossing the Water (1971), Winter Trees (1971), and the Pulitzer prize-winning The Collected Poems—all compiled under the editorship of Hughes. Further biographical information concerning Plath's life appeared in Letters Home (1975), a volume of Plath's personal correspondence published by Aurelia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977), a collection of Plath's prose writings and diary excerpts, and The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1983).

Major Works

Plath's poetry and fiction are well-known for their intensity and ubiquitous incorporation of personal detail. The Bell Jar, Plath's only novel, is perhaps the most explicitly autobiographical, as it recounts events surrounding Plath's internship with Mademoiselle and subsequent nervous breakdown. The protagonist is Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old college student whose intellectual talents and professional ambitions are frustrated by disillusionment and mental collapse following a summer in New York City as an intern for a woman's magazine. While in Manhattan, Esther quickly becomes dissatisfied with her superficial work as a fashion writer and struggles to develop her self-identity in opposition to conventional female roles. After strained encounters with several men, including one who physically abuses her, she throws her clothes into the street from the top of her apartment building and returns home, where she falls into a deep depression and eventually attempts suicide. While hospitalized, Esther is subjected to traumatic electroshock therapy, though, in the care of a benevolent female doctor, later recovers enough to return to school under the ominous threat of another, more severe, breakdown. As in much of her poetry, Plath evinces a morbid fascination with death and a strong aversion to the prospect of a stifling domestic existence as a subservient housewife and mother. Esther's disappointing social and sexual experiences also reveal the frustration and humiliation endured by women whose intelligence and abilities are disregarded in both the office and home. Plath's first volume of poetry, The Colossus, similarly displays an overriding preoccupation with estrangement, motherhood, and fragmentation in contemporary society. More formal than her later work, the poems of The Colossus reveal Plath's mastery of conventional forms, though bear the distinct influence of her association with confessional poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. Much of Plath's rage is directed against her father, whom she invokes as both a muse and target of scorn. While in the title poem Plath refers to him as an "oracle" and "mouthpiece of the dead," in "Electra on Azalea Path," she rails against his premature death and her own lost innocence. Likewise, "The Beekeeper's Daughter," one of many so-called "Bee" poems, alludes to her father and his expertise on the subject of bumblebees. Plath's concern with childbirth is evident in "Metaphors," a cryptic description of gestation introduced as "a riddle in nine syllables," and in "Poem for a Birthday," a series of five separate poems that explore the relationship between artistic creation and the maternal condition. The imagery of fetuses, pregnancy, and creation appear in much of Plath's poetry, especially as a foil for the opposite extreme of the life cycle—death, particularly the looming prospect of self-annihilation. Five months before her suicide, Plath composed the bulk of the poems in Ariel, her most famous volume of poetry, which contains "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy," her best known and most anthologized poems. More so than in The Colossus, the poems of Ariel render isolation and insecurity as menacing threats with gruesome consequences. Through a synthesis of brutal self-revelation and macabre associations, including disconcerting references to Nazis and the Holocaust, Plath conjures historical and mythic allusions to give depth and immediacy to her psychic distress. Plath also uses color symbolism and archetypal imagery to juxtapose opposing aspects of nature and existence, as in "Tulips" and the title poem, "Ariel," where red and white alternately represent blood, life, death, and rebirth. Other poems, such as "Cut" and "Fever 103°," describe physical afflictions with a combination of clinical objectivity and surrealism that evokes a sense of disorientation and violent self-abnegation. On the theme of marriage and domesticity, "The Applicant" reveals the callous objectification of women as obedient wives whose value is determined by their household utility. As in much of her poetry, the appearance of wild spontaneity and free association belies the subtlety of internal metaphors, lyrical rhythms, and tonal complexity painstakingly formulated to dramatize the terrifying experience of raw, desublimated human fears and desires.

Critical Reception

Plath is widely praised for her technical accomplishment and stark insight into severe psychological disintegration and existential anxiety. Despite her early death, critics continue to marvel at her rapid artistic development over a brief period of only several years. The contents of The Colossus and Ariel, along with additional compositions from Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, represent Plath's principal body of work, upon which her reputation as a poet rests. With the posthumous publication of The Collected Poems, Plath won renewed critical approval and gained an even larger following. As many critics note, her poetry exhibits an appealing irony, wit, and consistency in its recurring leitmotifs and colloquial symbols, particularly involving bees, infants, wombs, flowers, mirrors, corpses, the moon, and the sea. While Plath is commonly associated with the confessional poets, primarily Lowell and Sexton, the influence of Theodore Roethke is also apparent in her use of intuitive word associations, near rhymes, and Freudian childhood memories. Plath's poetry is typically criticized for its histrionic display of emotion, excessive self-absorption, inaccessible personal allusions, and nihilistic obsession with death. In addition, some critics object to references to the Holocaust in her later poetry, which, in the context of Plath's private anguish, are viewed as gratuitous and inappropriate. However, most agree that Plath's best poetry converts personal experience and ordinary affairs into the mythopoetic. Her only novel, The Bell Jar, is also regarded as a classic of modern American literature, drawing favorable comparison to J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Though later adopted as a heroine and martyr of the feminist movement, Plath's persistent efforts to deconstruct and recreate her self-identity in the transcendent language of metaphor and archetype remains among her greatest achievements. A gifted and much admired literary figure who has assumed cult-like celebrity since her death, Plath is considered among the most influential and important American poets of the twentieth century.

R. J. Spendal (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: "Sylvia Plath's 'Cut,'" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 6, 1975, pp. 128-34.

[In the following essay, Spendal discusses the significance of color symbolism, historical reference, and Plath's use of physical ailment as a metaphor for psychological injury in the poem "Cut."]

In several of her poems Sylvia Plath turns familiar bodily ills into metaphors of psychic affliction. Work like "The Eye-mote," "Fever 103°," "Paralytic," and "Amnesiac" are only incidentally concerned with the pathological states suggested by their titles. The ostensible problem in each case is a figure for a more subtle and profound malady, a disturbance of the will to live. This is also the strategy in "Cut," one of the most memorable and carefully crafted of the Ariel poems. On the literal level Plath's subject is a cut thumb; figuratively, it is the deeper disunity of a mind divided in its attitude toward death.

The vehicle for this psychological concern is the speaker's uncertain response to her injury. The initial reaction is a sort of manic exuberance which moves her to extol the cut as "a thrill." Subsequently, pain and nausea prompt a more sober statement: "I am ill." To emphasize the disparity between these moods Plath divides the poem into two equal parts. The "thrill" section extends through the first five stanzas, the "ill" section through the last five. The mathematical neatness of this arrangement is reinforced by links between corresponding stanzas in each section. The end-words "thrill," "onion," and "gone" in stanza one are matched by the end-words "on," "ill," and "kill" in stanza six; "skin" in two by "thin" in seven; "heart" in four by the same word in nine; "run" and "one" in five by "jump" and "stump" in ten. There appear to be no such links between stanzas three and eight. A tenuous parallel of another sort involves the etymology of "wattle," which Plath uses in stanza three in the phrase "turkey wattle." The word derives from the Old English watel, cognate with waetla, a bandage for a wound, and in stanza eight the speaker applies a bandage to her thumb. A more substantial connection rests on the appearance in each stanza of a similar conflict. The lines "Little pilgrim, / The Indian's axed your scalp" in stanza three depict the hostility between white man and red man. The phrase "Gauze Ku Klux Klan / Babushka," used in stanza eight to describe the bandage, suggests another struggle between white and red. The Klan is associated with white supremacy and white robes, while "Babushka," a Russian word, is a reminder of "Red" in the sense of a Communist. The phrase implies not only the Cold War rivalry between the USA and the USSR, but also the narrower, more intense hostility between the KKK and all things un-American.

Anyone who has experienced a sudden, severe cut will acknowledge the truth of the speaker's movement from fascination to distress. Yet verisimilitude is here only a means to an end: it conveys a related, more profound movement in which death is first celebrated (section one) and then rejected (section two). This deeper theme is articulated primarily at the level of imagery. Among the swiftly unfolding and brilliantly interrelated figures of section one are: a metaphoric death in which the thumb, imaged as a pilgrim, is "scalped" (II. 9-10); a pilgrim-Indian-turkey figure suggesting Thanks-giving (9-11); a red carpet of blood (11-14); a bottle of pink antiseptic which becomes champagne for a "celebration" (15-17); and a Redcoat metaphor recalling the War of Independence (18-20). This figurative sequence begins with a death and goes on to convey a sense of feverish jubilation. Death looms as a VIP for whom one rolls out the red carpet, and when the speaker herself steps on it (14) we are aware that the prospect of dying has come to dominate her thoughts. The advent of Death becomes an occasion of thanksgiving and is heralded with champagne and merriment. He promises release, a new state of freedom from what Plath in "Ariel" calls the "Dead hands, dead stringencies" of life.

A small but important detail here is the reference to antiseptic, indicating that the speaker has not wholly given over the will to live. The impulse to die is strong and clearly dominant, but it is not uncontested. In a similar way section two will depict, at least initially, a qualified repudiation of death, with the speaker's hesitancy appearing most clearly in her pejorative characterization of the bandage, a salubrious measure, as a "Gauze Ku Klux Klan / Babushka." The complexity of response here is supported by Plath's ambiguous use of white and red throughout the poem. White has conventional associations with death, as in the phrase "Dead white" (7); the color is implicit in the references to onion (2), pilgrim (9), paper (26), gauze (30), and the KKK (30). Red, the color of blood and life, appears in "red plush" (8) and "Redcoats" (20) and is implied by the references to Indian (10), turkey wattle (11), pink fizz (16), and babushka (31). Plath uses white and red as irreconcilable opposites in "Lesbos" when the speaker, referring to her child, says: "Why she is schizophrenic, / Her face red and white, a panic" (10-11). However, in "Cut" the color symbolism, like the speaker's state of mind, is not constant. The white gauze dressing conserves life, while Indians, Redcoats, and Communists are, from an American standpoint, inimical to life.

With section two a general reversal is evident in the speaker's outlook. Addressing the "Redcoats" of her blood as they rush from the wound, she wonders: "Whose side are they on?" (21). As an American living in England Plath might well be confused in her allegiance, but the real point here is the perception that death (loss of blood) may be a perfidious benefactor. This suspicion dominates the imagery of section two where, for the most part, the figures of section one are reversed. Thus the pilgrim-thumb, slain earlier, is resurrected here as a "Homunculus" (23). The homunculus was an alchemically created man, a sort of primitive test tube baby produced from a recipe of human semen, horse manure, and blood. Its appearance here indicates that a life impulse has unaccountably taken shape where before death held sway. And the metaphor serves other purposes as well. For complete development the homunculus required a daily feeding of human blood; thus the hurt thumb has now become the locus for incoming rather than outgoing blood. In section one blood was always escaping, as in lines 11-13 and 18-20. This deathly exodus is reversed in section two, first by the homunculus and later in the phrase "balled / Pulp of your heart" (33-34), which suggests a life-preserving consolidation of the heart's strength and contrasts especially with the flat "carpet" of blood that "rolls" / Straight from the heart" in section one. It may also be significant that in the most complete formula for the creation of a homunculus, that by Paracelsus (1493–1541), the key time periods are based on the number forty: forty days for gestation, forty weeks for nurture. "Cut" has forty lines, indicating perhaps that the resurgence of the speaker's will to live derives from the marvelous transformation of a baser, more sordid impulse toward suicide. (The homunculus itself issued from dung.) Plath often arranges the length of her works to suit thematic ends. The twenty chapters of The Bell Jar support Esther's escape from madness at age twenty. Interestingly, the speaker in "Cut" escapes the pull of death at line twenty.

The speaker's renewed interest in life is further suggested by her statement: "I have taken a pill to kill / The thin / Papery feeling" (24-26). This "slaying" pointedly contrasts with the scalping of the pilgrim-thumb in section one. That killing loosened the speaker's hold on life, this undoes death itself. In Plath's verse paper is part of an image-group based on flatness as a symbol of sterility and death. Paper signifies a severely atrophied, dangerously thin life state, a condition very near extinction. The speaker has been attracted by such a state for twenty lines, but now she takes steps to "kill" it. This action, together with the subsequent dressing of the wound (29-32), ensures the continued existence of the vitality symbolized by the homunculus. Death makes a final assault, only to suffer defeat, in the following passage, which is based on an extension of the paper metaphor: "… and when / The balled / Pulp of your heart / Confronts its small / Mill of silence / How you jump—" (32-37). The homunculus (now mature?) refuses to let its heart fail and instead leaps back toward life. The heart will remain compact and rounded instead of becoming papery thin in the "Mill" of death. "Pulp," derived from the Latin for "flesh," will not be processed into paper, since the speaker has already tried to eradicate her "Papery feeling." The motive for this crucial "jump" is unexpressed, but the speaker's espousal of life seems instinctive. We might recall that in "Tulips" another persona, half in love with easeful death, is hauled unwillingly back toward health by an irrepressible life force symbolized by the flowers. (In many ways "Tulips" is the double of "Cut": both poems have a binary structure, a red and white color pattern, and a concern with the opposing claims of death and life.)

The movement away from death also accounts for the description of the thumb as a "Saboteur" (27) and a "Kamikaze" (28). No longer celebrated as a thrill, the hurt is now disparaged for having been a subverter of the speaker's will to live and an inducement to suicide. These references are part of Plath's broadest strategy for conveying the speaker's new mood, a strategy involving the disposition of the poem's martial imagery. This imagery is related to the war between death and life in the speaker's mind, but it also depicts a change of mood. Plath manages this by having the military figures in section one move forward in time and those in section two move backward. The progression from pilgrims and Indians to the War of Independence in section one is a movement from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. But the sequence from saboteur to Kamikaze to KKK to Communism in section two moves in reverse. Saboteur suggests the Cold War intrigue of the 1950's; Kamikaze is a reference to World War II; the Klan reached its peak in the 1920's; and "Babushka" recalls the Russian Revolution of 1917. The point of this carefully arranged time-reversal is that it shows the speaker backing out of her earlier celebration of death. The same idea is conveyed in a like manner by another figurative sequence, the largest continuous metaphor in section two, that involving paper. This figure moves from "thin / Papery feeling" (25-26) to "Pulp" (34) to "Mill" (36) to "stump" (40), exactly reversing the process by which paper is produced. The normal order would be: tree, mill, pulp, paper. Section two thus depicts paper, i.e., death, in the process of being decreated. Its influence begins to wane with the sudden advent of the homunculus (2), the life force which inexplicably issues from death.

The final three lines of the poem present a concluding sequence of figures in which the thumb is addressed as: "Trepanned veteran, / Dirty girl, / Thumb stump" (38-40). With this incantatory series of three figures the exorcism of death is completed. Like the earlier paper sequence, these metaphors are arranged regressively. A scarred veteran is a hardened soldier, a successful killer. A girl is significantly less threatening because of her sex, age, and smaller size; and a stump is smaller still, with even less capacity for harm. The sequence thus depicts a gradual diminishment in size and power, a progressive erosion of threat. We see that the thumb as a lure to self-violence has lost its potency and become harmless, simply a "Thumb stump." Concomitantly, the speaker's imagination is reined back to life and reality as it abandons metaphor in favor of literal truth. The hurt thumb is only figuratively a soldier with a head wound, but the phrase "Dirty girl" is half true: we know that the gauze dressing is stained and tarnished (29-32). Finally, the last line may be read as wholly true and literal, since the primary meaning of "stump," according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is "the part remaining of an amputated or broken-off limb or portion of the body." The truth, which the speaker now admits, is that her thumb is simply an incomplete but living member of her hand. Plath's strategy here is not without literary precedent. In Chaucer's Book of the Duchess (c. 1369), for example, the excessive and debilitating grief of the Black Knight cannot be assuaged until he drops all metaphorical references to the death of his lady and admits simply: "She ys ded!" As the speaker in "Cut" comes back to the weight of primary noon she too regains a measure of inner stability and calm. No longer is she, either physically or emotionally, "ill."

Surprisingly, "Cut" has been faulted by a respected critic for its "structural incoherence," and even sympathetic readers are uncertain about the formal integrity of Plath's torrent of metaphors. Robert Boyers, for example, defends the poem's seeming lack of design by arguing that it "works out its meanings on a level that wholly transcends simple logic." My analysis has shown, I hope, that such a strained defense is unnecessary. Closely read, the poem is both logical and coherent. In "Cut" Plath rigorously orders structure and imagery to present a psychological drama: the displacement of an impulse toward suicide by the renewed claims of life.

Principal Works

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The Colossus (poetry) 1960
Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (radio drama) 1962
The Bell Jar [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 (short stories, prose, and diary entries) 1977
The Collected Poems (poetry) 1981
The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962 (diaries) 1983
Selected Poems (poetry) 1985

Jeannine Dobbs (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: "'Viciousness in the Kitchen': Sylvia Plath's Domestic Poetry," in Modern Language Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1977, pp. 11-25.

[In the following essay, Dobbs examines allusions to marriage and motherhood in Plath's poetry. According to Dobbs, the hostile and often violent imagery in such pieces reflects Plath's strong resistance to the prospect of domestic entrapment as a wife and mother.]

      There's a hex on the cradle
      and death in the pot.

For Sylvia Plath, domesticity is an ultimate concern. Like Erica Jong, Tillie Olsen, Marge Piercy and many other contemporary women writers Plath frequently explores what it means to be a woman in terms of the traditional conflict between family and career. Plath's life and her writing are filled with anxiety and despair over her refusal to choose and instead to try to have—what most males consider their birth-right—both. It is apparent from her life and letters that her commitment to writing was total and unwavering and that her commitment to domesticity, especially motherhood, was ambivalent. Paradoxically, it is out of her domestic relationships and experiences, which she came to feel were stifling, even killing her that the majority of her most powerful, most successful work was created.

Many Plath poems are concerned at one level or another with suffering: with sickness, injury, torture, madness, death. Titles alone, of many Plath poems, reveal this: "Cut," for example, and "Fever 103°," "Paralytic," "Contusion," "Thalidomide," "Amnesiac," "Witch Burning." This seems not surprising in that Plath's life and the lives of those close to her contained more than an average share of illness and loss. There were the amputation of her father's leg and his subsequent death when she was seven; her mother's chronic ulcer; her grandmother's death; her own breakdown and institutionalization, chronic sinus condition, broken leg, miscarriage, appendectomy; her real life Buddy Willard's bout with TB and confinement to a sanitarium. In addition, her visit with Buddy Willard to Boston-Lying-In hospital where she viewed medical students dissecting cadavers, fetuses in bottles, and childbirth, provided a traumatic extension to her more immediate experiences. What is more interesting than the fact that her work reflects pain and suffering, however, is the fact that she sometimes portrays physical and mental pain as retribution for doing or being bad and that her poetry so frequently contains images that associate physical and mental suffering and also effacement—a kind of living death—, as well as death itself, with domestic relationships and/or domestic roles.

Several incidents in The Bell Jar illustrate Plath's linking of suffering and sin. Bad-girl Doreen flaunts her sexuality (and perhaps, in Esther Greenwood's eyes, does worse) and gets drunk-sick. Buddy Willard's TB is seen as retribution for his boasted infidelity with a waitress. Esther wonders what bad thing she has done to deserve electric shock. She views her broken leg as paying herself back for being bad—that is, for refusing to marry Buddy Willard. In Plath's work in general, not only are other people the objects of vengeance—her parents, her suitors, her husband and in later poems his mistress—but she herself is an object of her own vengeance. The idea of revenge of the self by the self is, of course, masochistic. But the linking of suffering and sin provides her with powerful, original images and diction when she deals with areas of life about which she had complex, ambivalent attitudes, such as marriage and especially motherhood.

Plath's letters to her mother and her novel both make it explicitly clear that Plath was confused and frustrated by the necessity of defining herself as a woman. In 1949, at age seventeen, she wrote: "I am afraid of getting married. Spare me from cooking three meals a day—spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote. I want to be free…." She felt "bewildered," two years later, by an extended stint as a sleep-in nursemaid and spoke of the job as "slavery." "Learning of the limitations of a woman's sphere," she wrote, "is no fun at all." And at twenty, a student at Smith, she insisted: "Graduate school and travel abroad are not going to be stymied by any squealing, breastfed brats." By the time she reached the University at Cambridge, however, her attitude had changed. She began to see motherhood as a chance for "extending my experience of life," and to fear that if she did not marry she would become one of "the weird old women," "the bluestocking grotesques," she saw as alternatives. Shortly before she met Ted Hughes in Cambridge in the winter of 1956, her letters reveal that she was ripe for marriage: "I don't know how I can bear to go back to the states unless I am married…. I really think I would do anything to stay here."

In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood mirrors Plath's ambivalence, alternating between insisting she'll marry and have a parcel of kids and exclaiming: "If I had a baby to wait on all day, I would go mad." But one of the ironies of the novel is the fact that the reader knows from the beginning of the book that Esther will have a baby. Discussing the gifts she received during her month in New York as guest editor of a slick woman's magazine, she remarks: "I use the lipsticks now and then, and last week I cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses for the baby to play with." Society assumes a woman will marry. Esther is besieged by the influences that propagate the myth that the be-all and end-all of a woman's existence is a husband, a house, and a handful of kids. After Esther's release from the mental hospital, Buddy's final words to her are: "I wonder who you'll marry now … you've been here." Not to marry and give up other aspirations and be content, is to go against society's expectations, to be bad, to commit a kind of sin.

Writing to her mother from Smith, Plath agonized over "which to choose?"—meaning, work or pleasure? career or marriage? The central metaphor of The Bell Jar, the fig tree, is Plath's literary portrayal of this dilemma. Each fig represents an option, a future: to be a famous poet, an editor or the like, or to be a wife and mother. Each is mutually exclusive and only one can be picked. As Esther (very much an extension of her creator here) hesitates, debating with herself, "the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at her feet." Rejection of any option was difficult because something in her wanted it all. "I'll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days," Esther says. In her own life, Plath tried for the compromise. There were times, her letters and the remembrances of her family and friends reveal, that domestic life alone seemed to fulfill her. She was a perfectionist at housekeeping as she had always been at her college work and at writing. At times she reveled in being "cowlike" and maternal. Then, writing pot-boilers for "soppy women's magazines and cooking and sewing" were her highest ambitions. At times, too, she felt that "children seem[ed] an impetus to [her serious] writing." But a resentment against them, against their demands on her time, their drain on her creativity, is evident too. Pleasure, resentment, guilt. Ambivalence. Plath's work suggests that the attempt to resolve these feelings failed. Her suicide may have been, to some degree, a final acting out of her belief in punishment, vengeance, of the self on the self, for this failure.

Plath's use of images and diction depicting suffering in relationship to female roles and domestic experience expressed in The Bell Jar and her late poetry are foreshadowed in several poems in her first book of poetry, The Colossus (1960). Many of the poems in this volume were written after her marriage; some were written during her first pregnancy. (Her daughter was born in April of 1960). Poems in The Colossus that deal with male/female relationships or motherhood are primarily dark, fearful poems.

"The Manor Garden," the initial poem in The Colossus, was written in the fall of 1959. It begins by creating an apprehensive, foreboding tone that dominates the poem: "The fountains are dry and the roses over./ Incense of death. Your day approaches." Here are death in the midst of birth; the external, natural world at odds with the internal, human one. Only momentarily does a correspondence, a harmony, occur between the natural and the maternal: "The pears fatten like little buddhas" as the fetus evolves and the womb fills. But negative images (wolves and hard stars, a spider and worms) outweigh the positive ones (pears, fishes, a bee's wing, heather). The poem's prophecy is for "a difficult borning."

Not apprehension but real revulsion to motherhood is expressed in "Sow." Written earlier than "The Manor Garden," the poem "Sow" is a portrait of a Brobdingnagian hog not yet "hedged by a litter of feat-footed ninnies / Shrilling her hulk / To halt for a swig at the pink teats," but a monstrous maiden pig awaiting a "boar fabulous enough to straddle her heat." In action, this comic, this grotesque sow consumes the world. Exaggeration is one dimension of Plath's vision. The sow is one of her colossal figures. Although the sow is ridiculous, she is frightening. For Plath, she represents the destiny of the adult female—the Dodo Conways of the human world, a breed not about to become extinct.

"I Want, I Want" is a more difficult poem than "Sow," but it seems to describe the terrible, insatiable demands of the "baby-god" who "cried out for the mother's dug." Its two final lines, "Barbs on the crown of gilded wire / Thorns on the bloody rose stem" vaguely suggest the crucifixion and set up a parallel between it and childbirth which Plath develops more extensively in later poems.

Another Colossus poem, "Moonrise," uses exceedingly ominous imagery and allusions to Christ's death in relation to pregnancy:

      Berries redden. A body of whiteness
      Rots, and smells of rot under its headstone
      Though the body walk out in clean linen.
      Death whitens in the egg and out of it.

The poem concludes with an address to Lucina, the goddess of childbirth, whom Plath transforms into a Woman in the Moon. The moon, traditionally connected with the female cycle of menstruation, represents the negation of pregnancy. And the child of the labor Plath describes is an "ancient father," "white-bearded, weary," a figure resembling Father Time or perhaps Father Death, rather than a child. Thus, the birth or the anticipation of that experience includes its antithesis. The horror here matches any created in the last Ariel poems.

The first four of the five separate poems that make up "Poem for a Birthday" also center around domestic situations. The speaker's pregnancy is the subject of the first two poems ("Who" and "Dark House") and is alluded to in the third ("Maenad"). In the fourth ("The Beast"), the marital situation is described and the speaker's disillusionment with it: "I've married a cupboard of rubbish / … I housekeep in Time's gut-end."

The familial portraits presented in these four poems are, even for Plath, particularly grotesque. The fetus is described as "All mouth who licks up the bushes / And the pots of meat. / … He's to blame" ("Dark House"). And the husband, although "he was bullman earlier / King of my dish, my lucky animal," becomes "Mumblepaws," "Fido Littlesoul, the bowel's familiar" ("The Beast"). In "Who," he is "Dogsbody"; in "Maenad," he is "Dog-head, devourer."

In the sections of "Poem for a Birthday" that deal with pregnancy, there is the unlikely linking of birth not with death but with madness. A loss of identity, a sense of insignificance and smallness, are portrayed as common to both experiences. In "Who," the speaker begs, "Let me sit in the flowerpot / The spiders won't notice." She is "a root, a stone, an owl pellet." She reveals that "for weeks I can remember nothing at all." In "Maenad," she begs. "Tell me my name." In "The Stones," she is "a still pebble"; and she becomes one with the fetus:

     I entered
     The stomach of indifference
     Drunk as a fetus
     I suck at the paps of darkness

All in all, these early poems, written around the time of Plath's first pregnancy and personally selected for publication in her first collection, reveal degrees of mental stress over the maternal condition. Motherhood may be something monstrous, as the child may be. Signs attending birth are not propitious. There is a confusion over the meaning of the event reminiscent of the attitude of Eliot's magi.

The Colossus also introduces one of Plath's single women. "The Spinster," written in the year of her marriage, describes a woman who renounces the disorder that romance brings into her life. Romance is symbolized in this poem by the fertility which spring promises, "the rank wilderness of fern and flower." The "lover's gesture imbalances the air." The spinster rejects "this tumult" and adopts instead the "frosty discipline" of winter:

     And round her house she set
     Such a barricade of barb and check
     Against mutinous weather
     As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
     With curse, fist, threat
     Or love either.

In addition to disorder, there is a violence in love that threatens the spinster, that victimizes her.

Some early but uncollected poems also explore the experience of the woman rejecting or attempting to reject the man. In "The Snowman on the Moor" (written near the end of 1956 and published in Poetry: July, 1957), Plath investigates more closely the spinster's choice. In "The Snowman," a man and a woman have had an argument and the woman flees. Escape, however, is not really what she wants. "Come find me," she cries. But "he did not come." Clearly it is pursuit that the woman wants: "police and hounds to bring her in." She wants the demonstration on the man's part of his desire for her, a sign of his submission. The second part of the poem shows how the woman is subjugated instead. She is subjugated not by a figure of passion but by "a grislythewed / Austere, corpse-white / Giant" who is "sky high." "Snow / Floured his beard." This colossus represents the wintry world into which she has fled—the spinster's world of "frosty discipline."

     o she felt
     No love in his eye,
     Worse—saw dangling from that spike-studded belt
     Ladies' shaved skulls:
     Mournfully the dry tongues clacked their guilt:
     "Our wit made fools
     Of kings, unmanned kings' sons: our masteries
     Amused court halls:
     For that brag, we barnacle these iron thighs."

The women already conquered by the cold giant are, significantly, witty women. They exist as heads: women without bodies, without hair. Their wit threatened men—it unmanned them. In turn, the women themselves were punished—they lost their femininity, their sexuality. This vision is of the frigid, truncated world of the woman alone, the world without love. Although the giant does not succeed in adding the speaker's head to his collection and, in fact, disintegrated—"crumbled to smoke"—when she "shied sideways," he does win. The fleeing girl is subdued by her vision of the alternative to the embattled state in which she and the man live:

     Humbled then, and crying
     The girl bent homeward, brimful of gentle talk
     And mild obeying.

The giant is male because males rule the woman's world, her choices. The man to whom the woman humbly returns rules her real world. The giant who personifies the executioner—the punisher of women who rebel—rules her imaginary world of women unsubjugated and, therefore, unloved by men. The vision in which no alternative is tenable becomes more and more Plath's way of seeing the world.

"Pursuit" is a similar, early, uncollected poem (Atlantic: January, 1957), the first poem Plath wrote after meeting Ted Hughes. Its speaker is a woman who cannot transcend her own physical nature and who has intense and ambivalent feelings about her desire to do so. Like the woman in "The Snowman," she flees from a man because he is capable of hurting her. However, because of his strength and her weakness, she knows she will succumb. The woman is the victim not only of the male but of her own sexuality as well. She is pursued by a panther, a creature which embodies in the poem both the idea of the ravaging male and the woman's own desire.

    Keen the rending teeth and sweet
    The singeing fury of his fur;
    His kisses parch, each paw's a briar,
    Doom consummates that appetite.

Here the beast represents the man, whose lovemaking both wounds and pleases. The assurance between "teeth" and "sweet" helps emphasize the paradox. The woman is aware what her fate will be if she succumbs, because like the giant snowman the panther has previously victimized other women:

    In the wake of this fierce cat,
    Kindled like torches for his joy,
    Charred and ravened women lie.

Soon, however, the woman admits her own desires: "His ardor snares me, lights the trees, / And I run flaring in my skin." Finally she is overcome by her awareness of the beast in herself. She recognizes her own lust as well as the cruel brilliance of his: "Appalled by secret want, I rush / From such assault of radiance." Such intensity and such awareness frighten the woman, and she wants to repress them. She bolts the doors. Nevertheless as the poem concludes, the woman knows: "The panther's tread is on the stairs / Coming up and up the stairs."

Women dominated. Women manipulated. Women subjugated. Plath continued to turn the subject this way and that. She seems to see these conditions as inevitable. She writes in The Bell Jar: "I knew that in spite of all the roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showered on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen mat." Men train their wives to serve. In a poem describing an ocean voyage entitled "On Deck" (Crossing the Water), she observes:

      And the white-haired jeweler from Denmark is carving
      A perfectly faceted wife to wait
      On him hand and foot, quiet as a diamond.

Women fear men, they run from them; but they want to be caught. Women seem to need to be dominated, domineered; perhaps they love it:

     Every woman adores a Fascist,
     The boot in the face, the brute
     Brute heart of a brute like you.
                                     —"Daddy" (Ariel)

Still the resentment, the rebellion bubble up. To be married is to be in purdah, in plaster, in jail.

Plath sees a bride as a woman upon whom a certain kind of seclusion is forced, a woman in "Purdah" (Winter Trees). The bride sees herself become a private possession to be enjoyed by her owner at will. "I am his. / Even in his / Absence," the woman says. Her resentment, her rebellion, build:

    I shall unloose
    One feather …
    I shall unloose
    One note
    The chandelier

And finally they burst:

    I shall unloose—
    From the small jeweled
    Doll he guards like a heart—
    The lioness,
    The shriek in the bath,
    The cloth of holes.

Revenge—this is the commitment sworn in the final stanza. The woman in purdah recalls Plath's more well-known Lady Lazarus, whose climatic boast in the face of all her (male) enemies is: "I eat men like air!"

The prisoner of a poem called "The Jailor" (Encounter: October, 1963) is also desperate over her treatment and the jailor's demands on her: "He has been burning me with cigarettes / … / I am myself. That is not enough." The prisoner despairs, however, of escape—partly at least because of the man's dependency on her:

    I wish him dead or away.
    That, it seems is the impossibility,
    That, being free. What would the dark
    Do without fevers to eat?
    What would the light
    Do, without eyes to knife, what would he
    Do, do do without me?

Such dependency is also acknowledged in "In Plaster" (Crossing the Water), where the relationship between body and cast is described as "a kind of marriage." The metaphor is highly successful, the poem working at both the literal and the metaphorical levels. Thus the body and cast have an interdependency, the cast playing a supporting role like "the best of nurses." When the body begins to heal, however, and has visions of shucking the cast, he discovers that "living with her was like living with my own coffin / Yet I still depended on her, though I did it regretfully."

Marriage, like a cast or a prosthesis, fills a need, according to Plath. Certainly the relationship is about a prospective spouse, a groom. Being wifeless, he is missing something, some primary possession. His hand is empty. He is told:

     Here is a hand
     To fill it and willing
     To bring teacups and roll away headaches
     And do whatever you tell it.

The bride will fit the groom like a tuxedo for his wedding or a coffin for his funeral:

     Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
     Will you marry it?
     Believe me, they'll bury you in it.

Wedding or funeral, one is the same as the other. The bride will obey. Whatever the man lacks, she will supply. She will support him the way the cast supports the body. This woman is a domestic blob. She is a kind of Gracie Allen puppet: "It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk."

Plath continued to explore the subject of woman with child as well as that of woman with man. As previously noted, the poems in The Colossus dealing with maternity are somewhat less than enthusiastic. She did write, however, some poems that express very positive, good feelings about children. "Poem for a Fatherless Son" (Winter Trees) is one. Yet she wrote few poems on any subject in which the mood does not turn downward at the end. If she perceives any joy, any little glimpse of beauty, she is almost sure to drop it climactically. Hence her poetic technique frequently parallels what literally happens in her poem "Balloons." The reader (in the poem, her son) sits contemplating a rosy world (glimpsed through a red balloon) when bang! He sits back holding his "red shred." Her short poem "Child" (Winter Trees) illustrates this deflated closing. Here the speaker wants to present the child with only the objects and experiences appropriate to its youth and innocence: "colors," "ducks," wildflowers. But the final stanza suggests that disturbing emotions and dark vistas are the reluctant offering: "this troublous / Wringing of hands, this dark / Ceiling without a star."

There are too many poems concerning pregnancy or children that close in this way to examine them all. To mention a few titles, "The Night Dances" (Ariel), which Ted Hughes says is about their son Nicholas dancing in his crib, and "Heavy Women" (Crossing the Water), a poem about pregnancy, are two.

Several of Plath's poems about pregnancy and motherhood (all published before her second child was born) are exceptions to her more common habit of ending on a note of pessimism or of terror. These poems are all composed using the same technique. They play a metaphorical game: the referent (the fetus or the child or the pregnant woman) is described through a series of images. If the reader does not perceive the subject, the poems remain obscure. "You're" (Ariel) addresses a fetus:

     Clownlike, happiest on your hands,
     Feet to the stars, and moon-skulled
     Gilled like a fish.

In "Dark House," the subject is the pregnant woman (or her womb):

     This is a dark house, very big.
     I made it myself,
     Cell by cell from a quiet corner.

In "Metaphors" (Crossing the Water) the pregnant woman is "a riddle in nine syllables, / An elephant, a ponderous house." "Words for a Nursery" (Atlantic: August, 1961) plays this metaphor game, describing the baby's hands, its fingers: "Rosebud, knot of worms / … / Five moony crescents."

This type of verse is clever; cleverness alone, however, does not make good poetry. In these poems she is dealing with an inherently sentimental subject in a merely cute manner. ("There's a cuddly mother"—"Dark House.") These poems constitute some of her weakest work. It seems significant that she could not deal with maternity or babies in a positive or hopeful manner and at the same time raise the quality of her writing out of the level of mere verse and into the realm of true poetry. That she occasionally tried to treat these subjects positively and hopefully shows her ambivalent attitude toward them.

Sentimentality or cuteness are charges seldom leveled against Sylvia Plath. She is more often accused of excess hostility, of hysteria. Most of her poems about maternity exhibit these characteristics. In "Parliament Hill Fields" (Crossing the Water), for instance, a bevy of children is playing. As the speaker approaches them, she observes that their tightly knit group opens like a "crocodile … to swallow me." The fear is one of survival. Like the baby-god, children make demands that are often disturbing, cruel: "These children are after something, with hooks and cries" ("Berck-Plage"—Ariel). Fear and resentment of children are as prevalent as fear and resentment of men.

Plath's fear of procreativity was, in large part, a fear of a resultant loss of creativity. Esther Greenwood voices Plath's fear in The Bell Jar: "I … remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state."

What then about childlessness? For Plath, childbirth is a kind of martyrdom. A woman dies as a particular kind of woman when she bears a child, and she continues to die as the child feeds literally and metaphorically on her. What, then, about the woman who refuses to make this sacrifice?

      This woman …
      Says she is a man, not a woman.
      She hates
      The thought of a baby—
      Stealer of cells, stealer of beauty—
      She would rather be dead than fat,
      Dead and perfect like Nefertit.
                                          —"The Fearful"

Plath sees childlessness as a kind of perfection, but perfection of a terrible nature because it is also death. The woman no longer sacrifices herself for the sake of life. The sacrifice is complete because all life is denied: "Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children" ("The Munich Mannequins"—Ariel). In "Edge" (Ariel), the mother proudly takes back the gift of herself: "The woman is perfected" because she has reversed her maternal functions:

      Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
      One at each little
      Pitcher of milk, now empty.
      She has folded
      Them back into her body….

In "Tulips" (Ariel), one of Plath's most popular poems, she uses a personal experience as a setting to express the complexities that the idea of childlessness has for her. Ted Hughes says she wrote "Tulips" after being hospitalized for an appendectomy in March of 1961. She had miscarried just a short time before this operation; probably the second hospital confinement triggered associations with death and birth. These tulips are "like an awful baby." There is something wild and dangerous about them. She wants to reject them because she says they "eat my oxygen." She wants to reject the tulips as she wants to reject the trappings of her life and the family she has:

      Now I have lost myself, I am sick of baggage—
      My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
      Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

Not tulips but death is the gift she wants, as in "A Birthday Present" (Ariel), but in both cases the irony is that the gift is life. What she finds in her rejection of the gift here is freedom, a kind of perfection:

      I didn't want any flowers. I only wanted
      To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
      How free it is, you have no idea how free—
      It is what the dead close on, finally….

Her freedom is both wonderful and terrible because the price is so high. The woman must give up her man and her child that hook onto her, as well as her things, her possessions. And the ultimate price—and reward—is death. Just as it is "the mouths of corpses" that suck in the poem "Childless Woman" (Winter Trees).

In May of 1962 Plath finished her one dramatic work, "Three Women" (Winter Trees), which was produced by the BBC in August of that year. The setting is "a maternity ward and round about." Three voices are heard: The Wife, The Secretary, and The Girl. Each voice captures an aspect of Plath's attitudes toward motherhood as revealed by her other work. The Wife, the First Voice, believes she is ready for the ultimate experience of her life. She is shaken by the violence of her labor to exclaim: "There is no miracle more cruel than this," and "I am used"; but after the birth, she exults in her son.

The Second Voice, The Secretary, is the voice of the woman who loses her child and is, therefore, both mother and no mother. Reflecting on her loss, she says:

      I did not look. But still the face was there,
      The face of the unborn one that loved its perfections,
      The face of the dead one that could only be perfect
      In its easy peace, could only keep holy so.

But her loss has left her empty, useless. By personifying this in terms of a woman who is characterized by her function outside the home, The Secretary, Plath may be suggesting that this fate, this loss, is a punishment. The Secretary reassured herself that her husband will still love her in her "deformity." And she vows a kind of penance, a rededication to her domestic duties:

      I shall be a heroine of the peripheral.
      I shall not be accused by isolate buttons,
      Holes in the heels of socks, the white mute faces
      Of unanswered letters, confined in a letter case.

The end of the drama finds this woman, true to her promise, "mending a silk slip," and reaffirming both her identity and her dedication to her husband: "I am a wife." She seems also to be anticipating a reward: another chance, another pregnancy.

The Third Voice, The Girl, is not ready for her experience. Her attitude is one of extreme hostility to men in general for her predicament. When her "red, terrible girl" is born, The Girl remarks: "Her cries are hooks that catch and grate like cats. / It is by these hooks she climbs to my notice." The Girl rejects her child and re-establishes herself in her old life, which is college life, intellectual life. However, her "black gown is a little funeral."

Through the voices of the three women, then, Plath again explores women's fates and choices such as those represented by the fig tree. Because she did not die at twenty, she was forced to define her life in terms of the choices women have traditionally had to make.

Roles are exclusively maintained in bee society. In Plath's series of "bee" poems, she uses their society and her experience with beekeeping as a way to express her frustration over her own roles. In "Stings" (Ariel), she identifies with both the drones and the queen, and reveals the conflict between her domestic and her poetic—her queenly—selves:

      I stand in a column
      Of winged, unmiraculous women,
      I am no drudge
      Though for years I have eaten dust
      And dried plates with my dense hair.
      And seen my strangeness evaporate …
      They thought death was worth it, but I
      Have a self to recover, a queen.

But even had she wished it, the real children could not be folded back into her womb. They were there to contend with along with the daily, routine, household chores. Added to this was the frustration of being married to a poet, whose own poetry was getting written while she dusted, diapered, and served as his secretary.

Plath's poems with domestic settings are usually her most ominous poems. There is "viciousness in the kitchen" as she says in the first line of "Lesbos" (Ariel), a poem which examines the hostile relationship between two women largely in terms of their domestic situations. Birth and death are "cooking" in the kitchen setting of "A Birthday Present." In "The Detective" (Winter Trees), it is "the smell of years burning, here in the kitchen." There has been a death, but paradoxically "there is no body in the house at all." There is no body because the woman has long since ceased to exist as a person. Her functions have been performed, she has kept the furniture polished; but her personhood has been effaced, her sexuality has atrophied:

      The mouth first …
      Her breasts next.
      Then the dry wood, the gates,
      The brown motherly furrows, the whole estate.

Death came, the result of a deadly atmosphere (even the sunlight is "bored"), the withdrawal of love, the drain of motherhood ("there was no absence of lips, there were two children").

Mothers are devoured by their children, effaced; women are subjugated by men, imprisoned, mutilated, made into puppets or toys, hollow or blank with no identities and no wills. Plath's ambivalence toward men, marriage, and motherhood (in her last poems, abandonment by her husband added other dimensions as well), and the guilt she surely felt help explain the degree to which her domestic poems are associated with suffering. They are not exaggerations of pain but accumulations of it. They reflect not only her perception of outer reality, but they project her inner reality as well.

It can never be known whether or not Plath chose (consciously or unconsciously) paths that would lead her deeper and deeper into a domestic labyrinth because she needed those subjects and those experiences and the emotions they stimulated in order to create her best work. Her letters reveal, however, that in the final weeks of her life, separated from her husband, writing the final stunning poems, she felt poetically released, "as if domesticity had choked me." Perhaps it is not stretching a point to say that choosing to die by sticking her head in a gas oven is a perfect symbolization of, and final statement on, that aspect of her experience.

Further Reading

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Boruch, Marianne. "Plath's Bees." Parnassus 17, No. 2 (Fall 1992): 76-95.

Examines the creative origin and significance of Plath's "Bee" poems in Ariel.

Davis, William V. "Sylvia Plath's 'Ariel.'" Modern Poetry Studies 3 (1972): 176-84.

Provides critical analysis of the title poem from Ariel.

Eder, Doris L. "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Lady Lazarus." Contemporary Literature XXI, No. 2 (1980): 301-7.

Provides an overview of critical interpretations of the poem "Lady Lazarus."

Folsom, Jack. "Death and Rebirth in Sylvia Plath's 'Berck-Plage.'" Journal of Modern Literature XVII, No. 4 (Spring 1991): 521-35.

Discusses countervailing elements of morbidity and affirmation in the poem "Berck-Plage."

Lant, Kathleen Margaret. "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature XXXIV, No. 4 (Winter 1993): 620-69.

Explores Plath's portrayal of the female body and self-revelation, especially as influenced by confessional poetry and masculine semantic structures.

Nims, John Frederick. "The Poetry of Sylvia Plath: A Technical Analysis." In Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath, edited by Paul Alexander, pp. 46-60. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Provides detailed analysis of Plath's metaphorical presentation, language patterns, and poetic techniques.

Ramazani, Jahan. "'Daddy, I Have Had to Kill You': Plath, Rage, and the Modern Elegy." PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 108, No. 5 (October 1993): 1142-56.

Examines innovative elements of anger and mourning in Plath's poetry, particularly as directed at her father.

M. D. Uroff (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: "Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: A Reconsideration," in Iowa Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1977, pp. 104-15.

[In the following essay, Uroff contrasts Plath's poetic voice with the confessional mode developed by American poet Robert Lowell. Uroff contends that Plath, unlike Lowell, incorporates abstracted autobiographic detail in her poetry only to amplify or dramatize feelings of pain and sorrow rather than to induce actual self-revelation.]

When M. L. Rosenthal first used the term, confessional poetry, he had in mind a phase in Robert Lowell's career when Lowell turned to themes of sexual guilt, alcoholism, confinement in a mental hospital, and developed them in the first person in a way that intended, in Rosenthal's view, to point to the poet himself. Rosenthal was careful to limit the possibilities of the mode but he did name Sylvia Plath a confessional poet as well because, he said, she put the speaker herself at the center of her poems in such a way as to make her psychological vulnerability and shame an embodiment of her civilization. Rosenthal's widely accepted estimation was challenged first by Ted Hughes who pointed out that Plath uses autobiographical details in her poetry in a more emblematic way than Lowell, and more recently by Marjorie Perloff who claims that Plath's poetry lacks the realistic detail of Lowell's work. If Hughes and Perloff are right, and I think they are, then we should reconsider the nature of the speaker in Plath's poems, her relationship to the poet, and the extent to which the poems are confessional.

What distinguishes Plath's poems from Lowell's is precisely the kind of person in the poem. With Lowell, according to Rosenthal, it is the literal self. Lowell himself has said that while he invented some of his autobiography, he nonetheless wants the reader to feel it is true, that he is getting the real Robert Lowell. The literal self in Lowell's poetry is to be sure a literary self, but fairly consistently developed as a self-deprecating, modest, comic figure with identifiable parents, summer homes, experiences at particular addresses. When he discloses under these circumstances his weaknesses, his ineptitude, his misery, his inflicting of pain on others, he is in fact revealing information that is humiliating or prejudicial to himself. In this sense, the person in the poem is making an act of confession, and, although we as readers have no power to forgive, Lowell's self-accusatory manner makes it impossible to judge. We are not outraged but chastened by such revelations. With Plath, it is otherwise. The person in her poem calls certain people father or mother but her characters lack the particularity of Commander and Mrs. Lowell. They are generalized figures not real-life people, types that Plath manipulates dramatically in order to reveal their limitations. Precisely because they are such types, the information that Plath reveals about them is necessarily prejudicial and has consequently misled some readers who react with hostility to what she has to reveal. Elizabeth Hardwick calls her lacerating and claims that Plath has the distinction of never being in her poems a nice person. While niceness is not a perfect standard for judging a person in a poem, Hardwick's reaction and that of many other critics who follow her reveal the particular way in which Plath's revelations are prejudicial to her. Plath's outraged speakers do not confess their misery so much as they vent it, and this attitude, unlike that of Lowell's characters, makes them susceptible to rather severe critical judgments. However, if we look at the strategy of the poems, we might arrive at a more accurate estimate of the person in them and of her relationship to the poet.

Sylvia Plath herself has said, "I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and intelligent mind." The difference between Plath and Lowell is clearly outlined when we set this statement next to Lowell's account of how he came to write confessional poetry. He says that when he started writing the poems in Life Studies he had been doing a number of readings on the West Coast and found that he was simplifying his poems, breaking the meter, making impromptu changes as he read. He claimed that poets had become proficient in forms and needed to make a "breakthrough back into life." Life Studies may be read as that repossession of his own life, and its mode is properly confessional because both in the poems and the prose of that volume the suffering and victimizing speaker searches through his own pain in order to perceive some truth about the nature of his experience. Plath's speakers make no such search. They are anxious to contain rather than to understand their situation. When Lowell's speaker in "Skunk Hour" says, "My mind's not right," he expresses some kind of desolate self-knowledge. By contrast, Plath calls the maddened woman in "Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper," "No novice / In those elaborate rituals / Which allay the malice / Of knotted table and crooked chair." Both characters may be mad but their strategies differ. Where Lowell's character confesses his weakness, Plath's character employs all her energies in maintaining a ritualistic defense against her situation. She seems in a perverse way to act out the program of the poet whose informed and intelligent mind must manipulate its terrifying experiences. There is in fact a strange correspondence between Miss Drake's methods and those of her creator. Miss Drake is superbly sensitive, wildly inventive in objectifying her fears, and skilled at controlling them. But there is also a vast distance between Miss Drake and the poet, a distance that may be measured by the techniques of parody, caricature, hyperbole that Plath employs in characterizing her. There is something perversely comical about Miss Drake who "can see in the nick of time / How perilous needles grain the floorboards." If Miss Drake's rigid efforts are not quite ridiculed, it is fair to say that she does not engage our sympathies in the way that Lowell's speaker in "Skunk Hour" (who may also be ridiculous) does. She has been distanced from us by the poet who sees her as a grotesque reflection of herself, employing the manipulative strategies of the uninformed mind against an undefined terror, channeling what might have been creative energy into pointless rituals.

"Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper" is an early poem but it reveals the way in which Plath controlled her own terrifying experiences in her poetry. She did so by creating characters and later speakers who demonstrate the way in which the embattled mind operates. Far from speaking for the poet, they stage crazy performances which are parodic versions of the imaginative act. Through them, Plath shows how terror may grip the mind and render it rigid. Through her speaker's projective fantasies, she projects her own understanding of hysterical control and the darker knowledge of its perilous subversion of the imagination. While Miss Drake's elaborate rituals are designed to hold off her fears, the poet who created her is handling in the act of the poem, however indirectly, her own frightening knowledge of madness. What for the mad woman is a means of avoiding experience becomes for the poet a means of controlling it. The poems, unlike the speakers in them, reveal Plath's terrifying self-knowledge.

In her poems, Plath is not concerned with the nature of her experience, rather she is engaged in demonstrating the way in which the mind deals with extreme circumstances or circumstances to which it responds with excessive sensitivity. The typical strategy of her speakers is to heighten or exaggerate ordinary experience and at the same time to intensify the mind's manipulative skills so that fathers become Fascists and the mind that must deal with the image it has conjured up becomes rigidly ritualistic. In her early poems, Plath stands outside and judges her characters, drawing caricatures not only of madness but of its counterpart, hysterical sanity. As she continued to write however, she began to let the characters speak for themselves in caricature, parody, and hyperbole which they use not as vehicles of judgment but as inevitable methods of their performances. When the mind that must deal with terror stiffens and rigidifies, parody will become its natural means of expression.

Between "Miss Drake Proceeds to Supper" and her late poems, however, Plath explored another way in which the mind responds to its terrors. In what has been called her middle period, Plath became interested in a kind of character who had been exhausted by her fears and could not control experience. For example, the insomniac of "Zoo Keeper's Wife" lies awake at night thinking over her grievances and the particular horrors of her husband's zoo full of "wolf-headed fruit bats" and the "bird-eating spider." Her response to her husband is as hyperbolic as the hysterical spinster's disdain for love's slovenliness in an early Plath poem but she has no rituals with which to deal with it nor barricades to hide behind. Rather, she says, "I can't get it out of my mind." All she can do is "flog apes owls bears sheep / Over their iron stile" and still she can't sleep. Again, in "Insomniac," the mind cannot handle memories that "jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars." The speaker's "head is a little interior of grey mirrors. / Each gesture flees immediately down an alley / Of diminishing perspectives, and its significance / Drains like water out the hole at the far end." It is in these poems and others like them of this period that Plath's speakers sound most like Lowell's in his more exhausted and despairing moods yet even here Plath focuses on the function or nonfunction of the mind rather than on the meaning of the experience.

As Plath turned into her later period in a poem such as "Tulips" the speaker of her poem seems to welcome the loss of control that had harried the insomniacs. As she goes into the hospital in this poem, she claims to be learning peacefulness, and she hands herself over to the hospital attendants to be propped up and tended to. The nurses bring her numbness in "bright needles," and, as she succumbs to the anesthesia, she claims that she only wanted to be utterly empty. However, she does not rest in that attitude very long before she comes out of the operating room and its anesthetized state and begins reluctantly to confront her pain. Her first response is to complain that the tulips hurt her, watch her, that they eat up her oxygen. But, when the speaker claims a correspondence between the tulips' redness and her own wound, her manipulative mind begins to function again, first in negative ways, tormenting itself by objectifying its pain. Then, in a brief but alarming reversal, the speaker associates the tulips not only with the pain but with the heart so that the outside threat and power are not only overcome but subsumed. Because the speaker here has so exaggerated her own emptiness and the tulips' violence and vitality, she must then accept in herself the attributes she has cast onto the tulips which now return to her. The heart blooms. Here, for once, the manipulative mind works its own cure. If the supersensitive mind can turn tulips into explosions, it can also reverse the process and turn dangerous animals into blooming hearts. What it cannot do, despite the speaker's claim, is accept utter emptiness. It cannot refuse to be excited by the flowers that it does not want.

"Tulips" is an unusual poem in Plath's work not because it demonstrates how the mind may generate hyperboles to torture itself (which is a common strategy of Plath's poems) but because it shows how this generative faculty may have a positive as well as a negative function. "Tulips" is not a cheerful poem, but it does move from cold to warmth, from numbness to love, from empty whiteness to vivid redness, a process manipulated by the associative imagination. The speaker herself seems surprised by her own gifts and ends the poem on a tentative note, moving toward the faraway country of health. Despite this possibly hopeful ending, however, the body of the poem demonstrates the way in which the mind may intensify its pain by objectifying it.

What takes place in "Tulips" in a private meditation (and perhaps the privacy accounts for the mind's pliancy) is given a much more ferocious treatment in the public performances of Plath's late poems. It is in fact the sense of being on public display that calls forth the rage of the speakers in these late poems. Forced to perform, they develop elaborate rituals. Their manipulative powers become a curse not a cure. In "The Tour," the speaker, caught "in slippers and housedress with no lipstick," greets with mock hospitality her maiden aunt who wants "to be shown about": "Do step into the hall," "Yes, yes, this is my address. / Not a patch on your place, I guess." Instead of refusing to become a victim of the aunt's meddlesome curiosity, the speaker readily assents to it. After apologizing for the mess, she leads her aunt right into it, showing her the frost-box that bites, the furnace that exploded, the sink that ate "seven maids and a plumber." With mock concern, she warns the aunt, "O I shouldn't put my finger in that," "O I shouldn't dip my hankie in, it hurts!" "I am bitter? I'm averse?" she asks, dropping for a second her polite mask but resuming it immediately in her refrain, "Toddle on home to tea now." The speaker manipulates the aunt's curiosity, turning it back on itself by maintaining a tone of insistent courtesy and forced intimacy that is designed to jeeringly protect the aunt from the brazen exhibition of the open house of horrors. She appears to contrast her own dreary domestic appliances to her aunt's exotic possessions (the gecko she wears as costume jewelry, her Javanese geese and monkey trees); but actually her machines are "wild," she says, and in a different way unlike her aunt's tamed decorations. However, when she calls herself "creepy-creepy," she seems to have assumed her aunt's gecko-like qualities. The staginess of this speaker, her insistent rhyming, exclamatory sentences, italicized words, all provide not only a grotesque reflection of the aunt's alarm, but also suggest a kind of hysterical control. The speaker's ability to manipulate the aunt is matched by a more sinister ability to manipulate her own horrors, to locate them in furnace and stove, and there to give them a separate identity. Her mind, like Miss Drake's, is extremely skilled at objectifying her fears. The poet who felt that the intelligent mind must manipulate its most terrifying experiences also knew that the deranged mind could operate in such a way as to hold off its terror, separate itself from the agony it suffered, and the speaker here exemplifies that process. When at the end she warns the aunt not to trip over the nurse-midwife who "can bring the dead to life," she points to the source of her misery, the creative principle that has itself assumed an objective identity and become part of the mess. The midwife, like a poet, delivers life with "wiggly fingers," and she has in fact been very active in endowing dead household appliances with a lively if destructive energy; but now she too has been cast out.

In this speaker who can not only caricature her aunt with the "specs" and "flat hat" but also her own creepiness as well as her "awfully nice" creative faculties, Plath presents a damning portrait of the too inventive mind that exults in self-laceration. It is not quite accurate to say that this speaker is unaware of her own strategies because she is supremely self-conscious; but she is trapped by them. Where others have been devoured or repelled, she lives on, neither despairing nor shocked but charged with a hysterical energy that she deploys finally against herself. Her nurse-mid-wife is eyeless. She too can only see herself now as others see her. Her ability to manipulate her own suffering is a subversion of the poet's creative powers; it becomes a means of holding off rather than exploring her situation.

A quite different manipulator is the speaker in "The Applicant" who appears to be a comic figure, reveling in her machinations. Unlike the woman in "The Tour," she seems to speak for others not for herself. She starts out with the characteristic question of the convention-loving woman, "First, are you our sort of person?" What interests her, she reveals, is not what we might expect from someone who would ask that question, the social qualities of her marriage applicant, but rather her physical parts. "Our sort of person" has no glass eyes, false teeth, rubber breasts, stitches to show something's missing. Once having assured herself on that score, she presents her applicant's hand in marriage, promising not only the traditional services that it will "bring teacups and roll away headaches" but that at the end it will even "dissolve of sorrow." Then, as if this "guaranteed" emotion might be too much for the man, she confides, "We make new stock from the salt." Such economy, such efficiency, this marriage broker seems to cluck. The woman "willing" "to do whatever you tell it" can be easily recycled. Next the speaker turns to the man who like the woman is "stark naked." Instead of putting him through the same examination of parts, she quickly offers him a wedding suit, "Black and stiff," that he can reuse as a funeral shroud. She adopts the familiar tone of the tailor ("How about this suit—" "Believe me, they'll bury you in it.") that shades into that of the mortician. Suddenly the suit, the girl, the deadly convention of marriage are all one, like a tomb, equally "waterproof, shatterproof, proof / Against fire and bombs through the roof." The subversive excess of her promises here is hastily passed over as her sales pitch continues: "Now your head, excuse me, is empty. / I have the ticket for that. / Come here, sweetie, out of the closet." What she presents is "A living doll" whose value will increase with each anniversary, paper at first but silver in 25 years and gold at 50 years.

It might be argued that "The Applicant" does not properly belong to those poems in which Plath exposes the mind's manipulation of terrifying experiences. After all, marriage—and especially the marriage contracted here—is a conventional arrangement which should not affect the fears or passions or emotions of either the man or the woman. In addition, the speaker here appears safely removed from the situation she directs. These facts, however, do not explain the tone of the poem which comes through in the insistent refrain, "Will you marry it?" This speaker who has "the ticket" for everything seems, despite her all-knowing and consoling comic pose, very anxious to have her question answered. Again, as in the other poems we have discussed, the nature of the speaker in "The Applicant" deserves more attention than it has received. What she says is obvious enough but why does she say it? I have called her a woman although her sex is nowhere identified partly because of her language (she calls the woman "sweetie" and the man "My boy") and partly because of her claim that her applicant can sew, cook and "talk, talk, talk" (no man, I believe would have considered that last feature a selling point) but chiefly because she seems to be extremely concerned for the successful outcome of her applicant. She is like the applicant herself willing to make any claim and to accede to any demands in order to strike a bargain. Hers is a pose of course, but it is the pose of the compliant woman. Like the patient in "Tulips" who accepts the gift of flowers that torment her and the niece in "The Tour" who responds to her aunt's detested visit, the speaker here insists on participating in a situation the demands of which she finds abhorrent. Her only recourse for dealing with it is a mode at which she is particularly skilled, burlesque. Yet behind the scorn and the scoffing is another feeling, something like hysteria, that expresses itself in her repeated question. She seems trapped by the sexual stereotypes she parodies. The ventriloquism of this poem hides the fact that this is an internal debate. The sexual fear that has driven the "sweetie" into the closet and the boy to his last resort also propels the manipulations of this shrewd if too agreeable woman. Here again is the controlling mind using its powers to compartmentalize rather than explore its situation.

"The Applicant" has been given serious consideration as Plath's statement on marriage yet it does not point to the poet herself in the same way that, for example, Robert Lowell's "Man and Wife" does. Its characters are unparticularized and unconnected to any specific event in Plath's experience. Its sexual stereotypes (the girl willing to do anything in order to be married and the boy only willing to marry if he can be convinced that he will get a worthwhile product) are manipulated by a speaker whose tension-filled control reveals not only their power over her but the terror that informs them. This speaker can manage, but she cannot escape her situation.

The relationship between poet and speaker in two other late poems, "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy," is somewhat more complicated because these poems do call upon specific incidents in Plath's biography, her suicide attempts and her father's death. Yet to associate the poet with the speaker directly, as many critics have done, does not account for the fact that Plath employs here as before the techniques of caricature, hyperbole, and parody that serve both to distance the speaker from the poet and at the same time to project onto the speaker a subversive variety of the poet's own strategies. In "Lady Lazarus," the nature of the speaker is peculiar and defies our ordinary notions of someone prone to attempt suicide. Suicide is not a joyous act, and yet there is something of triumph in the speaker's assertion that she has done it again. The person recovering from a suicide attempt, as this speaker says she is, cannot possibly be so confident at the very moment of her recovery that her sour breath will vanish in a day and that she will soon be a smiling woman. Nor could she have the presence of mind to characterize those who surround her as a "peanut-crunching crowd" and her rescuers as enemies. And finally it seems psychologically impossible for the suicide victim to have the energy to rise at all against other people, much less to threaten to "eat men like air." The person who speaks here does so not to explore her situation but to control it. She is first of all a performer, and, although she adopts many different roles, she is chiefly remarkable for her control not only of herself but of the effects she wishes to work on those who surround her. She speaks of herself in hyperboles, calling herself a "walking miracle," boasting that she has "nine times to die," exclaiming that dying is an art she does "exceptionally well," asserting that "the theatrical / Comeback in broad day" knocks her out. Her treatment of suicide in such buoyant terms amounts to a parody of her own act. When she compares her suicide to the victimization of the Jews and later on when she claims there is a charge for a piece of her hair or clothes and thus compares her rescued self to the crucified Christ or martyred saint, she is engaging in self-parody. She employs these techniques partly to defy the crowd with its "brute / Amused shout: / 'A miracle!'" and partly to taunt her rescuers, "Herr Doktor" "Herr Enemy," who regard her as their "opus." She is neither a miracle nor an opus, and she fends off those who would regard her in this way. But the techniques have another function as well; they display the extent to which she can objectify herself, ritualize her fears, manipulate her own terror. Her extreme control in fact is intimately entwined with her suicidal tendencies. The suicide is her own victim, can control her own fate. If she is not to succumb to this desire, she must engage in the elaborate ritual which goes on all the time in the mind of the would-be suicide by which she allays her persistent wish to destroy herself. Her act is the only means of dealing with a situation she cannot face. Her control is not sane but hysterical. When the speaker assures the crowd that she is "the same, identical woman" after her rescue, she is in fact telling them her inmost fear that she could and probably will do it again. What the crowd takes for a return to health, the speaker sees as a return to the perilous conditions that have driven her three times to suicide. By making a spectacle out of herself and by locating the victimizer outside herself in the doctor and the crowd, she is casting out her terrors so that she can control them. When she says at the end that she will rise and eat men like air, she is projecting (and again perhaps she is only boasting) her destruction outward. That last stanza of defiance is in fact an effort of the mind to triumph over terror, to rise and not to succumb to its own victimization.

The speaker's tone is hysterical, triumphant, defiant. Only once does she drop this tone to admit the despair that underlies it when she says. "What a trash / To annihilate each decade." Otherwise she maintains her rigid self-control in accents that range from frenzied gaiety to spiteful threats. Although her situation is much more extreme than those social occasions of "Tulips," "The Tour," "The Applicant," it is like them not of her own making. She has been rescued when she wanted to die. Her response is perverse. She does not welcome her rescuers, nor does she examine the condition that forced her death wish; instead she accepts her fate and presents herself as in complete control. The effort of her act which comes through in her tone is intense yet necessary because without it she would have to face the fact that she is not in control. Her performance is a defense against utter desolation. Here again is the mind manipulating its own terrors. Plath was no stranger to this method, as we have said before, but while she works here with a parallel between hysterical control and creative control she presents the first as a mad reflection of the second. The speaker like Miss Drake is "No novice / In those elaborate rituals" that allay her terror yet her tremendous energies are so absorbed in maintaining them that she has no reserve with which to understand why she performs as she does. When she sees herself as a victimized Jew or Christ, she may be engaging in self-parody but the extremity of her circumstances does not allow her to realize it. The poet behind the poem is not caricaturing Lady Lazarus as she had Miss Drake; she is rather allowing Lady Lazarus to caricature herself and thus demonstrating the way in which the mind turns ritualistic against horror. Despite the fact that "Lady Lazarus" draws on Plath's own suicide attempt, the poem tells us little more than a newspaper account of the actual event. It is not a personal confession. What it does reveal is Plath's understanding of the way the suicidal person thinks.

"Daddy" is an even more complicated treatment of the same process. The poem opens with the daughter's assertion that "You do not do, you do not do." But if Daddy will not do, neither will he not do, and we find this speaker in the characteristic Plath trap, forcing herself to deal with a situation she finds unacceptable. "Daddy" is not so much an account of a true-life situation as a demonstration of the mind confronting its own suffering and trying to control that by which it feels controlled. The simplistic, insistent rhythm is one form of control, the obsessive rhyming and repeated short phrases are others, means by which she attempts to charm and hold off the evil spirits. But the speaker is even more crafty than this technical expertise demonstrates. She is skilled at image-making like a poet and she can manipulate her images with extreme facility. The images themselves are important for what they tell us of her sense of being victimized and victimizer but more significant than the actual image is the swift ease with which she can turn it to various uses. For example, she starts out imagining herself as a prisoner living like a foot in the black shoe of her father. Then she casts her father in her own role and he becomes "one grey toe / Big as a Frisco seal" and then quickly she is looking for his foot, his root. Next he reverts to his original boot identity, and she is the one with "The boot in the face." And immediately he returns with "A cleft in your chin instead of your foot." At the end, she sees the villagers stamping on him. Thus she moves from booted to booter as her father reverses the direction. The mind that works in this way is neither logical nor psychologically penetrating; it is simply extremely adept at juggling images. In fact, the speaker is caught in her own strategies. She can control her terrors by forcing them into images, but she seems to have no understanding of the confusion her wild image-making betrays. When she identifies herself as a foot, she suggests that she is trapped, but when she calls her father a foot the associations break down. In the same way, when she caricatures her father as a Fascist and herself as a Jew, she develops associations of torture which are not exactly reversed when she reverses the identification and calls herself the killer of her vampire-father. The speaker here can categorize and manipulate her feelings in name-calling, in rituals, in images, but these are only techniques, and her frenzied use of them suggests that they are methods she employs in the absence of any other. When she says, "Daddy, I have had to kill you," she seems to realize the necessity of the exorcism and to understand the ritual she performs, but the frantic pitch of the language and the swift switches of images do not confirm any self-understanding. The pace of the poem reveals its speaker as one driven by a hysterical need for complete control, a need that stems from the fear that without such control she will be destroyed. Her simple, incantatory monologue is the perfect vehicle of expression for the orderly disordered mind.

In talking to A. Alvarez, Plath called these poems "light verse." "Daddy" does not seem to fall easily into that category despite its nonsense rhymes and rhythms, its quickly flicking images. It is neither decorous nor playful. On the other hand, given its subject, neither is it ponderous or solemn. Above all it offers no insight into the speaker, no mitigating evidence, no justification. Plath's classification is clear perhaps only if we consider her speaker a parodic version of the poet. The speaker manipulates her terror in singsong language and thus delivers herself in "light verse" that employs its craft in holding off its subject. For all the frankness of this poem, the name-calling and blaming, the dark feeling that pervades it is undefined, held back rather than revealed by the technique. The poet who has created this speaker knows the speaker's strategies because they are a perverted version of her own, and that is the distinction between the speaker's "light verse" and the poet's serious poem.

From her earliest madwomen and hysterical virgins to the late suicides and father-killers, Plath portrays characters whose stagey performances are subversions of the creative act. Absorbed in their rituals, they confess nothing. They are not anxious to make a breakthrough back into life. In fact, their energies are engaged in erecting a barricade against self-revelation. Plath's fascination with this parodic image of the creative artist stems from a deep knowledge of the machinations of the mind. If she reveals herself in these poems, she does so in the grotesque mirror of parody. If these poems come out of her own emotional experiences, as she said they did, they are not uninformed cries from the heart. Rather, she chose to deal with her experience by creating characters who could not deal with theirs and through their rituals demonstrate their failure. These poems, like the speakers in them, are superbly controlled; but the poet behind the poem uses her immense technical control to manipulate the tone, the rhythm, the rhyme, the pace of the speakers' language in order to reveal truths about the speakers that their obsessive assertions deny.

Linda Wagner (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1470

SOURCE: "Plath's 'Ariel': 'Auspicious Gales,'" in Concerning Poetry, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1977, pp. 5-7.

[In the following essay, Wagner draws attention to the complexity of Plath's poetry in Ariel which, as the critic notes, invokes archetypal imagery and the paradoxical portrayal of suffering as survival to create depth of feeling and insight.]

No poet contemporary with us has been so subject to misreadings, especially biographical misreadings: Sylvia Plath's poems evoke the worst of subjective fallacies. Probably some of our charged reactions are symptomatic of the times and the culture; but more of them seem to stem from the always-too-easy identification between troubled poet (with the ultimate proof, her suicide) and what might be the tone of imagery and rhythm of the poem considered. Because Plath worked so intensively in archetypal imagery (water, air, fire as bases for image patterns, for example), many of her poems could be read as either "dark" wasteland kinds of expressions, or as the reverse, as death-by-water, salvation poems—destruction implied, but also survived, phoenix-like. (When a reader finds a gay, affirmative poem like "Balloons" to be ominous simply because the child holds "A red / shred in his little fist" at its end, there must be some reason for discounting fully ninety percent of the affirmative lines and images in that single poem—making it "fit" the preconception we have of Plath's work as being consistently despairing, vindictive, bleak.)

"Ariel," the title poem of the collection that made Plath known to the reading world so soon after her 1962 suicide, is a similarly ambiguous poem, rich in its image patterns of movement-stasis, light-dark, earth-fire. The progression in the poem is from the simply stated "Stasis in darkness," a negative condition as Plath indicates in the very similarly imaged poem "Years," to the ecstatic transformation-through-motion of the closing. That this is a poem about motion is clear from the second image, which seems to be a depiction of the faint light of morning ("substanceless blue pour of tor and distances") yet also stresses the movement of the image—pour, distances. The eye of the reader, like that of the poet, is on what is coming, and the scene that appears is always couched in imagery that includes motion words or impressions. Even the furrows of earth are moving ("splits and passes").

The antagonistic forces in the poem are those contrary to the motion that is so passionately evoked. Set against the unity of the moving horse and rider are the "Nigger-eye berries" casting "dark hooks," creating both "shadows" (in contrast to the ever-growing light) and the only blood image of the poem. The stasis is momentary, for immediately after the pause that the word shadows creates comes the fragmentary picture of the woman being forcibly taken "through air"—"thighs hair / flakes from my heels." And the statement-like close of that vivid image is the apostrophe to the naked Godiva (physically, and emotionally, "white," a link to the many images of purity and chastity in these Ariel poems), who finds her freedom in the physical act of unpeeling—not clothes, in this case, but "Dead hands, dead stringencies." There is no motion in either of these things; either the sexual links with the image of hands, or the compulsive duty-oriented links with the image of stringency.

Once free of these deadnesses, the rider/persona can then take off to the ecstasy that awaits her. That the progression has been a fairly tortuous one is suggested, effectively, by the back-and-forth emphasis on stasis and then speed; but that the poem ends with the sheer joy of movement can be read only as affirmation. Metamorphosis, transcendence blots out even those all-important cries from the children that other poems of Plath's show to be so beloved, as the poem closes (and the line arrangement here is, of course, mine):

     And now I foam to wheat, a glitter of seas,
        (The child's cry melts in the wall)
     and I am the arrow
        the dew that flies suicidal, at one with the drive
        into the red eye, the cauldron of morning.

(Masterful as many of the short-line tercet poems are—"Lady Lazarus," "Fever 103°," "Daddy"—this particular poem works better when a longer line structure is used, because the impetus to motion is more apparent. The syncopation of the short-line structure impedes the fluid reading that the image and syntax pattern suggests.)

Several critics rely heavily on Plath's color systems in reading her poems. In this poem, the day changes from "darkness" to the weightless blue of morning to an absence of color, punctuated by the brown arc of the horse's neck and the earth it travels, by the black of the sweet blood berries, and by the group of color images describing the woman's body as evanescent (sparkling, silver/gold, glinting, in "wheat," "glitter of seas," "dew"). From acoloration, itself a kind of transcendence, the poem moves back to the sharp vividness of the day which is no longer shrouded in amorphous blues, but instead burns, cauldron-like, with a red glow in the east. Red being one of those archetypal images that can suggest several often-contradictory meanings, I turn here to the common source of the name Ariel and the association, affirmatively, with fire and the color red. (Because Plath spoke so frequently of her admiration for Shakespeare, and because in another late poem, "The Bee Meeting," she describes herself as "the magician's girl," it seems a fair assumption that she did know The Tempest; and that, at this period in her life, separated from her husband and living alone, she might have been drawn to its fairy-tale emphasis on Miranda's sheltered chastity, and the final consummation of marriage/peace/brotherhood at the play's end—even if ironically.)

As Shakespeare describes Ariel, through Prospero's words, "a spirit too delicate / To act her earthy and abhorred commands," imprisoned in a pine for a dozen years, until freed from the confinement by Prospero's "art" (not, significantly, magic or other kind of occult power.) Set in direct and sympathetic contrast to both the hag Sycorax and Caliban, her son, Ariel is an unrelieved power for freedom and good throughout the play. When he first appears, Act I, Scene ii, he aligns himself with the elements that are presented as positive in Plath's poems:

       All hail, great master! Grave sir, hail! I come
      To answer thy best pleasure, be't to fly,
      To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
      On the curled clouds….

So succinctly are all the images given, Ariel's speech is a near-abstract for the successive patterns that appear in Plath's poem. And when one relates Ariel's imprisonment within the tree to the "White Godiva, I unpeel" image, even that takes on richer suggestion.

As Ariel continues speaking, we see that the method he has used to effect Prospero's command—to bring the ship to land—is that of taking the shape of fire, St. Elmo's fire ("Now on the beak, Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin, I flamed amazement. Sometime I'd divide, And burn in many places, on the topmast, The yards and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly, Then meet and join"). The paradox, of course, is that none of the ship's passengers has been harmed, that Ariel's use of fire is a gentle means of attaining what is best for the human beings involved; and that the tone of the play—caught so well in Prospero's farewell charge to Ariel—is that of benevolence and calm. He charges Ariel with securing for the ship at its leave-taking, "calm seas, auspicious gales, And sail so expeditious that shall catch Your royal fleet far off." (The paradox inherent in "auspicious gales" is echoed in Plath's use of fire and driven motion as positive forces within the poem in question.) And to Ariel, as farewell, Prospero adds, with endearment, "My Ariel, chick. That is thy charge. Then to the elements be free, and fare thou well!" The greatest blessing of all, freedom, particularly after a dozen years jailed within a tree. And Plath's vibrant use of the free flying image at the close of "Ariel" suggests the same benizon, "I / Am the arrow, // The dew that flies / Suicidal, at one with the drive / Into the red // Eye, the cauldron of morning." "Then to the elements be free" … "at one with the dew." Plath's drive to motion, that sheer impact of energy and force, beyond the "Dead hands, dead stringencies," is the power behind not only "Ariel" but also "Stings," "Lady Lazarus," "Wintering," and "Fever 103°." That she, with Shakespeare, found such violence as the gale winds "auspicious" is an important index to these passionate and sometimes difficult poems, poems important enough to us that we must learn to read them with an insight closer to Plath's own emphasis, and to her equally personal thematic direction.

Eileen Aird (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4612

SOURCE: "'Poem for a Birthday' to 'Three Women': Development in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1979, pp. 63-72.

[In the following essay, Aird examines Plath's rapid creative development after the publication of The Colossus. Challenging "the oversimplified and rather sentimental theory" that motherhood inspired Plath's artistic growth during this period, Aird cites Plath's remarkable commitment to her work and the influence of Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Theodore Roethke.]

Critical discussion of Plath's poetry is understandably focused on the magnificent late poems with occasional forays into the earlier exercises of The Colossus—and they were precisely exercises in style and image by a poet identifying her subjects. It therefore seems useful to pay some attention to the question of development, to the nature and timing of the transition from The Colossus to Ariel and to the poetic and biographical factors affecting this development. 'Poem for a Birthday' initiates the transitional period which ends with 'Three Women.' It is significant that these are her two longest poems, 'Berck-Plage' being the only other one which begins to approach their expansiveness of structure and imagery. The theme of pregnancy and birth in 'Three Women' is foreshadowed by the opening section of images of hibernation, storage and growth in 'Poem for a Birthday,' and in both poems realistic presentation merges into a symbolic opposition between creativity and destructiveness. The individual experience of the woman who conceives, carries and gives birth to a child is emblematic of a world of natural growth and patterned progression in stark contrast to the technological destructiveness of the world of 'bulldozers, guillotines and white chambers of shrieks.' Ted Hughes's famous account of the development of Sylvia Plath's poetry relates the two major accelerations of quality and command to the birth of her two children. This would date the transitional stage from mid-1960 to early 1962. The chronology of development revealed by the poems themselves does not entirely bear out his analysis. It indicates a longer period lasting from October 1959 up to June, 1962 and in the work of a poet who developed at the speed of Sylvia Plath months are significant. If we are looking for biographical factors, and I introduce them only to counterbalance the widely held acceptance of Hughes's account—there is a much more precise correlation between the breakdown of their marriage and the writing of the great poems. In a letter to her mother written on 7 November 1962, immediately after moving into the London flat she said: 'Living apart from Ted is wonderful—I am no longer in his shadow.' The whole letter is over-elated and many of the subsequent heavily edited letters are much gloomier. Her own analysis however cannot be disregarded and it does go some way to suggest the much more complex relationship between circumstances and poetic processes that one would expect than the over-simplified and rather sentimental theory of childbirth as the stimulus.

'Poem for a Birthday' and 'Three Women,' then, mark off a period of rapid change and development in Sylvia Plath's poetry, characterised not only by the movement from written exercises on the page, stylish, crystalline and static, to dramatic poems which need to be spoken aloud—a movement of which she was herself very conscious—but also by an increasing richness of imagery and a confident statement of subject.

The world of The Colossus is, for the most part, an external one of landscape and situation into which the personal is rarely allowed to erupt. The emphasis is too firmly on manipulation of both subject and form to make a contained statement, what we are given are neat, aesthetic glimpses of potentially dramatic situations. A case in point is a poem like 'Point Shirley,' an elegy for the poet's dead grandmother heavily influenced by Robert Lowell's early style. So self-consciously clever is the language that real grief and loss is ironically excluded from the poem. The simple domestic image at the beginning of the second verse, 'She is dead / Whose laundry snapped and froze here,' which does direct us very appropriately to an individual human reality, is immediately negated by the verbally vigorous but emotionless description of the sea. This is academic poetry of a high order but the emphasis is on structure rather than statement. In the last nine months of her life craftsmanship becomes the vehicle of expressiveness, there is a complete unity about the poems. Nevertheless there was still a feeling even in the mature work that some subjects were not suitable for poetry and this was one of the reasons she gave for turning to the novel: a form which she defined without apparent irony as appropriate for female concerns:

Poetry I feel is such a tyrannical discipline, you've got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you've just got to turn away all the peripherals. And I miss them! I'm a woman, I like my little Lares and Penates, and I like trivia, and I find that in a novel I can get more of life, perhaps not such an intense life, but certainly more of life …

This is a revealing statement not just in terms of The Bell Jar but also of the late poetry which found a way of including those household details and using them as a stepping-off point for the wider concerns—'A Birthday Present' begins with a woman making pastry, 'Mary's Song' with a woman cooking the Sunday lamb, but in both poems the secure, protected world of kitchen and house very quickly gives way to an inner world of violent and tragic dimensions.

The poems of the last nine months of her life are marked by a complete unity of form and expressiveness and there are hints of this in a few exceptional poems in The Colossus, 'The Beekeeper's Daughter' in particular. Ted Hughes has commented very enigmatically on this poem as being 'one of a group of poems that she wrote at this time about her father … This poem, one of her chilliest, recounts a key event in her Vita Nuova.' Whatever the reason the poem has an urgent directness and sense of purpose which most of the early poems lack. It also has a very clear progression, a dominant feature of the later work which often rushes towards a conclusion which is also the climax of the poem. The complicated ambivalence of the relationship between father and daughter in the poem is established through the claustrophobic, wantonly erotic imagery of the opening verse:

    A garden of mouthings. Purple, scarlet-speckled, black
    The great corollas dilate, peeling back their silks

—but what is initially the abject subjection of the daughter, 'My heart under your foot, sister to a stone' argues itself into an acceptance of that subjection, even a transformation of it into exultant destiny: 'The queen bee marries the winter of your year.' The poem oscillates between the opposed images of the stone and the queen bee, an opposition which she was to return to frequently. The stone always represents a reduction to a core, stripped of all pretence and association, the low point from which a gradual ascent is eventually possible; its first important use is in the last section of 'Poem for a Birthday,' 'The Stones,' where the experience of the suicidal coma is such a reduction to a core, an elemental surviving self:

     The mother of pestles diminished me.
     I became a still pebble.

There are also significant references for this image in The Bell Jar, firstly in the skiing episode where Esther breaks her leg in a wild flight down a slope too difficult for her, which she sees as an attempt to recapture the protective safety of the womb: 'the pebble at the bottom of the well, the white sweet baby cradled in its mother's belly,' and secondly at the end of the second section of the novel where having taken a large number of barbiturates—too many in fact, they make her sick—she lies down behind a stack of firewood in the basement expecting to die: 'The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.' In opposition to this static defence is the dynamic power of the queen bee. 'The Beekeeper's Daughter' needs to be read in conjunction with the late sequence of bee poems written in the autumn of 1962 where the queen bee is a symbol of female survival soaring triumphantly if murderously up:

     Now she is flying
     More terrible than she ever was, red
     Scar in the sky, red comet
     Over the engine that killed her—
     The mausoleum, the wax house.

This vision is in turn one of a series of female images of almost magical power and autonomy beginning with the circus performer of a very early poem 'Circus in Three Rings,' written while she was still at Smith, and finding later expression in the avenging Clytemnestra of 'Purdah,' 'the pure acetylene virgin' of 'Fever 103°,' the vampire killer of 'Daddy,' the ascendant phoenix of 'Lady Lazarus' and the majestic 'God's lioness' of 'Ariel.' 'The Beekeeper's Daughter' is a very significant turning-point from the undirected extravagance of 'Circus in Three Rings' towards the powerful female images of Ariel. It finds some similarities in 'The Colossus' and 'Moonrise' and perhaps most importantly in an uncollected poem of the same time, 'Electra on Azalea Path,' but like them is still held in the strait-jacket of formalities.

It is in 'Poem for a Birthday,' heavily reliant on Roethke's structure and imagery though it is, that she first identifies both her subject and her voice. Roethke was such a fertile influence at this point in her development because she learnt from him that objective reality can serve as a medium to release the inner drama. 'Poem for a Birthday' acknowledges for the first time the supremacy of an inner world which earlier poems, 'Lorelei,' 'Full Fathom Five,' 'The Ghost's Leavetaking,' 'Ouija,' have only hinted at. The poems which Roethke collected in Praise to the End are the most direct influence on Sylvia Plath's poem which has the same structure of short sections connected by theme and imagery. More importantly Plath's subjects—madness, loneliness, sexual identity, family relationships, growth and searching—are very close to Roethke's in poems such as 'Dark House.' Sylvia Plath acknowledges Roethke as a major influence in a letter to her mother on 2 February 1961: 'Ted and I went to a little party the other night to meet the American poet I admire next to Robert Lowell—Ted [for Theodore Roethke]. I've always wanted to meet him as I find he is my influence.' Her debt to Lowell and Sexton is acknowledged later in October 1962 and is a much more general recognition of an exciting mode, a developing convention. For all its raw immediacy, its deliberate assault on the reader's sensibility, Ariel has a dramatic focus and personae which are pared away by Lowell and Sexton. This becomes very clear if we compare Lowell's own comment on the intention of Life Studies with Sylvia Plath's note on 'Daddy.' Lowell told an interviewer: 'there was always that standard of truth which you wouldn't ordinarily have in poetry—the reader was to believe that he was getting the real Robert Lowell!' whereas Sylvia Plath wrote of 'Daddy': 'The poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex. Her father died while she thought he was God. Her case is complicated by the fact that her father was also a Nazi and her mother very possibly part-Jewish. In the daughter the two strains marry and paralyse each other—she has to act out the awful little allegory before she is free of it.' Sylvia Plath's comment is not an evasion of the confessional aspect of the poem but an indication of the extent to which the personal is subordinated to a much more inclusive dramatic structure. Unlike Lowell Sylvia Plath was not writing a poetic autobiography but used personal experience as a way into the poem—this is further reflected in the reading response to Sylvia Plath which frequently begins at the level of autobiographical fact and then deepens into an awareness of the intellectual and tonal complexities of the poem. The real Sylvia Plath is far from present in the poetry and there is clear evidence of this in the comparison of the diary extract in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams in which she describes the meeting of bee-hive owners, on which the poem 'The Bee Meeting' is based, with the poem itself. Although the poem uses exactly the observed details of the diary—and Ted Hughes has explained that Sylvia Plath found it a useful discipline to describe people and places minutely in her diary—the whole mood and reference of the poem is transformed, the situation is changed from the humorous precision of the diary to a metaphor of alienation. Although her later work diverges from Roethkean structure and imagery he was seminal in showing her how to balance the personal and the general so that the poem is public rather than bafflingly private.

The purely literary influence of Roethke initiates the development towards poetic maturity but the biographical factors are also important. The whole of Sylvia Plath's life up to 1959 was one of academic distinction and ambition, she won prizes, gained A grades, conquered one goal after another, but after the year's successful but demanding teaching at Smith, with two degrees behind her and thoughts of graduate work to the fore of her mind she relinquished academic life in favour of full-time writing. The decision was obviously made under Ted Hughes's influence—he had given up the academic world much earlier—and it was an immensely courageous step for her to take, involving as it did the rejection of one of her most deep-seated values—any one reading her Letters Home of the mid-fifties cannot help but be impressed by her sheer tenacity and desire for success. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath had decided that they would settle permanently in Europe, so she was also turning her back on her family and cultural heritage as well as on the obvious career towards which all her efforts were previously directed. At this point in the autumn of 1959, she was pregnant for the first time and 'The Manor Garden' which like 'Poem for a Birthday' was written at Yaddo indicates some of the ambivalence of fear and excitement which this generated in her; its final, very satisfying image is a brilliant rendering of this ambivalence:

     The small birds converge, converge
     With their gifts to a difficult borning

The period at Yaddo with its time for concentration and writing is a further factor: to be invited to Yaddo represented society's recognition of artistic merit and for Sylvia Plath such recognition always seems to have been more important than it is to Ted Hughes. Writing to her mother on 16 October 1962 she described her Ariel poems with tragic irony as: 'the best poems of my life: they will make my name.' The notion of success was one which she could not relinquish easily as a scholar, a mother, a wife or a poet.

'Poem for a Birthday' was completed during the time at Yaddo and the title is richly significant reminding us as it does of her own October birthday, the coming birth of her child and the metaphorical deaths and births which modulate into the final qualified recovery of 'The Stones.' For the first time in this poem she directly faced the task of relating individual to general experience. That individual experience is female, defined both biologically and experientially and the poem is a dialogue between the dislocated girl who is maenad and witch and 'the mother of otherness.' To be female in 'Poem for a Birthday' is to be protective and procreative: 'The month of flowering's finished. The fruit's in,' 'Here's a cuddly mother' but it is also to be demanding and possessive: 'Mother of beetles only unclench your hand: / I'll fly through the candle's mouth like a singeless moth.' This counterpoints the major theme of the poem which is the need to rationalise the disparity of childhood and adulthood. The tensions are resolved finally in a rebirth after suffering: 'We grow. / It hurts at first. The red tongues will teach the truth.'

Sylvia Plath said of her artistic method: 'I think that personal experience shouldn't be a kind of shut-box and mirror-looking narcissistic experience. I believe it should be generally relevant to such things as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on.' The relevance of this to the late poetry is abundantly clear but the process begins with 'Poem for a Birthday' where private experience—breakdown and the reasons for it, clinical treatment, pregnancy—is extended through the images which accumulate layer upon layer until it becomes a metaphor for suffering throughout the natural and the human world. The attempt to communicate the 'real Robert Lowell' emerges in Life Studies as a painfully accurate analysis of one man's dilemmas which gains universal significance through the depth and detail of its treatment. Sylvia Plath's method is essentially different, rather than delineating the individual in a recognisable cultural context she uses the private to gain access to the universal by ruthlessly mythologising her own experience and in doing this moves a long way from autobiography—'Lady Lazarus' is not Sylvia Plath but a mythical character of suffering and rebirth, ultimately a type of the tragic poet of Yeats's 'Lapis Lazuli.'

If both the themes and the images of Sylvia Plath's poem are closely influenced by Roethke's the ending is markedly different. Typically Roethke's poems end in a moment of revelation even if it quickly falls back into the old state of waiting: the end of the quest is an organic awareness of wholeness, of the full recovery of identity. Although the image of the vase reconstructed at the end of 'Poem for a Birthday' recalls Roethke the mood is far from elated or affirmative:

     Ten fingers shape a bowl for shadows.
     My mendings itch. There is nothing to do.
     I shall be as good as new.

To be 'as good as new' is to have lost the tragic intensity which characterised the earlier sections of the poem and is very close to the ending of Lowell's 'Home after Three Months Away': 'Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.'

The sense of reduction and nullity points forward to the fear of the static in Ariel, the constant search for the dynamic: 'What I love is / the piston in motion— / My soul dies before it.'

'Poem for a Birthday' explores the metaphoric complexities of a series of balanced opposites—fertility/sterility, child/adult, day/night, death/life, animal/human, illness/recovery—and the poems in Crossing the Water continue this exploration. Sylvia Plath's own analysis of some of the poems in this volume is penetrating: bewailing their lack of dynamic accuracy with the self-mocking irony she employs with such brilliance in Ariel, she indicates the gulf between poetry as craft, the period of The Colossus and poetry as necessity, the period of Ariel. The poems, she says, are like those pickled foetuses of The Bell Jar, specimens for learning not the real living being and yet:

     It wasn't for any lack of mother-love
     O I cannot understand what happened to them!
     They are proper in shape and number and every part.

But to be 'proper in shape and number and every part' is no longer the keynote of authenticity, the period of villanelles, of elaborate rhyme schemes and regular stanzas is over but the absolute confidence and daring of Ariel has to be worked for and many of the poems in Crossing the Water elaborate a world which is no more than gothic. The title-poem for instance is little more than a playing with images of darkness and silence relieved by characteristically lyrical moments: 'A little light is filtering from the water flowers,' 'Stars open among the lilies.' To take her own criteria of judgement this poem is not relevant to Hiroshima or Dachau, it remains in a private fantasy world although it is visually and verbally attractive. A much more accomplished poem is 'Insomniac' but this still lacks the fusion of elements which distinguishes the great poetry; it is never more than descriptive of a hollow world, it fails to evoke it despite the deliberate metaphorical violence:

     Night long, in the granite yard, invisible cats
     Have been howling like women, or damaged instruments.

What she did achieve for the first time in Crossing the Water, however, was the wry, mocking humour which in Ariel frequently allows her to maintain the balance between public and private by deflecting interest from 'the needle or the knife.' 'In Plaster,' which owes something to Sylvia Plath's observations of a fellow-patient when she was recovering from her appendectomy, is wry, brilliant, humorous in its portrait of the relationship between cast and patient. The persona of the poem is mocking but by the end of the poem we see that there is a complex balance between command and dependence in the relationship and in the last verse that mockery merges into a defiance which is the flimsiest of disguises for the sense of helpless dependency which lies beneath it:

     She may be a saint, and I may be ugly and hairy,
     But she'll soon find out that doesn't matter a bit.
     I'm collecting my strength; one day I shall manage without her,
     And she'll perish with emptiness and begin to miss me.

In the end the mocker himself is mocked and his earlier contemptuously pragmatic acceptance of the cast gives way to an awareness of the superior consistency of his partner; the word-play in the last line indicating that an uneasier intellectual wit has replaced the confident laughter of the beginning—humour as a mode of experiencing has become wit as an attempt to control.

Many of the poems of Crossing the Water are precise fore-runners in subject, tone and imagery of the achievements of Ariel and the obvious companion poem of 'In Plaster' is 'The Applicant.' Both are poems about marriage—'The Applicant' more obviously so than 'In Plaster' which only suggests it through the final identification of the patient as male and the cast as female, but the tone of 'The Applicant' has a ferocious humour which makes 'In Plaster' seem almost whimsical by contrast. It is clear that Sylvia Plath's description of 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus' as 'light verse' is descriptive of a mode which contrives a highly sophisticated blend of the ironic and the violent. The tentative beginnings of this mode are present as early as 'Poem for a Birthday' in the constant perception of self in animal or doll-like images. There is a deliberate pretence at belittling the enormity of experience which makes it more accessible. When the poetry fails it is sometimes because the ironic perspective is missing. This is very rarely the case in Ariel or Winter Trees but it happens more frequently in Crossing the Water. In the poem 'Life' for instance there is too sharp a contrast between the amused affectionate description of an idealised even deliberately sentimentalised Victorian past and the rigours of the present:

            This family
      Of valentine-faces might please a collector:
      They ring true, like good china.
      Elsewhere the landscape is more frank.
      The light falls without let-up, blindingly.
      A woman is dragging her shadow in a circle
      About a bald hospital saucer.
      It resembles the moon, or a sheet of blank paper.
      And appears to have suffered a sort of private blitzkrieg.

Although the poetry of Ariel constantly presses forward into extremes, they are contrived not confessional extremes. The much discussed ending of 'Lady Lazarus' is perhaps the best illustration of this with its images of transcending suffering both personally and aesthetically. Out of the ashes of the concentration camps and the emotional ruins of the suicidal patient rises the mythical phoenix affirming her identity as both female and poet. As in 'Fever 103°' the very experience of pain is the means by which the persona grows to a new power: the first statement of this is in 'Poem for a Birthday': 'We grow / It hurts at first. The red tongues will reach the truth.' The skill of 'Lady Lazarus' is exhibited by the tone of this ending which is ironic but without bitterness—we are out of the human world either of the voyeuristic onlooker or the concentration camp doctors and rising into the half-delirious visionary Paradise to which the 'pure acetylene virgin' of 'Fever 103°' aspires. It is a Paradise of autonomy and recognised identity, an image of completeness and completeness is one of the central subjects of Ariel. Crossing the Water achieves the ironic perspective but it fails to organise the opposites of Plath's vision into the drive towards perfection of Ariel.

A final demonstration of the distinction between the assurance and imagistic richness of the late poetry and the valuable experiments of the transitional period lies in a comparison of 'Candles' with 'Nick and the Candlestick.' Both poems start from the imaginative associations of a mother nursing her child by candlelight but whereas 'Candles' goes no further than a consideration of the passage of time which links the Edwardian grandparents with the new baby, 'Nick and the Candlestick' encompasses the painful world of the creative imagination and the potential dangers of the man-made world but is able to move beyond both in the affirmation of the mother's love for the child:

     You are the one
     Solid the spaces lean on envious.
     You are the baby in the barn.

The last verse is an elliptical comment on the poem's structure for the baby is realised with detail and humanity at the heart of a poem which deals in abstractions. 'Nick and the Candlestick' is a very densely structured poem where each image, almost each word of the first half finds its echo in the second half and the joy of the ending does not evade the pain of the first half—baby and mother have not escaped from the subterranean cave only hung it with soft roses and the mercuric atoms still drip into the terrible well. The structure of 'Candles' in comparison is merely linear. Sylvia Plath's greatness lies not in the extremity of her subjects, although it is this extremity which may initially draw the reader into the poem, but in her handling of richly allusive images and this is the point of 'Stillborn' which recognises that formal structure must give way to the organic unity of associative imagery. The more one reads the poetry the less possible it is not to seek echoes in other poems. The poet who composed slowly and cerebrally with frequent recourse to the Thesaurus and dictionary and who delighted in the esoteric and archaic was involved in the intellectual discipline of analogy and alternative which paved the way for the apparently effortless flow of association and image. 'Nick and the Candlestick' is an extraordinary complex and intellectually difficult poem but that difficulty is not a high gloss imposed on the poem by a mind still confined by an academic tradition, it is the natural attribute of what Sylvia Plath called 'that unicorn thing—a real poem.'

Pamela J. Annas (essay date 1980)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4321

SOURCE: "The Self in the World: The Social Context of Sylvia Plath's Late Poems," in Women's Studies, Vol. 7, Nos. 1-2, 1980, pp. 171-83.

[In the following essay, Annas offers analysis of depersonalization in Plath's poetry which, according to Annas, embodies Plath's response to oppressive modern society and her "dual consciousness of self as both subject and object."]

For surely it is time that the effect of disencouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured, as I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and Grade A milk upon the body of the rat. They set two rats in cages side by side, and of the two one was furtive, timid and small, and the other was glossy, bold and big. Now what food do we feed women as artists upon?

             —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

The dialectical tension between self and world is the location of meaning in Sylvia Plath's late poems. Characterized by a conflict between stasis and movement, isolation and engagement, these poems are largely about what stands in the way of the possibility of rebirth for the self. In "Totem," she writes: "There is no terminus, only suitcases / Out of which the same self unfolds like a suit / Bald and shiny, with pockets of wishes / Notions and tickets, short circuits and folding mirrors." While in the early poems the self was often imaged in terms of its own possibilities for transformation, in the post-Colossus poems the self is more often seen as trapped within a closed cycle. One moves—but only in a circle and continuously back to the same starting point. Rather than the self and the world, the Ariel poems record the self in the world. The self can change and develop, transform and be reborn, only if the world in which it exists does; the possibilities of the self are intimately and inextricably bound up with those of the world.

Sylvia Plath's sense of entrapment, her sense that her choices are profoundly limited, is directly connected to the particular time and place in which she wrote her poetry. Betty Friedan describes the late fifties and early sixties for American women as a "comfortable concentration camp"—physically luxurious, mentally oppressive and impoverished. The recurring metaphors of fragmentation and reification—the abstraction of the individual—in Plath's late poetry are socially and historically based. They are images of Nazi concentration camps, of "fire and bombs through the roof" ("The Applicant"), of cannons, of trains, of "wars, wars, wars" ("Daddy"). And they are images of kitchens, iceboxes, adding machines, typewriters, and the depersonalization of hospitals. The sea and the moon are still important images for Plath, but in the Ariel poems they have taken on a harsher quality. "The moon, also, is merciless," she writes in "Elm." While a painfully acute sense of the depersonalization and fragmentation of 1950's America is characteristic of Ariel, three poems describe particularly well the social landscape within which the "I" of Sylvia Plath's poems is trapped: "The Applicant," "Cut," and "The Munich Mannequins."

"The Applicant" is explicitly a portrait of marriage in contemporary Western culture. However, the "courtship" and "wedding" in the poem represent not only male/female relations but human relations in general. That job seeking is the central metaphor in "The Applicant" suggests a close connection between the capitalist economic system, the patriarchal family structure, and the general depersonalization of human relations. Somehow all interaction between people, and especially that between men and women, given the history of the use of women as items of barter, seems here to be conditioned by the ideology of a bureaucratized market place. However this system got started, both men and women are implicated in its perpetuation. As in many of Plath's poems, one feels in reading "The Applicant" that Plath sees herself and her imaged personae as not merely caught in—victims of—this situation, but in some sense culpable as well. In "The Applicant," the poet is speaking directly to the reader, addressed as "you" throughout. We too are implicated, for we too are potential "applicants."

People are described as crippled and as dismembered pieces of bodies in the first stanza of "The Applicant." Thus imagery of dehumanization begins the poem. Moreover, the pieces described here are not even flesh, but "a glass eye, false teeth or a crutch, / A brace or a hook, / Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch." We are already so involved in a sterile and machine-dominated culture that we are likely part artifact and sterile ourselves. One is reminded not only of the imagery of other Plath poems, but also of the controlling metaphor of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, written at about the same time as "The Applicant"—in 1962–, and Chief Bromden's conviction that those people who are integrated into society are just collections of wheels and cogs, smaller replicas of a smoothly functioning larger social machine. "The ward is a factory for the Combine," Bromden thinks. "Something that came all twisted different is now a functioning, adjusted component, a credit to the whole outfit and a marvel to behold. Watch him sliding across the land with a welded grin …"

In stanza two of "The Applicant," Plath describes the emptiness which characterizes the applicant and which is a variant on the roboticized activity of Kesey's Adjusted Man. Are there "stitches to show something's missing?" she asks. The applicant's hand is empty, so she provides "a hand"

     To fill it and willing
     To bring teacups and roll away headaches
     And do whatever you tell it
     Will you marry it?

Throughout the poem, people are talked about as parts and surfaces. The suit introduced in stanza three is at least as alive as the hollow man and mechanical doll woman of the poem. In fact, the suit, an artifact, has more substance and certainly more durability than the person to whom it is offered "in marriage." Ultimately, it is the suit which gives shape to the applicant where before he was shapeless, a junk heap of fragmented parts.

     I notice you are stark naked.
     How about this suit—
     Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
     Will you marry it?
     It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
     Against fire and bombs through the roof.
     Believe me, they'll bury you in it.

The man in the poem is finally defined by the black suit he puts on, but the definition of the woman shows her to be even more alienated and dehumanized. While the man is a junk heap of miscellaneous parts given shape by a suit of clothes, the woman is a wind-up toy, a puppet of that black suit. She doesn't even exist unless the black suit needs and wills her to.

      Will you marry it?
      It is guaranteed
      To thumb shut your eyes at the end
      And dissolve of sorrow.
      We make new stock from the salt.

The woman in the poem is referred to as "it." Like the man, she has no individuality, but where his suit gives him form, standing for the role he plays in a bureaucratic society, for the work he does, the only thing that gives the woman form is the institution of marriage. She does not exist before it and dissolves back into nothingness after it. In "The Applicant" there is at least an implication that something exists underneath the man's black suit; that however fragmented he is, he at least marries the suit and he at least has a choice. In contrast, the woman is the role she plays; she does not exist apart from it. "Naked as paper to start," Plath writes,

     But in twenty-five years she'll be silver,
     In fifty, gold.
     A living doll, everywhere you look.
     It can sew, it can cook.
     It can talk, talk, talk.

The man, the type of a standard issue corporation junior executive, is also alienated. He has freedom of choice only in comparison to the much more limited situation of the woman. That is to say, he has relative freedom of choice in direct proportion to his role as recognized worker in the economic structure of his society. This should not imply, however, that this man is in any kind of satisfying and meaningful relation to his work. The emphasis in "The Applicant" upon the man's surface—his black suit—together with the opening question of the poem ("First, are you our sort of person?") suggests that even his relationship to his work is not going to be in any sense direct or satisfying. It will be filtered first through the suit of clothes, then through the glass eye and rubber crotch before it can reach the real human being, assuming there is anything left of him.

The woman in the poem is seen as an appendage; she works, but she works in a realm outside socially recognized labor. She works for the man in the black suit. She is seen as making contact with the world only through the medium of the man, who is already twice removed. This buffering effect is exacerbated by the fact that the man is probably not engaged in work that would allow him to feel a relationship to the product of his labor. He is probably a bureaucrat of some kind, and therefore his relationship is to pieces of paper, successive and fragmented paradigms of the product (whatever it is, chamberpots or wooden tables) rather than to the product itself. And of course, the more buffered the man is, the more buffered the woman is, for in a sense her real relationship to the world of labor is that of consumer rather than producer. Therefore, her only relationship to socially acceptable production—as opposed to consumption—is through the man.

In another sense, however, the woman is not a consumer, but a commodity. Certainly she is seen as a commodity in this poem, as a reward only slightly less important than his black suit, which the man receives for being "our sort of person." It can be argued that the man is to some extent also a commodity; yet just as he is in a sense more a laborer and less a consumer than the woman—at least in terms of the social recognition of his position—so in a second sense he is more a consumer and less a commodity than the woman. And when we move out from the particularly flat, paper-like image of the woman in the poem to the consciousness which speaks the poem in a tone of bitter irony, then the situation of the woman as unrecognized worker/recognized commodity becomes clearer. The man in "The Applicant," because of the middle class bureaucratic nature of his work (one does not wear a new black suit to work in a steel mill or to handcraft a cabinet) and because of his position vis-a-vis the woman (her social existence depends upon his recognition), is more a member of an exploiting class than one which is exploited. There are some parts of his world, specifically those involving the woman, in which he can feel himself relatively in control and therefore able to understand his relationship to this world in a contemplative way. Thus, whatever we may think of the system he has bought into, he himself can see it as comparatively stable, a paradigm with certain static features which nevertheless allows him to move upward in an orderly fashion.

Within the context of this poem, then, and within the context of the woman's relationship to the man in the black suit, she is finally both worker and commodity while he is consumer. Her position is close to that of the Marxist conception of the proletariat. Fredric Jameson, in Marxism and Form, defines the perception of external objects and events which arises naturally in the consciousness of an individual who is simultaneously worker and commodity.

Even before [the worker] posits elements of the outside world as objects of his thought, he feels himself to be an object, and this initial alienation within himself takes precedence over everything else. Yet precisely in this terrible alienation lies the strength of the worker's position: his first movement is not toward knowledge of the work but toward knowledge of himself as an object, toward self-consciousness. Yet this self-consciousness, because it is initially knowledge of an object (himself, his own labor as a commodity, his life force which he is under obligation to sell), permits him more genuine knowledge of the commodity nature of the outside world than is granted to middle-class "objectivity." For [and here Jameson quotes Georg Lukacs in The History of Class Consciousness] "his consciousness is the self-consciousness of merchandise itself …"

This dual consciousness of self as both subject and object is characteristic of the literature of minority and/or oppressed classes. It is characteristic of the proletarian writer in his (admittedly often dogmatic) perception of his relation to a decadent past, a dispossessed present, and a utopian future. It is characteristic of black American writers; W. E. B. Du Bois makes a statement very similar in substance to Jameson's in The Souls of Black Folk, and certainly the basic existential condition of Ellison's invisible man is his dual consciousness which only toward the end of that novel becomes a means to freedom of action rather than paralysis. It is true of contemporary women writers, of novelists like Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, and Rita Mae Brown, and of poets like Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Marge Piercy. In a sense, it is more characteristic of American literature than of any other major world literature, for each immigrant group, however great its desire for assimilation into the American power structure, initially possessed this dual consciousness. Finally, a dialectical perception of self as both subject and object, both worker and commodity, in relation to past and future as well as present, is characteristic of revolutionary literature, whether the revolution is political or cultural.

Sylvia Plath has this dialectical awareness of self as both subject and object in particular relation to the society in which she lived. The problem for her, and perhaps the main problem of Cold War America, is in the second aspect of a dialectical consciousness—an awareness of oneself in significant relation to past and future. The first person narrator of what is probably Plath's best short story, "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," is a clerk/typist in a psychiatric clinic, a self-described "dream connoisseur" who keeps her own personal record of all the dreams which pass through her office, and who longs to look at the oldest record book the Psychoanalytic Institute possesses. "This dream book was spanking new the day I was born," she says, and elsewhere makes the connection even clearer: "The clinic started thirty-three years ago—the year of my birth, oddly enough." This connection suggests the way in which Plath uses history and views herself in relation to it. The landscape of her late work is a contemporary social landscape. It goes back in time to encompass such significant historical events as the Rosenberg trial and execution—the opening chapter of The Bell Jar alludes dramatically to these events—and of course it encompasses, is perhaps obsessed with, the major historical event of Plath's time, the second world war. But social history seems to stop for Plath where her own life starts, and it is replaced at that point by a mythic timeless past populated by creatures from folk tale and classical mythology. This is not surprising, since as a woman this poet had little part in shaping history. Why should she feel any relation to it? But more crucially, there is no imagination of the future in Sylvia Plath's work, no utopian or even antiutopian consciousness. In her poetry there is a dialectical consciousness of the self as simultaneously object and subject, but in her particular social context she was unable to develop a consciousness of herself in relation to a past and future beyond her own lifetime. This foreshortening of a historical consciousness affects in turn the dual consciousness of self in relation to itself (as subject) and in relation to the world (as object). It raises the question of how one accounts objectively for oneself. For instance, if I am involved in everything I see, can I still be objective and empirical in my perception, free from myth and language? Finally, this foreshortening of historical consciousness affects the question of whether the subject is a function of the object or vice versa. Since the two seem to have equal possibilities, this last question is never resolved. As a result, the individual feels trapped; and in Sylvia Plath's poetry one senses a continual struggle to be reborn into some new present which causes the perceiving consciousness, when it opens its eyes, to discover that it has instead (as in "Lady Lazarus") made a "theatrical / Comeback in broad day / To the same place, the same face, the same brute / Amused shout: 'A miracle!'"

This difficulty in locating the self and the concomitant suspicion that as a result the self may be unreal are clear in poems like "Cut," which describe the self-image of the poet as paper. The ostensible occasion of "Cut" is slicing one's finger instead of an onion; the first two stanzas of the poem describe the cut finger in minute and almost naturalistic detail. There is a suppressed hysteria here which is only discernible in the poem's curious mixture of surrealism and objectivity. The images of the poem are predominantly images of terrorism and war, immediately suggested to the poet by the sight of her bleeding finger: "out of a gap / A million soldiers run," "Saboteur / Kamikaze man—," and finally, "trepanned veteran." The metaphors of war are extensive, and, though suggested by the actual experience, they are removed from it.

In the one place in the poem where the speaker mentions her own feelings as a complete entity (apart from but including her cut finger) the image is of paper. She says,

     O my
     Homunculus, I am ill.
     I have taken a pill to kill
     The thin
     Papery feeling.

Paper often stands for the self-image of the poet in the post-Colossus poems. It is used in the title poem of Crossing the Water, where the "two black cut-paper people" appear less substantial and less real than the solidity and immensity of the natural world surrounding them. In the play Three Women, the Secretary says of the men in her office: "there was something about them like cardboard, and now I had caught it." She sees her own infertility as directly related to her complicity in a bureaucratic, impersonal, male-dominated society. Paper is symbolic of our particular socioeconomic condition and its characteristic bureaucratic labor. It stands for insubstantiality; the paper model of something is clearly less real than the thing itself, even though in "developed" economies the machines, accoutrements, and objects appear to have vitality, purpose, and emotion, while the people are literally colorless, objectified, and atrophied.

The paper self is therefore part of Plath's portrait of a depersonalized society, a bureaucracy, a paper world. In "A Life" (Crossing the Water), she writes: "A woman is dragging her shadow in a circle / About a bald hospital saucer. / It resembles the moon, or a sheet of blank paper / And appears to have suffered a private blitzkrieg." In "Tulips" the speaker of the poem, also a hospital patient, describes herself as "flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow / Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips." In "The Applicant," the woman is again described as paper: "Naked as paper to start / But in twenty-five years she'll be silver, / In fifty, gold." Here in "Cut," the "thin, / Papery feeling" juxtaposes her emotional dissociation from the wound to the horrific detail of the cut and the bloody images of conflict it suggests. It stands for her sense of depersonalization, for the separation of self from self, and is juxtaposed to that devaluation of human life which is a necessary precondition to war, the separation of society from itself. In this context, it is significant that one would take a pill to kill a feeling of substancelessness and depersonalization. Writing about American women in the 1950's, Betty Friedan asks, "Just what was the problem that had no name? What were the words women used when they tried to express it? Sometimes a woman would say, 'I feel empty somehow … incomplete.' Or she would say, 'I feel as if I don't exist.' Sometimes she blotted out the feeling with a tranquilizer."

A papery world is a sterile world; this equation recurs throughout the Ariel poems. For Sylvia Plath, stasis and perfection are always associated with sterility, while fertility is associated with movement and process. The opening lines of "The Munich Mannequins" introduce this equation. "Perfection is terrible," Plath writes, "it cannot have children. / Cold as snow breath, it tamps the womb / Where the yew trees blow like hydras." The setting of "The Munich Mannequins" is a city in winter. Often, Plath's poems have imaged winter as a time of rest preceding rebirth ("Wintering," "Frog Autumn"), but only when the reference point is nature. The natural world is characterized in Sylvia Plath's poems by process, by the ebb and flow of months and seasons, by a continual dying and rebirth. The moon is a symbol for the monthly ebb and flow of the tides and of a woman's body. The social world, however, the world of the city, is both male defined and separated from this process. In the city, winter has more sinister connotations; it suggests death rather than hibernation. Here the cold is equated with the perfection and sterility to which the poem's opening lines refer. Perfection stands in "The Munich Mannequins" for something artificially created and part of the social world.

The poem follows the male quest for perfection to its logical end—mannequins in a store window—lifeless and mindless "in their sulphur loveliness, in their smiles." The mannequins contrast with the real woman in the same way that the city contrasts with the moon. The real woman is not static but complicated:

      The tree of life and the tree of life
      Unloosing their moons, month after month, to no purpose.
      The blood flood is the flood of love,
      The absolute sacrifice

However, in Munich, "morgue between Paris and Rome," the artificial has somehow triumphed. Women have become mannequins or have been replaced by mannequins, or at least mannequins seem to have a greater reality because they are more ordered and comprehensible than real women.

It is appropriate that Plath should focus on the middle class of a German city, in a country where fascism was a middle class movement and women allowed themselves to be idealized, to be perfected, to be made, essentially, into mannequins. In "The Munich Mannequins," as in "The Applicant," Plath points out the deadening of human beings, their disappearance and fragmentation and accretion into the objects that surround them. In "The Applicant" the woman is a paper doll; here she has been replaced by a store window dummy. In "The Applicant" all that is left of her at the end is a kind of saline solution; in "The Munich Mannequins" the only remaining sign of her presence is "the domesticity of these windows / The baby lace, the green-leaved confectionery." And where the man in "The Applicant" is described in terms of his black suit, here the men are described in terms of their shoes, present in the anonymity of hotel corridors, where

      Hands will be opening doors and setting
      Down shoes for a polish of carbon
      Into which broad toes will go tomorrow.

People accrete to their things, are absorbed into their artifacts. Finally, they lose all sense of a whole self and become atomized. Parts of them connect to their shoes, parts to their suits, parts to their lace curtains, parts to their iceboxes, and so on. There is nothing left; people have become reified and dispersed into a cluttered artificial landscape of their own production.

Because the world she describes is a place created by men rather than women (since men are in control of the forces of production), Plath sees men as having ultimate culpability for this state of affairs which affects both men and women. But men have gone further than this in their desire to change and control the world around them. In "The Munich Mannequins" man has finally transformed woman into a puppet, a mannequin, something that reflects both his disgust with and his fear of women. A mannequin cannot have children, but neither does it have that messy, terrifying, and incomprehensible blood flow each month. Mannequins entirely do away with the problems of female creativity and self-determination. Trapped inside this vision, therefore, the speaker of the Ariel poems sees herself caught between nature and society, biology and intellect, Dionysus and Apollo, her self definition and the expectations of others, as between two mirrors.

Discussion of the Ariel poems has often centered around Sylvia Plath's most shocking images. Yet her images of wars and concentration camps, of mass and individual violence, are only the end result of an underlying depersonalization, an abdication of people to their artifacts, and an economic and social structure that equates people and objects. Like the paper doll woman in "The Applicant," Sylvia Plath was doubly alienated from such a world, doubly objectified by it, and as a woman artist, doubly isolated within it. Isolated both from a past tradition and a present community, she found it difficult to structure new alternatives for the future. No wonder her individual quest for rebirth failed as it led her continuously in a circle back to the same self in the same world. Finally, what Sylvia Plath has bequeathed us in her poems is a brilliant narrative of the struggle to survive.

Linda W. Wagner (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5087

SOURCE: "Plath's The Bell Jar as Female Bildungsroman," in Women's Studies, Vol. 12, No. 1, 1986, pp. 55-68.

[In the following essay, Wagner examines The Bell Jar as the chronicle of a young woman's psychological development and search for identity. As Wagner notes, Plath's depiction of the heroine's madness and thinly veiled anger at patriarchal society differs from the traditional bildungsroman in which the author strives to provide moral education.]

One of the most misunderstood of contemporary novels, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is in structure and intent a highly conventional bildungsroman. Concerned almost entirely with the education and maturation of Esther Greenwood, Plath's novel uses a chronological and necessarily episodic structure to keep Esther at the center of all action. Other characters are fragmentary, subordinate to Esther and her developing consciousness, and are shown only through their effects on her as central character. No incident is included which does not influence her maturation, and the most important formative incidents occur in the city, New York. As Jerome Buckley describes the bildungsroman in his 1974 Season of Youth, its principal elements are "a growing up and gradual self-discovery," "alienation," "provinciality, the larger society," "the conflict of generations," "ordeal by love" and "the search for a vocation and a working philosophy."

Plath signals the important change of location at the opening of The Bell Jar. "It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York…. New York was bad enough. By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that somehow seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail end of a sweet dream. Mirage-gray at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered, and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down my throat." Displaced, misled by the morning freshness, Greenwood describes a sterile, inimical setting for her descent into, and exploration of, a hell both personal and communal. Readers have often stressed the analogy between Greenwood and the Rosenbergs—and sometimes lamented the inappropriateness of Plath's comparing her personal angst with their actual execution—but in this opening description, the Rosenberg execution is just one of the threatening elements present in the New York context. It is symptomatic of the "foreign" country's hostility, shown in a myriad of ways throughout the novel.

In The Bell Jar, as in the traditional bildungsroman, the character's escape to a city images the opportunity to find self as well as truths about life. Such characters as Pip, Paul Morel, and Jude Fawley idealize the city as a center of learning and experience, and think that once they have re-located themselves, their lives will change dramatically. As Buckley points out, however, the city is often ambivalent: "the city, which seems to promise infinite variety and newness, all too often brings a disenchantment more alarming and decisive than any dissatisfaction with the narrowness of provincial life." For Esther Greenwood, quiet Smith student almost delirious with the opportunity to go to New York and work for Mademoiselle for a month, the disappointment of her New York experience is cataclysmic. Rather than shape her life, it nearly ends it; and Plath structures the novel to show the process of disenchantment in rapid acceleration.

The novel opens in the midst of Greenwood's month in New York, although she tells the story in flashbacks; and for the first half of the book—ten of its twenty chapters—attention remains there, or on past experiences that are germane to the New York experiences. Greenwood recounts living with the other eleven girls on the Mademoiselle board at the Amazon Hotel, doing assignments for the tough fiction editor Jay Cee, going to lunches and dances, buying clothes, dating men very unlike the fellows she had known at college, and sorting through lifestyles like Doreen's which shock, bewilder, and yet fascinate her. Events as predictably mundane as these are hardly the stuff of exciting fiction but Plath has given them an unexpected drama because of the order in which they appear. The Bell Jar is plotted to establish two primary themes: that of Greenwood's developing identity, or lack of it; and that of her battle against submission to the authority of both older people and, more pertinently, of men. The second theme is sometimes absorbed by the first but Plath uses enough imagery of sexual conquest that it comes to have an almost equal importance. For a woman of the 1950s, finding an identity other than that of sweetheart, girlfriend, and wife and mother was a major achievement.

Greenwood's search for identity is described through a series of episodes that involve possible role models. Doreen, the Southern woman whose rebelliousness fascinates Esther, knows exactly what she will do with her time in New York. The first scene in the novel is Doreen's finding the macho Lenny Shepherd, disc jockey and playboy par excellance. Attracted by Doreen's "decadence," Esther goes along with the pair until the sexual jitterbug scene ends with Doreen's mellon-like breasts flying out of her dress after she has bitten Lenny's ear lobe. Esther has called herself Elly Higginbottom in this scene, knowing instinctively that she wants to be protected from the kind of knowledge Doreen has. Plath describes Esther as a photo negative, a small black dot, a hole in the ground; and when she walks the 48 blocks home to the Amazon in panic, she sees no one recognizable in the mirror. Some Chinese woman, she thinks, "wrinkled and used up," and, later, "the reflection in a ball of dentist's mercury." Purging herself in a hot bath, Greenwood temporarily escapes her own consciousness: "Doreen is dissolving, Lenny Shepherd is dissolving, Frankie is dissolving, New York is dissolving, they are all dissolving away and none of them matter any more. I don't know them, I have never known them and I am very pure." Unfortunately, when Doreen pounds on her door later that night, drunk and sick, Esther has to return to the real world. Her revulsion is imaged in Doreen's uncontrollable vomit.

The second "story" of the New York experience is the ptomaine poisoning of all the girls except Doreen after the Ladies' Day magazine luncheon. Plath's vignette of Jay Cee is imbedded in this account; the editor's great disappointment in Greenwood (because she has no motivation, no direction) serves to make Esther more depressed. As she comes near death from the poisoning, she also assesses the female role models available to her: her own mother, who urges her to learn shorthand; the older writer Philomena Guinea, who has befriended her but prescriptively; and Jay Cee, by now an admonitory figure. Although Esther feels "purged and holy and ready for a new life" after her ordeal, she cannot rid herself of the feeling of betrayal. No sooner had she realized Jay Cee ("I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I'd know what to do") than she had disappointed her. The development of the novel itself illustrates the kind of irony Esther had employed in the preface, with the lament

I was supposed to be having the time of my life.

I was supposed to be the envy of thousands of other college girls just like me all over America….

Look what can happen in this country, they'd say. A girl lives in some out-of-the-way town for nineteen years, so poor she can't afford a magazine, and then she gets a scholarship to college and wins a prize here and a prize there and ends up steering New York like her own private car.

Only I wasn't steering anything, not even myself.

Plath's handling of these early episodes makes clear Greenwood's very real confusion about her direction. As Buckley has pointed out, the apparent conflict with parent or location in the bildungsroman is secondary to the real conflict, which remains "personal in origin; the problem lies with the hero himself" (or herself).

Esther Greenwood's struggle to know herself, to be self-motivated, to become a writer as she has always dreamed is effectively presented through Plath's comparatively fragmented structure. As Patricia Meyer Spacks writes in 1981 about literature of the adolescent, the adolescent character has no self to discover. The process is not one of discovering a persona already there but rather creating a persona. Unlike Esther, then, perhaps we should not be disturbed that the face in her mirror is mutable. We must recognize with sympathy, however, that she carries the weight of having to maintain a number of often conflicting identities—the obliging daughter and the ungrateful woman, the successful writer and the immature student, the virginal girlfriend and the worldly lover. In its structure, The Bell Jar shows how closely these strands are interwoven.

While Plath is ostensibly writing about Esther's New York experiences and her quest for a female model, she regularly interjects comments about Buddy Willard, the Yale medical student who has proposed to Esther. Early references to him connect him with the haunting childbirth scene and the bottled foetuses and cadavers he has introduced Esther to. That these images are all connected with women's traditional choices in life—to become mothers—begins to frame the essential conflict between Buddy and Esther. From chapters five through eight Plath describes the romance between the two, but the extensive flashback seems less an intrusion than an explication. Esther is what she is in New York because of the indoctrination she has had at the hands of her socially-approved guide, Buddy Willard. For Buddy, women are helpmeets, submissive to husband's wishes; they have no identity in themself. Esther's desire to become a poet is nonsense (poems are "dust" in his vocabulary); her true role is to be virginal and accepting of his direction—whether the terrain be sex or skiing. More explicit than their conversations are the images Plath chooses to describe Esther during this section, images of frustration and futility.

One central image is that of the fig tree, first introduced after Esther has nearly died from food poisoning and is reading the stories Ladies' Day has sent the convalescents. Lush in its green spring, the fig tree nourishes the love of an unaware couple. In contrast, Esther describes her love for Buddy as dying,

we had met together under our own imaginary fig tree, and what we had seen wasn't a bird coming out of an egg but a baby coming out of a woman, and then something awful happened and we went our separate ways.

When the fig tree metaphor recurs to Esther, she sees it filled with fat purple figs ("one fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor…." She sits in the crotch of the tree, however, "starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest." The dilemma of her adolescence—unlike that of most men—was that any choice was also a relinquishing. Greenwood believed firmly that there was no way, in the American culture of the 1950s, that a talented woman could successfully combine a professional career with homemaking. As Mrs. Willard kept insisting, "What a man is is an arrow into the future and what a woman is is the place the arrow shoots off from."

Eventually, in Esther's metaphor, the figs rot and die, a conclusion which aligns the image tonally with the rest of the novel. In her highly visual presentation of Esther's education, Plath consistently shows characters who are poisoned, diseased, injured, bloodied, and even killed. The violence of her characterization seems a fitting parallel for the intensity of her feelings about the dilemmas Greenwood faces as she matures. (Again, in Spacks' words, "The great power implicitly assigned to adolescents in social science studies belongs to them only as a group. As individuals, psychological commentary makes clear, they suffer uncertainty, absence of power.") Greenwood's persona is clearly marked by feelings of "uncertainty," based on her all-too-sharp understanding of her "absence of power." When Buddy, who has never skiied himself, "instructs" her in the sport and encourages her in the long run that breaks her leg in two places, she obeys him almost mindlessly. (The fact that she finds a sense of self and power in the run is an unexpected benefit for her.) Buddy's malevolence as he diagnoses the breaks and predicts that she will be in a cast for months is a gleeful insight into his real motives for maintaining their relationship while he is hospitalized for tuberculosis. Esther is his possession, his security, his way of keeping his own self image normal in the midst of his increasing plumpness and his fear of disease.

Buddy's sadistic treatment of Esther prepares the way for the last New York episode, Esther's date with the cruel woman-hater, Marco. Replete with scenes of violence, sexual aggression, mud and possession, this last of the New York stories plunges the reader further into the relentless depravity the city has provided. Marco's brutal rape attempt and his marking Esther with blood from his bleeding nose are physically even more insulting than his calling her slut. But even though the men in Esther's life are responsible for these events, Plath shows clearly that Esther's passivity and her lack of questioning are also responsible. Esther's malaise has made her incapable of dealing with aggression either subtle or overt—except privately. Once she has returned to the Amazon, she carries all her expensive clothes to the roof of the hotel and throws them into the sky. Her anger at New York is at least partly misplaced, but Plath has shown that the city and its occupants have exacerbated wounds already given in more provincial and seemingly protective locations. Throwing out her clothes is tantamount to rejecting the traditional image of pretty, smart girl, object for man's acquisition (the use throughout the novel of the Mademoiselle photographs of the fashionably dressed coeds also builds to this scene).

Unfortunately, once Plath returns home—dressed in Betsey's skirt and blouse and still carrying Marco's blood streaks on her face—she finds that she has been rejected from the prestigious Harvard writing course. That blow destroys the last shred of self image (Greenwood as writer), and the second half of the novel shows Esther's education not in the process of becoming adult but rather in the process of becoming mad. Again, Plath structures the book so that role model figures are introduced and either discredited or approved. Esther's mother, who appears to think her daughter's insanity is just malingering, is quickly discredited. The irony is that Esther not only must live with the woman; she must also share a bedroom (and by implication, the most intimate parts of her life) with her. Joan Gilling, a Smith student and previous rival for Buddy's affections, presents the option of lesbian life, but her own stability has been irrevocably damaged and she later hangs herself. Doctor Norton, Esther's psychiatrist, is the warm, tolerant and just mentor whose efforts to help Esther understand herself are quickly rewarded. Doctor Norton gives her leave to both hate her mother, and the attitudes she represents, and to be fitted with a diaphragm, so that the previously closed world of sexual experience will be open to her. As Plath has presented both areas of experience throughout the novel, Esther needs to be free from conventional judgments so that she will not absorb so much guilt. One of the most telling scenes in the second half of the book is her reaction to her first electroshock treatment: "I wondered what terrible thing it was that I had done."

The relentless guilt Esther feels as she looks from her bedroom window and sees the neighbor Dodo Conway, wheeling her latest child of six while she is pregnant with the seventh, brings all the scattered images of childbirth and female responsibility to a climax. Unless she accepts this role, Esther will have no life—this is the message her society, even the most supportive elements in it, gives her. But Plath has used one key image during the childbirth scene, that of a "long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain … waiting to open up and shut her in again," and that image of relentless suffering recurs throughout the second half of The Bell Jar. It is, in fact, the title image, an encasement, unrelieved, where Esther is "stewing in my own sour air." More frightening than the bewildering crotch of the fig tree, the bell jar presents no choices, no alternatives, except death. Another late image is that of "a black, airless sack with no way out." Choice has been subsumed to guilty depression, and one of the refrains that haunts Esther is You'll never get anywhere like that, you'll never get anywhere like that.

And so the second half of the novel becomes a chronicle of Esther's education in suicide and her various suicide attempts. So expertly and completely have the contradictions of her adolescent education been presented in the first ten chapters that Plath needs do very little with background during the second half. Buddy Willard makes only one appearance, wondering sadly who will marry Esther now that she has been "here." Such a scene only confirms the intent of his characterization earlier in the book. Even during the second half of the novel, Esther remains the good student. In her study of suicide, she reads, asks questions, correlates material, chooses according to her own personality, and progresses just as if she were writing a term paper. All factual information is given in the context of her needs, however, so the essential charting of Esther's psyche dominates the rest of the book.

Many of the episodes in the latter part of the novel are skeletal. It is as if Plath were loathe to give up any important details but that she also realized that her readers were, in effect, reading two stories. The first half of The Bell Jar gives the classic female orientation and education, with obvious indications of the failure of that education appearing near the end of the New York experience. The second half gives an equally classic picture of mental deterioration and its treatment, a picture relatively new to fiction in the late 1950s, important both culturally and personally to Plath. But the exigencies of the fictional form were pressing, and Plath had already crowded many characters and episodes into her structure. The somewhat ambivalent ending may have occurred as much because the book was growing so long as because Plath was uncertain about the outcome of her protagonist. As the text makes clear, the main reason for a fairly open ending is that Esther herself had to remain unsure about the condition of her recovery, about her health in the future: she saw question marks; she hoped the bell jar would not close down again; but she also affirmed that her leaving the asylum was a birth, and that there should be "a ritual for being born twice." The recurrence of the "old brag" of her heart—"I am, I am, I am"—is much more comforting than another time the refrain had occurred, as she contemplated death through drowning.

The Esther Greenwood pictured in the later pages of The Bell Jar is a much more confident person. She knows she does not want to be like the lobotomized Valerie, incapable of any emotion. She knows real grief at Joan's funeral, and real anger at Buddy's visit. She understands the enormity of her mother's refusal to accept the truth about her illness, and the corresponding and somewhat compensatory generosity of Doctor Nolan's acceptance of it. Esther is also much more aggressive in her language. For the first time in the years depicted, she speaks directly. "'I have a bill here, Irwin,'" she says quietly to the man who was her first lover. "'I hate her,'" she admits to Doctor Nolan about her mother. "'You had nothing to do with us, Buddy,'" she says scathingly to her former boyfriend. Even early in her breakdown she is quite direct ("I can't sleep. I can't read….") but the irony in these encounters is that no one she speaks with will attend to what she is saying. Various doctors, her mother, friends persist in translating what she is saying ("I haven't slept for fourteen nights") into meanings that are acceptable to them. One climactic scene between Esther and her mother shows this tendency to mishear and misinterpret, and also gives the best description of the bell jar stifling:

My mother's face floated to mind, a pale, reproachful moon….

A daughter in an asylum! I had done that to her. Still, she had obviously decided to forgive me.

"We'll take up where we left off, Esther," she had said, with her sweet, martyr's smile. "We'll act as if all this were a bad dream."

A bad dream.

To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream.

A bad dream.

I remembered everything.

I remembered the cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig tree and Marco's diamond….

Maybe forgetfulness, like a kind snow, should numb and cover them.

But they were part of me. They were my landscape.

If a woman's life must be suffused with the image of herself as nurturer, mother, passive sustainer, then the most horrible of all negative images is that of a dead baby. Plath's choice of the adjectives blank and stopped is powerful; these words are unexpected opposites for the clichés usually associated with a child's growth. By implication, Esther places herself in the dual role of child and mother, and finds no satisfaction in either. And in this scene, she finds particularly hateful the fact that her tortuous experience of madness, which has brought her finally to a new stage of development, be written off by her mother as illusory, a bad dream. It is not surprising that she throws away the roses her mother has brought for her birthday, discounting that biological event in favor of the second birth, the rebirth, to be accomplished when she leaves the asylum, with Doctor Nolan as her guide. The closing lines of The Bell Jar surely draw a birth scene:

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 when Doctor Nolan appeared from nowhere and touched me on the shoulder.

"All right, Esther."

I rose and followed her to the open door.

Pausing, for a brief breath, on the threshold, I saw the silver-haired doctor who had told me about the rivers and the Pilgrims on my first day, 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.

In contrast to the doorless blankness of tunnels, sacks, and bell jars, this open door and Esther's ability to breathe are surely positive images.

Inherent in the notion of bildungsroman is the sense that such a novel will provide a blueprint for a successful education, however the word successful is defined. At times, as in Jude the Obscure, education comes too late to save the protagonist, but the issue is more the information to be conveyed than the factual ending of the character's saga. For Jerome Buckley, if the protagonist has the means to give life "some ultimate coherence," then education has been efficacious. The Bell Jar gives the reader the sense that Esther has, at least momentarily, gained the ability to achieve that coherence. Because so few bildungsromane deal with madness, however, exact comparisons between Plath's novel and those usually considered in such generic discussions are difficult; but because so many women's novels treat the subject of madness, The Bell Jar cannot be considered an anomaly. Its very representativeness is suggested in Patricia Spacks' comment that most female novels of adolescence "stress the world's threat more than its possibilities; their happy endings derive less from causal sequence than from fortunate accident." The very titles of comparable novels indicate this difference. The Bell Jar, with its sinister implications of airlessness, imprisonment, and isolation, is a far remove from Great Expectations; and in its most positive scenes cannot approach the ringing self-confidence of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, although it is surely that novel writ female.

Among other differences between the conventional bildungsroman, which usually deals with a young man's education, and the female novel of experience in adolescence would be the shift in role from father as crucial parent to mother. Much of the process of education is imitative, so that figures which serve as role models will also shift from male to female. A female bildungsroman will thus seem to be peopled more heavily with women characters than with men, although cultural patterns would keep men—economically, socially and sexually—prominent. It may be because men must occur in the female novels that they come to play the role of adversary or antagonist, whereas in the male bildungsroman women can be simply omitted.

Educational experiences and choices leading to occupations will also differ, but none will be quite so persuasive as the female's need to choose between profession and domesticity. It is the inescapability of that choice that forces many a novel which would well be labeled bildungsroman into the category of domestic novel. Underlying what would seem to be the choice of profession is the less obvious issue of sexuality, which again plays a very different role in female adolescence than in male. In the conventional bildungsroman, sexual experience is but another step toward maturity. It suggests the eventual leaving one household to establish another. For a man, such a move may mean only that he hangs his hat in a different closet. For a woman, however, the move means a complete change of status, from mistress to servant, person responsible for the housekeeping in ways she would never have been as the young daughter of a house. A parallel degradation occurs in most representations of the sex act. Biological necessity and physical size mean that the female is usually a more passive partner in intercourse. The accoutrements of a sexual relationship are therefore different for women than for men, and the relationship may loom central to the female bildungsroman, while it may be almost peripheral to the male. Losing one's virginity unwisely seldom determines the eventual life of the male protagonist; it is the stuff of ostracism, madness, and suicide for a female, however. Plath's concern with Esther's sexual experience is relevant, certainly, for her choices will determine her life. Her aggression in finding Irwin so that she can be sexually experienced is a positive sign, but the characteristic irony—that she be the one in a million to hemorrhage after intercourse—mars the experience and tends to foreshadow the incipient bad luck which may follow cultural role reversal. As Plath knew only too well, society had its ways of punishing women who were too aggressive, too competent, and too masculine.

The apparent connections between Plath's experiences and Esther's are legitimate topics of discussion when bildungsromane are involved because the strength of such novels usually depends on the author's emotional involvement in the themes. Buckley points out that a bildungsroman is often an early novel, a first or a second, and that much of the life—as well as the ambivalence—of the novel exists because the author is so involved in the process he or she is describing. In Plath's case, The Bell Jar was not only her first novel; it was also published under a pseudonym. Limited to British publication in the original 1963 printing, under the authorship of "Victoria Lucas," the novel was an only partially disguised statement of Plath's anger toward a culture, and a family, that had nourished her only conditionally—that would accept her only provided she did "acceptable" things. If one of the goals of writing such a book was self-discovery, then Plath's evident anger may have been as dismaying, for her in the early 1960s, as it was unexpected.

Because it is this tone of wrenching anger that makes The Bell Jar seem so different from the novels generally categorized as bildungsroman. The wry self-mockery that gives way to the cryptic poignance of Esther's madness has no antecedent in earlier novels of development. It is in tone and mood that Plath succeeded in making the conventional form—which she followed in a number of important respects—her own.

What The Bell Jar ultimately showed was a woman struggling to become whole, not a woman who had reached some sense of stable self. And that conclusion, according to Annis Pratt in Archetypal Patterns in Women's Fiction, is what any reader might expect from a sensitive woman author. As Pratt observes,

even the most conservative women authors create narratives manifesting an acute tension between what any normal human being might desire and what a woman must become. Women's fiction reflects an experience radically different from men's because our drive towards growth as persons is thwarted by our society's prescriptions concerning gender … we are outcasts in the land….

So far as the generic differences are concerned, then, the female hero in a woman's bildungsroman will be "destined for disappointment." Pratt concludes, "The vitality and hopefulness characterizing the adolescent hero's attitude toward her future here meet and conflict with the expectations and dictates of the surrounding society. Every element of her desired world—freedom to come and go, allegiance to nature, meaningful work, exercise of the intellect, and use of her own erotic capabilities—inevitably clashes with patriarchal norms."

The Bell Jar must certainly be read as the story of that inevitable clash, a dulled and dulling repetition of lives all too familiar to contemporary readers, and a testimony to the repressive cultural mold that trapped many mid-century women, forcing them outside what should have been their rightful, productive lives. For those of us who lived through the 1950s, The Bell Jar moves far beyond being Sylvia Plath's autobiography.

Brita Lindberg-Seyersted (essay date December 1990)

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SOURCE: "Sylvia Plath's Psychic Landscapes," in English Studies, Vol. 71, No. 6, December, 1990, pp. 509-22.

[In the following essay, Lindberg-Seyersted examines the development of Plath's poetry through analysis of major themes and imagery found in her description of landscapes, seascapes, and the natural world.]

Following the lead of Ted Hughes, critics today tend to read Sylvia Plath's poetry as a unity. Individual poems are best read in the context of the whole oeuvre: motifs, themes and images link poems together and these linkages illuminate their meaning and heighten their power. It is certainly easy to see that through almost obsessive repetition some elements put their unforgettable mark on the poetry: themes such as the contradictory desires for life and death and the quests for selfhood and truth; images like those of color, with red, black and white dominating the palette; and symbols of haunting ambiguity, for example, the moon and the sea.

But equally obvious is the striking development that Plath's work underwent in the course of her brief career as a professional poet. This is perhaps most readily seen in the prosody: from exerting her equilibristic skill at handling demanding verse forms, such as the terza rima and the villanelle, she broke free of the demands of such literary conventions and created a personal verse form which still retained some of the basic elements of her earlier 'academic' style. She turned the three-line stanza of the villanelle into a highly flexible medium. Freed from the prosodic strictness of poems like 'Medallion,' written in 1959, this verse form reappeared in poems composed in the last year of her life in a superbly liberated yet controlled form. Some of her finest and most personal poems are written in this medium, for example, 'Fever 103°,' 'Ariel,' 'Nick and the Candlestick,' 'Lady Lazarus,' 'Mary's Song,' and the late 'Sheep in Fog,' 'Child' and 'Contusion.'

More important, though, is the development one can observe in Plath's handling of images and themes, of settings and scenes. My concern in this essay is Plath's use of landscapes as settings. There are indoor settings in her poetry, such as kitchens and bedrooms, hospitals and museums, but the outdoor ones are in overwhelming majority. Plath's use of landscapes and seascapes is indeed one of the most characteristic features of her poetry. They put their mark on a considerable part of the work and appear throughout her career, linked as they are to her experiences as a woman and a poet. The seascapes with their crucial relevance for themes like the daughter-father relationship, loss and death, deserve a special and thorough treatment of their own and will have to fall outside the scope of this essay.

No reader can fail to note the many items of nature that Plath makes use of as setting and image. Three scholars have paid special attention to this aspect. In her pioneering work, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath: A Study of Themes (1972), Ingrid Melander includes analyses of poems set in different landscapes and seascapes that Plath knew; in addition to discussing a group of poems connected to the sea, she deals with the following landscape poems: two poems on the moorland ('Hardcastle Crags' and 'Wuthering Heights'); two 'idylls' ('Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows' and 'In Midas' Country'); and three 'landscapes as experienced by the traveller' ('Sleep in the Mojave Desert,' 'Stars over the Dordogne' and 'Two Campers in Cloud Country'). Melander's approach is thematic and she makes no attempt to suggest development or continuity concerning this aspect of the poetry.

In Jon Rosenblatt's Sylvia Plath: The Poetry of Initiation (1979), in my view still the most useful book-length critical study, the idea of development is a main concern. He devotes one chapter to Plath's use of landscapes and seascapes, focusing on the transition from early to late poetry as part of his overriding argument: that Plath's poetry enacts a ritual of initiation from symbolic death to rebirth. He programmatically refrains from placing her poems in extraliterary contexts, such as her biography.

Edward Butscher, on the other hand, goes to the other extreme in his critical biography, Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976), where he makes no essential difference between the life and the poetry. While he offers many imaginative and perceptive comments on Plath's anthropomorphizing of nature, they naturally become subsumed in the telling of the story of the poet's life and also, frequently, slightly distorted by Butscher's psychoanalytically loaded thesis about the emergence of Sylvia Plath the 'bitch goddess.'

Since the appearance of these three studies Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems has been published (1981) with a securer and more precise dating of the poems than before, and we are now in a better position to deal with the poems chronologically. The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1982) also add to our knowledge of the composition of the poems. Linda W. Wagner-Martin's recent biography (1987) has given us a firm platform to build our critical studies on, by confirming or correcting information provided by previous biographies and memoirs.

With the premise that Plath's poetry should be read as a unity I wish to study the development of her use of landscapes throughout her career, paying special attention to the role the landscape plays in the individual poem—quantitatively and qualitatively—and to the way the poet creates 'psychic' landscapes out of concrete places, scenes and objects. I tie this discussion firmly and consistently to actual landscapes Sylvia Plath had seen. With a poetry like Plath's, which is highly subjective and concrete, it is surely a disadvantage to disconnect the poems from the poet's life. My use of biography aims at illuminating the poetic process, and my main interest is in the subtle and gradual shift in the poet's technique: the process by which her landscapes become increasingly 'psychic' and at the end 'fragmented.'

Sylvia Plath evidently looked upon herself as a city person (in spite of her documented love of the sea). Amidst the beautiful scenery at an artists' colony in upstate New York she complained: 'I do rather miss Boston and don't think I could ever settle for living far from a big city full of museums and theaters.' Nevertheless she seldom used the cities and towns where she lived, more or less permanently, as settings in poems. Cambridge, England; Northampton, Massachusetts; Boston and London, these places made little impact on the poetry as cityscapes. When she draws on such settings, she usually lets her persona move from the streets and buildings to parks or gardens or surrounding fields. When she remembers Cambridge, she sees meadows and fields outside the town, as in 'Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows' (1959). Of Northampton she commemorates above all a park with frog pond, fountain, shrubbery and flowers, as in 'Frog Autumn' and 'Child's Park Stones,' both written in 1958. Where the town of Northampton itself does figure, in 'Owl' (1958), it is as a frivolous contrast to harshly elemental nature. Commenting on an actual experience in the summer of 1958 such as described in this poem, she noted: 'Visions of violence. The animal world seems to me more and more intriguing.' One of the rare poems with a London setting is 'Parliament Hill Fields' (1961), but typically the scene has a rural touch. (It is set on Hampstead Heath).

Inspired—and sometimes prodded—by her husband who was versed in country things, Sylvia Plath the city person turned to nature for topics and scenery. Shortly after having met Ted Hughes in the spring of 1956 she confided to her mother: 'I cannot stop writing poems!… They come from the vocabulary of woods and animals and earth that Ted is teaching me.' Prodded or inspired, Plath drew on her personal experiences of different places and landscapes as raw material for many of the poems. One might actually plot locations and stages of her life on the map of her work. Among the poems that open her career as a professional poet—her debut can conveniently be set to 1956—we can find scenes from her stay in England and her travels on the Continent. Later there will be scenes from New England and other parts of the United States and Canada. After her return to England in 1959 she set many of the poems in Devon and a few in London. One's immediate reaction to Plath's outdoor scenery is that the persona never seems to be quite at home in nature. Descriptions of nature will most often register feelings of estrangement, fear and the like. This is true even of poems commemorating travel experiences in happy moods, such as camping in a California desert ('Sleep in the Mojave Desert') or by a Canadian lake ('Two Campers in Cloud Country'), poems written in 1960.

Plath's depictions of places and landscapes reveal her interest in pictorial art. She said that she had 'a visual imagination' and that her inspiration was 'painting, not music, when I go to some other art form.' We know of this interest in art, American and European, and the inspiration she derived from specific paintings resulting in, for example, the poems 'Snakecharmer' (1957) and 'Yadwigha, on a Red Couch, Among Lilies' (1958), both modelled on paintings by Henri Rousseau, and 'Sculptor' (1958), dedicated to her friend Leonard Baskin. Her own efforts as a draftswoman establish a link between her verbal gifts and her graphic talents. Some of her drawings have been reproduced; The Christian Science Monitor (November 5 and 6, 1956) illustrated her reports about a summer visit to Benidorm in Spain with a couple of strictly realistic sketches by her hand: sardine boats pulled up on a beach; a corner of a peasant market; and trees and houses clinging on to steep sea cliffs. In his collection of essays on Plath's poetry, editor Charles Newman included three drawings of scenery that we can recognize in the poems; strong pen strokes show an old cottage in Yorkshire (Wuthering Heights); an irregular row of houses in Benidorm; and small fishing boats left for the winter on the bank of a river near its outlet into the ocean at Cape Cod. She evidently did not give up the habit of drawing. As late as October 1962, in a letter to her mother, she rejoices over the gift of pastels that she will surely find time to use.

By and large Plath's early poems betray the same sort of literary artificiality that marked most of her Juvenilia; they strain too noticeably toward effect and cleverness. But there are some whose subjects and settings introduce thoughts and moods which reverberate in the rest of the oeuvre. 'Winter Landscape, with Rooks' is one such poem. The very title tells us that this scene is rendered by a 'painterly' poet. It describes a pond where a solitary swan 'floats chaste as snow.' To the observer-speaker it is a 'landscape of chagrin' 'scorn[ed]' by the setting sun. The speaker's mind is as dark as the pond: walking about like an imaginary rook—the only creature fit to match the wintry landscape—she finds no solace from her sorrow at the absence of a cherished person.

In a journal entry for February 20, 1956 Plath outlined the scene that inspired some of the realistic details of this poem. On her way to a literature class which was to be held at some distance from her Cambridge college, she noticed 'rooks squatting black in snow-white fen, gray skies, black trees, mallard-green water.' The 'real' rooks are missing from the poem; there is only a metaphorical one. We find features that will characterize a great deal of the poetry to come: the color scheme of black, white and red; the theme of loss and frozenness; and the parallel between landscape and human observer. Plath referred to the poem as 'a psychic landscape.' From now on her poetic landscapes will embody association between scene and mood. What marks 'Winter Landscape, with Rooks' as an early poem is the lack of proportion between the loss suggested and the mood resulting from the contemplation of a calm winter scene. The poem ends with a sigh of self-pity: 'Who'd walk in this bleak place?'

The punning title of another poem written in 1956, 'Prospect,' suggests comparison with a painting, calling to mind, for example, the Italian veduta of landscape or city. We find in it some of the same elements as in 'Winter Landscape, with Rooks': the fen, here with its gray fog enveloping roof-tops and chimneys, and this time not with a metaphorical rook but two real ones sitting in a tree, with absinthe-colored eyes 'cocked' on a 'lone, late, / passer-by.' As in an impressionist painting much is made of color—orange, gray, black, green—at the expense of line and composition, but here too there is suggested a 'psychic' element: the solitary human being neither seeks nor derives protection or comfort from nature.

'Alicante Lullaby,' one of several poems inspired by Plath's stay in Spain in the summer of 1956, attempts to record the actual sounds of a busy little Spanish town. The poet uses onomatopoeia to recreate realistic sounds. (Evidently Sylvia Plath regretted that she did not have an ear for music.) In another poem, 'Departure,' the speaker, taking leave of her temporary Spanish refuge sketched in bright colors, is able to note, with self-irony, that nature does not grieve at all at the parting. The reason why she leaves is decidedly unromantic: 'The money's run out.' The last glimpse of the scene is unromantic in another way and may suggest a parallel between the speaker's mood and nature: what she sees is a stone hut 'Gull-fouled' and exposed to 'corroding weathers,' and 'morose' and 'rank-haired' goats. It may all be in the viewer's eyes.

Returning to the favored rook in 'Black Rook in Rainy Weather' the poet again musters up self-irony to face her urge to commune with nature. She might wish to see 'some design' among the fallen leaves and receive 'some backtalk / From the mute sky,' but this, she knows, would be to expect a miracle. Still, she leaves herself open to any minute gesture on the part of nature lending 'largesse, honor, / One might say love' even to the dullest landscape and the most ignorant viewer; this could be achieved, for instance, by letting a black rook arrange its feathers in such a way as to captivate the viewer's senses and so 'grant // A brief respite from fear / Of total neutrality.' The miracle has not happened yet, but the hope of such a moment of transcendent beauty and communion is worth the wait. She knows that it might in fact be only a trick of light which the viewer interprets as 'that rare, random descent' of an angel.

The next set of landscape poems, chronologically, are located in the West Yorkshire moorland which Sylvia Plath knew from visits with her husband's family. 'November Graveyard' introducing this group describes a setting where nature—trees, grass, flowers—stubbornly resists mourning over death. But it does not deny death; the visitor notes the 'honest rot' which reveals nature's unsentimental presentation of death and decay. And the poet concludes that this 'essential' landscape may teach us the truth about death.

Coming at the end of Plath's first year as a professional poet this poem may be seen to exemplify a minor change in her depiction of landscapes; elements of nature are discreetly anthropomorphized: 'skinflint' trees refuse to mourn or 'wear sackcloth,' the 'dour' grass is not willing to put on richer colors to solemnize the place, and the flowers do not pretend to give voice to the dead.

Two other Yorkshire poems, 'The Snowman on the Moor' and 'Two Views of Withens,' written the following year, offer realistic glimpses of the moorland as backdrop for descriptions of relationships between people and of attitudes to nature. In the first poem, a condensed narrative relates a husband-and-wife quarrel with the woman being brought down from her pride by a vision of indomitable male power in the guise of a giant snowman; and in the second, we have in capsule form a definition of two very different attitudes to nature—perhaps also to life—epitomized in two persons' differing responses to a bare landscape and a dilapidated farmhouse with literary and romantic associations. (The scenery is associated with Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights.) The speaker of the poem regrets that she cannot respond the way the 'you' does. To her, landscape and sky are bleak and 'the House of Eros' is no 'palace.'

'Hardcastle Crags' gives a harsher view of a human being alone and defenseless in an unresponsive, 'absolute' landscape. The poem derives its power from a very detailed, realistic picture of fields and animals, stones and hills. The last Yorkshire poem written in 1957, however, with the title 'The Great Carbuncle,' brings in an element of wonder performed by nature: a certain strange light with magical power—its source remains unknown—creates a moment of transfiguration for the wanderers. The Great Carbuncle may allude to a drop of blood in the Holy Grail. But it is a painfully brief moment: afterwards 'the body weights like stone.'

In a poem written in September 1961, 'Wuthering Heights,' Plath returned to the ambiguous fascination this moor landscape held for her. The mood, though, has now become unequivocally sinister. The descriptive details have lost much of their realistic significance. The solitary wanderer bravely 'step[s] forward,' but nature is her enemy: the alluring horizons 'dissolve' at her advance, wind and heather try to undo her. Images of landscape and animals are consistently turned into metaphors for the human intruder's feeling of being insignificant and exposed. A seemingly harmless thing such as the half-closed eyes of the grandmotherly-looking sheep makes the speaker lose her sense of identity and worth: it is as if she were being 'mailed into space, / A thin, silly message.' This landscape is indeed 'psychic' to an extent that 'Winter Landscape, with Rooks' was not. This is most certainly a result of Plath's greater ability to transform realistic, concrete objects and scenes into consistent sets of metaphors for her thoughts and emotions.

'New Year on Dartmoor' is a somewhat later poem, inspired by a walk Sylvia Plath took with her small daughter on Dartmoor some distance from the Hugheses' home in Devon; the poem may have been written in late December 1961.

    This is newness: every little tawdry
    Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
    Glinting and clinking in a saint's falsetto. Only you
    Don't know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
    The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
    There's no getting up it by the words you know.
    No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
    We have only come to look. You are too new
    To want the world in a glass hat.

The poem shows how Plath's technique of using landscape scenes has changed even more. Here there is very little realistic description; the setting becomes completely 'metaphorized' and gives rise to the speaker's inner words, both sad and humorous, addressing her child who is accompanying her. The year is new and to the child the newness is exciting but baffling. Only the mother is aware of a rawer reality beneath the 'glinting' and the 'clinking,' and she knows what 'newness' entails of challenge and hardships.

In the fall of 1959 Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes spent several weeks at Yaddo, the artists' colony in upstate New York. Although she was at first charmed by the old-fashioned beauty of the estate, she soon tired of it, and on the whole the Yaddo poems do not express any genuine pleasure in nature. Some of the poems she set in the grounds of the estate evidence a certain strain of finding something to write about and of getting the most out of the scenery. She was pleased with 'Medallion,' a poem she defined as 'an imagist piece on a dead snake.' Nature is here in a somewhat macabre fashion used to aestheticize death. The speaker is only a cool observer. In another Yaddo poem featuring animals, 'Blue Moles,' with its unequivocal message that strife and violence are the modes of nature, nature is anthropomorphized; the speaker empathizes with the moles ('Down there one is alone') while the sky above is 'sane and clear.'

The anthropomorphizing tendency is strong in the Yaddo poems; it does not serve to explain nature, rather to express the human protagonist's feelings and moods. Thus in 'Private Ground' 'the grasses / Unload their griefs' in the protagonist's shoes, and in 'The Manor Garden' items from nature are used to parallel and explain the growth of a foetus in a human body. It is not enough for Plath in these poems to call forth a human mood or attitude from a fairly detailed, more or less realistic picture of objects and scenes in nature; now she will more readily metaphorize natural processes, and detailed pictures become rarer. Often key words or phrases will suffice to hint at a parallel or an origin in nature.

Early in 1959 Plath had made clear what she wished to achieve in her nature poems. After finishing 'Watercolor of Grantchester Meadows'—a memory of the Cambridge surroundings—she noted: 'Wrote a Grantchester [sic] poem of pure description. I must get philosophy in.' As every reader knows, Plath was wrong about this poem: in her picture of a seemingly idyllic landscape, cruelty and violence are lurking beneath the smooth appearance. The realistic scenery is 'distorted,' not in the direction of the ugly and the grotesque, but in the direction of nursery-plate prettiness. The 'philosophy' is apparent: terror and violence in the shape of an owl swooping down on an inoffensive water rat are at the heart of creation. Melville had said the same thing in Moby Dick when he let Ishmael reflect on the 'tiger heart' that 'pants' beneath the 'ocean's skin.'

Plath's most ambitious piece of writing done at the artists' colony was the sequence 'Poem for a Birthday.' Making notes for it she acknowledged the influence of Theodore Roethke. The greenhouse on the estate must have been a special link to him; it was 'a mine of subjects.' Her tentative plans for the poem were these: 'To be a dwelling on madhouse, nature: meanings of tools, greenhouses, florists shops, tunnels, vivid and disjointed. An adventure. Never over. Developing, Rebirth, Despair. Old women. Block it out.' Her ambition was to 'be true to [her] own weirdnesses.' Starting as an end-of-autumn poem it immediately turns into a seemingly random search for the origins and processes of the self; the landscape disappears, and forays into the past take over. The poem comes full circle by ending with a hope of birth into a new life. 'Poem for a Birthday' is an indication of the direction Plath's poetry was to take from now on: toward greater use of free associations and juxtaposition of fragments of scenes and objects, experiences lived and imagined, feelings and thoughts harbored.

Sylvia Plath's life and surroundings in Devon, where she lived from September 1961 to December the following year, provided rich material for poetry. Court Green, the thatch-roofed house the Hugheses had bought, sat in a two-acre plot with a great lawn, in spring overflowing with daffodils, with an apple orchard and other trees that found their way into the poems. The settings of the poems she wrote in Devon are very varied. Several are set indoors, for instance, in a hospital ('The Surgeon at 2 a.m.,' 'Three Women'), a kitchen ('An Appearance,' 'The Detective,' 'Lesbos,' 'Cut,' 'Mary's Song'), an office ('The Applicant'), or an unspecified interior ('The Other,' 'Words heard, by accident, over the phone,' 'Kindness'). These interiors are never described; they are often to be inferred by a situation dramatized or an action going on, such as cooking a Sunday dinner or being served tea. Action and character play the greater role. The trees and flowers of the Court Green garden appear in several poems, such as 'Among the Narcissi,' 'Poppies in July' and 'Poppies in October,' all from 1962. But in these poems too there is much more story or incident than description.

'The Moon and the Yew Tree' offers a good example of how Plath used nature as material for poetry at this transitional stage in her career. Written in October 1961 this was the first poem for which she drew on her immediate Devon surroundings. As we see from Ted Hughes's comments, she still needed an occasional prodding to find a topic: 'The yew tree stands in a churchyard to the west of the house in Devon, and visible from SP's bedroom window. On this occasion, the full moon, just before dawn, was setting behind this yew tree and her husband assigned her to write a verse "exercise" about it.'

This nature poem is marked by the metaphorical mode already in the opening line: 'This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.' Using a phrase from an earlier poem ('Private Ground') the poet creates a transition to the garden landscape by anthropomorphizing nature: 'The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God.' The light of the mind does not help. The speaker complains: 'I simply cannot see where there is to get to.' Following the upright lines of the yew tree, the speaker's eyes seek the mother moon. Yew tree and church, one planted in the earth but striving toward heaven, the other bringing the message of heaven to earth, have nothing to give the speaker. She faces her real self: it is not the Church with its mixture of far reaching authority (the booming bells), its holiness stiffened by convention (the sculptured or painted saints floating above the heads of the churchgoers) and its somewhat sentimentalized sweetness (the mild Virgin), it is not these she can identify with: she is the daughter of the wild female moon with her dark and dangerous power.

Plath herself evidently read this poem slightly differently. Introducing it in a BBC program she said that a yew tree she had once put into a poem 'began, with astounding egotism, to manage and order the whole affair. It was not a yew tree by a church on a road past a house in a town where a certain woman lived … and so on, as it might have been in a novel. Oh no. It stood squarely in the middle of my poem, manipulating its dark shades, the voices in the churchyard, the clouds, the birds, the tender melancholy with which I contemplated it—everything! I couldn't subdue it. And, in the end, my poem was a poem about a yew tree. The yew tree was just too proud to be a passing black mark in a novel.' As I have indicated, another reading of the poem highlights the moon as the one who is taking over the scene.

The yew tree appears again in 'Little Fugue,' written in 1962, but only as an introductory image bringing in a contrast through its blackness counterpointed with whiteness in the concrete form of a cloud ('The yew's black fingers wag; / Cold clouds go over'). Black and white do not merge, just as the blind do not receive the message of the deaf and dumb. These counterpointing 'absences' prefigure the main theme of the fugue: the speaker-daughter's despair at not being able to reach her dead father: 'Gothic and barbarous' he was a 'yew hedge of orders.' Now he sees nothing, and the speaker is 'lame in the memory.' The fugue ends by finally joining the two items from nature—the black yew tree and the pale cloud—as images of a marriage between death and death-in-life.

The Devon milieu is the scene also for 'Among the Narcissi.' Here an ailing old neighbor is the main subject, the flowers attending upon him like a flock of children. Another poem with a Devon setting is 'Pheasant.' It is a scene in the drama of tensions in a marriage, of suspicions, hurt, jealousy and anger, which was begun in 'Zoo Keeper's Wife' and continued in 'Elm', 'The Rabbit Catcher,' 'Event,' 'Poppies in July' and 'Poppies in October.'

Two poems written in the last month Sylvia Plath spent in Devon, 'Letter in November' and 'Winter Trees,' testify to the almost uncanny equilibristics she was capable of by now in realizing highly different topics, scenes, moods, as it would seem from one moment to the next. Anger at deception ('The Couriers'), longing for spiritual rebirth ('Getting There'), tender anguish at a child's future ('The Night Dances'), revulsion at death ('Death & Co.') and fascination with the dynamics of motion and life ('Years'), naked hatred and contempt ('The Fearful'), these are some of the emotions embodied in the November poems.

'Letter in November' is set in the Court Green garden. It is unusual for Plath at this stage in her career in that it contains a fairly detailed picture of the scenery. The 'letter' is addressed to an unspecified receiver (perhaps a child) apostrophized as 'love.' It describes, in a relaxed tone, details of a well-known garden which in this moment of seasonal transition is shifting color and form as if by some kind of magic that a child would understand. The speaker's boots 'squelch' realistically in the wet masses of fallen leaves. The old corpses buried under the 'death-soup' she is walking in prefigure the despair at total defeat revealed in the final allusion to the destruction of a heroic army at Thermopylae ('The irreplaceable / Golds bleed and deepen, the mouths of Thermopylae'). Was the lovingly detailed description of her garden an incantation for a moment's relief from pain?

'Winter Trees' is also set in the garden.

     The wet dawn inks are doing their blue dissolve.
     On their blotter of fog the trees
     Seem a botanical drawing
     Memories growing, ring on ring,
     A series of weddings.
     Knowing neither abortions nor bitchery,
     Truer than women,
     They seed so effortlessly!
     Tasting the winds, that are footless,
     Waist-deep in history—
     Full of wings, otherworldliness.
     In this, they are Ledas.
     O mother of leaves and sweetness
     Who are these pietas?
     The shadows of ringdoves chanting, but easing nothing.

The opening image, of trees barely visible in the early morning fog, might have led us to expect a landscape of the kind Plath wrote in her earlier years, that is, a fairly realistic description with a mood attached or a 'philosophy' as the outcome of pictures turned into metaphors. In this poem, however, trees are immediately turned into an aesthetic product: a drawing presenting themselves ('On their blotter of fog the trees / Seem a botanical drawing')! This idea is at once dropped and without the modulating help of language we are brought into the human domain of memories, relationships between people, values and morality. Memories, rings, weddings, abortions, bitchery—these words hint at a miniature narrative of past love and union, contrasted with ugly losses and failures. The speaker's muted despair has turned into disgust at the very idea of human femaleness. The trees have become symbols of ideal humanity: at the same time as they partake of the solidity and security of elemental earthliness, they achieve spirituality. Visited by a god, these Ledas share in the sacred, but being Ledas they also know suffering. In a last transformation, the trees take on the appearance of the grieving mother of another god. The final lines of the poem express the speaker's anguished cry lamenting her inability to partake of the perfection and pity of nature. Being a woman she appeals to a Mother Goddess for a 'clue,' but no sounds or sights in nature bring her relief.

This superb poem is an example of the skill and power Plath had reached in her thirtieth year. Within the span of a few short lines she manages to create a complex of sight and sound, history and myth, Christian and pagan, ugliness and beauty, hope and despair. As has been argued by a recent critic, this is a fine example of Plath's ability to raise her poetry above the level of the private and the confessional to a level of universality.

The poems Sylvia Plath wrote in the last few weeks of her life maintain continuity with her earlier work in subject matter and style. She still favors the two- or three-line stanza, and essential also in these poems are emotions and attitudes such as love for children—what Helen Vendler so succinctly refers to as the 'small constructiveness of motherhood'—hatred of deception, and conflicting urges toward stasis and motion. But as a whole they are more concise and more referential—even to the point of obscurity—than earlier poems. They do not offer easy readings, for one thing because images from strikingly different spheres of life are juxtaposed, with no apparent associations to join them. By establishing links to the earlier poetry as reference and source material we may be in a better position to read these difficult texts.

Plath's use of landscapes is one such line to pursue. In these late poems recognizable, actual landscapes do not occur; here the poet uses only fragments from her experiences of various kinds of scenery, fragments that often suggest moods and attitudes similar to those that the more fully described landscapes had once signified. The first poem dated 1963, 'Sheep in Fog,' was begun in December 1962 and completed the following January, and it works as a transitional poem. It is the last poem Plath wrote in which we can recognize the outlines of an actual landscape. It keeps some of the elements of poems set in an English landscape, with touches of the moorland, perhaps Dartmoor where Plath took riding lessons. She introduced the poem for a BBC program with these words: 'In this poem, the speaker's horse is proceeding at a slow, cold walk down a hill of macadam to the stable at the bottom. It is December. It is foggy. In the fog there are sheep.' This is of course only the bare skeleton around which the poem itself has been fashioned. The title suggests a realistic landscape with figures, and we find several such items: hills, horse and fields. No sheep are visible in the poem; the 'dolorous bells' indicate their presence. There is a watercolor aspect to the hills dimly seen in the fog, the faint line of smoke from a passing train and the touch of color provided by the horse. Human references, which are counterpointed with the touches of nature scenery, take over in the latter part of the poem. The speaker interprets the scene as an expression of her own situation. Resignedly registering her own inadequacy ('People or stars / Regard me sadly, I disappoint them') she perceives her situation as darker and darker. Against the normal order in nature 'All morning the / Morning has been blackening.' She fears that she has to accept nothingness as her lot, even after death; this is expressed in the image of the distant fields which 'threaten / To let me through to a heaven / Starless and fatherless, a dark water.' This is no longer a 'psychic landscape' of the kind exemplified by 'Winter Landscape, with Rooks'; in 'Sheep in Fog' the landscape as reality almost ceases to exist.

Items from 'Sheep in Fog' reappear in even more fragmentary form in 'Totem,' a poem written on the same day as the former one was completed. Here we find a train on a 'useless' journey, darkened fields, and mountains letting us glimpse an unchanging sky. These fragments of a landscape are only small signs in a composition overwhelming in its rich confusion, of images which all spell the greed of inevitable death. Plath spoke of this poem as 'a pile of interconnected images, like a totem pole.'

Other late poems have a similar quality of 'interconnected images like a totem pole' in which fragments of landscapes may reappear in a weak or distorted form. In 'The Munich Mannequins' the yew tree from beside the Devon church has been transformed into a part of a womb ('the womb // Where the yew trees blow like hydras'); an unhappy memory of Sylvia Plath's own visit to Germany in 1956 in search of roots identifies the city of Munich as a place of death and sterility. In 'Child,' expressing a mother's wish to create a happy world for her child, there are remnants of the Devon garden in bloom as a contrast to the mother's worried 'Wringing of hands.' 'Gigolo' recalls a Mediterranean setting with crooked streets, cul-de-sacs and fruits-de-mer, alluring and disgusting as the professional seducer himself. In 'Mystic' there may be traces of a summery Atlantic coast—memories of smells of pines, sun-heated cabins and salty winds—as well as references to the harsh London winter Sylvia Plath was facing while she was composing these poems ('The chimneys of the city breathe, the window sweats'). These fragments accompany a more important religious imagery. The poem has been interpreted in several ways; one interpretation sees it as the mystic's dark night of the soul, but the last line, 'The heart has not stopped,' indicates hope of an end to this night. And in 'Edge,' one of the two last poems Plath wrote a few days before her death, she may have drawn on visual memories of the Yaddo estate. The 'perfected' body of the woman whose epitaph the poem is and her children make up a sculptured group of death. In addition to other allusions, such as the Laocoon group, here inverted from struggle against death to fulfilled death, this group may vaguely recall the marble statuary at Yaddo.

In the preceding pages we have seen how Sylvia Plath sought inspiration and raw material for her poetry in different settings and how she very early saw the potential for 'psychic' qualities or parallels in realistic word paintings. In depicting external reality she is not concerned with representing, as faithfully as possible, shapes and lines, color and light, objects and figures. She hardly ever devotes an entire poem to something that looks like mere description of a scene in nature. There is always a metaphorical touch or dimension to the realistic composition. At times there is a narrative hinted at or rendered in some detail. Her landscape poems do not give the impression of a spontaneous pleasure in nature, nor of a wish to understand the processes of nature. They seem rather to serve as mirrors for a self in search of identity and truth.

Plath's career as a poet was brief, but even so it is possible to see a development in her use of landscapes, toward more metaphorizing, more anthropomorphizing of nature, and in the late poems, more fragmentation of scenes in nature. In the early poetry she includes more 'documentable' detail, sometimes established already in the titles of poems, such as 'Hardcastle Crags' and 'Two Views of Withens.' She may have coerced herself—or been prodded—to broaden her palette by consciously turning to now one, now another landscape that she had experienced, but at the end she no longer had to look for settings as inspiration. Elements of landscapes came to her when she needed them as pieces in a mosaic more fraught with meaning than the early 'psychic landscapes.' She had at her command an extraordinary set of highly diverse materials which she juxtaposed into poems of striking originality—sometimes with less than complete success. Even though we may not be able to reach into the obscurest crevices of her imagery and thought, the poems Sylvia Plath wrote in the last few weeks of her life haunt us with their cries and whispers. Recognizing fragments of earlier landscapes may not be the most important clue to these and other poems, but it may help us clear the ground for entering deeper into her poetic world.

William Freedman (essay date October 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5619

SOURCE: "The Monster in Plath's 'Mirror,'" in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 108, No. 5, October, 1993, pp. 152-69.

[In the following essay, Freedman discusses Plath's use of the mirror as a symbol of female passivity, subjugation, and Plath's own conflicted self-identity caused by social pressure to reconcile the competing obligations of artistic and domestic life.]

For many women writers, the search in the mirror is ultimately a search for the self, often for the self as artist. So it is in Plath's poem "Mirror." Here, the figure gazing at and reflected in the mirror is neither the child nor the man the woman-as-mirror habitually reflects, but a woman. In this poem, the mirror is in effect looking into itself, for the image in the mirror is woman, the object that is itself more mirror than person. A woman will see herself both in and as a mirror. To look into the glass is to look for oneself inside or as reflected on the surface of the mirror and to seek or discover oneself in the person (or non-person) of the mirror.

The "She" who seeks in the reflecting lake a flattering distortion of herself is an image of one aspect of the mirror into which she gazes. She is the woman as male-defined ideal or as the ideal manqué, the woman who desires to remain forever the "young girl" and who "turns to those liars, the candles or the moon" for confirmation of the man-pleasing myth of perpetual youth, docility, and sexual allure. As such, she is the personification—or reflection—of the mirror as passive servant, the preconditionless object whose perception is a form of helpless swallowing or absorption. The image that finally appears in the mirror, the old woman as "terrible fish," is the opposite or "dark" side of the mirror. She is the mirror who takes a kind of fierce pleasure in her uncompromising veracity and who, by rejecting the role of passive reflector for a more creative autonomy, becomes, in that same male-inscribed view, a devouring monster. The woman/mirror, then, seeks her reflection in the mirror/woman, and the result is a human replication of the linguistic phenomenon the poem becomes. Violating its implicit claim, the poem becomes a mirror not of the world, but of other mirrors and of the process of mirroring. When living mirrors gaze into mirrors, as when language stares only at itself, only mirrors and mirroring will be visible.

This parallel between person and poem suggests that the glass (and lake) in "Mirror" is woman—and more particularly the woman writer or artist for whom the question of mimetic reflection or creative transformation is definitive. For the woman—and especially for the mother—per se, the crucial choice is between the affirmation and effacement of the self: will she reflect the child or more generalized "other" as it presents itself for obliging reflection, or will she insist on her own autonomous identity and perception. To do the latter is to risk looking into the mirror and seeing, not the pleasing young girl, but the terrible fish.

Viewed in these terms, "Mirror" may be read as a broadening and more sophisticated extension of poems like "Morning Song" and "Medusa," which question or reject the maternal role. "I'm no more your mother," announces the voice of "Morning Song," "Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow/Effacement at the wind's hand." To say as much, however, is to acknowledge what it denies. The statement succeeds only in rejecting the maternal identity for one that is identical with it, for that of the vaguely insubstantial image (the cloud) that is ultimately erased from the surface of its other, equally effaced identity as maternal mirror. The escape from mirror and mother to cloud does not permit an escape from their mutual fate as depersonalized victims of erasure. And the ambiguity of "its own" suggests that the mirror as well as the cloud is effaced by the wind that blows the child into the mother's life. "Morning Song" ends with reconciliation and acceptance, an acceptance reflected in the developing animation of the poem's imagery: of the child from watch and statue to moth, cat, and singer; of the mother from walls and cloud to cow-heavy woman.

"Medusa" ends with the rejection that presumably motivated it, the rejection of the poet's own mother as a kind of terrible sea creature that poisons, paralyzes, and devours:

      Off, off, eely tentacle!
      There is nothing between us.

Even here, however, there is an injected sense of the speaker as mother as well as child. The Medusa, apparently the mother, is also the child/mother's own newborn infant, a "tremulous breath at the end of my line … dazzling and grateful, / Touching and sucking." She is "Fat and red, a placenta" who, like a new unwelcomed baby, was not called, yet "steamed to me over the sea … Paralyzing the kicking lovers." The obliterating mother, then, is at the same time the infant whose emergence sucks life and identity from the child-cum-mother. Indeed, the evocation of the mother as devouring monster seems to be a reactive inversion of the perhaps more primitive sense that the speaking child consumes or threatens to consume its sacrificial mother. "Who do you think you are?" She asks harshly. "A Communion wafer? Blubbery Mary? / I shall take no bite of your body, / Bottle in which I live." Here Plath as embryo or new offspring rejects the sacrificial offer of the mother's body, and the poem's enraged rejection of the monstrous mother may at bottom be a rejection of the mother's ironically devouring self-annihilation. A letter Plath wrote to her brother in 1953 reflects such an image of their mother:

You know, as I do, and it is a frightening thing, that mother would actually kill herself for us if we calmly accepted all she wanted to do for us. She is an abnormally altruistic person, and I have realized lately that we have to fight against her selflessness as we would fight against a deadly disease …

After extracting her life blood and care for 20 years we should start bringing in big dividends of joy for her … (Letter to Warren, May 12, 1953).

A passage from Jung's "The Development of Personality," which Plath transcribed, describes the phenomenon of crushing maternal self-annihilation that Plath experienced and transformed into poetry. "Parents," wrote Jung,

set themselves the fanatical task of always "doing their best" for the children and "living only for them." This claimant ideal effectively prevents the parents from doing anything about their own development and allows them to thrust their "best" down their children's throats. This so-called "best" turns out to be the very things the parents have most badly engaged in themselves. In this way the children are goaded on to achieve their parents' most dismal failures, and are loaded with ambitions that are never fulfilled.

The parents Jung describes assume contradictory roles, just as Plath's image of the mother-woman-mirror as terrible fish assumes contradictory or at least contrary forms. On the one hand, it is an image of a monstrous autonomy that cannot perform the self-effacing function of infant-confirming mother. Instead, "reflecting its own mood or, worse still, the rigidity of her own defenses," it generates in the child the threat of chaos that produces the disturbed obsession with distorting mirrors in Plath's poetry. Conversely, this terrible fish or medusa may be the image of maternal self-annihilation, the mother's guilt-inducing refusal of autonomy. The required self-denial of new motherhood, if perpetuated or exaggerated, may, as Jung suggests, be as threatening as its opposite. As virtually exclusive nurturer of the infant and small child, the mother cannot win. Caught between annihilation of self and annihilation of other, and lanced on the sacrifice of self that may efface the other, her denigration, rejection, and perceived monstrosity are all but insured.

The same near-identity of assertive autonomy with an at least seemingly contradictory self-annihilation characterizes the language of "Mirror" and colors the poem's implicit treatment of the woman as writer. The poem is finally about language and imitation, about poetry and its relation to what it describes. As such, it is a poem that assumes a central place in the literature of female authorship, the literature that takes as its subject the woman as writer and her obligation to create for woman and herself a resistant and resilient language of her own. The popularity of Plath's relatively few poems of aggressive threat and power, poems such as "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy," misleads us. Far more of her poetry presents protagonists or personae who are basically passive and depersonalized, victimized and helpless. Like the mirror, the speakers in these poems—dolls, mannequins, stones, patients—are typically confined, often inanimate, absorbently passive, and devoid of personal initiative or will. They are, in short, images of the woman who, as Gilbert and Gubar document, inanimately animate the "mirror of the male-inscribed literary text."

Much of Plath's poetry, in other words, is a mirror of the male text as mirror, a replication of the passive images caught on its surface. Just as the mirror can only reflect reality, the woman writer can only reflect male ideals and desires. Devoid of subjectivity and the power of narrative, the woman in many of Plath's poems "speaks" not only to the plight of woman generally, but, more particularly, to the woman as writer. For as Gilbert and Gubarargue, the mirror in much 19th- and 20th-century women's poetry and fiction is the locus of authorial self-discovery, the place in which the woman author or would-be author perceives both her silent subordination and the fierce urgency of repressed speech.

The image of woman as reflector functions in several ways. As mother or woman, the mirror's principal and imposed obligation is to reflect infant and other—that is, she must present herself as the image mirrored in man's eyes. But as speaking mirror, the woman becomes a narrating reflector of herself as mirror and of whatever passes before it. She becomes the writer who writes of the mirror in which she perceives herself and of the mirror she is. She becomes the text in which that recording occurs. Through these lenses, the question of the object of perception gives place to the now central question of the nature of the narrator. The mirror as woman or mother reflects the other to itself. The mirror as text or writer reflects self and world in language that becomes a kind of mirror itself. But in both forms the principal conflict is between a self-suppressing recapitulation of male expression and an autonomous resistance to the conventional truths and methods of his inscriptions. The connections are further entangled by the fact that a selection of a narrative technique inevitably determines the treatment of content. To let the mirror speak in self-defining ways that resist prior definition or restriction is to alter the image in the glass. That resistance is what is represented by the substitution of the "terrible fish" for the more attractive young girl in "Mirror."

The mirror's opening announcement of its identity calls that identity into question and begins to transform the mirror from a passive reflector into an active speaker. The poem mirrors language's resistance to simple representation and reflects the resistance of the woman writer and the feminine text to the roles assigned them. It is this rebellion, this presumptuous arrogation of autonomy, that accounts for the shocking image of the terrible fish in the poem's concluding line. The terrible fish is not just a symbol of approaching old age: it is the image of "monstrous autonomy" that stares back at the literary woman in so many of her texts, often out of the mirror of that text into which she gazes in embittered self-search. "The woman writer's self-contemplation," Gilbert and Gubar maintain, "may be said to have begun with a searching glance into the mirror of the male-inscribed literary text." It continues in her own text, where, as in Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's "The Other Side of the Mirror," the "woman, wild," "bereft of loveliness," her mouth a "hideous wound" bleeding "in silence and in secret," erupts into her poetry and fiction as demonic emblem of her independent identity, her monstrous renunciation of the mirroring angel. The speaker in Coleridge's poem is not a lonely, but a common figure. For like Coleridge, "the literary woman frequently finds herself staring with horror at a fearful image of herself that has been mysteriously inscribed on the surface of the glass." Plath's "Mirror" is in this tradition, its terrible fish a menacing image of its own self-terrifying achievement.

There is, of course, a biographical dimension to this poem and its governing images, which intensifies the purely literary force of the work. Plath had a dual image of herself: she was a brightly silvered surface concealing a demonic form that threatened to tear the fragile membrane—in other words, both a mirror and a fish. The mirror, of course, is the brilliant surface Plath presented to the world, as both woman and poet. As poet, Plath the mirror is the precise measurer and recorder of minutiae, the four-cornered goddess of aesthetic control. As woman, Plath the mirror is the strict and tightly disciplined achiever who glitteringly fulfilled all expectations, a perfect mirror of acquired parental and social standards of elegance, beauty and achievement—the persona that emitted what Lowell called "the checks and courtesies," her "air of maddening docility," and what Alvarez called an "air of anxious pleasantness." It is the persona that, as Plath herself described it, "Adher[ed] to rule, to rules, to rules," that, seemingly untroubled by her numbed submission, "Stay[ed] put," like the mirror fixed on the wall, "according to habit." It is the side George Stade labeled the "social cast of her personality, aesthetic, frozen in a cover girl smile…." It is the ambitious but distinctly anti-feminist cook and housekeeper whose accents "are those of the American girl as we want her."

This Plath, in short, is the mirror that reflects back what others wish to see and that is itself a perfect reflection of the feminine ideal in male eyes. But this Plath—it has become a commonplace—was only a facade, a fragile surface laid thickly over an inner turmoil Plath herself perceived as a slouching beast struggling for release. "There are two of me now," Plath writes grittily in "In Plaster": "This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one." The white person, like the mirror, "had no personality … she had a slave mentality." But the old yellow one, "ugly and hairy," is one of a profusion of monstrous forms threatening the placid surface from below. As in "Lady Lazarus," it is a cannibal fury rising from the dead. In "Fever 103°" it is a flaming sinner and a "pure acetylene / Virgin." In "Daddy" it is the Electral avenger who stakes the vampire's heart; in "Stings" the sleeping queen bee with a menacing "self to recover," a "lion-red body" that, as Plath's demons typically do, rises as a "red scar" and a flaming comet. In "Mirror," the poem's deflective subject is itself a defense against its intimidating imagery and import. The "terrible fish" is not simply the image of aging and decay apparent in the surface narrative; it is another incarnation of the barely suppressed demon of sensuality and rage that charges Plath's poetry as it haunted her life. What is more, it is, appropriately, the devouring monster of the deep, disturbingly at home in the depths of Plath's element.

In an autobiographical essay, "Ocean 1212-W" Plath recounts a crucial memory: "When I was learning to creep, my mother set me down on the beach to see what I thought of it. I crawled straight for the coming wave and was just through the walls of green when she caught my heels. What would have happened," Plath wonders, "if I had managed to pierce that looking-glass?" The sea is a looking glass in which she claims to have discovered, at two and a half, the "awful birthday of otherness," "the separateness of everything" and ultimately therefore of herself. The sea is the terrible country of the void, of the "darkness [that] is leaking from the cracks." The true habitat of the horrific buried self, it is also the environ of her father. As Plath confessed in a BBC interview. "I probably wished many times that he were dead. When he obliged me and died, I imagined that I had killed him." In a number of her poems, her father is the victim of suicide or murder, usually by drowning, for the sea is her father's element, and it is there she takes her revenge. When she announces in "Full Fathom Five," "father, this thick air is murderous / I would breathe water," she identifies herself as a dark swimmer in its waves, in effect the terrible fish who would return to her father. Whether she would return in order to love him like Electra or to destroy him as in "Daddy" matters little. Forbidden love and murder are but two faces of the same resurgent beast.

That the appearance of the demonic in Plath's poetry is typically associated with the imagery of sea and water helps explain, in biographical terms, the substitution of lake for mirror in the poem. The terrible fish is implicit from the outset. It is contained in the rebellious rejection of the mirroring role in the opening lines of "Mirror" that ostensibly accept and define it. It is implicit, too, in the barely concealed harshness of the relentless veracity of the mirror's reflection, whose cruelty she unconvincingly denies. And it is explicit in the mirror's urge to "swallow immediately" whatever it sees. But the image of the fish's emergence requires that the mirror be transformed into water, Plath's symbol of the hideous depths in which the monster lives.

The terrible fish, then, is Plath's personal demon, the witch she strove to conceal beneath the snow white surface or to transform into the "pure gold baby" of "Lady Lazarus." In this reading, the poem's attempt to undermine the mirror's veritical claims with a figurative language that belies them is a linguistic replica of the poem's content, of the effort of the woman who "turns to those liars, the candles and the moon" to avert the terrible truth of her mounting ugliness and decay. Here, the flight from clarity and truth is also a flight, parallel to the young woman's and the author's, from the horrifying image of the woman as the devouring other. Her shocking emergence at the end of the poem marks the fearful triumph of a psychological reality over the linguistic efforts to avert it. The woman outside the mirror or lake is of course the woman whose image as terrible fish is also inside it, visible in its depths. To perceive oneself in the mirror or lake, then, is to recognize one's Jungian shadow as the dark underside of the shining surface. The terrible fish is not simply the time-transformed identity of the young girl; it is the Hydean alter-ego of the mirror or lake in whose depths it is shudderingly disclosed.

Inside the woman-as-mirror, in other words, behind this physically restricted, passive, depersonalized reflector of the external world, lurks the minatory force that will emerge with full power and vengeance in some of the Ariel poems. To escape the obligations of literal truthfulness is not to escape the mirror of male texts that identify her as the obedient angel, but the opposite. It is to evade the monstrous truth the angel herself knows best and fears no less than does the male who protectively angelicizes her in order to prevent her transformation into monster. It is to look into the mirror and pretend one does not see the monster.

Because it recognizes the danger both of reflecting and ignoring the world, "Mirror" can be seen as the turning point in Plath's development. The voice in poems such as "Stones," "Lorelei," "Tulips," "Love Letter," "Crossing the Water," "Purdah," "Face Lift," "Two Campers in Cloud Country," "Childless Woman," and dozens more is that of a woman who has accepted her depersonalization and passivity or who longs for the numbing purity it promises. In many of these poems, the stone, jade, plaster, or anesthetized persona shares the muted stage with old yellow, the lioness, the acetylene virgin, or other threatening figures from the depths, though it is not until her final poems, principally "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," that the menacing avenger explodes onto the surface as the dominant force in poems of assertive threat and rage. "Mirror" represents a kind of middle-ground between the extremes of passivity and action, numbing self-cancellation and aggressive self-assertion. It achieves its special position and effect by adopting the former guise in ways that renounce it for the latter. To assume the mirror's role is implicitly to accept the male-proscribed image of woman and mother. But the poem's method and equations situate the terrible fish within the lake and mirror and quietly establish an identity between them. The poem's implicit rejection of the mirror's claim to literal reflection is what generates the image of threatening female autonomy that the poem ostensibly disavows. The fish that is in effect in the mirror from the outset charges towards the mirroring surface at the end, its identity and import disguised by a subject that deflects our attention to figures apparently external to the speaking mirror. Blending passive inactivity with devouring hostility, the poem presages the vengeful uprising of "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy" while maintaining the innocent, expressionless appearance of paper, stone, mannequin, or doll. "Mirror," in other words, lends to the monster in the attic (or basement) the face of the angel in the house.

The dread fish is identified with the passive mirror by its presence within or behind it. But their identification with one another may have another source as well. The speaker sees herself "in" the mirror or lake in two senses: She is the fearful image in the depths beyond the glass and she is the mirror itself. The implication here is that Plath found her defenses hardly less repulsive than the assault they were created to ward off. The terrible fish observed in the lake's depths and rising toward its surface is identifiable with the mirror that reflects, neutrally and passively, whatever swims before it. The monster in the depths, in other words, is also the monster on the surface, perhaps more accurately the monstrosity of mere surface or lack of depth. The identification of the mirror with the terrible fish, then, erases the separation the dual identity was constructed to sustain. It suggests on the one hand that the mirror contains the fish, that beneath the angel in the house lurks the monster in the depths. But it may propose as well that a two-dimensional image of the angel is also is a form of monstrosity.

In "Crossing the Water," the title poem of Plath's second volume, the speaker is identified as one of "two black, cutpaper people" floating across the water as they float over the surface of their lives. Yet, as she observes, "the spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes." And here, too, the double meaning suggests itself. The spirit of blackness may refer to a dark force concealed beneath the cut paper surface. But, since the paper itself is identified as black, the stronger reading points toward an identification of two-dimensionality with blackness—and both flatness and darkness are identified with the fish made terrible in "Mirror."

The monster is seen not only in the mirroring self, but "in" that self as surface reflector. The woman as the passive, selfless reflector is inscribed in psychoanalysis, motherhood, and the male text and is submissively adopted by the woman as her own identity. But Plath shows it to be a monstrous evasion of reality and suppression of self. A woman who adopts the reflecting role is cruel primarily to herself. It is therefore inevitable that the last image the reflector swallows is that of the terrible fish, which is at once its concealed opposite and its concealing self.

The mirror is an image of the woman writer in her two conflicting roles as wife/mother and as author. In the first she is the selfless reflector of man and infant, in the second the self-conscious, self-centering reflector of herself and of the world as she willfully perceives it. Traditionally the roles were seen, by women as well as men, as not merely conflicting but mutually exclusive. It was, in fact, the collective view of psychoanalytic theory that the woman who has "created" a child required no other creative exercise or outlet, and women felt the power, if not always the validity, of that argument in their lives. Some women writers have so internalized this argument that they have felt the fear Susan Sulciman describes: "With every word I write, with every metaphor, with every act of genuine creation, I hurt my child." The guilt this idea elicits necessarily produces feelings of aggression. In Plath's "Mirror," and in many more of her poems on motherhood and entrapment, this aggression wins out over any feelings of tenderness.

Like the women in the writing of Anne Finch and Anne Elliot, Emily Dickinson and the Brontë sisters, the persona in a few of Plath's poems—in "In Plaster," the Bee poems, "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy"—articulates what virtually her entire body of poetry represents: the striving of the fundamentally powerless woman for autonomy. "The great woman writers of the past two centuries," Gilbert and Gubar argue, "danced out of the debilitating looking glass of the male text into the health of female authority. Tracing subversive pictures behind socially acceptable facades, they managed to appear to dissociate themselves from their own revolutionary impulses even while passionately enacting such impulses." Plath hardly seems at home in this tradition. The female authority she stole or discovered assumed no healthy form. Rather, her work seems dangerously divided between poems in which she anesthetically dissociates herself from her aggressive or rebellious impulses and those, mostly later poems, in which she ferociously enacts them. In "Mirror" the contrary impulses come together—even as she dissociates herself from aggression, she acts it out. And while the poem's repression does not bespeak a thoroughly healthy freedom, Plath has found a way to allow her aggression to triumph over tenderness, but only within a controlled system that maintains the integrity of poem and personality alike.

In "A Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf recalls a dream in which "I was looking in a glass when a horrible face—the face of an animal—suddenly showed over my shoulder." What she sees is a variant of the monster in the mirror familiar to women's poetry and fiction, the image of rebelliously monstrous autonomy typified by the madwoman in the attic and an uneasy crowd of ominous female forms that darken the mirroring text of women's fiction. As in Plath's poem, the young woman sees in the mirror the dread reflected image of a beast that is clearly an aspect of the self Woolf elsewhere identified as a self-less mirror for man's magnification.

Mary Elizabeth Coleridge's "The Other Side of the Mirror" offers a more pertinent parallel, for it implies more strongly still the connection between feminine writing and monstrosity. In this poem, Coleridge traces the emergence of the monster from behind the angelic facade, a creature whose rage betrays the shallowness and fragility of the submissive pretense. This figure arises, as Gilbert and Gubar observe, "as if the very process of writing had liberated [her] … from a silence in which neither she nor her author can continue to acquiesce." In Plath, too, I believe, it is the writing that liberates the monster—or rather generates her. To quote Gilbert and Gubar one final time, "If she is to be a poet the woman must deconstruct the dead self that is a male 'opus' and discover a living 'inconsistent' self." And the implicit reference to Plath's "Lady Lazarus" in the word opus—"I am your opus, / I am your valuable, / The pure gold baby / That melts to a shriek"—is as apt as the verb that effects the metamorphosis. For it is precisely by deconstructing the masculine mimetic language that entraps the woman in her traditional role that the speaking mirror exchanges the anxious young woman for the monstrous autonomy of the terrible fish. The fish is the woman as autonomous person and author. It is the role-rejecting woman/mother who, even as she proclaims her acceptance of the task, refuses passively to mirror man, infant, or whatever else is set before it. And it is the woman-as-writer who, even as she proclaims her obedient adherence to the mimetic model, adopts that model only to tease and overturn it. "She accepts the woman's role as accurate reflecting mirror in order to transcend it, to show how that very role inevitably thwarts and transcends itself." The mirror as woman and as writer takes on the figure of the four-cornered glass in order to shatter it against the non-mirroring language with which she affirms the comfort of the fit—to shatter it, too, by focusing on herself, making herself the subject of her own attention and the poem. It is the nature and occupation of the mirror self-effacingly to reflect the other. In "Mirror," however, the glass is both subject and speaker at once. The poem begins with "I," a pronoun that appears five times in the first four lines and, together with "me" or "my," seventeen times in this poem of only eighteen lines. The mirror/woman, who is by definition without identity, defines and identifies herself. The persona that has no story, tells it, and in the defiant mirror-breaking act of doing so, she becomes the terrible fish of assertive selfhood. To tell one's own story, even if it is, as it must be, the story of absence and effacement, is to establish a presence and to display, perhaps for the first time, the face behind the angelic silver mask.

Plath's emergent monster, then, is not an imagined other, a beckoning fulfillment of hopeless ambition. It is the reconstruction of the speechless woman whose language deconstructs her verbal confession of mere reflective silence. This reconstructed self still bears the conscience of the complaint, and therefore the image of autonomy is not a thoroughly positive figure of assertive strength. The woman continues to subscribe to the male dread of female sexuality and to the male identification of female defiance or aggression with bestiality. The monster, then, does not so much dwell on the other side of the mirror; she is the other side of the mirror, the perpetuation of the mirror's male-inscribed ideal in a form that otherwise rejects it. The contradictions travel in both directions. The announcement of a mirroring silence or self-effacement implicitly rejects the identity it affirms. Yet the monstrous shape this autonomy assumes attests to the persistence of the woman's sense of self as dependent and faceless.

The woman achieves autonomy in Plath's "Mirror" and comparable works by rejecting the phallocentric language whose fixed truth fixes woman as the mirroring or speechless other. The rejection of the false and insulting "truth" of woman's identity is effected in a language that undermines the very possibility of definable identity and truth. Woman achieves freedom from male definition at the price of all definition, freedom from the name with which the masculine text identifies her in the affirmation of unnamability. Yet, as in Conrad, the unnamed, too, may be a form of monstrosity or horror: the chilling truth at the heart of the darkness may be an unnamed evil or the evil of unnamability itself, the fearful prospect of truth as mere illusion. The stakes are perhaps lower in "Mirror," the curse a mixed blessing of menacing independence and creativity. But the merging dichotomy is present here as well. In these terms, the terrible fish is not only the monstrous autonomy of woman as personally or artistically creative self. It is also the impossibility of all autonomy or self-definition. Defining herself in and as that which cannot be defined, the woman writer comes perilously close to her previous condition of subjectlessness. That is the price of creative autonomy viewed in terms of resistance and dissociation.

Different in several ways from other poems on "monstrous" female autonomy, creativity is not the manifest subject of "Mirror," and the terrible creature is not the acknowledged alter-ego of the speaker. The image, moreover, retains more of its primordial menace as both monster and internal threat than in most of the poems of the genre. There is little apparent nobility or dignity in the terrible fish, and its immediate if not exclusive prey seems to be not man or "the oppressor" but the mirror (or lake) itself and the young woman who is drowned in it. Almost to the very end Plath remained ambivalent, retained her dual identity, and could not celebrate liberation or defiance unperplexed. Unlike Lady Lazarus, Plath's mirror is a cannibal Charybdis who either has not yet identified the enemy or is not prepared to attack it. Finally and most impressively, however, unlike most poems that consciously identify their beast of creative enterprise, "Mirror" generates its emblem of autonomy in the language and processes of a poem that has ostensibly made its peace with mere reflection. The terrible fish is not so much an image in the poem as an image of the poem and its achievement, the self-generated product of its method.

Ted Hughes (essay date Fall 1994)

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SOURCE: "On Sylvia Plath," in Raritan, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 1-10.

[In the following essay, Hughes comments on Plath's struggle to transcribe her private anguish into the fiction of The Bell Jar. According to Hughes, Plath's difficulty stemmed from her effort to produce a novel with both mythic aspirations and cathartic ritual based in reality.]

Sylvia Plath's intense ambition to write a novel provides one of the main and most distressful themes of her early journals. Her inability to start—or worse, her various attempts to start—brought her repeatedly to near despair. She agonized about style, tone, structure, subject matter.

Throughout that same period, her poetry struggled into being against only slightly less resistance. Plenty of poems survive, perhaps because each of her convulsive efforts to break through the mysterious barriers by way of verse sufficed to complete a short poem—which could then be sold for cash and bore comparison with what other poets were publishing. But she knew these poems were not what she wanted. She valued them far more highly than her prose, because at least they reflected, often very beautifully, the obsessive inner life that made her write them. But though they reflected it, she felt they did not contain it, did not release it.

       These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis.

Her prose, however, seemed to her not even to reflect it.

As far as her difficulties with narrative prose went, in retrospect one can see a glaring mismatch between the great dreams of her novelistic ambition and the character of her actual gift. Her high-minded, academic passion for classic novelists combined with the priorities of her own sophisticated poetic talent made her think of the ideal narrative prose as something densely wrought, richly charged, of all-encompassing, superfine subtleties, with James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James prominent in the pedigree. This is where most of her attempts to get her novel going foundered. They foundered because her vital inner creative life was not in them. Her heart, in other words, pulled her in the opposite direction—through Lawrence and Dostoyevski. On the evidence of The Bell Jar one could say, maybe, that her writer's distress might have had less to do with her conscious failure to add another thoroughbred to that classic stable of stylists than to her unconscious horror at being dragged remorselessly towards what she did not want to face—even though her true gift was waiting there to show her how to face it.

Her breakthrough came—by the backdoor. Spring 1959, in a moment of seemingly no importance, like a gambler, playful and reckless, out of the blue she wrote her short story "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams." This first-person narrative is composed in a voice that approximates the one she would find for The Bell Jar—a voice, that is, rather than a style. It whirls in a high-trapeze glitter of circus daring around one of her most serious terrors: her experience of the electroconvulsive shock treatment that jumped her out of the torpor in which her attempted suicide had left her.

Perhaps "Johnny Panic" was the divining work that located and opened the blocked spring. Change of home and travel prevented her from writing anything more till late fall. Then almost at once, with a place and a few brief weeks to concentrate, she made the first big breakthrough in her poetry. "Poem for a Birthday" returns to that stony source, but now lifts the shattered soul reborn from the "quarry of silences" where "men are mended," and where her "mendings itch." And the voice of Ariel can be heard clearing its throat.

Immediately after that, her writing was once again disrupted by physical upheavals: change of country, home-building, birth and infancy of her first child, all these interposed a full year, during which time that new voice, with the story it had to tell, stayed incommunicado. But in the spring of 1961 by good luck circumstances cooperated, giving her time and place to work uninterruptedly. Then at top speed and with very little revision from start to finish she wrote The Bell Jar.

In this narrative the voice has perfected itself. And what it has to tell is the author's psychic autobiography, the creation-myth of the person that had emerged in the "Poem for a Birthday" and that would go on in full cry through Ariel.

The Bell Jar is the story, in other words, from behind the electroconvulsive shock treatment. It dramatizes the decisive event of her adult life, which was her attempted suicide and accidental survival, and reveals how this attempt to annihilate herself had grown from the decisive event in her childhood, which was the death of her father when she was eight. Taken separately, each episode of the plot is a close-to-documentary account of something that did happen in the author's life. But the great and it might be said profoundly disturbing effect of this brisk assemblage is determined by two separate and contradictory elements. One of these operates on what could be called an upper level, the other on a lower.

The first, on the upper level, is the author's clearly recognizable purpose in the way she manipulates her materials. Her long-nursed ambition to write an objective novel about "life" was swept aside by a more urgent need. Fully aware of what she was doing, she modeled the sequence of episodes, and the various characters, into a ritual scenario for the heroine's symbolic death and rebirth. To her, this became the crucial aspect of the work. That mythic schema of violent initiation, in which the old self dies and the new self is born, or the false dies and the true is born, or the child dies and the adult is born, or the base animal dies and the spiritual self is born, which is fundamental to the major works of Lawrence and Dostoyevski, as well as to Christianity, can be said to have preoccupied her. Obviously, it preoccupied her in particular for very good reasons. She saw it as something other than one of imaginative literature's more important ideas. As far as she was concerned, her escape from her past and her conquest of the future, or in more immediate, real terms her well-being from day to day and even her very survival, depended absolutely on just how effectively she could impose this reinterpretation on her own history, within her own mind, and how potently her homemade version of the rite could give sustaining shape and positive direction to her psychological life. Her novel had to work as both the ranking of the mythic event and the liturgy, so to speak, of her own salvation.

The very writing of The Bell Jar did seem to succeed in performing this higher function, for the author, with astounding immediacy and power. And the role of each episode and character, as they operate on this level in the book, has been a good deal discussed.

The main movement of the action is the shift of the heroine, the "I," from artificial ego to authentic self—through a painful "death." The artificial ego is identified with the presiding moral regime of the widowed mother. The inner falsity and inadequacy of this complex induces the suicidal crisis. With the attempted suicide it is successfully dislodged, scapegoated into the heroine's double, Joan Gilling, and finally, at the end of the book, physically annihilated when Joan Gilling hangs herself. Simultaneously, the authentic self emerges into fierce rebellion against everything associated with the old ego. Her decisive act (the "positive" replay of her "negative" suicide) takes the form of a sanguinary defloration, carefully stage managed by the heroine, which liberates her authentic self into independence. On this plane, the novel is tightly related to the mythos visible in the plots and situations of the poems, which here and there share a good deal of its ritualized purpose. It can be read, in fact, as the logbook of their superficial mechanisms and meanings. To a degree, the novel is an image of the matrix in which the poems grew and from which they still draw life.

Without undergoing the psychic transformation of self-remaking, which she accomplished in writing this scenario, the author might not have come so swiftly and so fully, as she did, to the inspiration and release of Ariel. She might not have got there at all. As it is, a reader can chart her progress from the completion of the novel (late spring, 1961) to the first true Ariel poem ("Elm," mid-April 1962). More physical disruptions—holidays, changing homes, etc.—help to account for the absence of the new voice in the four or five poems ("Insomniac," "Widow," "Stars over the Dordogne," "The Rival," "Wuthering Heights") produced between late spring and mid-September. But in September she was able to settle once again to concentrated work, beginning with the ominous piece, "Blackberrying." Three more strides ("Finisterre," "The Surgeon at 2 a.m.," "Last Words") towards the land of the dead brought her to "The Moon and the Yew Tree," where her father lies under the roots and her mother mourns in heaven:

      The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
      The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
      The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
      Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
      How I would like to believe in tenderness
      The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
      Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.
      I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
      Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
      Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
      Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
      Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
      The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
      And the message of the yew tree is blackness—blackness
        and silence.

Further exploration was disrupted by the birth of her second child in January 1962. But she was back on the path, in the depth of her vision, on the 4th of April, and found herself again in the same place, confronting the yew tree—which now consists of terrible music and opens to admit her. This is exactly as if she had entered her father's coffin.

      Empty and silly as plates,
      So the blind smile.
      I envy the big noises,
      The yew hedge of the Grosse Fuge.
      Deafness is something else.
      Such a dark funnel, my father!
      I see your voice
      Black and leafy, as in my childhood,
      A yew hedge of orders,
      Gothic and barbarous, pure German.
      Dead men cry from it.
      I am guilty of nothing.
      The yew my Christ, then.
      Is it not as tortured?
      And you, during the Great War
      In the California delicatessen
      Lopping the sausages!
      They color my sleep,
      Red, mottled, like cut necks.
      There was a silence!
      Great silence of another order.
      I was seven, I knew nothing.
      The world occurred.
      You had one leg, and a Prussian mind.
      Now similar clouds
      Are spreading their vacuous sheets.
      Do you say nothing?
      I am lame in the memory.
      I remember a blue eye,
      A briefcase of tangerines.
      This was a man, then!
      Death opened, like a black tree, blackly.
                                   (from "Little Fugue")

The actual yew tree of the poem, as she saw it from the door of her house, stood in her sunset, on the opposite side, due West. Due East, filling her dawn sky as she saw it from the back of her house, stood the Elm.

The fascinating thing is what now unfolded between the 2nd and the 19th of April. As it happened, the 2nd fell in the dark phase of the Moon (which emerged new on the 5th) and the 19th fell on the first day of the Full. On the 2nd, as I say, she had entered her father's coffin, under the yew tree. On the 4th she wrote "An Appearance," her point-blank portrait of the presiding genius of her false ego—that she was about to escape from at last. She then went on, through the 4th, 5th, and 7th of April, to write her three most purely beautiful, most free-spirited, most delicately elated poems—"Crossing the Water," "Among the Narcissi," and "Pheasant." What she was actually doing became clear only on the 19th! The real Pheasant, as in her poem, flew up into the real Elm. A few days before the 19th she had started a poem about the Elm itself. This had settled early into a constricted series of rhymes, in which one can see her groping for the new bearings with the old instruments. After twenty-one pages of struggle, the new bearings suddenly burst in on her, she finds the new instruments in her hands, and the voice of Ariel emerges fully fledged in "Elm." It emerges as a bird, "a cry":

      Nightly it flaps out,
      Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

In other words, between the 2nd and the 19th, she has been traveling underground ("Crossing the Water"), just like Osiris in his sun-boat being transported from his death in the West to his rebirth as a divine child (himself reborn as his own divine child in the form of a Falcon) in the East. And as can be seen, "Elm" recapitulates the ritual scenario of The Bell Jar:

     I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my
     great tap root:
     It is what you fear.
     I do not fear it: I have been there.
     I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets.
     Scorched to the root
     My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires.
     Now I break up in pieces that fly about like clubs.
     A wind of such violence
     Will tolerate no bystanding: I must shriek.
     The moon, also, is merciless: she would drag me
     Cruelly, being barren.
     Her radiance scathes me. Or perhaps I have caught her.
     I let her go. I let her go
     Diminished and flat, as after radical surgery.
     How your bad dreams possess and endow me.
     I am inhabited by a cry.
     Nightly it flaps out
     Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.
     I am terrified by this dark thing
     That sleeps in me;
     All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.

Through an apocalyptic disintegration, the Elm remains as the physical continuity of the speaker, as did Victoria Lucas in the novel.

The Moon, as always, corresponds to the nucleus of the artificial ego in its matriarchal regime, while the "soft, feathery" thing, the dark fierce bird that inhabits the tree, is the voice and spirit of the authentic self—the new voice and spirit of Ariel, with its deeper story still to be told.

It should not be surprising that the novel and poems are so closely related. They were not only gestated in the same imagination (utilizing a genetic code of symbolic signs that has few equals for consistency and precision), they were delivered, so to speak, in parallel. Though The Bell Jar had been finished by late spring, 1961, the publication process dragged on throughout 1962, and the book emerged to the public eye only on January 14th, 1963 (four weeks before her death). In late 1962, while the Ariel poems were being written, she corrected and sent off the novel's proofs, and worried over questions of possible libel. The last Ariel poem, "Sheep in Fog," came on December 2nd. This was also the last poem she wrote (except for the unfinished "Eavesdropper") until after the novel was published. It was then the first poem she picked up, on January 28th, when she made the correction that revealed it as the elegy and funeral cortege for the Ariel inspiration. Whereupon it became the first (three more written that same day and all eleven within the next week) of the final group, the true death-songs.

It is the curve of the mythic drama within the poems that directs a reader's attention back to the positive aspect of the rebirth ritual in the novel. I made the point that this ritual operates on an "upper level." With the help of the poems, one can see that the "positive" aspect of that ritual holds good only on that upper level—where her shaping will is the control, where the ritual magic is choreographed according to plan, and the rebirth is hopeful.

On the lower level, where what I called the second element makes itself felt, things are different. Her materials were the real explosive experience of her own life and attempted suicide. Her bid to refashion these materials ritually, to recreate her history and remake herself, is brilliant with a kind of desperation, lit with the dazzling powers of an all-out emergency. Everything depended on her bringing about a genuine alchemical change in that uranium. And for a time, the triumph seemed real—it enabled her to write Ariel. But it proved to be temporary. The reality of her materials was susceptible to her magical coercion—but only so far and for so long. In its true nature it remained stubbornly what it always was—inaccessible to manipulation. Inaccessible, at least, to that first, brave attempt. This helps to explain the raggedly imperfect art of a novel that nevertheless feels like a vital work, a work of existential emergency. In effect, two different books are fighting for the one story. While she tries to impose her positive, self-protective interpretation and nurse that germ of an authentic rebirth, in her stage-managed nativity ritual, the material itself is doing something else. It is disinterring its own actuality for the first time, and dictating its own document, telling the simple truth of what was, is being, and will be suffered. This, then, is the second element in The Bell Jar: the unalterable truth, the past and future reality, of her basic materials.

On this lower level, the symbolism discloses a pattern of tragedy that is like a magnetic field in the very ground of her being: that unalterable truth to the reality is her voice's deeper negative story. Because in each episode of the novel this deeper pattern contradicts the ritual on the upper level, everything on the upper level, every step of the ritual dance that is trying to compel "the good things to happen," acquires a tragic shadow. The poems, meanwhile, wear that ritual purpose more lightly and declare the deeper pattern more openly—sometimes shockingly so. The reader is bewildered because each level speaks in the equally-real-or-symbolic terms of the other. This simultaneity of the two levels is what makes the novel, the poems, and the author herself truly tragic.

Al Strangeways (essay date Fall 1996)

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SOURCE: "'The Boot in the Face': The Problem of the Holocaust in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 370-90.

[In the following essay, Strangeways examines Plath's references to the Holocaust in light of her preoccupation with personal history and myth, female victimization, and the specter of nuclear war. Strangeways concludes that Plath does not simply reduce the atrocity of the Holocaust to metaphor, but draws attention to the ambiguous and potentially dangerous interrelationship between "myth, history, and poetry in the post-Holocaust world."]

Sylvia Plath's poetry is generally judged on the contents of the posthumously published Ariel (1965), and often on a minority of poems within that volume, such as "Daddy" (1962) and "Lady Lazarus" (1962), which are most striking because of their inclusion of references to the Holocaust. Plath's whole oeuvre is frequently and superficially viewed as somehow "tainted" by the perceived egoism of her deployment of the Holocaust in these poems. Such straightforward condemnation, however, disguises the difficulties surrounding any judgment of Plath's treatment of this material—difficulties which are clearly exhibited by the respected critic George Steiner, who in 1965 applauded "Daddy" as "The 'Guernica' of modern poetry," yet later, in 1969, declared that the extreme nature of Plath's late poems left him "uneasy": "Does any writer, does any human being other than an actual survivor, have the right to put on this death-rig?" It is important to study both why and how the Holocaust appears in Plath's poetry, because our reaction to it as readers and the strategies Plath uses to approach it are tied to a wider problem relating to the place of the Holocaust in our culture. If we understand this, it is possible to place the disturbing appearance of the Holocaust in Plath's poems in its proper context, and to see this effect as symptomatic of a more general problem she recognizes, a conflict about the very uses of poetry itself. The problem of Plath's utilization of the Holocaust can be broadly divided into two parts: the motives behind her use of such material, and the actual appearance of it in her poetry. I will show that her motives were responsible, and that the often unsettling appearance of the Holocaust in her later poems stems from a complex of reasons concerning her divided view about the uses of poetry and the related conflict she explores between history and myth—a conflict which finds its ultimate focus in her consciousness of the importance of remembering such an event, but also of the voyeurism implicit in attempts at remembrance.

Although critics such as Jacqueline Rose and Margaret Dickie Uroff have gone some way toward arguing that Plath was genuinely and consistently interested in political issues, little attention has been given to the link between such political concerns and the Holocaust. In Plath's academic life (the influence of which is neglected at cost by many critics and biographers), the Holocaust was a topic in both high school and college. A schoolmate recalls how Plath's history teacher at Wellesley High School, Raymond Chapman, confronted his class: "[W]eary of our affluent, teenaged complacency, [he] had photographic blow-ups made of the inmates of Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz. These tragic, skeletal inmates looking out from their packed bunk beds in their ragged striped pyjamas stared down upon our crisply shampooed heads, giving us the shudders." Both Chapman's desire to disturb his students' complacency and the strategy he used foreshadow Plath's similar treatment of the Holocaust in her later poetry.

In contrast to the emotional impact of this introduction, Plath's college professors encouraged the reasoned linking of Nazism with current political concerns. Erich Fromm's The Fear of Freedom (1941), a set text in one history course Plath took at Smith College, is characteristic of other texts she studied at the time in its discussion of the staple American interest in individualism with reference to the problem of Nazism. Fromm argues that America's conformism stems from the same "fear of freedom" as the more extreme authoritarian horrors of Nazism. The book seems to have made a central, lasting impression on Plath—she heavily underlined and annotated her copy, and referred to Fromm's theories in essays written both at Smith and later at Cambridge ("The Age of Anxiety," "Some Preliminary Notes on Plato and Popper").

The impact of Fromm's book on Plath lies in its combination of psychology and history in a way that appears to have influenced her combination of the two in her later poetry. While accepting that Nazism's rise was "molded by socioeconomic factors," Fromm saw it as rooted in a "psychological problem" that also affected (albeit in a lesser way) American society. His exploration of Nazism concentrates on how "the Nazi system express[es] an extreme form of the character structure which we have called 'authoritarian,'" and he examines in detail examples of neurotic symptoms that are evident, in an extreme form, in Nazism. In Plath's poem "Daddy," the controversial lines "Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you" are trying to make a similar, though gendered, point. Throughout the poem, the speaker and "daddy," masochistic and sadistic figures respectively, appear dependent upon each other, and both figures' connections to Nazism (as Jew and Fascist) link their dependence on each other (lack of individuation) to Fromm's theorization. In the speaker's consciously disturbing over-statement that "Every woman adores a Fascist," Plath asserts that, while the archetypal male figure appearing in the rest of the poem (as father and lover) connotes the escape from freedom through sadism, the female figure's adoration of the Fascist is an extreme result of a stereotypically feminine escape from the feelings of aloneness associated with freedom, through masochistic strivings. Freedom, for the archetypal "feminine" figure in "Daddy," is freedom from the authoritarian father figure. Political realities (in the form of Nazism) and psychological difficulties (in the form of neurosis) are inescapably linked for Fromm and for Plath. Thus Plath's lines in "Daddy" are both psychological and political. They are psychological not because "Daddy" is about Plath's relationship with her father, but in the sense that Plath uses the situation depicted in the poem to explore the dynamics of her attitude toward individualism. Her intellectual and moral approval of individualism is set against a consciously explored ambivalence in her desire for such freedom, an ambivalence which is summed up in the final line, so that "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through" may mean either that the speaker is "through with daddy" or free from him, or that she is (in relation to the imagery of the black telephone in stanza 14) through to him, having made a final and inescapable connection with him—having, in short, given up her freedom.

As well as this staple American interest in individualism, Plath's other central political concern, as for most of her generation, was the prospect of nuclear war. With the cold war at its height in the late 1950s, the potential for a different, nuclear genocide made concerns about the Holocaust immediately relevant. The literary critic A. Alvarez (who was also a friend of Plath) notes that he "suggested (in a piece for the Atlantic Monthly, December 1962) that one of the reasons why the camps continue to keep such a tight hold on our imaginations is that we see in them a small-scale trial run for a nuclear war…. Then there are those other curious, upside-down similarities: the use of modern industrial processes for the mass production of corpses, with all the attendant paraphernalia of efficiency, meticulous paperwork, and bureaucratic organization; the deliberate annihilation not merely of lives but of identities, as in some paranoid vision of mass culture." Elie Wiesel, a respected commentator on and survivor of the Holocaust, writing in the 1980s, also connects the genocide carried out by the Nazis and the more universal potential genocide of nuclear war: "Once upon a time it happened to my people, and now it happens to all people. And suddenly I said to myself, maybe the whole world, strangely, has turned Jewish. Everybody lives now facing the unknown. We are all, in a way, helpless." Other, later writers go further in their linking of anti-Semitic and potentially nuclear holocausts, such as Robert Jay Lifton and Eric Markusen, whose study The Genocidal Mentality: Nazi Holocaust and Nuclear Threat explores detailed similarities between the way the Nazi system of the Holocaust and the nuclear narrative work. Plath, in "Mary's Song" (1962), also connects the past atrocity of the Holocaust and the future threat of nuclear destruction, exploring the double-edged nature of technological "progress" that allows both space flight and efficient genocide—historically of the Jewish people, potentially of the whole world.


For Plath, the main link between the Holocaust and a potential nuclear war was the mind-numbing rhetoric that both "final solution" and cold war discourses employed. The widely publicized trial of Adolf Eichmann (1961–62) showed the importance of such a use of language in the smooth running of the Nazi genocide machinery. Hannah Arendt notes, in her report on the Eichmann trial: "all correspondence referring to the matter was subject to rigid 'language rules.'… the prescribed code names for killing were 'final solution,' 'evacuation' … and 'special treatment.'… for whatever other reasons the language rules may have been devised, they proved of enormous help in the maintenance of order and sanity in the various widely diversified services whose co-operation was essential in this matter." As a student at Smith, Plath marked Fromm's general comments on this subject of rhetoric and aggression in Escape from Freedom with a determined "yes!": "Never have words been more misused in order to conceal the truth than today. Betrayal of allies is called appeasement, military aggression is camouflaged as defense against attack [Plath's emphasis]." Plath's concern resurfaced in the period just before she wrote her Holocaust poems, during the Khrushchev-Kennedy stand-off, when she writes, both in her letters to her mother and in "Context," a piece published in London Magazine in 1962, about her fear of such a dissembling and dangerous "doubletalk."

Yet Plath's concerns with the Holocaust were not purely disinterested, academic connections between past and present threats. Her awareness of the interconnection between the private and the political in her interest in the Holocaust is evident in a BBC radio interview she gave in 1962. When asked why she treats the Holocaust in her poetry, she declares, "In particular, my background is, may I say, German and Austrian … and so my concern with concentration camps and so on is uniquely intense. And then, again, I'm rather a political person as well, so I suppose that's what part of it comes from." One might add, as James Young argues, that she also felt "she shared the era of victimhood, victimized by modern life at large as the Jews and Japanese had been victimized by specific events in modern life." Plath's personalized treatment of the Holocaust stems, then, from a combination of two motives: her very "real" sense of connection (for whatever reasons) with the events, and her desire to combine the public and the personal in order to shock and cut through the distancing "doubletalk" she saw in contemporary conformist, cold war America.

Edward Alexander expresses a common concern when he writes of his unease at the sort of connections made not only by Plath but also by other writers who talk of an "era of victimhood" or who specifically connect Jewish and potential nuclear holocausts: "stealing the Holocaust … [is the process of] reduc[ing] Jews from the status of human beings to that of metaphors for other people's sufferings … we must keep steadily before our mind's eye the truth that, as Cynthia Ozick once wrote, 'Jews are not metaphors—not for poets, not for novelists, not for theologians, not for murderers, and never for anti-semites.'" Alexander's fear is that once the Holocaust and its Jewish victims become mythical metaphors for suffering, it is easy to extend such metaphoric treatment into the very anti-Semitic stereotyping that resulted in the Holocaust itself. This very genuine concern does not, however, take into account the impossibility of regulating the relationship between history and subjectivity. As Young declares, "To question whether or not the suffering of the Holocaust should be cast as a type implies that we have some sort of legislative control over which events figure others, which events enter consciousness." Yet to accept the impossibility of legislating against the metaphorizing of the Holocaust does not mean that all judgment about the deployment of such material should be suspended. In relation to Plath's poetry, then, it is important to evaluate how effectively or appropriately Plath treats the Holocaust, and whether, indeed, she actually confronts the problem of metaphorizing in her deployment of such material.

While I have shown that Plath's motives for including Holocaust material in her poetry were responsible, the Holocaust appears only briefly in her work. Not only does Plath use such material within a short space of time, but in the poems in which the Holocaust does appear, it is treated almost tersely. Such dual brevity lends credence to the widespread view, noted by Rose, "that politics appears only opportunistically, as a form of self-aggrandizement" in her poetry. Apart from Plath's oblique treatment of the subject in the earlier poem "The Thin People" (1957), Holocaust imagery appears only in the poems she wrote between October and November 1962, just after her separation from Ted Hughes and her return from Devon to London. This timing can make it difficult not to feel that she distastefully used the persecution of the Jews to express her own feelings of being victimized by Hughes. Examination of wider circumstances, however, shows a number of other significant reasons for the suddenness of Plath's poetic treatment of the Holocaust. In general terms, this period saw, in addition to the "real-life" drama of the Eichmann trial, a number of star-studded Hollywood films—often adapted from successful books, plays, or television presentations—that brought the Holocaust to the forefront of the popular imagination, including Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), starring Spencer Tracey; Exodus (1960), starring Paul Newman and Sal Mineo; and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). In relation to the particular two months in question, it is widely accepted that, for whatever reasons, Hughes's departure released for Plath a new sense of poetic freedom and led to the composition of poems on which her reputation largely rests. More specifically, Plath is adamant in her letters to her mother at this time that "I need no literary help from him. I am going to make my own way." Hughes was undeniably a powerful literary influence on Plath, and his departure may well have enabled her to use the sorts of topical imagery which he generally felt were better avoided. In addition, Plath was influenced by her new friendship with a South African Jewish couple, Gerry and Jillian Becker. She became close friends with the Beckers, to the extent of sharing their meal on Christmas Day that year. Both Jillian and Gerry were keenly interested in the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust (Jillian later wrote a study of terrorism, Hitler's Children, and Gerry had read much about and visited a number of the concentration camps), and, as Ronald Hayman reports, their conversations often returned to the subject.

While it is relatively straightforward to chart the complex reasons behind the abrupt chronological appearance of the Holocaust in Plath's poems, the briefness of the appearance of such material within individual poems poses more complicated problems. Certainly, as Young notes, Plath's poems are not strictly about the Holocaust (in the way the poems of survivors such as Primo Levi are), although, as I argued earlier with reference to the influence of Erich Fromm, neither are they as resolutely private as they often appear. Accepting this, however, and notwithstanding her genuine sense of connection to the cultural impact of its horrors, the Holocaust appears in Plath's poems in references that are often emblematic, seemingly untransformed by poetic craft. In "Daddy," for instance, it is not so much the style of "light verse" and the connection of the very personal to the very extreme horrors of, in Seamus Heaney's terms, "the history of other people's sorrows" that causes unease. Rather, Plath combines myth and history (Electra, vampirism, and voodoo rub shoulders with the Holocaust) in such a way that the history of Nazi persecution of the Jews appears almost one dimensional in comparison to the flexibility of her treatment of the poem's mythic and psychoanalytic aspects.

In "Fever 103°" (1962), this uneasy combination of history (here, in the form of Hiroshima) and myth is more readily apparent. The speaker's journey in the poem toward some sort of cathartic transformation works through mythic references to Cerberus and a myth making account of the death of Isadora Duncan to a historical-political image of the effects of atomic destruction and Hiroshima. Images of "smokes," used to describe both Isadora's fatal scarves and nuclear holocaust, are pivotal in effecting the transition from the mythic to the historical imagery. This transitional imagery of fire and smoke is strongly reminiscent of the central image of the more successful "Mary's Song" (written one month later), where fire is transformed into "thick palls" of smoke that link the poem's movement from Christian myth to the Holocaust. In "Fever 103°," however, the connection between myth and history is more tenuous. The mythic material frames the poem.


The conclusion of the poem, even taking into account its destabilizing ironic overtones, is one of mythic transcendence.


In contrast to [the] sustained and vivid images, the historical-political image transitions in the center of the poem appear violently swift and lack the resonance of the mythic imagery. Concerns about modern science are explored when the "Hothouse baby in its crib" becomes "The ghastly orchid / … // Devilish leopard," of which the reader is told (in relation to the drawbacks of such scientific wonders), "Radiation turned it white / And killed it in an hour." These startlingly swift metaphoric transitions, while working in complete contrast to the more sustained progression of the frame of the poem, nevertheless appear to cohere, both together and to the rest of the poem. The lurching transition to "Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like Hiroshima ash and eating in. / The sin. The sin," is not, however, as well sustained. (In "Mary's Song," the transition from smoke to ash is also a lurch but is better supported by the more integrated nature of the mythic framework.) The connections between radiation and Hiroshima, grease, ash, and human relations (in the form of "adulterers") in this section of "Fever 103°" are too many, too contrived, and ultimately too weak to support the transition from the extended image play of scientific advances and drawbacks to the return to "the sin, the sin" of the mythic opening. Arguably, such apparently arbitrary swiftness represents the surreally illogical thought processes of the fevered subject; yet such an interpretation still leaves unexplained the very specific, unsettling contrast Plath sets up between the resonant nature of myth and the emblematic appearance of history.

The contrast between the resonance and diversity of Plath's use of myth and the single dimensions of her use of history in the form of the Holocaust and Hiroshima is not simply due to Plath's greater experience and confidence in handling the former, learned from using mythic material throughout her poetic career. Robert Graves, in The White Goddess (an influential book for Plath and for many myth making poets of the 1950s), separates history and myth in their relation to poetry. He writes of "the tendency of history to taint the purity of myth" and is disdainful of "originality" in the poet who "take[s] his themes from anywhere he please[s]," by which Graves appears to mean "occasional" rather than "mythic" themes. Yet while Plath agrees with Graves about the importance of a deep personal knowledge of and feeling for myth, she not only dissents from Graves's view of the poetic dominance of myth, but extends his exhortation about the importance of a personal feeling for and connection to myth to reverse the dichotomy he sets up between myth as pure, history as impure. In her poetry, it is myth that Plath appropriates (more and less successfully) for more idiosyncratic and personal ends (for instance, in her connection of myth with psychoanalytic themes in poems such as "Electra on Azalea Path" [1959]). Notwithstanding her sense of involvement with political and historical themes, it is history that stands as somehow unchanging and "pure," emblematic and suprapersonal in her poetry. It is this impersonal "purity" of emblem applied to such real horrors of history as the twentieth-century Holocaust that makes poems such as "Fever 103°" and "Daddy" so discomfiting.

If, then, this is the root of the dilemma about Plath's treatment of the Holocaust, what were the reasons behind Plath's reversal of Graves's dichotomy? A statement Plath makes in 1962, in a BBC radio interview that accompanied a reading of her late poems, throws some light on this question. Peter Orr asked Plath where such socially and historically aware poems came from: "Do your poems tend now to come out of books rather than out of your own life?" Plath replied, famously, "No, no: I would not say that at all. I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathize with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is … personal experience … should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on." Plath's characterization of "Hiroshima and Dachau and so on" as "the larger things" is significant in two ways. First, by declaring that personal experience should be relevant to such historical events, she apparently contradicts a statement she made in the same period, where she describes the "bigger things," more traditionally, as the timeless universals of loving and creating. This highlights a central conflict for Plath about the uses of poetry, rooted in the watershed period in which she wrote, where the movement was from seeing poetry as mythic and timelessly universal (as Graves did) to its being a more personal and didactic communication that comments upon the issues of the day. Indeed, Plath even expresses her ambivalence within the same piece, when she writes, on the one hand, that the importance of poetry does not lie in its ability to communicate with or influence people—"Surely the great use of poetry is its pleasure—not its influence as religious or political propaganda…. I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people" ("Context")—yet several lines later declares that she sees poetry as communicating something good, teaching or healing, by comparing poems' "distance" as reaching "farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor." It is Plath's own ambivalence about these two uses of poetry that is reflected in the divergent critical reception her use of the Holocaust has generated: whether her poetry is mythic, and thus open to the charge that (notwithstanding the impossibility of legislating history and subjectivity) her figurings are either inappropriate or irresponsible, or whether her poetry is inescapably concerned with contemporary issues, directly confronting the problems surrounding the use of topical material as tropes.

Secondly, in describing the Holocaust and nuclear bomb as the "larger things," Plath appears to perceive such historical events in expressly mythic terms. Jon Harris, in trying to determine why, in the decades following World War II, very little poetry was written about the Holocaust in Britain, sees the reasons bound up in the mythic nature of the historical event. He writes, "the horrors were so extreme that they seem to belong to another world entirely." In other words, the Holocaust assumed a mythic dimension because of its extremity and the difficulty of understanding it in human terms, due to the mechanical efficiency with which it was carried out, and the inconceivably large number of victims. In addition to this problem of conceptualization, Harris declares that traditional myth, through which poetry works, was devalued, as it was unable to enclose or make sense of the subject.

This problem of the relationship between myth and recent history is central to the difficulties surrounding literature and the Holocaust. Aharon Appelfeld writes:

By its nature, when it comes to describing reality, art always demands a certain intensification, for many and various reasons. However, that is not the case with the Holocaust. Everything in it already seems so thoroughly unreal, as if it no longer belongs to the experience of our generation, but to mythology. Thence comes the need to bring it down to the human realm. This is not a mechanical problem, but an essential one…. I do not mean to simplify, to attenuate, or to sweeten the horror, but to attempt to make the events speak through the individual and in his language.

Many critics who explore the "literature of atrocity" recognize this conflict, between the "naturally" mythic nature of the events, and the need, difficult in practice, to remove them from such an easily assimilated mythology. Irving Howe, for instance, writes, "it is a grave error to make, or 'elevate,' the Holocaust into an occurrence outside of history, a sort of diabolic visitation, for then we tacitly absolve its human agents of their responsibility." Yet, as Harris recognizes, there are equal dangers in trying to "de-elevate" the Holocaust:

The problem, in fact, is twofold; first we must accept that the horrors were so extreme that they seem to belong to another world entirely, not the one we regularly write poetry about…. Secondly, in claiming that we can conceive of the horror of the Holocaust, we lay ourselves open to the accusation that by imposing a critical form and structure on it we are ipso facto justifying it: by attributing a rationale of any sort to it, we admit that the Holocaust could be seen as a rational act.

This problem which Plath's treatment of the Holocaust exhibits, of exploring or representing the inconceivable (the mythic horror of the Holocaust) with the conceivable (be it a conceivable subject, such as personal difficulties, or a conceivable form), is also apparent in the Hollywood films produced at the time (as well as many similar cinematic treatments from then on, with the notable exception of Shoah [1983]). Annette Insdorf describes the difficulties inherent in cinematic treatments of the Holocaust, citing John J. O'Connor (a New York Times television critic), who writes: "The Diary of Anne Frank and Judgment at Nuremberg … depend on a confined theatrical setting, superfluous dialogue, star turns, classical editing (mainly with close-ups), and musical scores whose violins swell at dramatic moments. These studio productions essentially fit the bristling raw material of the Holocaust into an old narrative form, thus allowing the viewer to leave the theater feeling complacent instead of concerned or disturbed." The act of trying to bring such horrific events to a popular audience involves a rationalizing and conventionalizing of the material, which ultimately runs the risk of trivializing the very events it is trying to commemorate. In Plath's case, the "old narrative form" is that of a lyrical expression through personalized myth making, with in which the Holocaust fits uncomfortably. In addition to these wider difficulties of using traditional conventions to represent the horrors of the Holocaust, the expressly symbolic approach of poetry appears tainted by the abuse of metaphor in the Nazi regime's employment of the "language rules" cited above, an abuse of language that Plath herself feared in the less extreme cold war "doubletalk" discourse.

It is these problems surrounding the conventionalization and metaphorizing of the Holocaust that not only inform Plath's late poems but are enacted by them. Lawrence Langer's tentative answer to the way out of the impasse between the impact of the Holocaust and the ethical problems associated with its depiction is through a creativity which works to collapse the distinction between history and the present, metaphor and subject. Langer writes of an episode in Jerzy Kosinki's The Painted Bird: "Episodes like the gouging out of the eyes seek to induce a sense of complicity with the extremity of cruelty and suffering in modern experience, from which history (with its customary distinctions between "then" and "now"), conspiring with the reader's reluctance to acknowledge such possibilities, unconsciously insulates us. The art of atrocity is the incarnation of such possibilities through language and metaphor." Plath's late poems try to work in a similar way, "inducing a sense of complicity" by combining the events with an intimate tone and material. Yet instead of trying directly to present the cruelty of the Holocaust itself, the feeling Plath's poems generate is one of complicity in the easy assimilation of such past cruelties. Her poems try to avoid the anonymity and the amnesia contingent on the "them and us" and "then and now" distinctions that characterize the perception of history by highlighting her use of the Holocaust as metaphor. In such poems, readers are meant to feel uncomfortable with the suprapersonal, mythical depiction of Jewish suffering, feeling somehow implicated (because of their traditional identification with the lyric persona) in the voyeurism such an assimilation of the Holocaust implies. This feeling of implication that Plath's poems generate may be viewed in broad terms as their success. Such poems are culturally valuable because the appearance of the Holocaust in them is like a "boot in the face"—certainly, few readers leave them feeling "complacent instead of concerned or disturbed."

While the ultimately inconceivable nature of the horror of the Holocaust means that Plath cannot mobilize the kinds of overt reflexivity apparent in her treatment of traditional myth in, for example, "Electra on Azalea Path," her poems that deal with the Holocaust also work to comment on metapoetic concerns. In "Lady Lazarus," for example, Plath collapses the "them and us" distinction by confronting readers with their voyeurism in looking at the subject of the poem. To apply Teresa De Lauretis's theorizing of the cinematic positioning of women to Plath's poem, in "Lady Lazarus," the speaker's consciousness of her performance for the readers (who are implicitly part of the "peanut-crunching crowd") works to reverse the gaze of the readers so that they become "overlooked in the act of overlooking." By extension, in her parodic overstatement (Lady Lazarus as archetypal victim, archetypal object of the gaze) Plath highlights the performative (that is, constructed rather than essential) nature of the speaker's positioning as object of the gaze, and so (to extend Judith Butler's terms), Lady Lazarus enacts a performance that attempts to "compel a reconsideration of the place and stability" of her positioning, and to "enact and reveal the performativity" of her representation. This sense of performativity and the reversal of gaze like-wise extends, in "Lady Lazarus," to compel reconsideration not only of the conventional positioning of the woman as object, and of the voyeurism implicit in all lyric poetry, but also of the historical metaphors as objects of the gaze. Readers feel implicated in the poem's straightforward assignment and metaphorizing of the speaker in her role as object and performer, and contingently are made to feel uncomfortable about their similar easy assimilation of the imagery (of the suffering of the Jews) that the speaker uses. In "Daddy," a similar relationship between reader, speaker, and metaphor is at work. Like "Lady Lazarus," "Daddy" does not attempt to depict the suffering directly for our view (an impossible task, for the reasons given above) but works by confronting readers with, and compounding the problematic distinctions and connections between, the private and the historical (our lives and their suffering). In other words, readers' reactions of unease, discomfort, and outrage are necessarily a response to the surface, the poem itself, rather than to the events the poem uses as metaphors for its subject (be it about individualism, freedom, or memory), because the events themselves are not graspable. The poem is effective because it leaves readers in no clear or easy position in relation to the voyeuristic gazes operating within it (of reader at speaker, reader at poet, poet at speaker, and all at the events which are metaphorized) and able to take no unproblematic stance regarding the uses of metaphor involved.

Ultimately, then, George Steiner's divided attitude toward Plath's treatment of such material most adequately and accurately represents the effect and effectiveness of Plath's project—a project meant to confront readers with their implication in the viewing and metaphorizing of others' lives and suffering, and aimed at foregrounding the complex instability of the boundaries between myth and reality that forms the root of the problematic placement of the Holocaust in our society. The reason such reflexivity, and its resulting complexity, is so often missed is because Plath's conflict between the idea of poetry as timeless mythic object or as political and/or personal communication remains unresolved, or, indeed, unresolvable, due to the modern relation between history and myth. Her critics often fail to see Plath's balanced ambivalence and appear trapped in one of two extremes of judgment about the meanings of, and motives behind, her poetry. Two interpretations of "Getting There" (1962) sum up this divide. Judith Kroll reads the poem "as the enactment of a willingly undertaken purgatorial ritual, in which the true self, purified by Lethe of all false encumbrances [of the past] finally emerges … [d]iscarding the 'old bandages' … [in] a symbol[ic] resurrection." In this interpretation, indeed, the Holocaust has been abused for its immediate value as a metaphor for the past. Margaret Dickie Uroff, however, perceives the poem as expressing a view opposed to that read by Kroll. She writes: "the train that drags itself through the battlefields of history ultimately becomes the 'black car of Lethe,' a symbol of the forgetfulness of the past. It becomes a cradle, nurturing a new generation of killers: the pure baby who steps from it will perpetuate murder because she has forgotten the world's past history of murderousness." These two readings reflect Plath's own foregrounding of her culturally situated conflict about the uses of poetry, between the mythic desire that poetry transcend history and the "committed" purpose that it name history and thus remember it. An understanding of the "boot in the face" effect of Plath's treatment of the Holocaust, then, enables the recognition that the dissonances between history and myth in her poetry are not an aesthetic problem but work to prohibit complaisance about the definitions of—and the relationship between—myth, history, and poetry in the post-Holocaust world.

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Plath, Sylvia (Vol. 11)


Plath, Sylvia (Vol. 14)