A Marxist Approach to Sylvia Plath’s Poetry: Reading “Morning Song” and “Female Author”
Sylvia Plath is known for being a prominent female poet of the 20th century whose work often focused on feminine aspects of life such as motherhood, as well as the challenges of being an educated, aspiring female author in the patriarchal 1960s in which female domesticity was expected. Thus, the poetry of Sylvia Plath is most commonly associated with feminist critiques that serve as negative commentary on this time period. However, the broad, at times vague, writing style of Plath also leaves room for other schools of critical theory to apply their interpretations. For example, since Plath’s work indeed focuses on her feminine role in the family unit, a Marxist interpretation can be applied. In an early work, “The German Ideology”, Marx describes the patriarchal family unit as a branch of the larger, capitalistic society. As such, the various roles within the family are “divisions among the individuals cooperating in definite kinds of labor” (Marx 654). In an additional, related essay, “Capital”, Marx describes an alleged fetishism of commodities in which the human worker is devalued in exchange for the monetary potential that is the product of his or her work. The poetry of Sylvia Plath indeed illustrates a particular division of labor within a family unit—during a patriarchal period of history—in which what the worker can produce becomes more valuable than the labor of the individual.
A division of labor is seen clearly in “Morning Song”, Plath’s poem that centers on the theme of motherhood. The tone of the poem emphasizes pride in the speaker’s accomplishment of bringing new life into the world, while at the same time illustrating a distance the speaker seems to place between herself and her new baby, as she states that “I’m no more your mother / Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow / Effacement at the wind’s hand” (l. 9-11). While a feminist critique would see such tones as a commentary on female oppression and a resistance to the expectations to conform to domesticity, a Marxist reading would instead view the speaker as a member of the family participating in “the natural division of labor existing in the family” (Marx 654). The female speaker possesses the natural, biological means of bearing children, and as such bringing forth a new generation of workers that will be necessary in the capitalist society. The infant in the poem, therefore, represents a commodity: a physical property that contains “useful qualities” (Marx 666). The first line of the poem gives credence to this notion, as she describes her baby as a valuable object—a “fat, gold watch” (l. 1). The use-value of the infant is his exchange for work in the future, thus continuing the cycle of production, and as a commodity he is “independent of the amount of labor required to appropriate its useful qualities” (Marx 665). This idea explains the speaker’s aforementioned claim that she is “no more his mother”, as she separates herself from the labor involved in her production, such as lying awake at night to listen for his cries before “stumble[ing] from bed, cow-heavy and floral / In [her] Victorian nightgown” (l. 13-14). Though the evidence is subtle, this poem that on the surface seems to be an illustration of societal gender roles is just as easily interpreted as an illustration of a natural division of roles that does not intend to oppress, but rather provide for the continuation of the capitalist system.
Despite the intentions, however, the capitalist society that encourages fetishism of commodities is as equally dangerous to one’s emotional and mental health as is the oppression of women through the sex and gender system. As represented in “Morning Song”, the laborer is separated from his or her production and as a result, the worker is devalued to nothing more than a machine. Plath further exemplifies this occurrence in “Female Author”, in which the hard work of the speaker, a female author, is separated from her production. The first line states that all day the speaker “plays chess with the bones of the world” (l.1), suggesting a long, laborious work day, and further into the poem Plath creates an image of the painful process of labor, in which “blood reflects across the manuscript” (l. 10). Despite the physical investment in her labor, however, the poem closes with the speaker “retreat[ing] / From gray child faces crying in the streets” (l. 13-14). One can conclude that these gray child faces are the products of her labor, now materialistic commodities, and “we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labor embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labor; all are reduced to…human labor in the abstract” (Marx 667). In other words, the aforementioned bloodshed that Plath describes as part of the labor process is irrelevant in relation to the material value of the finished product, and the laborer therefore is reduced to merely a machine. The dark, morbid tone in this poem is associated with the beginnings of Plath’s mental demise, and this gives further credence to the Marxist interpretation: such dehumanizing treatment of workers from this culture of materialism can realistically lead to a mental breakdown that is rooted in feelings of exhaustion and a lack of appreciation.
Indeed, both the feminist commitment and Marxist criticism find oppression in Plath’s poetry; in contrast, however, the Marxist interpretation does not strictly focus on the oppression of women, but rather comments on the oppression of all workers, in which a materialist culture places greater value on the production than the labor involved. Plath illustrates in “Morning Song” how such fetishism of commodities demands a division of labor that is based on “natural conditions” (Marx 671) and then creates a distance between the laborer and the finished product. Thence, “Female Author” exemplifies the effects of such dehumanizing divisions, in which the worker becomes both physically and mentally exhausted. Ultimately, the primary shared characteristic between the Marxist and feminist critiques of Plath’s poetry is the relationship with a New Historicist outlook, as both interpretations look beyond strictly the text to find this greater commentary on society expressed in the work.
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