Sylvia Plath Poems
The Lightness in Plath’s Poetry
Throughout an examination of Plath’s poetry, a reader will witness prominent themes of inadequacy and mental anguish. The poet’s lack of self-belief is primarily evident in ‘Mirror’, as the poet struggles to overcome her insecurities. Furthermore, Plath combats her darkest thoughts during ‘Arrival of the Bee Box’ and ‘Poppies in July’ as she confronts her inner demons. But such examples of Plath’s art should not be taken as representative of her entire body of work, which is in many ways distinguished by its lighter and more optimistic notes. While her poems are dominantly pessimistic and dark, they do not uniformly depict themes of death and destruction. In contrast to this assessment, poems such as ‘Child’ and ‘Morning Song’ celebrate the new life of her children rather than inevitability of death.
The first word of Morning Song is ‘love’. This sets the tone as the young mother responds to her new born infant’s cry, still unsure of her role. Deviating entirely from the subjects of decease and despair, ‘Morning Song’ is suffused with tenderness and love as the poem celebrates a new beginning, not just for the baby but for Plath as a mother. A common aspect of Plath’s poetry is feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty, which are explored as the poet describes ‘staring blankly at walls’, unsure and confused by the world of motherhood. The final image is an optimistic one. It ends on a note of celebration, conveying her hope for the child’s future. ‘And now you try/ handful of notes/ clear vowels rise like balloons’. This poem is a strong piece of evidence, in proving that Plath’s dominating theme is in fact not death.
The poem ‘Child’ opens with a heartfelt expression of Plath’s love for her child, while tainted with self doubt, “your eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing”. This poem reflects the poet’s inner turmoil and portrays a strong sense of ineptitude. Such a poem reveals Plath’s sensitivity to the needs of her child. It tells of her wish to fill his eye with “colour and ducks” and create a beautiful, better place than this flawed world. Although the poem begins by celebrating the wonders of her child, due to harsh self evaluation, it ends with a startling image of Plath overcome by tears and agitation. The reoccurring theme of mental anguish is evident in the closing lines, as she doubts her ability to be able to create a world of ‘grand’ and ‘classical’ images for her child. Plath worries about this new innocent life being affected by her inner turmoil and this “ceiling without a star.” This poem lacks the staple Plath themes of fatality and annihilation, proving that there is more to Plath’s work than a meditation on darkness.
‘Mirror’ is one of Plath’s darkest, most haunting poems, which reflects the prevalence of her own self doubt and feelings of inadequacy. In contrast to addressing the matter of death, Plath offers a vivid and stark portrayal of emotional struggle and the dangers of self examination, particularly the modern pre-occupation with image. The poet returns to the mirror “searching my reaches for what she really is”; throughout a reading of Plath one can become accustomed to her unstable inner psyche, which continues to doubt her abilities. Reflectingher own esteem, the poem lacks any hope or respite; she ‘comes and goes’, always returning to be disappointed and unfulfilled upon encountering her own true image. The mirror is a voice of a society which values women only for their looks, rather than their capabilities. Plath was aware of these pressures to conform to the ideal housewife of the 1950’s, and therefore suffered tremendously due to her perceived failure. Thus, the prevailing theme of inadequacy and the torn mind of Plath continue to be a reoccurring aspect of Plath’s poetry.
In the ‘Arrival of the Bee box’, Plath expresses a desire to be in control of the dark aspects of her psyche. Plath felt that in order to be a true poet one had to explore one’s unconscious mind, delving into the darkest depths of the mind. Here, Plath regards the bee box as hidden aspects of the mind, the dark and mysterious parts the true poet must explore. “The box is locked, it is dangerous.” The poet’s fear of the bees suggest her fear of the demons deep within her own mind. Plath’s constant return to the box is symbolic of how desperate she is to succeed as a poet and to feel somewhat adequate. Similarly in ‘Mirror’, the speaker is drawn back to the source of her tears, ‘searching its reaches’ for self-acceptance. The theme of feeling inadequate is undoubtedly a prominent aspect of Plath’s poetry. In the closing stanza, the speaker decides she will confront her darkest fears, “Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free.” In contrast to the theme of annihilation, Plath unleashes the “Roman mob” and concludes to the poem on a note of optimism with hope for the future. “The box is only temporary.”
While the title “Poppies in July” suggests a poem about the beauty and richness of nature, this is in fact one of Plath’s bleakest poems. The poem deals with Plath’s struggle with herself, a force she can’t describe because she can’t fully understand it. The poem is littered with intense, surreal imagery to convey common themes such as Plath’s anguish and turmoil. The ‘little poppies, little hell flames’ harass the troubled speaker and cruelly offer no release from the suffering that she must endure. Her pain has become so overwhelming that it has almost made her numb, so much so that she longs to feel something, anything at all. She describes how she puts her ‘hands among the flames’ but ‘nothing burns’. This numbness seems to be due not only to her mental anguish which followed her throughout her life but is particularly due to the realisation of her husband’s affair. Though these images and concepts are quite unnerving, the poem aptly describes the pain of heartbreak. I believe that Plath did not seek to create aspects of death with her poetry, but to unfold the truth of mental and emotional suffering, and she has done so perfectly in this poem.
Overall, Plath’s poetry is of emotional extremes and while there are brief moments of joy and optimism in her poems, the prevailing themes are mental anguish, and the persistent feelings of inadequacy and a lack of self-sufficiency. Although her poetry portrays a dark view of life, the poems represent only suffering and not its grim outcome of death. We must not forget that midst her struggle was the celebration of life and the love for her children.
A Comparative Analysis of Plath’s, Dickinson’s, and Bronte’s Literary Works and Themes
Throughout their poems, authors Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte convey their ideas regarding the despair they have felt throughout their lives, and in particular the concept that ‘thing fall apart’. Through a range of engaging stylistic techniques such as personification, repetition, symbolism, metaphor, alliteration, simile, homoioptoton, synecdoche, rhyme, and tone, each author, in contrasting ways, is able to explore the idea that life does not always go to plan, and things can very easily fall apart.
Through her poem Tulips, poet Sylvia Plath is able to convey her idea that when things fall apart, depression can play a major part in a person’s life, and often can evoke suicidal thoughts. Plath employs symbolism through the motif of the tulips, [flowers that [she] didn’t want, [she] only wanted to lay with [her] hands turned up and be utterly empty. Through this, Plath conveys how when things fall apart, often it’s hard to want to continue living, something that the tulips, full of life, remind the subject of. Furthermore, Plath personifies the tulips, stating that the vivid tulips eat up her my oxygen, demonizing them and conveying how the subject feels victimized by all the things in her life that have fallen apart. In a contrasting way, poet Emily Dickinson employs the techniques of capitalization and repetition to convey her ideas regarding the concept that things fall apart in her poem, I felt a Funeral, in my Brain. In fact, within the title itself, the words Funeral and Brain have been capitalized to place emphasis on these words to convey the idea that, like Plath’s poems suggest, when things fall apart in life often it is hard to think of anything other than death and despair. Dickinson’s use of repetition, which she employs in the line Kept treading – treading – till it seemed / That Sense was Breaking through also conveys the concept that when things fall apart in life, living with grief becomes monotonous and numbing, as though it has become meaningless. Indeed, through their respective poems Tulips and I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, authors Plath and Dickinson expertly convey the idea that when ‘things fall apart’ it can lead to depression.
Similarly, in her text Lady Lazarus, Plath through the use of simile and metaphor, conveys her own experience of suicidal thoughts which she was lead to through ‘things falling apart’ in her life. Plath employs several similes, including And like a cat I have nine times to die to convey her anger and sadness at not being able to succeed in dying as she is forced to return to the things that have fallen apart in her life. In a similar way, Plath employs metaphors, such as Out of the ashes/ I rise with my red hair to suggest that, like a phoenix, she is reborn each time she almost dies, and continues to destroy the others in her life as things keep falling apart. This greatly contrasts poet Charlotte Bronte’s ideas surrounding this statement within her poem Life, which encourages the reader to persevere through tough times through the use of alliteration and homoioptoton. Through the use of alliteration Bronte is able to communicate to the reader that even though in tough times sorrow seems to win, if you have hope and strength you can still find happiness even after ‘things fall apart’. In a similar way, Bronte utilizes homoioptoton, evident in the lines Manfully, fearlessly and gloriously, victoriously to suggest that strength when ‘things fall apart’ can often lead to becoming a better person and achieving great things. Certainly, through different techniques, Plath and Bronte are able to convey their contrasting ideas regarding the concept that ‘things fall apart’.Poets Dickinson and Bronte, through their texts Because I could not stop for Death and Winter Stores, also present contrasting views regarding the idea that ‘things fall apart’ through a range of stylistic techniques, Dickinson’s use of the personification of Death, [who] kindly stopped for [her] conveys the idea that when ‘things fall apart’, death can be inviting, and giving in would be like greeting an old friend.
Furthermore Dickinson romanticizes this idea of death in the face of challenging times through alliteration, evident in the line my Gossamer, my Gown/ My Tippet – only Tulle which presents the reader with an alluring and inviting image of death. In contrast, Bronte employs repetition and metaphor to suggest to the reader that ‘things falling apart’ is just a fact of life, in which we get both good times and bad times. The repetition of Alike the bitter cup of grief/ Alike the draught of bliss conveys that whilst things do fall apart, things also come together and it is these things that should be celebrated, rather than mourned, Bronte reiterates this through the metaphor of the sunshine of the heart which conveys the sense that happiness is always there for those who can persevere through grief. Undoubtedly, through their poems Dickinson and Bronte expertly convey their contrasting Ideas regarding how ‘things fall apart’.
Again, through their respective poems, Daddy and On the death of Anne Bronte, Plath and Bronte explore the deaths of their loved ones and how this has caused their lives to fall apart. Throughout Daddy Plath employs synecdoche to refer to her father, such as Ghastly statue with one grey toe to convey her anger that her father left her behind, and that he is not human, but rather parts of a cold, stone statue, Plath also employs the repetition of the German word Ich, ich, ich, ich, I could hardly speak to express the sadness she felt when her father, who was German, died when she was eight. Similarly, Bronte’s grief at losing her sister is conveyed through the saddened and forlorn tone, when she states that she is Wishing each sight might be the last. The idea that Bronte’s life has fallen apart following the death of her sister is also made evident through the lines there is little joy in life for me/ I’ve lived the parting hour to see, which supports the idea that her sister’s death has caused things to fall apart in Bronte’s life. Clearly, through the use of synecdoche and repetition in Daddy and tone and rhyme scheme in On the death of Anne Bronte, authors Plath an Bronte convey their idea that the death of a loved one can cause lives to ‘fall apart’.
Through the use of a large variety of techniques, including personification, symbolism, repetition, metaphor and many more, poets Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson and Charlotte Bronte brilliantly convey a wide range of ideas and concepts surrounding the themes of life and death, In particular, each poet presents a unique, view on the idea that, in life, ‘things fall apart’, and inspired by the tragedies and musings of their lives.
The Use of Own Memories in the Poems of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
Plath and Hughes are both very emotive, passionate poets that tend to use their own memories as a focus point within their poems. However, each poet has similarities and differences in the way that they portray their memories in their writing. For example, Plath tends to write about her personal memories regarding herself or her family, whereas Hughes tends to write more about his interests, such as nature and the earth.
A poem in which Hughes clearly displays a form of memory is Thistles, as he personifies the plants (thistles) by using the metaphor of Vikings and the remembrance of something which once existed which is stated when he says, “from the underground stain of a decayed Viking”. This line is referring to the corpses of the Vikings who lay beneath our feet within the ground as they no longer exist. The fact he used to word ‘stain’ to describe them strongly links to the idea of memory, as it gives the reader the impression that the Vikings, despite no longer being around, will always remain as something we remember in history, represented by the word ‘stain’ as something which will never vanish.
Hughes also wrote lines such as “a revengeful burst”, “splintered weapons”, “Icelandic frost” and “plume of blood” which all strongly refer to the idea and history of Vikings during their time. For example, Vikings originated from Iceland and were renowned for their advanced sailing skills; allowing them to travel in order to raid and fight, which is clearly referenced in this poem. In addition, within the third stanza there is a line that reads “They are like pale hair” which was also a common stereotype of Scandinavian people, which Vikings were known as. Within the last stanza, Hughes writes that the thistles “grow grey, like men” which is a symbol of ageing and time proceeding.
This refers to the fact that all living things get old and eventually will die, however they will remain as part of our memories for the rest of our lives. Towards of the end of this poem, it says “Their sons appear, Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground” which is referring to the history of these Vikings and how, despite having died, their sons will grow up to continue on with their father’s doing, allowing them to live on in peoples’ memories. Hughes may have seen the idea of Vikings as a significant focus point for a poem as it highlights just one small area of history that is still remembered to this day. However, some critics have argued that Hughes was focussing on the nature side of this poem and wanted to emphasise on the power of these plants that grow on our earth, as oppose to the meaningful history behind what might lie beneath them.
For example, one critic stated that Ted Hughes’ intentions with this poem was to represent the plant in a negative way, as they are hard to get rid of (like memories) and he also argues that Hughes uses them to represent the cycle and memory of human life and war due to the way he gives them human features when he describes them with “a grasped fistful of splintered weapons”. The same critic argues that the alliteration of the phrase “blue-black” implies the imagery of a bruise caused by physical contact which I strongly agree with, as it gives the reader the impression of war and the idea of wounded flesh of the Vikings who fought.
Another poem of Hughes which represents memories in the form of nature is ‘The Horses’, in which he describes the sight of a still herd of horses as dull, lifeless and boring until they possessed some form of energy. At the beginning of the poem, the setting that Hughes memorises is described in great detail; such as ‘evil air’ and a ‘frost-making stillness’ due to the cold, lifelessness of winter. This gives the reader the impression of a serene, peaceful, yet chillingly haunting, forest which breaks the stereotypical wildlife filled idea most people might have of these types of areas within nature. He says how there is ‘not a leaf, not a bird’ implying the complete silence in the woods, which is emphasised here by the use of repetition. The idea of a frozen stillness is further represented by the punctuation within ‘A world cast in frost.’ As it comes across as dead and icy.
However, further on in to the poem when the sun begins to come up the mood within the poem seems to change as we see personification within ‘valleys were draining the darkness’ which implies some sense of movement, as well as the mention of ‘the horses’ which creates an unspoken sense of power. They are the first sign of life mentioned, however they are still described as ‘grey’ and ‘Megalith-still’ as if they are just boulders.
This gives the reader the impression that the horses might even appear frozen, due to the fact that they had ‘tilted-hind hooves’ and ‘not one snorted or jerked its head’ which is very unlike these animals that are known for their energy and power. However, we begin to see the energy within the poem build up as Hughes says ‘stumbling in the fever of a dream’ which indicates movement and heat.
Eventually, we see the horses described as ‘steaming and glistening’ representing warmth and radiance, contrasting the ‘dense grey’ that they were earlier described as. Despite the change in atmosphere, ‘they still made no sound’ which makes for an anti-climax as the reader was lead to believe that something other might have happened. Hughes then says hoe he may ‘still meet my memory in so lonely a place’, suggesting that he appreciated the serenity and tranquillity of these horses in their natural habitat, hoping that he could feel the same feeling if he were to go back there again. All in all it is clear that Hughes intended on showing his true appreciation for nature by zooming in to a small, lifeless memory and creating a gradual, energy building poem that releases warmth and colour towards the end in a positive way, almost as if it were an escape.
Plath, on the other hand, likes to write about memories with the desire to find something for herself; such as drama. This can be clearly seen in the poem ‘Daddy’, in which she presents herself as a poor victim of her father, whom is presented in multiple negative ways. From the start of the poem, we see her father represented as an authoritive figure; even the title suggests that Plath is always underneath him in the sense that she is nothing but a little girl to him, hence the idea of ‘Daddy’ which can be seen as very childlike.
The first line ‘You do not do, you do not do’ has the tone of a nursery rhyme, giving the reader the impression that Plath is belittling herself because of her father and possibly the way he seems to overrule her. This is further emphasised by the use of repetition as it sounds like a parent scolding a child, which could represent the fear and nervousness she feels around her father when she says she can’t speak due to ‘the tongue stuck in my jaw’ which represents a nervous stutter as she wants to impress this powerful figure. Plath also refers to her father as ‘Marble-heavy’ and as a ‘Ghastly statue’ which both give the reader the impression of a cold, heavy yet empty person, which is how Plath seems to see her father. The idea of him being statue-like also points towards how Plath used to look up to her father as an idol, as if her were always on a pedestal, which is further shown by his ‘Aryan eye’, which was typically seen as Hitler’s “perfect” race.
She also represents her father’s absence in her life within this poem due to his early death and time spent in the military, which could potentially be linked to the idea of war in Ted Hughes’ ‘Thistles’. She says how her father ‘died before I had time’ and how ‘I have had to kill you’, referring to the fact that she had to bury her father at the age of 8 after he died. The death of a parent is one of the most traumatic, devastating events within a person’s life and it is made clear in this poem that Plath had been heavily affected by her father’s death, causing her to feel like a victim as she lost her idol.
She further presents her memories of her father when she speaks about ‘the waters off beautiful Nauset’, which is where she used to go on holiday with her family; showing obvious links to the memories of her father. She then uses repetition once again when she says ‘wars, wars, wars’ which emphasises the length of time that World War 1 and 2 caused her to lose with her father, and the time they went on for. She then refers to how ‘I could never tell where you Put your foot, your root’ suggesting that she was never able to find out about her father’s background or his personality, leaving her feeling lost, purposeless and empty inside.
On the other hand, Plath also used this poem to describe her father in a deep, dark way by repeatedly comparing him to the colour black which is often seen as vindictive, moody and even used to represent the unknown. This is seen throughout the poem, such as when she refers to the ‘black man’, suggesting a mysterious or unknown figure and the ‘black telephone’ which suggests the communication that she was never able to have with her father. Alongside the colour black, Plath continues to use morbid metaphors to describe her relationship with her father, for example, when she uses the relationship between a Jew and a Nazi to describe herself and her father. This is shown when she says, ‘I thought every German was you’ and also when she says ‘Chuffing me off like a Jew’ which she uses to suggest her abandonment by her father.
As the poem continues, we begin to see Plath reflecting on her father in an increasingly negative way, such as when she speaks about her ‘gipsy ancestress’, implying an impure heritage which she is indefinitely blaming on her father. The way she uses ‘Panzer-man’ to describe him gives the reader the impression that he is tank-like; impossible to damage or penetrate. She also refers to her father as devil-like by saying ‘but no less a devil for that’, suggesting that he is evil and careless to who he harms.
Altogether, it is clear that Plath has taken her personal experience and memories of her father to represent her pain and longing for a paternal figure, however some critics have argued that ‘Daddy’ was Plath’s way of representing her negative experiences with males throughout her life, including her husband by the way she talks about her ‘pretty red heart in two’, however I feel that there is more evidence that she is trying to truly represent the extent of her pain and suffering due to her father’s absence, unlike Hughes’ style of writing in which he seems to write about much less personal memories.
An additional poem in which Plath displays a personal memory of her father is Full Fathom five, in which she creates a mythological story using the god of the sea, Poseidon which is showed by the phrase ‘The old myth of origins’, in order to present her father as a strong, god-like figure that has played a largely negative effect on her life, which is implied straight from the title that can mean sunken in to despair. The first line addresses her father as ‘Old man’, which straight away is seen as a derogatory term, suggesting distance between her and this masculine character.
She then uses the word ‘dragnet’ as a metaphor for her own memory, implying that her mind and memory are constantly fluctuating and thinking about this man. She says how he is to be ‘steered clear off’ which suggests that she cant escape the memory of her father and the phrase ‘not fathomed’ suggests that he is a myth to her, as if his absence was with out any understanding. She continues to speak about how ‘your form suffers some strange injury’, which implies the constant reminder of loss whenever she thinks about him, suggesting a sense of vulnerability on her part due to this memory. This links to the word ‘whirlpools’ used in the tenth stanza which gives the reader the image of an endless, spinning cycle that Plath is clearly trapped in.
Towards the end of the poem there is a much more desperate feel as Plath states how ‘I walk dry on your kingdom’s border’ despite the fact that the kingdoms border, in this case, is water. This suggest that she can’t get close enough to him and she feels lonely and banished. The phrase ‘Father, this thick air is murderous’ is the first time that she directly addresses her father and it also seems as if she is pleading for help due to the sense of loss and her longing to be with her father. Some critics have even argued that Plath was attempting to represent the loss of her childhood as well as the loss of her father, by disguising the poem with a mythical, fantasy-based story. All in all, it seems that Plath tends to use twisted, morbid imagery to represent the pain and suffering behind her memories whereas Hughes uses memory to fully appreciate and value the beauty and meaning behind history and nature.
Confessional Poetry of Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is considered by some to be one of the best examples of confessional poetry ever published. In the poem, Plath compares the horrors of Nazism to the horrors of her own life, all of which are centered on the death of her father. Although autobiographical in nature, “Daddy” gives detailed insight into Sylvia Plath’s conflicting emotions by intertwining fact and fiction into an alternate reality through the use of metaphors and symbolism. The poem ultimately reveals the underlying anger and resentment Sylvia Plath feels toward her father for leaving her life so early.
Divided by a couple of years of limbo surrounding her father’s death, Sylvia Plath’s childhood was broken up into two parts: innocence before the death of her father and the harsh reality of life after his death. Until she was eight years old, life was kind to Sylvia. She had a brother two years younger than she, and the family lived near Nauset, Massachusetts. That year tragedy struck the family: Otto Plath, her father and a professor of Zoology and German at Boston University, died from complications of untreated diabetes. Sylvia Plath was never able to fully accept the loss of her father and was conflicted in her feelings about her father for the rest of her life. For almost a year before his death, Otto had been growing increasingly weak but refused to visit a doctor because he feared that the diagnosis would be cancer. It was not until he ran into a dresser one morning and his toe turned black and swelled that he finally went to the hospital. While at the hospital, Otto’s ailment was diagnosed as diabetes, and had he taken care of it sooner, it would have been manageable. Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother, visited Otto daily while he was recovering. One afternoon after she got home from the hospital, Aurelia received a call informing her that an aneurysm had reached Otto’s lung and he had passed away. Sylvia specifically references the incident leading to her father’s death in stanza two of “Daddy”: “Ghastly statue with one grey toe / Big as a Frisco sea!” (9-10). As one specialist put it: ‘“How could such a brilliant man be so stupid?”’ (Stevenson 10). For the next two years after Otto’s death, the family continued to live in the same house near the beach. This only made it more difficult for Sylvia to put the death of her father behind her and try to continue living a semi-normal life. One day after her tenth birthday, the Plaths moved inland and started a new chapter in their lives. Plath compares the move inland to actually burying her father: “I was ten when they buried you” (57).
In high school, Plath was a very strong student and received a full scholarship to Smith College from novelist Olive Higgins Prouty. Her junior year in college, Plath unsuccessfully attempted suicide with pills and was treated with electroshock therapy, also paid for by Olive Prouty (Napierkowski 65). Plath references this event in the line: “But they pulled me out of the sack, / And they stuck me together with glue” (62-63). She subsequently returned to school and ultimately graduated magna cum laude five years after starting.
When college ended, Plath decided to travel to England, where she met the English poet Ted Hughes, her future husband. The pair courted for a year before they decided to tie the knot and got married. Happily or not, they were together for seven years and were in the process of getting a divorce when Plath committed suicide. She had found out that Hughes had been cheating on her. The loss of a second man in her life finally pushed Plath over the edge, and she committed suicide in her home in London on February 11, 1963.
The emotional wear that the death of Otto Plath had on Sylvia greatly influenced her poem “Daddy” and eventually led to her demise. Plath shows her conflicting emotions toward her father in “Daddy” by starting the poem praying to see him again. She is trying to get to him in any way, even describing her father as Hitler and saying she is through with him: “In the waters off beautiful Nauset. / I used to pray to recover you. / Ach, du. … At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you. / I thought even the bones would do” (13-15, 58-60). In that passage, Plath refers to her childhood home, where all her memories of her father linger. She references her attempted suicide during her junior year in college as a way to possibly see her father again. Throughout the poem Plath uses German words and phrases to bring up references to Hitler and Nazism, especially using the death camps as a way to instill specific emotions: “Not God but a swastika … / I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look … / Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (46, 64-65, 80). This same effect can be seen in the passage: “Chuffing me off like a Jew. / A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen” (34-35).
Lack of communication also presents itself as an underlying theme of “Daddy;” in the poem, Plath uses the sounds of words to give the reader the feeling of having difficulty communicating and repetition to show the importance of a message (Napierkowski): “I never could talk to you. / The tongue stuck in my jaw. / It stuck in a barb wire snare. / Ich, ich, ich, ich, / I could hardly speak” (24-28). Without communication, it is impossible to fully know a person. Plath feels that she was unable to fully communicate with her father while he was alive; therefore, she has a very limited memory of what he was really like, and in her anger, she compares him to Hitler and looks at herself as a Jew who has been cut off from the outside world and put into a concentration camp.
Along with many of her other works, death is a recurring topic of “Daddy.” Death is most likely a recurring theme because it is the one thing that haunted Sylvia Plath for the majority of her memorable life. Between the death of her father, her own miscarriage, and multiple attempts at suicide, death was the one constant in Plath’s life and willingly lends itself as the topic of many of her poems.
All critics have their own opinion on the poem “Daddy,” but most seem to agree with each other in some way. Most critics believe that “Daddy” was written in a negative view of Otto Plath, but one critic, A. Alvarez, believes that the poem is actually a “love poem”: “There is a kind of cooing tenderness in this which complicates the other, more savage note of resentment. It brings in an element of pity, less for herself and her own suffering than for the person who made her suffer. Despite everything, ‘Daddy’ is a love poem” (Alvarez 383). Although he considered it a “love poem” to her father, Alvarez also states that “she seemed convinced… that the root of her suffering was the death of her father, whom she loved, who abandoned her and who dragged her after him into death. And her father was pure German, pure Aryan, pure anti-Semite” (Alvarez 382). It seems that “Daddy” can be read many different ways by the same person and somehow have different meanings each time it is read. Plath may be declaring her love for her father in “Daddy,” but by using so many references to the evils of Hitler and Nazism, she is also throwing it in her father’s face that she is her own person and can make her own decisions. Plath is saying that she no longer needs the crutch of the memory of her father to hold her up. “Daddy” is Plath’s way of finally coping with her loss and allowing herself to grieve for the first time.
Writing from an autobiographical standpoint, “Daddy” reveals the underlying anger and resentment Plath feels toward her father for leaving her life so early. Plath is able to twist her anger and isolation into words and convey her feelings of loss from her childhood to the masses. “Daddy” blends the facts from her own life with incidents from the reign of Hitler and pushes the reader to compare life to war. After growing up with a life surrounded by tragedy, it is no surprise that Plath suffered long-term emotional difficulties and felt that she could only be understood through the horrors of war.
The Humor and Victimhood in Plato’s Works
After the post-humous publication of Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, the poet exploded into the scene of second wave feminism, widely regarded as a victim of her mental illness and the men in her life. While the tragedy of Plath’s life is inseparable from her work, more subtle elements of her poetry are often discarded to suit the narrative of victimhood, especially her complicated use of humor. Plath used humor in her poetry as a way of both describing and reckoning with her everyday life, often including Holocaust imagery as an exaggerated depiction of her existence. The style of humor she uses falls neatly into the category of “incongruity theory”, a theory that posits people find things funny when conventional narratives, “scripts”, are broken or flipped. Every aspect of “Lady Lazarus” is incongruous, from its premise to its poetic details. While the poem isn’t something most people would find laugh out loud funny, Plath’s use of humor to draw false equivalents between her own life and the life of Lady Lazarus reveals an existence that is undeniably tragic but relentlessly tenacious. Even in life, Plath was well aware of the effect her confessional poetry had on her legacy, shown in “Lady Lazarus” when she speaks of a “charge/a very large charge” for sharing a part of yourself so deeply personal (Plath 61). “Lady Lazarus”, one of Plath’s most well known poems, is an effort to regain control over her image and rebel against the common understanding that her existence is simply a tragic monstrosity. Plath creates the incongruous character of Lady Lazarus in order to illustrate her life as different forms of exertion of power and their reciprocal effects on the oppressed, likely in the hope that by reclaiming ownership of her power, she will once again be in control of her life.
The main incongruous element of the first part of “Lady Lazarus” is not only the narrator’s ambiguous existence somewhere between life and death, but her apparent feeling of pride in accomplishing it. At the beginning of the poem, Lady Lazarus is in charge. Her voice starts out proud and boastful, demanding praise for her achievement, proclaiming that once more, she has managed “it”. It, as it becomes obvious later in the poem, is suicide, or something quite like it. Lady Lazarus jokes with the reader sarcastically, saying “O my enemy/ Do I terrify?” (10-11). Since she maintains the appearance of a living skeleton, of course she terrifies. Not only that, she is proud to show off her body, including “the nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth” (Plath 13). She dares her enemy, or those that made her this way, to revel in the horror of their own creation so that she can draw power from their revulsion. Throughout the poem, Lady Lazarus returns to her initial sarcastic tone, since one of the few things she can control is how she talks about her life.
More interesting, but but less humorous, is the Bible verse from which “O my enemy” is borrowed (10). In Micah 7:8, one of the Israelites declares, “Do not rejoice, O my enemy. Though I have fallen, I will rise” (The Bible, Micah 7:8). This explicitly Jewish statement from the Old Testament juxtaposes oddly in what can only be considered a darkly humorous way with the Holocaust imagery. Lady Lazarus draws a relationship between herself and the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, describing herself as “A sort of walking miracle, my skin bright as a Nazi lampshade/ My right foot/ A paperweight/ My face a featureless, fine/ Jew linen” ( 4-9). As the Jewish people are dying in one of the most horrific genocides in global history, Lady Lazarus uses their religious text to describe her own return to power. While the inclusion of the Bible could be read as hopeful, or even a promise to rise again, the incongruity between the despair of the Holocaust and the hope of the Old Testament story leaves the success of Lady Lazarus’ efforts to regain control intentionally ambiguous.
The poem becomes even more incongruous when Plath switches perspectives to show what Lady Lazarus looks like when she isn’t a skeleton, describing her as “a smiling woman/ I am only thirty” (19-20). Despite our modern understanding that even those who are young and beautiful can be crippled by mental illness, the juxtaposition of internal reality with external reality doesn’t match up. More incongruous still is Lady Lazarus’ frank reckoning with her situation: “And like the cat I have nine times to die” (21). Fear of death, perhaps the most unifying human trait of all, is absent in Lady Lazarus. Still more concerning, she seems to revel in her talent to die and regenerate, or at least find it entertaining, which is especially apparent in the extreme mismatch between the rotten corpse she sees herself as internally and the smiling woman she appears to be. Her perpetual death and resurrection is almost cartoonish in that she appears to crave death, but is unable to achieve it.
The first power switch comes when Plath depicts Lady Lazarus being disrobed in a gruesome strip tease. Imagine the power dynamics of a traditional strip tease, in which a classically gorgeous, sensual woman tauntingly removes her clothing in front of a captive audience. Since it is a performance, the stripper holds all the power. The incongruity between a traditional strip tease and Lady Lazarus’ version is obvious. A strip tease is a display of the female body in all its sexual glory as desired by men. Plath breaks that script by replacing the alluring woman with a decayed skeleton regrowing its flesh. Since Lady Lazarus isn’t undressing herself, but is rather being unwrapped “hand and foot” (28), the power she would normally have as a performer is transferred to those unwrapping her and the “peanut-crunching crowd” (26). While the humor is grotesque, it is still humor in that Plath is comparing an attempted suicide to sexual display, making death erotic. It’s also important to note that this eerie performance is no less sexual in nature, since the crowd “shoves in to see” (27) her reveal her suicide scars with the same perverted fascination as a strip show. The strip tease emphasizes Lady Lazarus’, and even Plath’s, inability to choose how they present themselves as women struggling with suicide. No matter what else they may have to offer, the suicide attempts are all most people will see. Many of the lines in this section of “Lady Lazarus” are accusatory of the voyeuristic obsession with death, suicide, and depression that we associate Plath with to this day.
At this point in the poem, Lady Lazarus presents herself as an artist, fully in command of dying and coming back to life. Not only is it her livelihood, it’s all that she seems to have full control over. Neither “my enemy” nor the peanut-crunching crowd can limit her actual ability to die and resurrect. Plath presents this idea in the lines: “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well” (45). There are a couple notable humorous aspects to these lines. For one, the enjambment after the line, “Dying”, is in itself incongruous, since it’s followed by the phrase, “Is an art”(43-44). This idea of dying as an art form elevates the work of Lady Lazarus before it comes crashing back down in the following phrase, “like everything else”(44). Her admission that everything is an art produces a flattening effect. If everything is an art, that means things like driving to work, clipping your toenails, and sorting the recycling are all works of art as well. Suddenly, Lady Lazarus’ hard won ability to die and resurrect is much less impressive. For Lady Lazarus, her cycle of death and resurrection is an attempt to feel anything at all. She says so dryly when she explains, “I do it so it feels like hell./ I do it so it feels real” (46-47). The lingering anaphora of those two lines points to the heart of this section of the poem: “I do it so it feels”.
The second power switch of the poem offers the reader a brief glimpse into Lady Lazarus’ existence as the commodified simulator of life and death under the ownership of “Herr Doktor/Herr Enemy”(65-66). While Lady Lazarus is still a work of art in this part of the poem, she is no longer her own work of art. She states explicitly, “I am your opus/ I am your valuable” (67-68). Once again Plath veers into the realm of Holocaust metaphors, addressing “my enemy”, the one who owns her and controls her, as Herr Doktor. The German spelling of Doktor is a clear allusion to Holocaust doctors like Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted horrific experiments on Jewish children (United 1). Yet, even while she is dehumanized, commodified, and put on display by Herr Doktor, Lady Lazarus retains her boldly sarcastic voice, which is a way of reclaiming ownership of her body and life. At the cry of, “A miracle!” upon her resurrection, Lady Lazarus confesses, “That knocks me out” (55), as though she herself is doubled over in laughter at the nature of her existence.
The third and final power switch occurs at the lines, “Ash, ash —/You poke and stir” (73), and is evidenced by a return in Holocaust imagery and change in point of view. Lady Lazarus is now looking down on the crematorium where Jewish bodies are incinerated and imagines being burned herself. Rather than people watching her, as with the peanut crunching crowd, she is watching them, as if from beyond the grave. She describes the scene, saying, “Flesh, bone, there is nothing there/ A cake of soap,/ A wedding ring,/ A gold filling” (75-78). Despite her assertion that there is nothing to be seen, these everyday items are the last remaining evidence of the millions of lives lost in the Holocaust. The incongruity is blatant. There is nothing insignificant about these things, and more darkly humorous still is that an entire human life can be lived with nothing to show for it but a bar of soap to keep those that killed you clean.
At this point, Lady Lazarus’ formerly boastful voice changes menacingly to a warning to God and Lucifer, presumably also referring to Herr Doktor. In the lines “Herr God, Herr Lucifer/ Beware/ Beware” (79-81), she implies that she is a being more powerful than any of divinity. She will rise again, but unlike the Biblical Lazarus, she doesn’t require Jesus to resurrect her. The rejection of assistance is clear when looking at the difference in language between the Biblical text in which Lazarus is called back to life by Jesus (John 12:1-41), and Plath’s poem where Lady Lazarus “rises” of her own accord. Here, as Lady Lazarus rises from death like a phoenix regenerated, she reclaims her power. As fire consumes oxygen to fuel itself, Lady Lazarus eats men. Though she demands retribution from those who kept her power from her with an unrivaled vengeance, the ending of the poem is left intentionally ambiguous. Will Lady Lazarus succeed and eradicate her enemies, or will she fall back into the cycle of life and death, life and death?
Humor, even the darkest kind, seems deeply inappropriate in the context of suicide and the Holocaust, but Plath ignores convention in order to effectively interpret the existing incongruities in her own life. By popular understanding, a young woman should not be suicidal, but Plath is. A new mother should not wish for her own death, but Plath does. A smart woman should not feel trapped by the men in her life, but Plath does. In “Lady Lazarus”, Plath takes ownership of these accusations against her reality by expressing them in her poetry. While she describes her own hurt by comparing it to genocide, she doesn’t expect that comparison to be taken seriously. It’s a reminder that while her pain may feel on par with the suffering of the Holocaust, it isn’t in objective reality.
Plath’s use of incongruity underscores just how dark the subject matter of this poem is, since usually we laugh at dark humor as a form of relief. However, when reading “Lady Lazarus”, we find ourselves so horrified by the grotesque material and Plath’s candid delivery that we are unable to laugh and instead read with a mortified fascination, the same fascination of the peanut-crunching crowd. The transformation of the reader into the antagonist describes the greatest joke of the poem: We too will be eaten along with the rest of Lady Lazarus’ enemies to fuel her rise to omnipotence.
Discovering Identity and What it Means to Be
I am, I am, I am. Sylvia Plath’s heart beat, and she translated it the best way she knew how. To a woman who was self-aware to an uncommon degree, what else could the sound be but a relentless reminder of her own existence? Many have pointed to her constant self-scrutiny and introspection as evidence of a idiosyncratic narcissism. However, it is clear that these tendencies were merely part of Plath’s lifelong struggle to understand herself. To know that she was alive was not enough – she had to know who she was, and what she was meant to accomplish during the short time she was permitted sentience. Upon reflecting on her childhood, this unremitting desire to identify herself more explicitly, which at first seems to be an egotistical pursuit, begins to appear more reasonable. After her father died when she was eight, Plath threw herself into her studies, earning high grades and an eventual scholarship to Smith College (O’Reilly 356). There, she continued to experience academic success, and had several of her short stories and poems published in various magazines. However, in 1953, Plath’s carefully constructed world began to disintegrate over a summer she would later immortalize in The Bell Jar. She was refused acceptance into a writing course at Harvard, began to suffer from insomnia, and felt increasingly overwhelmed by her inability to measure up to the high standards she set for herself (O’Reilly 356). These escalating pressures, coupled with the terror and depression Plath felt in the wake of failed electroconvulsive therapy, led her to attempt suicide on August 24th by overdosing on sleeping pills (O’Reilly 356). Although she survived, returning to Smith and graduating summa cum laude two years later, she lived in fear that her life would spiral out of control once more (O’Reilly 356). Attempting to understand how exactly she had failed, Plath drew a sharp distinction between the inner and outer selves. She decided that her efforts to maintain a flawless persona were doomed from the beginning, owing not to any error on her part, but to the mere fact that her weaker, imperfect self had remained on the inside, struggling under the increasing weight of her constructed mask. To achieve her original goal, Plath had to do more than pretend – she had to become the ideal, constructing a perfect self from the inside out. From that moment on, everything she wrote reflected the process by which she attempted to recreate herself. Motivated by the intolerable feeling of a disconnect between her outward persona and her inner self, as well as by a persistent sense of “facelessness,” she began by isolating herself emotionally, striving to purify herself by deepening the divide between the Self and the Other. Simultaneously, she began to project facets of her personality onto people whom she felt exemplified similar traits, mentally transforming them into one-dimensional characters and stripping them of their humanity. Then, she rejected those individuals from her life, hypostasising the process of exorcising her own unwanted characteristics. However, Plath never managed to complete this process and emerge from the chaos fully formed. By this time, she was living in Devon, England with her husband and two children. Upon learning of [her husband’s] affair with a mutual friend, she insisted that they separate, and moved to London, frantically writing poems that would later come to be regarded as some of her best (O’Reilly 357). Once again, circumstances combined to overwhelm her, and after struggling to overcome a final depression, she committed suicide on February 11th, 1963 (O’Reilly 357). Sylvia Plath’s lifelong pursuit of a clearly defined personal identity led her to curate her own character, through deliberately isolating the Self from the Other, dehumanizing and subsequently rejecting other people as metaphor for the selection of her own various selves, and beginning to construct an ultimate identity, a process which is clearly reflected in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, her Collected Poems, and her personal journals.
Plath’s all-consuming need for a concrete identity was ultimately rooted in the disconnect she felt between her outward and inward selves, a divide that she used as a major theme in almost everything she wrote. However, it is important to note that Plath originally viewed this sense of lacking identity as a motivating force, a void that served to inspire rather than destroy. During her time at Smith, she wrote, “So you will rot in the ground, and so you say, what the hell? Who cares? But you care, and somehow you don’t want to live just one life, which could be typed, which could be tossed off in a thumbnail sketch… ‘She was the sort of girl…’ and end in 25 words or less” (Journals 64). These sentiments are far more optimistic than those that follow, but even they reveal the beginning of instability and a desperate longing to succeed. As time wore on, her need to define herself became even more pressing. In her poem “Three Women,” she wrote, “There are the clothes of a fat woman I do not know. There is my comb and brush. There is an emptiness. I am so vulnerable suddenly,” revealing her belief that one cannot be resilient or fulfilled without first knowing one’s identity (Collected Poems 184). Elena Ciobanu asserts that in Plath’s work, “Suffering is poetically manifested as a fissure… between the physical and the psychic planes” (Ciobanu 128). It was during the time Sylvia spent at Smith that this concept emerged as a major theme in her writing. For instance, surrounded by other students in the library, she wrote, “I sit here without identity: faceless… Yet I know that back at the house there is my room, full of my presence. There is my date this weekend: someone believes I am a human being, not a name merely. And these are the only indications that I am a whole person,” showing that she felt others viewed her as a cohesive individual, unable to perceive the warring selves she saw so clearly (Journals 26). Believing others didn’t understand the separation she felt, the distance between her inner self and the person she appeared to be on the surface grew larger. On pages 148 and 174 of The Bell Jar, Esther, Plath’s fictional double, refers to her reflection as “the person in the mirror,” an alien image that she cannot reconcile with the person she feels she truly is. Plath’s situation was worsened by the inescapable feeling that time was running out. She best captured this concept in The Bell Jar, writing, “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked… I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose” (Bell Jar 77). It is clear that her inability to act, and the resulting anxiety she felt, prompted Plath to begin her doomed search for identity.
After seeking to differentiate between the Self and the Other as an attempt to more clearly identify herself, Plath found herself emotionally isolated. She decided that previous endeavours to comprehend herself had failed because of the sheer difficulty of discriminating between the thoughts, feelings, and characteristics that had come from her organically, and those that originated elsewhere. On page 47 of her Unabridged Journals, an entry reads, “How much of my brain is wilfully my own? How much is not a rubber stamp if what I have read and heard and lived? Sure, I make a sort of synthesis of what I come across, but that is all that differentiates me from another person?” Clearly, Plath was concerned that she was too intertwined with the rest of the world to understand who she was without its influence, outside of the context lent by others. Therefore, she began to create a clearer distinction between the Self and the Other, “purifying” herself in order to observe the result. Here, one can see the origins of Plath’s “ideal of a self uncontaminated by others” (Bonds 50). However, this distinction didn’t lead to the clarity Plath had hoped for, but rather the sense that she was “like a numb trolleybus,” and “very still and very empty” (Bell Jar 2-3). Later, in “Two Campers in Cloud Country,” she recalls this feeling, saying, “I lean to you, numb as a fossil. Tell me I’m here” (Collected Poems 144). Although at first she correctly perceives this distance as isolating, she eventually comes to view it as a successful step towards uncovering an identity for herself. By becoming “numb as a fossil,” placing the emotional equivalent of millennia between herself and the rest of the world, she has removed herself to a place where nothing can affect or distort her character. From that point on, purity becomes a major theme in much of her work, at first represented as something desirable. After experiencing an distressing evening, The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood tells herself while bathing, “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” (20). However, as time goes on, purity becomes frequently associated with illness and instability. In “Fever 103°”, the delusional narrator states, “I am too pure for you or anyone,” and in “Tulips,” set in a hospital, she writes,“I am a nun now, I have never been so pure” (Collected Poems 161/232). Finally, Plath realized that even when she was free of new influence from the outside world, she still carried old imperfections inside her. She refers to this feeling in “Elm,” saying, “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” (Collected Poems 193). Now that she had defined her self as it existed, she could begin the process of eliminating the “dark things” within her, and become a version of herself without such flaws.
Through a process of dehumanizing, or “flattening,” others and afterward rejecting them as a means of abandoning the parts of herself that they had come to represent, Plath believed she would be able to construct an identity free of outward influence and imperfection. This view of others as instruments she could use in order to achieve her goal is amplified in The Bell Jar, in which Esther displays a general disregard for others, frequently depicting them as one-dimensional doubles for her own various selves. Notably, fellow magazine guest editors Doreen and Betsy come to represent two warring sides of Plath – her brazen, worldly side and her purer, almost saccharine side. Although Esther originally believes that Doreen is closer to representing the person she wishes to be, saying, “Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones,” she eventually rids herself of both, refusing to emulate either one (Bell Jar 7). Similarly, in “Fever 103°,” she renounces the men in her past and the impurities they represent, writing, “Not you, nor him, not him, nor him. (My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) – to Paradise” (Collected Poems 232). Clearly Plath believed that the next step to perfecting her identity was the rejection of impure and imperfect people. Her journals reflect that she took this approach not only in her writing, but also in reality, evaluating the suitability of men based on how well they fit into a highly specific, pre-constructed mould, and making little effort to differentiate between them. As a result, one reading her journals will notice that the names eventually begin to blur together, a faceless parade of identical recollections. As time went on, her poetry became infused with the idea that she had “good” and “bad” selves, conflicting sides that were beginning to draw her into peril. “In Plaster” reflects this new concept most directly, as Plath writes, “There are two of me now: this new absolutely white person and the old yellow one, and the white person is certainly the superior one…. She wanted to leave me, she thought she was superior, and I’d been keeping her in the dark, and she was resentful” (Collected Poems 158-159). In Plath’s reckless rejection of all she deemed unfit, she had done more than dehumanise others – she had begun to dehumanise herself, dismembering her identity almost beyond recognition. She wrote, “I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips, and I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself” (Collected Poems 161). Her efforts to reject all exterior ties in order to preserve the self had left it without others to nurture and protect it when Sylvia refused to (Bonds 52). Although Plath finally felt that she had removed her imperfections and could begin to build an identity anew, she was unaware of just how unstable her foundation had become.
Although Sylvia’s writings do reference the concept of rebirth and new beginnings, it is clear that she was never truly able to construct her ultimate identity. Despite the startling clarity with which Plath portrays Esther’s descent into madness, her reemergence into society in the final pages of The Bell Jar rings false, as if the author lacks the personal knowledge which lends the rest of the novel its disconcertingly realistic quality. Esther steps into the world again, professedly reborn, but the reader cannot help but feel that she is far from recovered. An unsteady new beginning is also referenced in “Three Women,” as the narrator says, “I am myself again. There are no loose ends. I am bled white as wax, I have no attachments. I am flat and virginal, which means nothing has happened. Nothing that cannot be erased, ripped up and scrapped, begun again…. This woman who meets me in windows – she is neat” (Collected Poems 184). Although here the poet still clings to the veneer of recovery, another line reveals the truth – “I am a wound that is walking out of hospital. I am a wound that they are letting go” (Collected Poems 184). Clearly, Plath was exceedingly vulnerable and far from perfected, feeling abandoned by others and betrayed by the mind she had previously relied on to help her succeed. As the journals she kept during the final years of her life were destroyed by her husband after her death, only her last poems remain as hints that she began to view death as the only way to become a whole person. If she could not embody perfection in life, perhaps she could in memory. After all, others had never been able to see past her exterior to the chaos within. The last poem Plath ever wrote began, “The woman is perfected. Her dead body wears the smile of accomplishment… Her bare feet seem to be saying: We have come so far, it is over” (Collected Poems 272). She had finally realized that the Self could only escape being “stunted, narrowed, warped, by… outcroppings of heredity” by attaining some semblance of perfection in death, free of life’s contaminating influence (Journals 31). Six days later, Plath ended her own life.
Her failed efforts to identify herself and reach perfection left Plath without outward ties on which she could rely, as the process by which she attempted to achieve her goals required her to depend solely on herself. However, her fate makes it abundantly clear that an identity formed entirely by rejection of the Other cannot survive hardship or enable one to be resilient because it is merely a by-product of a negative reaction rather than honest self-discovery. Through her writings, Plath unintentionally revealed that her attempts to purify herself had resulted in a dismemberment of her identity, a fundamental disturbance in the necessary relationship between the Self and the Other (Bonds 52). However, it is also likely that Plath’s own perfectionist tendencies contributed to her feelings of failure and isolation. No matter how others perceived her, she remained perpetually unconvinced that her identity was strong, flawless, or cohesive enough. One journal entry, dating from 1952, reads almost as a premonition of what was to come. “I am afraid. I am not solid, but hollow…. I do not know who I am, where I am going – and I am the one who has to decide the answers to these hideous questions” (Journals 149). Undoubtedly, her efforts to destroy her ties to others and aspire to perfection led to failure. However, earlier writings suggest that perhaps had she chosen to nurture these same ties, she could have succeeded. The young Sylvia Plath was brilliant and filled with vitality, despite her imperfections. Had she chosen a less destructive path to self-discovery, she may have been able to remain as she felt at Smith: “…young, beautiful, and maybe not too damned” (Journals 140).
Clearly, Sylvia Plath’s desperation to identify herself and repair the disconnect she felt between her outward persona and true self led her to isolate herself and reject others in an attempt to purify and perfect herself, a process which is shown throughout her writings. Through striving to better understand herself, she eventually lost herself entirely. Although the inner workings of Plath’s mind will continue to be arcane, it is possible to hypothesize that in the end, she was unable to accept that her goals were impossible to achieve. The disconnect between who she was and who she wanted to be would always exist, and the world would never understand her entirely, because even she couldn’t do so. Plath herself best explains it:
“Outwardly, all one could see on passing by is a tan, long-legged girl in a white lawn chair, drying her light brown hair in the late afternoon July sun, dressed in aqua shorts and a white-and-aqua halter. The sweat stands out in wet shining drops on her lean bare midriff, and trickles periodically in sticky streams down under her armpits and in back of her legs. To look at her, you couldn’t tell much: how in one short month of being alive she has begun and loved and lost a job, made and foolishly and voluntarily cut herself off from several unique friends, met and captivated a Princeton boy, won one of two $500 prizes in a national College Fiction Contest, and received a delightful, encouraging letter from a well- known publisher who someday ‘hopes to publish a novel she has written.’ There she sits, lazy, convalescent, sweating in the hot sun to make her hair lighter, her skin darker. Tonight she will dress in the lovely white sharkskin hand-me-down dress of her last summer’s employer and gaze winningly at her entranced Princeton escort over drinks and music, under a full moon. To look at her, you might not guess that inside she is laughing and crying, at her own stupidities and luckinesses, and at the strange enigmatic ways of the world which she will spend a lifetime trying to learn and understand” (Journals 108-109).
Bonds, Diane S. “The Separative Self in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013. <http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/ssmith/separativeself.pdf>.
Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977. Print.
Ciobanu, Elena. “Words as Axes: Suffering as Catalyst of Meaning in Sylvia Plath’s Poetry.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013. <http://www.iun.edu/~nwadmin/plath/vol1/ Ciobanu.pdf>.
Ekmekçioglu, Neslihan. “Sylvia Plath’s Mirrors Reflecting Various Guises of Self.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013. <http://www.iun.edu/~nwadmin/plath/vol1/ ekmekcioglu.pdf>.
Moses, Kate. “The Real Sylvia Plath.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013. <http://www.iun.edu/ ~nwadmin/plath/vol3_Supp/Moses.pdf>.
Oates, Joyce C. “The Death Throes of Romanticism: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” University of San Francisco, n.d. Web. 07 May 2013. <http://www.usfca.edu/jco/ deaththroesofromanticism/>.
O’Reilly, Caitriona. “Sylvia Plath.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013. <http://www.oup.com/us/ pdf/americanlit/plath.pdf>.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: HarperCollins, 1981. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. Ed. Karen V. Kukil. New York: Anchor, 2000. Print.
The Portrayal of Human Relationships in Hughes’ and Plath’s Works
Within the poetry of Hughes and Plath, the theme of human relationships is written of in varying and diverse manners. Plath’s work details relationships, such as the parent-child relationship, using powerful and intricate imagery, while Hughes conveys the theme using comparatively simpler, but more metaphorical language. Both poets seem to supply a complex view of relations, and although many may consider their portrayal as ‘bleak and disturbing’, there are certainly readings which could oppose this view.
Firstly, ‘Morning Song’, a poem illustrating the surreal period of time for the parents after the birth of a new baby, certainly portrays the relationship of parent and child in an ambivalent manner. The poem was written shortly after the birth of Plath’s first child Frieda, so could be read biographically- however, in many of Plath’s poems, personas are used to convey her views on different aspects of life- so, although a confessionary poem, the emotions are likely to be exaggerated. At a first reading, the relationship may seem disconnected and distant – but as with all Plath’s poetry, the symbolic and cryptically metaphorical language conveys deeper implications of the relationship.
The title of the poem, ‘Morning Song’, arguably does not seem to indicate any startling negativity concerning the relationship; on the contrary, both words seem to immediately evoke joyful, or even celebratory connotations. The time period of ‘morning’ could perhaps be metaphorically alluding to the idea of beginnings- the start of a whole life for the child, and the commencement of a different life for the new parents. Many readers would automatically link the idea of a new beginning, to the idea of hope, and the great possibility of happiness. Furthering this interpretation, the word ‘song’ evidently holds the idea of celebration and jubilance, and could be viewed as representative of a welcoming for the child. Alternatively, it could be interpreted that the title alludes to the cry of the new baby- if so, it does not seem to be representing it particularly negatively. The comparison of a cry to a song certainly seems to suggest an awe, or admiration from the point of the parent rather than anxiety or discomfort. However, perhaps a more bleak interpretation of the title could be formed if ‘morning’ is read as simultaneously suggesting the homophonic word ‘mourning’. In which case, it could be seen as implying a metaphorical death of the parents- their old lives fading away, as the birth of the child completely changes them. Although this idea could be seen as negatively representing the relationship, it is only a single, arguably tenuous interpretation- primarily, the title provides the reader with a light, hopeful first view of the poem- far from being disturbing.
However, within the poem itself many instances seem to present a more negative, and bleak representation of the relationship. Most pointedly, the speaker states: ‘I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distils a mirror to reflect its own slow/ Effacement’. Certainly this seems to indicate the mother’s reluctance to accept her new responsibility, her attempt at distancing herself from the child, almost a rejection. By using such an abstract metaphor to describe their relationship, the sense of alienation is further enforced. The speaker’s comparison of herself to a ‘cloud’ which ‘distills a mirror’ could be read as the process of the mother caring for her child, which Plath sees to be a ‘mirror’ of the mother. The child grows older as the ‘mirror’ is further ‘distilled’ by the parents’ care and nurture. However, the as the mother sees her child, a mirror-image of herself when she was younger, it only ‘reflects’ and highlights, her ‘slow effacement’. In other words, as the child grows older, it only emphasises to the mother her ‘effacement’- how she is becoming more insignificant, essentially fading away into her old age, like the condensation which fades away as the mirror becomes clearer. If interpreted in such a way, it could be viewed that the mother is very much apprehensive to commence this new life with her child, viewing it as something which will only bring sorrow and disappointment, in highlighting to her her own mortality, and insignificance. Interestingly, Plath’s comparison of herself to a ‘cloud’ is seen frequently in other poems, for example, ‘Little Fugue’- it often highlights both a sense of obscurity or confusion, and the idea that she is a victim, particularly due to the white, pure colour of the cloud. The line ‘I’m no more your mother’ alone arguably shocks the reader and provides an unsettling view of this relationship- what with the implication of the mother being neglectful or uncaring, it could be viewed that this indeed provides a ‘disturbing portrait’.
At the time of writing, many critics took a feminist perspective on Plath’s poetry- the persona’s reluctance to accept her role as a mother may have been viewed as indicative of the excessive pressure put on women to enter into a life of domesticity and childcare. The identity of a female was arguably extremely limited in those years, what with the clear lack of equality in such a heavily patriarchal world- the poem could be seen as expressing Plath’s reluctance to be trapped in the confines of such an identity, an identity almost defined solely by motherhood. Rebecca Warren further notes that Plath’s poetry concerning motherhood is often read by feminists today as reflecting the conflict posed by individual creativity, and domesticity- so perhaps the detached portrait of the persona’s relationship to her child indicates the fear of losing her creative freedom, and is more complex than simply a ‘bleak and disturbing’ rejection of the child. Furthermore, the first line of the poem arguably dispels any negativity, perhaps even the first word- ‘love’. The speaker, addressing her new child, denotes that ‘Love set (it) going like a fat gold watch’, seemingly providing an upbeat, endearing start to the poem. Instantaneously, the idea of ‘love’ illuminates the poem with a kind of positivity and tenderness, implying the both the love between the parents, and the love they have for the child. Additionally, the simile of ‘like a fat gold watch’ is arguably endearing, perhaps alluding to the child’s healthy physical appearance, while the colourful adjective ‘gold’, connoting wealth and riches, seems to convey the child as being something precious and prized. Combined with the upbeat monosyllabic rhythm of ‘fat gold watch’, this opening line certainly seems to convey a sense of adoration and joy towards the new child. However, it could conversely be argued that it does, in fact, conjure a negative portrait of the parent-child relationship. Although the poet does state that ‘love’ is what brought the child into the world, which could seem positive, it is arguably an impersonal word, and distances the baby from the parent -instead it is linked to an abstract concept. Perhaps this furthers the sense of reluctance the mother feels to accept this child and to accept her new life- instead of linking the child with herself and her own responsibility, she relates it only with this abstract ideal. Furthermore, the idea that the child is compared to an inanimate object seems somewhat unsettling- as soon as a life begins, it is immediately assimilated to something with no life. Such a comparison also occurs later in the poem, when the child is described as a ‘statue’. It could be interpreted that this once again portrays the speaker’s apprehension to accept the child, and acknowledge the presence of this whole new life, in her life. It could be counter-argued that by the speaker addressing the child as ‘you’, it conveys her acceptance of the child’s existence and presence in her life, and somewhat subsides the sense of distancing. Additionally however, the fact that the child is compared to a ‘watch’ arguably presents the reader with an ominous and foreboding image- it could be interpreted that the speaker implies a stopwatch, representing the already diminishing time left in the child’s life. This is undoubtedly a ‘bleak’ and pessimistic view, perhaps indicating the speaker’s own concerns with mortality- the child only reinforces her preoccupations and fears of death, instead of filling her with hope for new life created.
Furthermore, the sense of alienation and distancing from the child is created in many other instances throughout the poem, furthering the negative and joyless representation of the relationship. The emotionless, synaesthesic description of the baby’s ‘bald cry’ does not evoke any sense of the parent’s awe at hearing their child for the first time, instead conveys it is being something empty, emphasising the lack of connection between the parents and child. Additionally, Plath describes the cry taking ‘its place among the elements’, which seems to separate the child from the human world, and associate it instead with something exterior and alien. The sense of discomfort and unease which the parents seem to feel is further enforced by the lines: ‘your nakedness/ Shadows our safety’. Here, it seems as if the presence of this new, fragile and vulnerable child in their responsibility seems to threaten their own security- their before structured lives have now been completely changed, and to feel comfortable again, they must adjust. The contrast between the words ‘nakedness’ and ‘safety’ emphasises the disquiet of the parents, as it highlights the change which has come over their life; the previous order and security, now tainted by the vulnerability of their situation. Furthermore, the word ‘shadows’, emphasised by the enjambment, seems to convey the looming anxiety and fear which the new child has caused the parents. However, it could also imply the ambiguity of emotion which the child has caused for the parents – shadows and darkness obscure and confuse, and in this way, the sudden presence of a fragile and innocent child in their care, has left them without clarity of emotion or of the situation. Although the sense of alienation and detachment from the child may seem to present a ‘bleak’ image of the relationship, it is arguably a considerably realistic portrayal- the birth of a new child is undoubtedly a large change, and the difficulty of becoming adapted to this is certainly not a ‘disturbing’ idea. Equally, the parents’ feelings of being less secure at having such a great new responsibility is certainly not an unsettling idea, nor ‘bleak- it is simply a normal, and arguably temporary reaction.
The parent-child relationship was also explored by Ted Hughes in his poem ‘Full Moon and Little Frieda’. Similarly, it seems that the relationship has been portrayed in an ambivalent and complex manner and once again, the poem can be read biographically, as ‘Frieda’ was his first daughter with Plath. As with Plath’s poem, it is written in free verse, and is filled with vivid, intricate images. Firstly, the speaker’s first reference to Frieda, ‘And you listening’ immediately seems to show his love, and awe of his daughter. By composing the poem almost as if addressed completely to Frieda, through use of the ‘you’ pronoun, it is rendered considerably more personal and clearly shows his close relationship with his daughter. Comparatively, Plath addresses Frieda in the same way in ‘Morning Song’, and in both poems, this usage of ‘you’ seems to capture the intimacy of the parent-child relationship, through this direct addressal. Furthermore, this short, three word sentence is made even more distinct by Hughes’s use of end-stopping, allowing the description of Frieda to be strongly emphasised in its isolation. The awe and admiration of the speaker is certainly conveyed through such a great focus on this singular, simple action in the present moment.
In this way, the relationship is certainly not conveyed as ‘bleak’ nor ‘disturbing’, but entirely loving and tender. Notably, the entire poem is composed in the present tense, perhaps in order to vivify the moment and sentiments Hughes is writing of. The majority of ‘Morning Song’ is equally written in the present tense, and it could be argued that the purpose of this, in both poems, it to fully communicate the intensity of the actions and emotions experienced, by conserving them in the immediacy of the present moment. However, further into the poem, Hughes begins to compare his daughter to various images, which presents a different element to their relationship. Firstly, Hughes describes her as ‘A spider’s web, tense for the dew’s touch’. This could be interpreted as conveying the child’s wonder, and anticipation of the full moon coming into view, as she sits ‘listening’, ‘tense’ with excitement for its arrival. However, an alternative reading could be that the speaker is implying the impending maturity of his daughter that time will bring. The ‘tension’ which the speaker’s daughter is linked perhaps portrays the looming inevitability of her growing up and maturing into adulthood, something which the speaker seems to view with concern. He continues this theme by comparing her to ‘A pail lifted, still and brimming’. The idea of a ‘pail lifted’ perhaps conveys the beginning of her life- currently, she is only ‘lifted’- her childhood has only just been initiated. Although a sense of stasis is created through the word ‘still’, this is contrasted by the present participle of ‘brimming’, seemingly suggesting that the water is still moving on the surface, despite its apparent ‘stillness’. This could be read as indicative of the speaker’s knowledge that despite the fact that his daughter’s maturity is ‘brimming’ and inescapable, in the present moment, her childhood and innocence is ‘still’ and stagnant. Perhaps this is why Hughes composed the poem in the present tense- in order to solidify and preserve the sweet, infant state of his daughter.
The speaker’s apparent concern with the imminent maturing of his child could be linked to Plath’s ‘Morning Song’, and the speaker’s comparison of her new baby to a ‘watch’. In Plath’s poem, by linking her child to the image of a ‘watch’, it could be argued that Plath too is concerned by the inevitable passing of time, and thus the inescapable aging of her child. Both poets seem to be preoccupied by the idea of time’s inevitable progress, and the effect that will have on their children. Equally, in both poems the child is compared to inanimate objects. In Hughes’s case, it could be argued that he compares Frieda to a solid object, a ‘pail’, in order to convey his desire that she should be unchanging, and should be preserved as a child forever. However, in ‘Morning Song’, it seems that Plath tends to draw comparisons between Frieda and inanimate objects to convey the speaker’s reluctance to fully accept the child. Some may consider that both poets’ concern with time and the inevitable maturing of their children is in itself arguably ‘bleak’, perhaps even morbid in the case of ‘Morning Song’- they may view the poets as focusing purely on the negatives of having children, instead of simply treasuring them as they are. However, it does not seem possible to draw from this representation the belief that it is ‘disturbing’- it is arguably a natural and common fear for a parent to see their child so quickly growing up and changing. In fact, Hughes’ poem could even be considered touching, such is the love and tenderness shown towards his daughter, in his comparison of her to a ‘work’ of art.
Furthermore, within Plath’s poem ‘Little Fugue’ a significantly different perspective on human relationships is presented, particularly concerning the relationship between father and daughter, and husband and wife. Throughout the poem, using symbolic and cryptic imagery, the speaker seems to be attempting to reconcile the idea of her father in her mind, and recall his image. This poem is largely read biographically, as Plath herself experienced the trauma of losing her father at the age of eight, and her complex relationship with his memory is reflected in many of her poems.
Many may come to view Plath’s representation of relationships in this poem as ‘bleak’ and sombre, due to the speaker’s focus on her desperate attempts to communicate with her dead father, and her frustration at being unable to do so. The theme of obscurity runs throughout the poem, beginning with the statement ‘Cold clouds go over’. This could be interpreted as the mental haziness and blur which obscures the speaker’s memory of her father, as the ‘clouds go over’ the ‘yew’- which could be seen as representative of her father, due to its symbolism of both death and rebirth (linking to the idea of the speaker trying to regain her father). Such dimness of her father’s image is also implied through her description of the ‘featurelessness’ of her memory, emphasising it’s vagueness, while the use of exclamation mark at the end of the same line perhaps highlights her desperation and agitation. Her inability to reconcile her relationship with her dead father, or a clear idea of him in her mind, is further conveyed through the evident confusion of senses depicted throughout the poem. The speaker seems to compare her vagueness of memory to how ‘the death and dumb/ Signal the blind, and are ignored’, and such a simile clearly highlights the frustration felt through her impossibility of communicating with her father. Further into the poem, the speaker once again describes herself as ‘deaf’, causing the memory of her father to be but a ‘dark tunnel’. Whilst the ‘deafness’ emphasises the difficulties of communication, the image of the ‘dark tunnel’ reinforces the idea that the idea of her father in her mind is heavily obscured and indistinct. Additionally, through Plath’s use of synaesthesia in the statement, ‘I see your voice’ the idea of confusion and obscurity is heightened- such a mixing of the senses in this way clearly conveys the speaker’s strife to communicate, but ultimate inability. It could be argued that the portrait of the father-daughter relationship presented here is indeed ‘bleak’- it can be seen that the speaker still struggles to accept the death of her father, and her desperation to communicate or regain the memory of him, could be viewed as both sad, and unsettling. However, others may believe that although there is a hopeless desperation within the poem, it does not render the relationship ‘bleak’, but purely tragic.
Arguably, the relationship presented is too complex to immediately be judged ‘bleak and disturbing’. Despite the speaker’s wishes to regain the memory of her father, the image which we are provided with of him is dark and unsettling: ‘A yew hedge of orders/ Gothic and barbarous, pure German.’ As in many other poems, particularly ‘Daddy’ Plath seems to be inferring World War two here, and comparing her father to a perpetrator of the holocaust. The image of the speaker’s father as a ‘yew hedge’ once again links to the symbolism seen at the beginning of the poem, and conveys him as a restricting, controlling figure of authority. Further, by describing him as ‘barbarous’, the speaker clearly conveys the cruelty and inhumanity which she believes her father to possess. Perhaps this reflects Plath’s own resentment towards her father for being pro-Nazi at the time of the war, or, her anger and frustration at this death, which could have been avoided, had he not wrongly misdiagnosed himself. The poem seems to present an extremely conflicted view of the relationship: on the one hand, the speaker describes her father as an oppressive, evil figure which ‘Dead men cry from’, and on the other, the speaker conveys her utter desperation and toil to regain a clear memory of her father, or somehow communicate with him. Therefore, it would seem to simple to conclude the portrayal of the relationship as ‘bleak’- it is evidently multi-layered, complex and confused. However, it may seem reasonable to view it as ‘disturbing’- it is certainly an unsettling idea that someone is so obsessed by the memory of their dead father, despite condemning him as ‘gothic and barbarous’.
The final line of the poem, ‘The clouds are a marriage dress, of that pallor’, may lead many into further believing this relationship to be ‘disturbing’. Just as the speaker seems to be concluding her thoughts of her father, a different thread, presenting a different relationship, is woven in. The last stanza itself seems to portray the speaker attempting to reconcile and ‘arrange’ her thoughts on the subject, as she tells herself ‘these are my fingers, this my baby’. She seems to be acclimatising herself with her present life, before referring back to the ‘clouds’ of her memory. Once this ‘arrangement’ has been carried out, the speaker now seems to imply that her marriage, has taken on the same obscurity as the relationship with her father. The same ‘clouds’ that covered her relationship with her father, now cover the relationship with her husband. If read biographically, it must be noted that at the time of writing, Plath’s relationship with Hughes was beginning to break down- which could explain the confusion the speaker now seems to be viewing this marriage with. Alternatively, it could be viewed that the speaker has replaced the memory of her father, the ‘clouds’, with her husband, through the metaphor of ‘a marriage dress’. Her marriage has caused Plath to imprint Hughes onto the image of her father, in order to reconcile his memory in her mind. In other words, it could be seen that the speaker sees her husband, in some ways, as a ‘replacement’ for her father- in her attempts to recover and reach her father, she instead revived him in her husband. This could be linked back to the image of her father as a ‘yew’, the supposed tree of rebirth- for Plath, her father has been reborn in Hughes. Hughes himself is said to have always felt as if he was in the presence of Plath’s father, which arguably contributed to the eventual collapse of his marriage to Sylvia. Evidently this relationship, for many readers would be viewed as ‘disturbing’ and unsettling- however, such writing does arguably encapsulate the essence of the ‘confessionary’ genre, which many may admire as intense, and brave. Rebecca Warren notes that many of her poems detail ‘psychological pain’, and such pain is certainly conveyed in ‘Little Fugue’, stemming from the trauma of losing her father, and her desperation to regain him.
Finally, many moments of Hughes’ ‘Lovesong’ can be compared to ‘Little Fugue’, in the representation of the husband-wife relationship. Largely read biographically as a portrait of the destructive, intense, but passionate relationship between Plath and Hughes, its aggressively sexual tenor and energetically fast-paced structure certainly does not render the poem ‘bleak’. However, many may consider the violent aspects of the poem particularly ‘disturbing’. Such lines as ‘his words were occupying armies,’ ‘her laughs were an assassin’s attempts’, and ‘his looks were bullets daggers of revenge’ clearly convey the relationship to be that of ruthful antagonism and conflict. However, although this imagery of violence could be read negatively, and C.J Rawson’s assertion that ‘everybody knows that Ted Hughes’s subject is violence’ could be seen as affirming his unhealthy fixation on it, even within relationships, it could be viewed in a different light. Perhaps Hughes only uses violence in this poem hyperbolically, in order to exaggerate the passion between the couple- for example, comparing the man’s looks to ‘bullet daggers’ merely conveys the intensity and power of his gaze, not cruelty or anger. The violence imagery certainly causes the lines to be more potent and impactful, especially when coupled with the frequent enjambment, asyndeton, and rhythmic repetition of words such as ‘his’ or ‘her’, which provide the poem with a dynamic pace. Furthermore, arguably, certain moments in the poem place the relationship in a more positive light, for example: ‘love is hard to stop’. Hughes’s simple language, so contrasting to the complex and cryptic writing of Plath, conveys here the true depths and power of their love- however, simultaneously, it could be argued that there is the underlying implication that the couple wish for this love ‘to stop’.
Additionally, the final three lines of the poem arguably set the presentation of their relationship in a more positive, uplifting light, as Hughes describes the couple essentially becoming one, through their love: ‘In the morning they wore each other’s face’. This idea of uniting is reflected in the changing structure of the poem- the penultimate stanza is of two lines, perhaps representing the two lovers, and the final stanza, is of only one line, which could be viewed as imitative of the couple becoming one. To many, this may show the strengths of their relationship- however, the positive view is undertoned by the fact that their uniting is described as being paradoxically hostile: ‘In their dreams their brains took each other hostage’. Despite this powerful love which Hughes is conveying, it seems to be inextricably linked to the antagonism and hostility within the relationship- such a portrait of a destructive, conflicting relationship could be viewed as ‘bleak and disturbing’ by many. However, perhaps if read as a truly hyperbolic account of the relationship, many may consider this representation to be realistic, in its complexity. Certainly the critical readings of Hughes’s poetry have changed over the years- particularly following the suicide and of Plath, and the suicide and matricide of Hughes’s lover Assia Wevill, many feminists viewed Hughes as a cruel, controlling and monstrous figure. This certainly impacted the way his poetry was read, leading to many viewing such a violent portrayal of their relationship as ‘disturbing’.
The husband-wife relationship portrayed in ‘Lovesong’ can be linked to that within ‘Little Fugue’, especially if read biographically. Firstly, describing the couple’s tempestuous love, Hughes states ‘His kisses sucked out her whole past and future or tried to’. This could be compared to the idea conveyed within ‘Little Fugue’, that the persona is so obsessive and preoccupied by the memory of her dead father, that she attempts to reclaim such a figure through marriage. Such a relationship results in the husband attempting to erase ‘her whole past’ and memories of her father, perhaps in order to make the relationship healthier. This could be read as Hughes’s attempts to normalise the relationship in trying to cause Plath to forget her father and the trauma he caused her, as he so often felt as if he were in the haunting shadow of him. Equally, the lines ‘Her embrace was an immense press/ To print him into her bones’, could be linked to the idea of Plath’s desperation to somehow regain her father’s memory, thus resulting in her ‘marriage dress’ taking the form of the ‘clouds’ of memory of her father. Plath’s wish to ‘print him into her bones’ could be viewed as her desire to overlay the haunting memory of her father, with that of Hughes instead- in order to have some kind of reconciliation, and resolution. To many, such a portrait of their relationship may indeed seem ‘disturbing’ and perhaps unnatural- but overall, even when not read biographically, the poems certainly present a complex, and conflicting view of human relationships.
Throughout these poems, it is evident that human relationships, both parent-child, and husband-wife, are presented by both Plath and Hughes as complex, and convoluted. There are many moments in the poetry of Plath which could be deemed as both ‘bleak and disturbing’, particularly concerning the disjointed relationship presented between father and daughter. Equally, in that of Hughes, the intensely aggressive and hostile presentation of a relationship presents a deeply conflicting view of a couple, which perhaps could be viewed as ‘disturbing’ by some. However, it seems it would be excessive to say that their poetry ‘offers an entirely bleak and disturbing’ view of relationships, since other moments of the poems, and the overall intricacy of the relations conveyed, renders the portrait too complex for such a general conclusion.
The Controversial and Dualistic Father Figure
In her poem, “Daddy,” Sylvia Plath uses violent, unnerving, and controversial imagery to illustrate her tumultuous relationship with her father both before and after his death in 1940. Her work, and this poem in particular, is often distinguished due to the juxtaposition of disturbing metaphor with bouncy alliteration and child-like rhyme scheme. This and other contradictions found within the work depict the speaker’s lack of control and understanding about her relationships with men. Despite the undeniable feminist undertones of the piece, Plath lacks in tangible assertions about equality of the sexes; instead, “Daddy” acts more as a commentary on her struggles with patriarchy and emotional abuse. This idea is supported through the metaphor she creates of herself as a Holocaust victim and her father a Nazi soldier. The way Plath symbolizes Nazism in relation to her father transitions throughout the poem, from subtlety to blatancy, and eventually encompasses her relationships with both her father and her husband, Ted Hughes. While many critics discuss her World War II metaphors and allusions in regards to her personal relationships,this essay will discussthe way in which Nazi imagery in “Daddy” asserts that patriarchy is a form fascism in society as a whole.
In “Daddy,” I argue that Plath uses inductive reasoning to generate a discussion about the patriarchal world that destroyed her. Though harsh, the symbolism found in her Holocaust metaphors is honest, which seems to bemore important to her than being politically correct. Her use of these violent metaphors in “Daddy” can be applied to any power trip: whether it be a Fuhrer, a father, or a husband’s attempt to dominate, the process is brutal and its effects are damaging and long lasting. Plath’s experiences with men inspire her to write candidly about the pain and disempowerment she felt as the victim in a patriarchal society.
The poem introduces our speaker and “Daddy” with a series of contrasts: “black” and “white,” big and small, powerful and fearsome (Plath, 2, 4). However, the contradictions are not just on the surface of the language. Each stanza deals with Plath’s internal contradiction – the desire to hold on versus the desire to let go. Thirty years after her father’s death, she has much to say about it, butcommunicating is difficult and uncomfortable. While the poem introduces “Daddy” as fearsome, cold, and dominating, in a moment of vulnerability the speaker says, “I used to pray to recover you” (Plath, 14). Despite the dissonance between speaker and father, she wants to reach him, understand him, and know him. The act of praying gives the audience insight in our speaker’s inability to communicate with both her father and also with God, another father-like figure. The only description Plath offers us of her father are distant and fuzzy; the only detail is his German descent, but still does not know exactly where he came from. Perhaps the lack of information is what drives her fixation; she does not understand how a dead man she knows so little about can have so much control over her.
In the sixth stanza, “Ich, ich, ich, ich” carries a wealth of meanings: it is another reinforcement of her father’s German heritage, but it is also astuttering, which could be caused by the speaker’sfear ofspeaking in front of her father (Plath, 27). However, paired with the following stanza, it seems Plath intended the line to serve as onomatopoeia. If said out loud, the repeated German word resembles the sound of a train. This transitions into her first Holocaust reference: “An engine, an engine / Chuffing me off like a Jew” (Plath, 31-32). Her father’s words, represented by the German, are her captors. The train serves as a metaphor for how she feels as her father’s victim. She then says, “I began to talk like a Jew. / I think I may well be a Jew” as she compares the oppression of her father to that of the Holocaust concentration camps (Plath, 34-35). The speaker is so strongly opposed to her father’s language and oppression, she begins to “talk like a Jew” – a denial of the German language and, by default, her father.
Although it has been subtly implied in the previous stanzas, the speaker begins to address her father’s Nazism more directly. Again, she discusses her fear “of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo;” her fear indeed has layers. She seems to assert directly his involvement withthe Nazis by associatinghim with the Luftwaffe, the German air force. Following her claim with “gobbledygoo” can be seem as a mockery of what the German language sounds like to foreign ears. It seems clear by now that hearing her father speak German had a terrifying affect on her that she struggles to make sense of even this long after his death. For the first time, Plath offers us a physical description of “Daddy.” She says, “your neat mustache, / And your Aryan eye, bright blue” referring not only to the “perfect race” the Nazis were trying to create, but inthe “neat mustache” also conjuring the image ofHitler (Plath, 42-44). The speaker’s father is now like the German image of terrible perfection – with Hitler’s mustache and idealized bright blue eyes. In contrast to “Ach, du” which followed the prayer to bring him back, this stanza ends with the English translation, “O You –” as a reaction to his cruelty.
Now that the speaker has returned to her sigh of “O You” from earlier in the poem, she also returns to the concept that her father seemed like God to her. Now he appears to her to be “Not God but a swastika.” He is so black that he blocks the entire sky (Plath, 46). This leads in to one of the most widely controversial and widely discussed lines from the poem: “Every woman adores a Fascist,” which is the first time Plath makes a claim concerning women outside of herself. The question arises: did she choose to be oppressed? This stanza seems to me to be the first glimpse of a new male. It could possibly be inferred that Plath is referring to her tumultuous marriage to Ted Hughes; shecould not choose your father, but she did choose her husband. Although the tone here is sarcastic, she is self-deprecating. By saying “every woman,” however, it she appears to be making a broad statement about women as a whole. Perhaps her voice is shifting from simply a victim to something more complicated. Just as she contradicted herself in the beginning of the poem, this line seems to be questioning whether she, and women in general, want to be dominated. This idea can even be reinforced by the title of the poem. “Daddy” is an affectionate term compared to “father” or even “dad.” Calling the poem “Daddy” insinuates the speaker still cares for her father despite her claims throughout the work. The speaker’s relationship with men is both terrifying and dependent and can be interpreted as a metaphor, questioning society’s demand for structure and traditionalism.
Plath again directs the attention back to the speaker when she refers to her “pretty red heart” being broken in two (Plath, 56). These two lines continue the contrast of the father to the speaker. The father is huge, evil, and black, while the speaker, like her heart, is pretty, red, and victimized. Although her father, who she refers to as the devil in stanza eleven, is the “black man” who broke her heart, she admits, “At twenty I tried to die” (Plath, 55, 58). Referring to her suicide attempt while in college, she claims she was trying to “get back, back, back to you. / I thought even the bones would do” (Plath, 59-60). This line contains another contradiction and demonstrates once againhow troubled the speaker is by her relationship with her dead father. Despite everything he has done, she has an extremely self-deprecating obsession with her loss. When her suicide failed and the doctor’s “stuck me together with glue,” she was physically healed, but mentally still very troubled (Plath, 62). Sarcastically, the speaker discusses her solution: She “made a model” of her father (Plath, 64). This is where Plath begins to discuss her difficult and painful marriage with Ted Hughes. She says, “I knew what I had to do. / I made a model out of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look” (Plath, 63-65). The speaker seems to be mocking her choice in husband. Just as discussed when she said, “Every woman adores a Fascist,” she observes how she, in a way, allowed the trouble back in her life when she married Hughes.
Now that she has the model of her father, she does not need her actual father anymore when she says, “So daddy, I’m finally through” (Plath, 68). The irony here is, “Daddy” has been dead for thirty years, and the speaker is just now letting the obsession with him go. In the fifteenth stanza, she connects her father and husband again: “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two – / The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know” (Plath, 73-74). Because the only two men mentioned in the poem are the speaker’s father and the “model” of her father, it seems to make sense that those are the two men she has “killed.” She calls her husband “The vampire who said he was you,” insinuating a kind of betrayal, possibly a reference to Ted Hughes’ infidelity. The image of her husbandas a “vampire” is dark, but also the first time he is depicted as an image separate from “Daddy.” This relationship is different, becasue the image of a vampire illustrates how he had been sucking the life out of her for seven years. She returns all her attention back to her father when she tells him to “lie back” (Plath, 75). She says, “There’s a stake in your fat black heart” (Plath, 76): His heart, here, fits with the previousdescriptions of him asblack or evil. This image is an importantcontrast to the one of her heart, shown as “pretty and red” (Plath, 56). Before line 80, the speaker has used the word “Daddy” only four times, not counting the title. By repeating “Daddy” she seems to be working herself up for her finale. The speaker has tried out every way possible to criticize her father–calling him a Nazi, Hitler, the devil, and a vampire–but in the end, she uses the one word that denies him authority and ultimately patriarchy, saying “Daddy daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (Plath, 80).
The Presentation of Mental Suffering: A Comparison of Plath and Williams
This essay will look at both the polarity and unity within the mental suffering of characters and voices from Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire (‘Streetcar’) and Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems, focusing specifically on the extent to which they suffer due to their imagination and whether or not this is a more frequent commodity than the times that they suffer due to reality. Both, Plath and Williams’ dichotomy and duality will allow explorations to be made across their texts, relating back to the suffering of the playwright and poet themselves and how this has attributed to their own work.
It appears that within Plath’s Ariel collection and Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the protagonists’ suffering is a result of them placing themselves in situations that they thought would rid them of the aspects of their past causing them misery, however, we see this result in them being subjected to further suffering of another form. Fundamentally, both writers convey elements of themselves within the characters and voices that they portray. Williams, himself, has admitted to his work being emotionally autobiographical and with Plath, it is possible to detect parallelism with her work of fiction and that of her journals; it’s symptomatically shown and contextually proven that she suffered from an unspecified (though arguably either manic or endogenous) form of depression. With Williams, we can interpret from both the input from Elia Kazan (the director of many of Williams’ plays who was greatly attracted to the freedom and mobility of his work), and Williams’ confession, himself, of basing Tom and Laura Wingfield’s character from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on himself and his sister Rose, that he was portraying elements of Rose in Blanche through having her reflect Rose’s qualities. After all, as Kazan has stated, “Everything in his life is in his plays, and everything in his plays is in his life.” Considering this, we can establish that, as with Rose, the disorder that Blanche is potentially suffering from is schizophrenia. This makes it important to note: Blanche’s debaucheries do not define her. They are symptomatic of her disorder, not attributive to her personality. This misunderstanding is what leads the characters around her to mistake her speech and actions for that which it is not, hence the suffering she is forced to endure after Scene 11. Having now established that the two are both presenting individuals with disorders, I will therefore examine the ways in which their work shows them attempting to fix this, whilst avoiding the consequences of it too.
Watzlawick’s theory works well to explain this. It conjectures that miscommunication happens because all of the communicators are not speaking the same language, which happens because people have different viewpoints of speaking. This is seen clearly in Streetcar through the representation of Blanche’s character. Her inability to be understood by those surrounding her is ultimately what led to her suffering as it meant that she was incapable of receiving help from them in the correct manner. Williams himself was considered an outcast at school due to his diphtheria; his weakened heart prevented him to do what other people do. This is presented through Blanche’s character and the marginalization that her illness causes for her. Plath shares this ostracism caused by people’s inability to understand. In ‘The Moon and The Yew Tree’ we see her referring to herself as a planet and the people around her, her children, as planets too (in ‘The Night Dances’). The mention of receiving a gift from the sky could refer to the remainder of matter around her, matter that is both smaller and stuck in one place (as the sky would refer to the sky to one planet). In this way, she could be emphasizing how small-minded the people around her are and how they are not great enough to reach the universe or other planets but are merely limited to a single worldview. Her suffering, in this way, is due to the parochialism of the people around her. This is a theme that is vaguely hinted at across her poems as in ‘Little Fugue’ she speaks of how “the deaf and dumb // Signal the blind, and are ignored” and in ‘Years’ she speaks of how “They freeze and are”, again addressing their limitation and how she does not share this outlook, hence the following phrase “O God, I am not like you”. She also speaks of how she is “Incapable // Of licking clean” as she evidently cannot cure herself from her illness but this isn’t something that is understood by those around her.
Stella informs us that “There are things about [her] sister [that she doesn’t] approve of – things that caused sorrow at home. She was always – flighty!” … “very young, she had an experience that – killed her illusions!” raising the idea that the deterioration of her mental health began at a young age and that she was always predisposed to this; the death of Allan (and other relatives) and Stanley’s assaultive actions merely triggered the onset of her condition, causing a drastic behavioral decline. It is arguable that Blanche’s imagination could be what led to her reality, although, I think often in Streetcar when we refer to Blanche’s imagination, we are doing so in a way that is synonymic for her illness as it can be difficult to differentiate between the two once the disorder has behaviorally consumed the individual. This is one of the problems with schizophrenia; it alters the individual’s perception causing the lines between reality and imagination to blur so to determine whether an individual truly perceives what we’d call an imaginative thought as their reality, is both difficult to decipher and impossible to measure. Considering that it is the occipital lobe that is responsible for our imagination and that many studies have found a correlation between there being evident changes in the volume of grey matter (and white matter) in the occipital lobe for individuals with schizophrenia. For this reason, it seems clear that Blanche’s imagination, as a mentally ill character, could really be her reality so which of the two she’s suffering from is questionable. In further depth, her auditory hallucinations would have initiated within her temporal lobe, a lobe, too, associated with schizophrenia (as when the volume within the lobe decreases, schizophrenia becomes symptomatic). Therefore, seeing that this is mentally ill individual’s reality, it can be argued that it is their own reality that they are suffering from, not the alternative.
Similar principles apply to Plath and her posthumous writing. Critics, such as Alvarez, argue that Plath wrote with mostly death on her mind, however, I argue that her writing was an attempt to rid herself of her suffering, not her entire life. Although Plath did later commit suicide, I feel that her pessimistic outlook was merely characteristic of her disorder and not a forewarning that she was sending out. Plath’s depression has been identified through many critical and psychological interpretations of her work though it became an established fact when she was institutionalized for it in the 1950s. In her last written poem ‘Edge’ for example, she describes two children (presumably hers) as “serpents” indicating that they have poisoned her, but she doesn’t specify what they have poisoned her with. It could perhaps be happiness as in various other poems, she feels joy around them and shows a great deal of worry and concern regarding their well being. In ‘The Night Dances’, for example, she writes of how Nicholas used to dance at night. Nicholas, her son, also suffered from depression and completed suicide in his late 40s. Plath almost foreshadows this in her poem through focusing, in the first stanza, on his irretrievable smile and, in the second stanza, how answers will become clear in the future. Here, Plath’s suffering may seem illogical, however, she judiciously fears what illness will do to him and rightfully so as it can be assumed that Otto passed down his defective genes to Plath and that she, too, has passed hers onto Nicholas. In her poem ‘Little Fugue’ she talks of how, “Dead men cry from it.” As dead men cannot actually cry, her suffering due to paranoia (aka her imagination) is emphasized here.
Divulging into this deeper, the relation to dead men (i.e. Otto, the closest dead man in her life) raises the question: was Otto suffering from his imagination too? The focus of the poem is incongruous with the facts as there is no evidence found of Otto being soldier but the poems suggests this anyway. For this reason, the poem may be hinting at the fact that Otto passed down his defective genes which would work well to explain Plath’s fear that her children will get sick as she did too. The paranoia surrounding her children is seen in ‘Death & Co.’ where she says, “Look in their hospital // Icebox”. Her calling the incubators an icebox is evidently her suffering from her imagination as she perceives a perfectly protective environment to be a threatening piece of apparatus. Her paranoia that they will get ill, mentally ill, is further emphasized through the hovering midwifes wearing “death gowns”. Furthermore, the idea that both Blanche’s character and Plath’s vocalizer are in anguish due to an illness that they were predisposed to emphasizes that their suffering is caused by their harsh realities.
The absence of Giddens ontological security in both the voice that comes through in Plath’s poems and Williams’ character Blanche, draws emphasis to the lack of meaning in the lives of the two. It refers to consistency of events in an individual’s life. Meaning, as Elias (1985) has stated, is found in the absence of anxiety and chaos in one’s life, allowing an individual to experience positive and stable emotions; one must function in opposition to Beck’s cognitive triad. Contravening this threatens ontological security. Focusing specifically on Blanche, ontological security is often threatened by death. We know that (as with Williams and Hazel) Blanche lost Allan to suicide and so this, as Philip A. Mellor has stated, causes people to “question the meaningfulness and reality of the social frameworks in which they participate, shattering their ontological security” Catharine from Suddenly Last Summer is attributive to this too; all individuals characterizing Williams’ schizophrenic sister, Rose. Arguably with Plath, it can be interpreted that her ontological security was shattered by the death of her father. Despite her euphemistic journal utterings, it seems evident that Plath refrains from speaking about it and creates alternative fantasies to convince herself to hate him as to admit that a person she loves is gone would simply be too painful to bear.
Mental suffering in Streetcar is presented in a societal manner through the characterization of Blanche and was used to justify changes in later psychiatric treatments. For this reason, the text itself can be argued to have contributed to the anti-psychiatry movement of the time, considering its advocation of the same idea that psychiatric treatments are often more harmful than helpful to patients. Blanche’s hesitation towards the unjust methods that are used to deal with her in the 1940s emphasizes the suffering that we can assume she is subjected to at the end of the play. When Stella asks, “Shall we go, Blanche?” and Blanche responds, “Must we go through that room?” her hesitation emphasizes that perhaps there is something wrong with what Stella is doing, thus creating doubt within the audience’s minds. Despite the topic of their conversation being in regards to how to cross over to the Doctor and Matron waiting outside without encountering the other characters, Williams’ intention may have been to emphasize Blanche’s disapproval of the method of treatment that Stella has selected for her. She establishes earlier in this scene that “this place is a trap!” The emphasis on the abstract noun “trap” denotes a situation in which she unknowingly landed herself in but now, cannot escape. In A Glass Menagerie’s production notes, Williams wrote, “To escape from a trap, he has to act without pity.” Blanche didn’t escape the trap due to her compliance with the Doctor and Matron. She wasn’t ruthless enough to further disrupt Stella’s life; she didn’t project her suffering onto others, never intentionally. This is evident through stage directions such as “she lets them push her into a chair”. We see at the end that she has acquiesced her disorder thus her cooperation as even when the Matron releases her arm, she still follows. Stella’s involvement within the denouement of the play is of great significance, particularly where she screams, “Don’t let them do that to her, don’t let them hurt her! Oh, God, oh, please, God, don’t hurt her! What are they doing to her? What are they doing? [She tries to break from Eunice’s arms.]” Williams purposively uses repetition in the final sentences to emphasize the lack of awareness that people had regarding mental illness, hence their ineffectual actions when deciphering how to help cure it. Blanche’s character is both a visual and dialogistic representation of everything that is wrong with the psychiatric treatments used in the 1900s; the other characters in the play are merely there for accompaniment and emphasis of the matter. Considering that Streetcar was published in 1947, it can be seen to act as one of the most powerful texts of its time due to the contribution that it has made to the movement.
Williams’ play was especially significant in the 1940s due to the societal search for stability after the nuclear attacks and general fear of the government. The universality of his plays and the rendered themes within them allowed the new Americans to connect with it during the post-depression and WWII period. The undertones of the play struck a chord with the audience as it drew attention to the victimization of women, highlighting their role in a male-dominated society (this was done so through the self-expression of female characters – Stella choosing Stanley and settling down with him, Blanche and her public debaucheries). It allowed audiences to see the result of reality not coinciding with an individual’s imagination and also when societal perceptions of an individual deviate from that of their true self. As Williams himself has said, all of his plays “had subliminally at least – a great deal of social content.”
Another 19th century movement was Romanticism; one critic claimed that “Blanche [was] literally a conduit of Romanticism”. The presentation of her as an embodiment of inspiration, subjectivity and primacy of an individual may perhaps have been unintentional on Williams’ part but links to the progression of the anti-psychiatry movement of the time as, although Blanche’s speech when questioning the path to the Doctor and Matron waiting for her at the door, it was also highly reflective of her boisterous personality. As Robert Bray says in the introduction of ‘Vieux Carr?’, “Williams’ semitropical relocation marked the beginning of an artistic awakening of a period of vigorous self-discovery.”
In regards to Rose, the character that Blanche is potentially a manifestation of, Williams stated that, “She could have become quite well by now if they hadn’t performed that goddam operation on her; she would have come back up to the surface” (the operation being a prefrontal lobotomy). This element of guilt is plagued across Williams’ plays; in The Glass Menagerie, Williams’ character, Tom (which is actually Tennessee’s real forename!) says “Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!” After Rose’s institutionalisation, Williams made it his mission to get Rose out of there having seen what the lobotomy did to her; he claimed that aside from a few pieces of work, getting Rose out was one of the best things he’d ever done.
In regards to the form of Williams’ text, he has spoken about how American theatrical productions don’t have the audience support that other forms of literature, elsewhere, receive. In an interview with the New York Times, Williams stated that, “The public isn’t conditioned to have the patience to allow them (the characters) to develop as artists.” It’s no wonder the Blanche was misunderstood by those around her as she was misunderstood by the contemporary audience too. R.D.Laing, in fact, studied the coercion of psychiatric treatments to patients. His research focused on the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1970s. Laing’s research actually goes to say that delusion is self-deception in the most absolute form. An illusion, he claims, isn’t as deceptive as the whole being is not deceived and, therefore, it would not classify as a total act of deception. The mutuality within the self-deception is an essential part as collusion is supposed to be an interpersonal process. Collusive entrapment is where, symptomatically, the individuals begin voicing their feelings of self-estrangement and depersonalization. Furthermore, the individuals are described as able to function on their own but dramatically incapable when the scene changes and they are in another’s company. It is suggestive that being alone caused her to suffer less than being in the presence of those who interfere greatly but understand very little (hence Blanche being alive and seemingly well on her arrival at Elysian Fields). Laing and Watzlawick’s work actually worked in conjunction in regards to this matter, condemning that the study of pragmatic effects of disturbed human behavior is a communicative reaction to the situation that the individual is in as opposed to their disease itself.
This is illustrated so profoundly in both Streetcar and Plath’s Ariel collection as we see Blanche was, although destroying herself and others in the process, functioning satisfactorily on her own and it was only when she came to Stella’s and was in the presence of individuals like Stanley for an extended period of time that she became increasingly incapable. This, too, is seen in Plath’s poems. For example, focusing on ‘Tulips’, Plath was initially fine in her other poems from when she was hospitalized but the invasion of her husband and the tulips her brought her caused her to feel extremely conflicted and uncomfortable. Her poems are extremely paradoxical in this sense as we see throughout the collection that at times she’ll claim, “I am too pure for you or anyone” only to later contradict it through stating, “It is they who own me”.
There are implications of rape in Streetcar as Stanley “picks up [Blanche’s] inert figure and carries her to the bed” emphasizing that it was a real occurrence and not something Blanche imagined. Similarly, it has been conjectured, from ‘Daddy’, one of Plath’s poems that deeply emphasize Freud’s Electra complex, that there was an incident of rape. Although figurative, when sticking with this speculation (as the poems are polysemic) it can be interpreted that in order to surpass and move on from these memories, Plath must face them to cease her suffering, hence her awareness of them as they are becoming unrepressed. Plath in ‘Little Fugue’ states “I was seven, I knew nothing… I am lame in the memory”, thus providing the opportunity to explore why she chooses imagination over reality at times (because reality is not remembered). It may not be a selective choice as her imagination may just be filling in due to having undergone such large-scale repression that there are now significant gaps in her mind for where those memories originally were, hence her conscious mind’s decision to resolve to imagination. In both texts, the situations are did occur, thus accentuating that the cause of their suffering is due to their reality.
Communicatively, we primarily saw Blanche’s husband, Allan, to whom she spoke to but he, of course, failed to understand her and killed himself as a result. We also saw Blanche seek help from Stella, her only remaining family member that we know of and that, too, ended disastrously as there was involvement from Blanche’s brother-in-law, an individual who most definitely had a foreign viewpoint, and the results were again, disastrous. Ultimately, it appears that Watzlawick’s interactional view could work to explain why it is that Blanche was so misunderstood by the people around her and why this led to her suffering further. The lack of actually addressing Blanche’s disorder throughout the course of the play could perhaps be what led her condition to significantly decline towards the end of the play, leaving her vulnerable to Stanley (hence the events of the rising action of the plot). Streetcar, too, is suggestive of rape as we see in Scene Ten that “She sinks” and Stanley “picks up her inert figure and carries her to the bed.” We were primarily aware that Blanche was un-amenable to Stanley’s behaviors, however, this action just instigated the denouement of the play where we see Blanche’s plot arch to come to an end and her suffering to decline into a complete loss of reason and identity.
She may also, potentially, be suffering from the reality of motherhood. Or, contrarily, she may be suffering from her imagination and motherhood may have acted as her salvation. The half-rhyming couplet from lines 21-22 forms a soothing tone; the smooth enjambment introduces this. She also references her children as lamps. This imagery of light is seen in Streetcar in a very different way as we see Blanche constantly in the dark, hiding from the light as much as possible and when Mitch asks to see her, she’s reluctant to let him and Stanley’s final removal of the paper lantern is a huge contribution the denouement of the play. Plath, in the majority of her other poems, is engulfed in darkness so describing her children through the concrete noun “lamps” although perceivably derogatory, is seen as positive imagery. In Streetcar we see this to be just the opposite as Blanche hides from the light, disguising her age through only allowing the visibility of penumbras to form her appearance.
The happiness Plath receives from her children interferes with her suicide ideation, thus her wanting to put them back into her body. In ‘Edge’ she speaks of how “She has folded // Them back into her body as petals”. She also describes herself as the “Pitcher of milk, now empty”, feeling as though she has fulfilled her duty (of breastfeeding them aka carrying out a duty to them that only she can do), her emptiness indicating that having done this, she is now no longer of use to them. Following this, the use of an inanimate object (“petals”) to describe them insinuates her feeling that the children aren’t real, as this is what she needs to believe in order to die with minimal difficulty. In this way, perhaps her imagination is her savior as opposed to her cause of suffering as it enables her to carry out what she intended to, minus the interference of reality; the poem did begin with the statement, “The woman is perfected” and thus, Plath committed suicide a week after completing this poem. Although the context for Blanche is completely different, she also euphemizes the reality of situations that cause her to suffer and instead created a desired version of the truth. We see her admit to this in Scene Nine as she admits “I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth.” Arguably, underplaying the reality of their situations and succumbing into balls of oblivion may be what is preventing them from curing the cause of their suffering.
Overall, Plath tends to focus more on the individualism in mental suffering, causing her to somewhat differ from Blanche in her outlook and approach to treatment. This is due to them suffering from different types of mental illnesses which Plath interpretably believes she can overcome herself, but Blanche searches for assistance. In the title poem of Plath’s Ariel Collection, we see Plath embark on a journey to recovery in which, although she fails, she independently strives towards. The individualism in this emphasizes the polarity between the two writers but even within this, there is duality as, just like with Blanche, the voice in Plath’s poem Ariel strove towards recovery but landed in the wrong place.
In her journals, Plath mentions the death of her father, stating that she’d live “a jolly life anyhow, to spite his face.” This all works in conjunction with the journey undergone in ‘Ariel’, a poem that could be likened to Blanche’s entire journey to Elysian Fields. The voice in Plath’s poem sets out on a horse, like an arrow intending to rid itself of the past, i.e. her repressed memories of her father, just as Blanche sets out to Elysian Fields to start over and forget her past (her memories of Allan and his suicide) but she ends up in the wrong place. This undesired destination works for both, the voice in ‘Ariel’ and Williams’ character Blanche as she thought she’d end up better with support and stability from Stella who is, presumably, her only close living relative left. The vocaliser in Plath’s poem, too, thought that this would be a journey to allow her to move on from her past but instead she loses control of the horse (i.e. the situation in which she’s in, or perhaps the men around her due to the masculine imagery associated with stallion – the horse that Ted Hughes confirmed she rode) landing her in the wrong place. Both characters thus, in attempt to rid themselves of their suffering, lose control of their current situations and end up suffering regardless. The “red” that the vocaliser sees in ‘Ariel’ could relate to the shade of red one sees when closing their eyes after seeing light. This could signify many things, blood, danger but above all, hell. In relation to Streetcar, the package that Stanley throws to Stella at the start of the play shares this same color. This could indicate the beginning of both, the voice in Plath’s poem suffering and Blanche’s too, both further emphasized by the poetic undressing of ‘Ariel’ and Blanche’s character arc. An interesting observation to coincide with this unification of texts was John Gassner’s remark that within Streetcar, “poetic drama becomes psychological reality.”
In Plath’s poem, The Bee Meeting, she uses the bees to characterize her disorder. She comes face to face with it, realizing that it’s here and it’ll cause havoc. Present and intrusive, it stings her and she accepts that it is now a part of her. The speaker then, in the next bee-focused poem (The Arrival of the Bee Box) questions, “How can I let them out?” Blanche, too, was looking for help as to how she can rid herself of her disorder, but as established, it was not possible to help oneself. As with Blanche, the speaker in Plath’s poem then concludes that “The box is only temporary” (the box representing the entrapment accompanying the disorder). Blanche was although blindly ambitious, adamant that all would be okay once she was with Shep Huntleigh and had his monetary support. Plath, too, perceived the box/illness to only be temporary as her metaphorical journey in the poem Ariel was supposed to free her from this is what is holding her back. It’s arguable whether this represents strong female characters or obliviously sick protagonists who cannot see beyond the self-created limits of their imagination. The indistinctiveness of the actual disorder is seen later in the poem in Plath’s linguistic decision to use a pronoun over a noun, “I have to live with it overnight // And I can’t keep away from it. // There are no windows, so I can’t see what is // in there.” The disorder isn’t identified but the awareness of it and the acknowledgement that it will cause her to suffer is present.
In Stings, Plath describes both herself and “The man in white” to be “bare-handed”. In regards to Streetcar, this emphasises how Blanche but also Stanley (or perhaps even Mitch), who offers an ineffective solution, have nothing in their hands, no idea or solution as to how to solve the suffering. For Plath, this additional individual unable to help her may be Ted Hughes. We see in the poem Tulips, too, that Plath’s main reason for feeling conflicted with her surroundings was due to him and what he brought her, the same way Blanche reacts to Stanley; his actions cause her to feel out of place. His actions cause her to suffer further. ‘Stings’ emphasises that despite all this interference, neither the protagonist nor those surrounding her know how to rid the suffering. As the poem progresses, we hear lines like “my strangeness evaporate” raising the idea that her illness will just leave on its own. Although it appears that this was Plath suffering from her imagination as a disorder wouldn’t just leave without treatment, psychologists have argued that it was manic depression that Plath was suffering from. This meant that her depression would have a periodic occurrence that Plath would be familiar with, hence the line “It is almost over. // I am in control.” She also mentions that “The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” Spring refers to the birth of things, which could indicate the time at which her illness becomes symptomatic and gets worse. There are implications of the seasonality of Plath’s disorder across her poems; the bees tasting it first may just be them detecting it due to their enhanced animalistic sense. Bees live complex social lives, abiding by the English tradition of informing other bees about major events. The bees could therefore be warning Plath, informing her of the arrival of the depression aspect of her disorder to warn her of the suffering that is about to come.
In the poem ‘Cut’, Plath focuses on how the top of the narrator’s thumb is gone. This is significant as it represents that part of the body used (by magicians) for vanishing, producing or switching small objects. Her loss of this pollical digit may be a metaphorical representation of her inability to make her pain vanish or to even replace it with another feeling. This is seen with Blanche too, though through less visceral imagery. Blanche becomes more and more incapable of stopping her pain as when things escalate, her alcohol dependence isn’t enough to stop her from hallucinating the Varsouviana and the sound of Allan’s gunshot. The detached statement that follows the caesura in the first stanza emphasizes the simplicity of the narrator’s actions, drawing attention to how little she is concerned with the action, almost as if it’s an ordinary occurrence (which his illicit of deliberate harm to herself). In this way, it is clear that the two are suffering from reality as Blanche’s hallucinations are just as real as Plath’s depression. Psychologists, such as James C. Kaufman, who coined the term the Sylvia Plath effect thought that poets were more susceptible to mental illness and that Plath herself possessed characteristics of manic depression, having spent time institutionalized (for depression). Correspondingly, in one of Plath’s later poems, ‘The Bee Meeting’, the speaker says “I am the magician’s girl who does not flinch” emphasizing that despite the loss of a thumb, she remains the magician’s girl, the magician taking her to her supposed death. The vocal similitude detected later in the poem between “long white” and “light” indicates perhaps light therapy, a rare treatment for SAD and psychiatric disorders. However, considering that the line reads “that long white box in the grove” it’s safe to assume she’s referring to a coffin in a graveyard, thus sublimating her metaphorical death (or suicide, more accurately, as earlier in the poem it’s established that “there will be no killing”).
Considering that both Blanche’s character and the voice in Plath’s poems are surrounded by those that do not understand them, it can be argued that their imagination works as their salvation as opposed to acting as the cause of their suffering; their imagination may be the
Portrayal of Violence in Sylvia Plath’s and Ted Hughes’ Poetry
The theme of violence is commonly identified within both Plath’s and Hughes’ poetry; however, the way in which it is incorporated by the two very different poets contrasts one another, from the use of techniques, the different tones throughout – even down to the subjects and content of the poems. Hughes, as a poet, was considered more ‘popular’ at the time as he was at his peak, as his poetry was viewed as more traditional to the era, because he wrote ingenious poetry about average topics, whereas Plath’s revolutionary ‘confessional’ poetry was less widely read by the oppressed society of the mid-20th century. This is because her poetry was seen as complex, as she wrote about suppressed and sensitive topics such as childbirth, the immense difficulties and struggles of motherhood and her lifelong depression, which the society would have been shocked to read and perhaps made uncomfortable. This results from the conditioning of the society into classifying these topics as ‘taboo’ since childhood, meaning Plath’s poetry was not given nearly as much recognition as she is now, after her death, in our modern and contemporary society.
One poem by Plath in which I will be writing about – ‘Cut’ – explores violence in an almost self-destructive manner which, although is graphic in terms of the imagery created and language used, not as explicit as Hughes’ poetry in the way that he writes about violence in a blunt and inescapable way. The poem, overall, is about Plath in the domesticated setting of a kitchen, inferably making dinner alone, when she suddenly cuts her thumb with the knife she is using, but her follow-up response suggests psychological tensions running deeper than any ordinary one to a kitchen accident. It is arguable that the ‘cut’ she writes about refers not only to her physical one, but perhaps an emotional one that could foreshadow her future suicide.
Plath opens the poem by saying ‘what a thrill’ in description of her feeling towards this injury. It is inferred that she is indulging in self-harm here; and the rest of the poem supports this also, as there is no evidence suggesting that this was actually an injury, as she opens the poem not by stating the injury, but in fact the thrill that she has felt as a result of it. There is a parallel to this suggesting tone of self-harm in her novel ‘The Bell Jar’, which describes the character’s thoughts on self-harm in which the protagonist Esther calls her experience a ‘small, deep thrill’. She also briefly mentions the Klu Klux Klan in a simile comparing them to the medical gauze she uses to cover her cut, which is an American right wing organization which Plath heavily disapproved of. The image of their white uniforms being stained by her blood here is symbolic of the blood of their violent attacks on black people. The inclusion of the colour red prevailing over white here reinforces the theme of violence. White, as a colour, has positive connotations of purity, innocence and virginity whereas red can be interpreted as a negative representative for anger, danger and violence. The theme of violence against others and herself is clear here and also extends to many of her other poems.
However, Hughes incorporates the theme of violence in a much more explicit manner in comparison to his wife Plath. For example in his poem ‘Pike’; which describes the nature of the fish as well as his experience with it. In the first stanza, he describes Pike as being ‘Killers from the egg’. Firstly, his odd use of capitalizing the noun ‘Killer’ suggests an admiration toward the fish’s ability to do so without question or judgement, which explores the theme of violence in an extremely plain and obvious way, and creates a sense of immediate discomfort within the reader, almost giving the effect of victimizing the reader as the Pike’s prey. In addition, he describes their role of being a ‘Killer’ as being pre-determined ‘from the egg’. This implies that the Pike’s job isn’t a choice, but almost its inescapable fate. This simplistic statement is arguably almost like Hughes’ is justifying their taboo acts, as if he possibly relates to them, which is disturbing in its own manner.
He then begins stanza four with a sudden change in focus, and begins to describe his memory of owning three Pike’s in his youth; ‘Three we kept behind glass’. This separation by glass objectifies the Pike and reinforced human power over the Pikes, but could also suggest that the only way we can protect ourselves from the wrath of this creature is by putting it in a tank. He then writes; ‘-Suddenly there were two. Finally one. With a sag belly and a grin…’, which obviously suggests that the Pike have devoured each other in their tank as an act of cannibalism. The hyphen followed by ‘Suddenly’ creates a pause, emphasising the shock of the act and reinforces the unpredictable nature of the Pike and what it can do. The inclusion of full-stops also gives a ‘matter-of-fact’ tone to the poem and creates a statement out of the fact which suggests the undeniable truth of the violent nature of the Pike. The remaining Pike is also described as having a sag belly and ‘a grin’ after killing its peers which the reader can infer as being the absence of any remorse or guilt, creating a disturbing atmosphere.
In contrast, another poem by Plath; ‘Daddy’ also shows themes of violence, but again reflects her pattern of indirect and suggestive violence. The subject of the poem itself is violent – an attack on her dead father (when she was 9) and as a result of her lack of closure, she blames him for ‘leaving’ her when she was so young and therefore couldn’t grasp understanding of the event. She writes; ‘My tongue stuck in my jaw. It stuck in a barb wire snare’ which represents her feeling of inability to express herself around her father, however she uses extremely violent imagery to imply this with her tongue stuck in barbed wire, which has connotations of being a way of physical constriction through inflicting pain on a passersby. The oxymoronic sounds of ‘tongue stuck’ contrast against each other, the soft sound of ‘tongue’ against the harsh consonants in ‘stuck’ which symbolizes her inner conflicting feelings about her father.
She also compares her father to Hitler by describing him with a ‘neat mustache’ and even more references to the Nazis by saying ‘every German was you’ . This use of extreme metaphoric comparison puts emphasis on how negatively she views her father, by referring to him as the ultimate villain and therefore making herself the ultimate victim. A feeling of sympathy is evoked within the reader as it is inferred that she is calling for attention, which has obviously been previously absent in her life.
Hughes again explores violence explicitly in yet another poem of his, following his common theme of animals. However, ‘View of a Pig’ incorporates violence in a different way to his other poems about animals, with less of an admirative tone, but a negative and objectifying one. Overall, the poem is about Hughes looking upon a dead pig which is just lying there. In his opening line, Hughes describes the pig as simply lying ‘dead’. The immediate image of violence created is shocking to the reader in its starkness and brutality and emphasizes how the truth of its death is so inescapable and ‘in-your-face’. He also describes the dead pig as ‘it was like a stack of wheat’, and this simile immediately commodifies the pig, and puts it as less than a life and only as food – just something to be bought and sold.