Intersections of Domesticity and Art: Rejection of Feminine Double in Plath’s Work
With the twentieth century now receded, students and scholars will return time and again to contributors of this century’s literary canon. In the realm of poetry, there are several candidates to consider, but one forceful contender for the list of important American poets in this age is certainly Sylvia Plath. Writing in the post World War II era of the 1950s and 60s, Plath’s often haunting, macabre and grim works, which characteristically featured images such as the moon, blood, hospitals, fetuses, and skulls, contrast the universal picture of the optimism of her era. Plath’s work coincides with the era of the baby boom generation, and Plath distinctively seems to be the stand-alone reluctant bride and mother, who instead proved to have an unwavering commitment to writing and an ambivalent commitment to domesticity. What’s more, she wrote before women traditionally had jobs, and was the first to address the conflict between the domestic and professional balance. “Plath frequently explores what it means to be a woman in terms of the traditional conflict between family and career. Plath’s life and writing are filled with anxiety and despair over her refusal to choose and instead try to have…both” (Dobbs, 11).
The young woman Sylvia Plath “experienced the social conventions of the fifties as a murderously repressive force…. Plath saw herself entering a society in which marriage and childbearing were irreconcilable with a career” (McNeil 476). Nowhere else but in the lines of her poetry are these two selves at odds. Plath’s sense of conflict between literary vocation and conventional sex role makes womanliness a central issue for her poetry. Much postwar American poetry explicitly addresses problems of the self. Plath’s poetic voice, however, lures the reader back to a hidden self while at the same time addressing itself outwards. This doubling is the source of Plath’s power. Known for her contributions to and perhaps invention of the confessional poem, Plath brings “private humiliated, sufferings, and psychological problems into the poems…usually developed in the first person and intended without question to point to the author herself” (McNeil 485). Her poems “depict a subjectivity instantly recognizable to the female–and feminist–consciousness which constitutes much contemporary sensibility; indeed, Plath is one of the creators of that sensibility (McNeil, 469). The following close readings and research will work to uncover this subjectivity and sensibility that marks Plath as one of the most important female poets of the twentieth century. In the exploration of two themes that Plath develops from their conventional meanings, this paper will display Plath’s voice as a movement beyond the pages upon which they are written to the installation of the universal female voice. Plath’s ironic and unconventional uses of the moon in her poems are symbols of female passivity, subjugation, negation. Moreover, the use of the mirror in her poetry represents Plath’s own conflicted self-identity caused by the social pressure to reconcile the obligations of her professional artistic and personal domestic life
I. Of Moons
Plath was fascinated by the classical concept of the moon as a feminine metaphor, yet in her poetry this metaphor works oppositely. Plath’s poem “Moonrise,” uses ominous imagery and allusions to the death of Christ in relation to pregnancy: “Berries redden. A body of whiteness/Rots, and smells of rot under its headstone/Though the body walk out in clean linen./…Death whitens in the egg and out of it” (13-15, 18). It is apparent here that to Plath, childbirth is a form of death upon the mother, or of a loss of herself. The poem concludes with an address to Lucina, the goddess of childbirth, who Plath transforms into a woman in the moon: “Lucina, bony mother, laboring/Among the socketed/white stars, your face/Of candor pares white flesh to the white bone” (24-26). The ironic imagery of Lucina, the moon, representing the negation of pregnancy instead of the menstrual cycle so closely associated with life and nurturing reveals Plath’s controversial and reformist thoughts on childbirth.
If the moon is mother, the symbol evolves in Plath’s poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” to Plath’s vision of the mother as someone who rejects and isolates her. Personified, the moon is “white as a knuckle and terribly upset” (9). Moonlight becomes a deathly “mother,” her mother. In the moon, Plath sees chilliness and distance; not the romantic, nurturing symbol it should be, and she finds the moon is without tenderness, as a mother should be. Instead, the moon seems to be angry with and rejects her. “The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary./Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls./How I would like to believe in tenderness —-” (17-19). The mother does not nurture her; instead she unleashes gothic pests, bats and owls, which are cold and uncomforting. The poem’s conclusion, “The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild” (27) shows that the mother is ignorant of her daughter’s presence and independent from her child.
Additional irony in Plath’s use of the moon as symbol is prevalent in her poem “The Rival”: “If the moon smiled, she would resemble you./You leave the same impression/Of something beautiful, but annihilating./Both of you are great light borrowers./Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected… (1-5). Here, Plath extends the metaphor of a rivalry with her husband with her relationship to the mother, as someone who will destroy her and takes away her light, her life. The moon is now a symbol of a threat to Plath and her work. No longer the source of support the mother and husband should be, Plath sees the moon, the woman, as annihilating to her life’s work. She finds the threat of women’s social and domestic obligations closing in on her. “The moon, too, abuses her subjects,/But in the daytime she is ridiculous” (11-12). The moon is” White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide,” (15) or in other words it is deadly to her.
If the moon in her poetry has been a source of indifference and abandonment, in Plath’s final poem before her death, “Edge,” it is her quietus. Plath comments that woman is only perfected and accomplished by death, and she concludes coldly:” The moon has nothing to be sad about,/Staring from her hood of bone./She is used to this sort of thing./Her blacks crackle and drag” (19-22). Plath imagines the moon surveying the grisly scene of the dead bodies of mother and children with heartlessness and indifference: “She is used to this sort of thing.” Furthermore, the poem concludes with the hint that the moon bears some responsibility for the deaths. The moon’s “blacks crackle and drag.” The dragging of the blacks could stand for curtains, which black out the light, and symbolize the end of life the moon bestows over and over. “Crackle,” however, suggests interference and static into the atmosphere that troubles individuals. Indeed, human’s relations to the moon are derived from our vocabulary; the word lunacy from the Latin root “lun-” suggests the moon is maddening. As it were, the moon has a direct effect on the life cycle of the woman: her menstrual cycle is twenty-eight days, relying on the moon. Therefore it is implied that the moon, may have influenced the horrendous events that she then observes.
If lunar imagery refers to woman as fertile whole waxing and waning in her monthly cycle, Plath’s imagery, as a contrast, came to mean inconsistency, sterility, and death. From the symbol of the distant mother moon to the murderess, Plath’s sees motherhood as something that threatens, even kills, her. These poems reveal degrees of mental stress over the maternal condition and pregnancy. Plath herself bore two children, yet it is apparent that to Plath, motherhood makes you into the other, monstrous. The idea of the split self, or the self without an identity, was further developed in Plath’s use of mirror imagery in her works.
II. Of Mirrors
“For many women writers, the search in the mirror is ultimately a search for the self, often for the self as an artist” (Freedman 152). Plath’s notable use of mirrors in her poetry reveals her anxiety and obsession with claiming an identity, both as a writer, and the reclaiming of her identity after childbirth. Moving well beyond vanity, femininity, and the male gaze, it seems that Plath’s primary concern with reflection was the reflection of herself and who she was, as well as her significance not merely as a woman, but as a human being. Plath was married to prominent poet Ted Hughes until her death, and she sought to identify herself outside of being “the poet’s wife.” “To look into the glass is to look for oneself inside or as reflected on the surface of the mirror and to seek or discover oneself in the person (or non-person) of the mirror” (Freedman 152). Plath’s use of the mirror in her poetry represents her own conflicted self-identity caused by the social pressure all women face when balancing home life and professional careers.
It is relevant to address the poem, “Mirror,” by Plath then, because it so largely and wholly encompasses the search for the feminine self in the mirror or lake. The “She” in the poem seeks in the reflecting lake the flattering distortion of herself, the woman as the ideal “young girl” (Plath, 17) forever and who “turns to those liars, the candles or the moon” (12) for the confirmation of the “man-pleasing myth of perpetual youth, docility and sexual allure” (Freedman, 152). The image that finally surfaces in the lake, or the mirror, is the old woman, or “terrible fish” (18) something monstrous that results on Plath’s compromising or acceptance of old age replacing beauty. The replacement of young woman by old woman can go further to explore Plath’s concern with bearing children, something expected and considered the normative but which may also compromise beauty and youth. The choice for Plath, and for all women, is between the effacement of the self to bear children and be essentially replaced in body and identity. After bearing children the woman risks her own autonomous identity. To address the symbol further, Plath equates this, in the poem, to looking in the mirror and no longer seeing her own reflection but seeing the terrible fish, bloated and no longer identifiable.
Whereas “Mirror” is a commentary on compromising youth and beauty after childbirth, “Three Women” expands to Plath’s anxieties over compromising her professional identity after having children. The poem is broken into three different voices of women who give birth in a hospital. The Third Voice begins by referring to herself as a reflection: “I remember the minute when I knew for sure./The willows were chilling,/The face in the pool was beautiful, but not mine–/It had a consequential look, like everything else,/And all I could see was dangers: doves and words” (43-47). The Third Voice can be that of Sylvia, dreading to meet its double in water or mirrors. She gives birth to a daughter she is unready to bear, leaving her behind in the hospital for adoption and re-establishes herself in her old life, which is college life, intellectual life. “I should have murdered this, that murders me” (126). For the Third Voice, the delivery room is “a place of shrieks” where the lights are “flat red moons…dull with blood.” Once born, the tiny and malicious girl claims her mother with “hooks”; her little crying face is “carved in wood”; her cries scratch at sleep “like arrows.” This is the diction of rejection, a rejection of motherhood and of embracing of intellectual stimulation.
By contrast, the Second Voice belongs to a woman who miscarries and in turn regains her identity. After miscarrying, the Second Voice exclaims, “The mirror gives back a woman without deformity./The nurses give back my clothes, and an identity” (238-40). Later, “I am not hopeless./I am beautiful as a statistic. Here is my lipstick./I draw on the old mouth./The red mouth I put by with my identity” (243-46). And finally, “I can go to work today./I can love my husband, who will understand./Who will love me through the blur of my deformity/As if I had lost an eye, a leg, a tongue” (248-51). These two women are freed from motherhood, either by abandonment in the case of the Third Voice or by accident in the case of the Second Voice. The reflection of the self in the Third Voice is one of dread, because the reflection will no longer resemble the mother if the child has been born. Alternately, the reflection of the Second Voice is one of gainful relief of having “dodged a bullet” so to speak and having not been “deformed,” of being “worthy” of a husband’s love and of, most importantly, being able to return to her work where she is valued.
“The mirror imagery [Plath] uses in her poetry appears to be a dangerously shifting area of uncertainty and intensive tension. The reflecting surfaces which are used in her poetry become transparent and reveal a threatening world behind them” (Ekmekcioglu, 100). If Plath’s anxieties over the loss of identity were merely a thought, in her poem, “Tale of a Tub,” the mood shifts to find reconciliation. The poem describes the uncanny sensation of looking in a mirror and seeing a stranger: “The stranger in the lavatory mirror/Puts on a public grin, repeats our name/But scrupulously reflects the usual terror” (5-9). In this work, Plath is the object in the mirror signifying death, grinning and calling our name. In the conclusion of the poem, only death gives her an identity or “makes us real” because the corpse is no longer part of the world of reflected images. Plath’s comments that woman is only perfected and accomplished by death echoes her poem “The Edge.” Her idea of finding an identity after her life has ended may have been a commentary on the life she had with her husband and children. Feeling trapped in her domesticity, she may have felt that, as a form of poetic justice, ending her life will have given her the final freedom.
Like “Edge,” which addresses the final symbol of the moon as a quietus, “Contusion” was one of Plath’s last poems, where the self is not distinguishable from the rest of the world, she is overpowered by life; everything is wound: “Color floods to the spot, dull purple./The rest of the body is all washed out,/The color of pearl” (1-3). The body is “washed out,” void of color, implying the absence of livelihood. The physically drained body is a physical manifestation and representative of Plath’s destroyed sense of life and being.
Additionally, the different images used in the poem have comparative difference in sizes which show how Plath relates herself to her surroundings. In the second stanza: “The sea sucks obsessively (4). The sea is massive and she is devoured by it. In the third stanza: “The size of a fly/The doom mark/Crawls down the wall” (7-9). The fly is but a mere “mark” on the vast wall, it is apparent that the tone is one of feeling overwhelmed, alone and helpless, given the overpowering sizes of the other objects she is subjected to. When external forces like the sea “suck” the life “obsessively” out of her, this implies the overpowering force that draws the subject’s life away, leaving her weak and powerless. The tone then moves to that of emptiness. As the fly is described as a “doom mark” which “crawls down the wall,” there is a sense of detachment and disassociation as an observer to this event. Notably, when “the heart shuts” (10) and puts an end to the life in her, “the sea slides back” (11) or stops devouring her and leaves her alone. She is free. “Contusion” ends: “The mirrors are sheeted,” not replaced by a double or needing to search for identity. This death of the physical being is a loss to the physical world, yet through death she gains the freedom of no longer being a slave to the mirror.
That identity can never be found through the pressures of society, that the world and its expectations of women are overwhelming, are all reflected by Plath’s withstanding use of mirror images. Plath addressed the compromising of self through childbirth and found a resolution in death. The dead woman wearing “a smile of accomplishment” (3) her poem the “Edge” portrays, suggests that a dead woman is finally a woman the critical world might approve of, “now that her independent and sometimes vengeful character has been tamed. Dead, that headstrong woman is no threat” (Wagner-Martin 239). Plath’s suicide at age thirty may have been her sacrifice. Sadly finding no place in a society that would never see her as an individual, Plath may have felt the choice to end her life was the only choice she had and she had left.
“It can never be known whether Plath chose (consciously or unconsciously) paths that would lead her deeper and deeper into a domestic labyrinth because she needed those subjects and those experiences and the emotions they stimulated in order to create her work. In the final weeks of her life, separated from her husband, writing the final stunning poems, she felt poetically released, ‘as if domesticity had choked me’” (Dobbs 25). Sylvia Plath’s place as a great American poet is protected by her work, which explores the intersections of domesticity and art, and digs deep into themes of family relationships and female roles in society. One of the reasons her poetry has endured is because it is an inherent time capsule: it speaks of the female condition, well before the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Even with the strides these decades made, Plath’s work is still a relevant study on the struggle women sadly still face today. Our attitudes towards her allow us to reassess our own assumptions about men and women and hold up a mirror to our own personal experiences towards gender roles. On a cerebral level, this gives us a better way to decode the society in which we live. On a more active level, this also allows us to notice the flaws of gender roles and how unfair and damaging this mindset might be. Again and again, even as the times change, even as cultures and societies evolve, Plath’s life and experiences can never be altered. Her work encapsulates the female condition in a way that no other work before it ever did. If any work before her made stride toward enlightening us on the struggle women faced in society, they were merely the flicker of candlelight. Sylvia Plath lit the torch.
Dobbs, Jeannine. Viciousness in the Kitchen: Sylvia Plath’s Domestic Poetry. Modern Language Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1977, p. 11-25. Print.
Ekmekcioglu, Neslihan. Sylvia Plath’s Mirrors Reflecting Various Guises of Self. Plath Profiles, Indiana University Northwest, Vol. 1, 1998, p. 92-100. . Web.
Freedman, William. The Monster in Plath’s Mirror. Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 108, No. 5, 1993, p. 152-69. Print.
McNeil, Helen. Sylvia Plath. Voices & Visions: The Poet in America. Ed. Helen Vendler. New York: Random House. 1987. Print.
Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper Perennial. 1981. Print.
Wagner-Martin, Linda W. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1987. Print.
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 […]
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 […]
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, […]
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 […]
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, […]
Any true representation of horror, the sickening realization of the hideous or unbelievably ghastly, seems something of an impossibility. How can one speak the unspeakable? How can unimaginable terror and […]
In her poem “Daddy”, Sylvia Plath speaks to her deceased father, explaining to him how his death caused her pain throughout her life and why she needs to “Kill” him. […]
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath hounds Esther Greenwood who spends the summer of 1953, “the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs” away from hometown Massachusetts, sent off to intern in […]
Sylvia Plath’s “Mirror” explores the impact of time on individuals, specifically within the realities of aging and losing beauty; here, Plath speaks from an implied autobiographical perspective. As readers, we […]
With the twentieth century now receded, students and scholars will return time and again to contributors of this century’s literary canon. In the realm of poetry, there are several candidates […]