Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
Writers and artists in breaking barriers develop new creative forms that challenge accepted perceptions and by doing so communicate their ideas and emotions. The divided opinions that surround fraught relationships is what paradoxically connects both British poets, Ted Hughes, with American poet Sylvia Plath. Sylvia Plath’s collected poems in Aerial offers a perspective where she reveals how her background and societal attitudes explore her transcendence from the patriarchy, motherhood, and her falling victim to the people around her. In contrast, Ted Hughes’ series of poems in Birthday Letters addresses Sylvia Plath’s perspective through a conversation and is underpinned by a sense of conflict as he implicitly attacks her perspective. He supposedly plays down his own flaws and instead endeavors to reveal the inner demons that made Plath most responsible for the breakdown of their relationship. Together, these competing representations explore a range of perspectives and by doing so reveal ideas and emotions that overarch both writers.
Female exploitation and resistance of patriarchy is a salient topic in Plath’s poetry as she aims to express her anger towards the perceived loss of power in a male-dominated society but also empowers women to be resistant through her own transcendence. This is explored in her poem ‘Lady Lazarus’ where she identifies herself with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, ‘my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade’. Plath’s historical allusion to the Holocaust where Jews were burned, and their bodies used to make lampshades conveys how Jews were victimized and exploited by the Nazi and so similarly she sees herself as a victim of the patriarchal system. Women’s loss of power in a male-dominated world is also illustrated once again through the comparison to Jewish victims as her body is exploited and fragmented into parts for the male gaze. Plath suggests that she has been reduced to be a commodity, a sexual object by ‘the peanut-crunching crowd’. However, a glimpse of her resistance and transcendence is conveyed as she asserts her sense of self in a performance in which she declares ‘I am the same, identical women’ to highlight that she won’t be trapped or affected by the male norms or the way they perceive her. The poem also has a strong connection to her suicide attempts which she uses to draw attention to women’s exploitation and abuse in a patriarchal society. Plath uses suicide as a form of protest and revolt in which she resurrects to fight her enemy as she states ‘Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware, out of the ash I rise with red hair and I eat men like air’. Here she is comparing herself to a phoenix that rises from the ashes as she herself rises from the dead to take revenge of those men who have subjugated her. These threats can be considered as a form of ‘public declared resistance’ in which Plath asserts her new powerful self. Thus, by exploring the humiliation and torment suffered due to a male-dominated society, Plath communicates the idea of women’s perceived loss of power but also highlights how she moves from being confined by the chains of patriarchy to a sense of liberation and transcendence.
In conjunction with the loss of power in a male-dominated society, Hughes and Plath through the representations of their fraught relationship compel the audience to determine who was the victim of their conflict. The victimization of Hughes is a repeated feature of all his poems which is catalyzed by his naivety and uncertainty. This is highlighted through Hughes’ ‘Fulbright Scholars,’ the opening to his anthology which is reflective of his struggles to recognize the demon that was hidden behind the facade of Plath’s beauty. His post-modern form of poetry demonstrates his naivety which he acknowledges through the fallibility of his memory; ‘Where was it, in the strand?’, ‘Were you among them?”, ‘Was it then I bought a peach?’. The accumulation of rhetorical questions establishes the dubious nature of the poem revealing how his inability to recollect memories reflects his nativity as he falls victim to Plath’s sinister undertones. His uncertainty further takes over in the repeated use of the modal, ‘maybe’, contrasted with the detail of the references to Plath’s appearance, ‘long hair, loose waves… your Veronica lake Bang’.
Here Hughes’s suggestion of attraction and moment of love is quickly dispelled by the negative phrase, ‘Not what it hid’, which immediately suggests the Plath, ‘hid’ underneath a layer of facades, suggesting something sinister. Hughes’s nativity is further reiterated when he states; ‘It would appear blonde’. Here, the nuance of ‘appear’ conveys how he was, ‘dumbfounded afresh’ in trusting Plath’s pretense thus suggesting that his nativity resulted in him falling victim to Plath’s dark and sinister undertones. Contrary to Hughes, Plath in her poem ‘Daddy’ dichotomizes their perspectives and by doing so reveals herself as the victim where Hughes and Otto Plath were the perpetrators. To bring out the theme of victimization, Plath makes use of the image of a ‘black shoe’ in paralleling her life to a foot ensnared inside a shoe – herself being the victim and her father and husband being the shoe. Like in ‘Lady Lazarus’, this refers to the loss of power in a male-dominated society as her father symbolizes patriarchy and herself the victim of patriarchy. Plath also draws physical parallels between her father and Hitler through images of ‘your neat mustache And your Aryan eye, bright blue’. These strong images show how Plath begrudged her father and delivers the imprisonment she felt from being controlled by the memories of her father. She further utilizes images of Nazism and Jewish people; ‘chuffing me off like a Jew…I began to talk like a Jew’. By connecting her life to that of a Jewish person, Plath reveals how she felt oppressed and victimized, ultimately highlighting her perspective on victimization.
Plath’s search for identity shines a light on the idea of motherhood which plays a pivotal role in her pursuit to find the meaning of her life. Plath’s Nick and the Candlestick captures her inner conflict as she attempts to come to terms with facing a seemingly cruel world while in search of her identity. The extended metaphor of a ‘miner’ with a ‘light that burns blue’ establishes the idea of motherhood and pregnancy as she compares her life to a miner searching for precious sediments. The dark environment in which she is lost is conveyed through the melancholic description of her house filled with ‘black bat air’ and ‘cold homicides’. The image of bats and murders evoke the sense of an environment haunted by unpleasant memories which juxtaposes the motif of purity and warmth of a child. Plath then eases into images of an embryo to convey her child as a ‘Holy Joe’. The biblical allusion to a pious individual highlights how the mother-child bond has become her religion and salvation bringing meaning into her life. The tonal change in stanza 7 from cold darkness to a glimpse of happiness further signifies the influence of Plath’s motherhood on her identity as she associates an ’embryo’ with love and ‘yellow heartens’. The significance of mother-hood on Plath’s identity is further explored in Hughes poem ‘Red’ through the nuance associated with color. Hughes utilizes the color blue as he cites ‘ Blue was better for you, Blue was wings’ to illustrate an image of free-flying birds thus highlighting that motherhood was an incentive for Plath’s freedom. The alliteration of “crucible caresses’ relates to how the early years of motherhood were a time of serendipity as Hughes highlights that ‘Blue was your kindly spirit… a guardian’. Thus, by exploring the connected emotions between a mother and child, both poets effectively communicate the influence that motherhood has had on Plath’s life.
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