Twenty-Five Words of Less: Sylvia Plath’s Efforts to Curate an Identity
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.
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.
Ekmekçioğlu, Neslihan. “Sylvia Plath’s Mirrors Reflecting Various Guises of Self.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013.
Moses, Kate. “The Real Sylvia Plath.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013.
Oates, Joyce C. “The Death Throes of Romanticism: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath.” University of San Francisco, n.d. Web. 07 May 2013.
O’Reilly, Caitriona. “Sylvia Plath.” N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2013.
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.
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