It seems a shame
to analyze Sylvia Plath in terms of her relationships with men. She would not have wanted it this way. Men never did her much good, and one recalls her ironic use
of “just like a man” in The Bell Jar to describe the cruelest
and most idiotic acts. In a
sense, it seems a shame to analyze Plath biographically at all.
Her poetic vision may have been influenced by her experiences,
but she took great care to give these experiences more than a personal
weight in her poetry. Thus
the first job for a reader is to look beyond the biography to the
vision. The poems
considered here—“Daddy,” “The Applicant”, “To a Fatherless
Son,” “Child,” and “Edge”—will help us in this task. But before we can look beyond the biography we must consider
Sylvia Plath was
born October 27, 1932, in Boston, the first child of Otto and Aurelia
Plath. Her parents’
romantic relationship and eventual marriage sprung up from a prior
teacher-student relationship (he the teacher, she the student), and by
all accounts he became so used to the authority he commanded in class
that he began to wield it at home as well.
He was an authoritarian, with no real interest in the feelings of
others. Aurelia would
eventually write that “I realized. . .I would simply have to become
more submissive” (Alexander 23).
Sylvia and her brother were happy children
demonstrated youthful talent, writing her first poem as early as 1937.
At around the same
time, Otto displayed the first symptoms of the illness which would
eventually kill him. He
suffered from bouts of exhaustion and uncontrollable thirst, and he
occasionally became enraged without significant provocation.
He refused to go to a hospital until late 1940 because he thought
he had cancer, which was then incurable.
He found out that he in fact had diabetes and died shortly
thereafter (Alexander 32). When
she told of this event in The Bell Jar, Plath described her
father’s death as her final break with happiness.
Plaths moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts so that Aurelia could find a
job. Sylvia would stay in
Wellesley until she graduated high school, earning excellent grades,
dating many different boys, and generally trying to fit in.
She also published a number of pieces, both poetry and prose,
during this period. There
were a few indications of the problems to come, such as the time she
said she blamed her father for his death and called it “a type of
suicide” (Alexander 41). She
also exhibited a tendency with boys that foreshadowed her relationship
with Ted Hughes: Whenever
one of them fell in love with her or became infatuated—they all
did, according to her biographer (Alexander ?)—she would push him
away, seeing his behavior as a sign of weakness.
Sylvia chose Smith
rather than the nearby Wellesley College because she wanted to get away
from home and do some growing up. Here
a pattern begins to emerge: Sylvia
sees happiness always waiting around the next turn—in college, in New
York, in England, and finally in married life.
For some reason something goes wrong, and it drives her even
further downward. At Smith
she contemplated suicide, after New York she attempted it and failed,
and after Hughes left her she tried and succeeded.
Hughes is the important one though, and we will concentrate on
The sketch of
Sylvia’s prior relationships gives a hint of what she was looking for
in a man, but perhaps it is not explicit enough.
While at Smith, she wrote in her journal her fantasy of being
“raped in a huge lust just like a cave woman, fighting, screaming,
biting in a ferocious ecstasy of orgasm” (Qtd. in Alexander 103).
Of course, depression might have colored her thoughts, made them
more violent. Her first
encounter, love-at-first-sight, with Ted Hughes:
She quoted him one of his poems, like a fan to a rock star.
They had a drink. He kissed her, ripped off her scarf and earrings, and she bit
him on the cheek hard enough to draw blood (Alexander 179).
She was advised
not to marry him. One of
her mentors, the woman who had paid for Plath’s therapy after the
first suicide attempt, called Hughes “[a] second Dylan Thomas,”
implying that the perfectionist Plath would be unable to deal with his
inevitable failings (Alexander, 190).
Sylvia had a long tradition of not taking this woman’s advice,
which usually turned out to be right.
She married Ted Hughes in June of 1956.
Their desire to be
together was in many ways more compulsion than love—Plath described it
as being “as fundamental. . .as eating” (Alexander 215)—and the
inevitable first cracks appeared in May 1958, when Plath caught Hughes
flirting with a female Smith student—she was teaching at the time.
The encounter caused her to contemplate suicide yet again, and
she left Smith soon after to concentrate on writing.
After touring the
U.S. and attending a writer’s retreat, Plath and Hughes left for
England in late 1959. Sylvia
found a publisher there for her first book, and she gave birth to a baby
girl. They lived with W.S.
Merwin and his wife, then at a London flat, and finally in a house in
the Devon countryside. Plath
delivered a second child, a boy whom the father made a point of
ignoring. They passed their
time writing until early summer, when they received two visitors from
the city: A playwright and
his wife, then on her third husband.
The story is that
the woman seduced Hughes; however it went, it spelled disaster. When Plath found out she flew into a hysterical rage,
throwing him out of the house. About
this time she began to write the poems that would make up Ariel.
Hughes went to live in London, where he spent all their savings.
He came back to the house periodically, always with bad results;
one time he said he’d come hoping she had killed herself.
They tried to reconcile on a trip to Ireland, but to no avail.
A few months after moving into W.B. Yeats’ flat in London,
Plath stuck her head in the oven and turned on the gas.
She died on February 11, 1963.
is as dark as can be expected coming from an alienation so profound as
to end in death. She was
indeed “inhabited by a cry,” (Poems 192), and when she broke
down the barriers near the end she directed the cry at the entirety of
the life that she felt had failed her so.
If, as Camus theorized, “a succession of works can be but a
series of approximations of the same thought,” Plath’s one thought
is of “a scorn, a fear, of everything orderly and finished” (Wagner
104). Another discussion of
her major themes lists a disgust with man and love of nature and
inanimate objects (Wagner 111). This
is a manifestation of the previous theme, as are the poems considered
here. “Daddy” and
“The Applicant” deal with Plath’s feelings on men and marriage;
“To A Fatherless Son” and “Child” deal with her love for her
children; and “Edge,” her final poem, shows the synthesis.
reading, “Daddy” appears to be strictly biography, merely a more
direct version of “Full Fathom Five” and “The Colossus”.
The poem’s defining feature is the speaker’s massive Electra
complex, which Plath clearly suffered from The unifying
metaphor—father as barbaric Nazi “panzer-man”, daughter as
suffering Jew—is an obvious one and not worth belaboring, except to
note that all the Jews in Sylvia Plath’s poetry are women, all the
Nazis men. The poet claims
no relation to the speaker, but there is nothing to suggest in the poem
itself that the woman is addressing anyone other than her father.
Ironically, the only opposition to such a biographical reading
comes from the biography itself.
Sylvia Plath wrote
“Daddy” during the same fit of near-possession that produced most of
her best poems. A man did
cause this fit of inspiration, but that man was Ted Hughes.
If she began to again nurse a grudge toward her father—which
her biography merely suggests; there is no ‘proof’ but the poem
itself—she did so most likely to displace her anger toward Ted.
This seems shaky, but it seems equally shaky that all her poems
but this one should come from the same source.
directness causes further trouble, simply because Plath had never used
it and had little respect for it. “I
believe the poet should be able to control and manipulate experiences,
even the terrifying ones, like madness. . .” (Qtd. in Alexander 306).
The evidence of this sentiment is clear in her poetry; when she
addresses her father it is as a colossus or broken sea-god; when she
addresses Hughes it is as a gigolo, a rabbit-trap, and a rapist-jailer.
She calls him a father only in “To A Fatherless Son”, and
even then it is a vague reference.
It would not be out of the question for Sylvia Plath to subtly
twist her rage toward one male icon by transferring it to another.
biographical oddity must be dealt with:
Sylvia Plath had a tendency to see things as either one thing or
another. “I do not know
if it is trash or genius” (Qtd. in Wagner 73) is the most famous
example, but she displayed this mentality in all areas of her
life—including men. She felt contempt or simple pity for any man who would let
her dominate them, only to marry a man who repeatedly ran rough-shod
over her. Considering this,
and the reference to the “colossus” which is too perfect to be
accidental, it is clear that Plath was looking for another authoritarian
father-teacher. It is then fair to divide the men into her life into
“Daddy” and “not-Daddy.” Plath
means the same thing when she says “Daddy” that most man-haters mean
when they say “Man.” Her
comments about living in a shoe, “barely daring to breathe or Achoo”
(lines 2-5), could conceivably be directed toward any overbearing male
glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
brace or a hook,
breasts or a rubber crotch,
Stitches to show something’s missing?
No, no? Then
can we give you a thing?
this poem as a dramatic monologue by “a sort of exalting supersalesman”
(Poems, 293). The
implication in the early lines is clear; marriage is for the weak, a
determined attempt to pitch us a product we don’t need.
But marriage isn’t the only thing the speaker is selling:
about this suit—
and stiff, but not a bad fit.
fire and bombs through the roof.
me, they’ll bury you in it.
The suit in this quote represents several things.
Besides the obvious wedding tuxedo—which, last I checked, men
are not buried in—the suit carries the suggestion of life insurance,
which does nothing to insure life, and the man’s workclothes.
In Plath’s day it was not uncommon to work at the same job
until retirement, and it is still common to judge people by their
careers—which hat they wear, or in this case which suit.
Also, the declaration “not a bad fit” contradicts the prior
“a bit stiff.” Again,
we sense that the suit and everything it represents is a bad fit
rather than a good one, and the speaker is trying to sell us another
bill of goods.
The pitch continues on from here, and although we now
sense—have sensed for some time—that the speaker is offering the
customer nothing good, we have the feeling that he is becoming gradually
more confident in a successful sale.
The last line confirms this:
“Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.”
(line 40) Previously
the salesman had spoken this in the form of a question, but this time it
is a statement; the sale has been made.
In reality, though, the outcome has been determined for some
time, was determined all the way back in the second stanza.
These two words did it:
As simple as that. The
customer came into the shop believing that he was broken, that there was
something wrong with him.
In her own terms, “The Applicant” is one of Plath’s most
successful poems. Written
on the day she and Ted Hughes finalized their break-up, it moves into
the realm of the universal by suggesting that all the institutions of
our society are merely polite fictions, useless crap foisted upon us by
a society that does not truly have our best interests at heart.
While one may not agree with the statement she makes, it is
impossible to deny that she makes that statement artfully.
The tone of Plath’s husband poems and her children poems could
scarcely be more different—except for one major similarity, which will
be discussed later. Hughes,
disguised as a gigolo or a jailer or a rabbit-trap, receives the full
measure of his wife’s hatred. Their
children, on the other hand, inspire an affection so touching that it is
difficult to credit the source. Yet
despite the fact that the child in “Child” is obviously adored by
its mother, the poem is written in tercets.
Plath as a poet was very conscious of structure.
Why would she use this particular structure?
The answer lies in the poem’s shifting focus.
Although the action is rather static, simply a mother and a child
staring into each other’s eyes, the poem moves within a space of
twelve lines from the mother regarding the child to the child regarding
the mother. With the focus
shifts the tone. While the
mother sees the child’s eye as “clear” and “absolutely
beautiful” (line 1), she reserves no such praise for herself.
She is hand-wringing and ineffectual (10), certainly no star
(12); no guiding light, no shining example.
The mother’s self-loathing creates the imbalance that explains
the poem’s structure. She has no confidence in her ability to rear the child in the
manner it deserves.
In “Child” the mother calls the child’s eye clear and
equates that clarity with absolute beauty.
“For a Fatherless Son,” written earlier than “Child,”
expands on this theme. Talking
to a child to young to understand the fact that its father has left, the
poem’s speaker tells him he will soon be aware of the loss, and
categorizes that loss as “a death tree” (line 3).
“But for now you are dumb./And I love your stupidity” (6).
The child’s lack of awareness constitutes his beauty.
What’s more, the speaker characterizes the child’s smiles as
“found money” (20). The
connotations of those words are important; one never expects to find
money, but it is a happy accident when it happens.
The whole succession of her child’s smiles are an improbable
event to the speaker, and she knows that one day
soon they will cease.
Now we come to the one important similarity in tone between the
husband poems and the child poems:
an utter lack of optimism. Be
it “Nick and the Candlestick” or “Lady Lazarus,” Plath displays
a clear sense that things are bad and getting worse.
She sees her adult counterparts as incurable hypocrites and
oppressors, and she sees the only beauty she knows—the beauty of
childhood—going up in flames before her eyes.
Her final poem, “Edge,” shows us the end result of this
Had “Edge” told
of only a mother’s death, it would have been nothing spectacular.
Instead the mother kills her children as well—the biographer
mistakenly assumes there are two (Alexander,
and this act brings the mother “a smile of accomplishment”
(line 3). The children
given to her as roses by Dame Kindness (Poems 270) have been
“folded. . .back into her body as petals of a rose” (12).
None observe this scene but the moon, here as elsewhere
representing the eternal female, and she regards this kind of death as a
natural thing: “The moon has nothing to be sad about,/Staring out from her
hood of bone./She is used to this sort of thing” (17). But what sort of thing?
Taken in context of the other poems, its meaning is clear.
Suicide is a natural reaction to a world in which characters like
Daddy and the supersalesman can roam free, a world in which the beauty
of children is bound to be lost. The woman preserves their perfection—and finds her own
(1)—the only way she feels she can:
“Edge” illustrates perfectly the danger of taking Sylvia
Plath’s poetry as a substitute for her biography.
One could easily assume that the children in the poem are her own
children and thus that she meant to take her children with her when she
died. In reality, she took precautions to keep the gas from leaving
the kitchen where she died. This
is only the final and most extreme case, but it happens all too often.
While a knowledge of her life story may aid in reading her
poetry—it certainly helps one see the manic tone of almost all the Ariel
poems—it can also mislead the reader into chasing shadows.
Sylvia Plath did not intend her poetry
to be The Bell Jar in verse.
To read it that way would be to miss the point.
Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new
Whose names you meditate—
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical
Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one big toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Naunset.
I used to pray to recover you.
In the German language, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
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.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—
No God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in you chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heard in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I even thought the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone is off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.
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.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.
The woman is perfected.
Body wears a smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity
Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little
Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
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.
You will be aware of an absence, presently,
Growing beside you, like a tree,
A death tree, color gone, an Australian gum tree—
Balding, gelded by lightning—an illusion,
And a sky like a pig’s backside, an utter lack of attention.
But right now you are dumb.
And I love your stupidity,
The blind mirror of it. I look in
And find no face but my own, and you think that’s funny.
It is good for me
To have you grab my nose, a ladder rung.
One day you may touch what’s wrong
The small skulls, the smashed blue hills, the godawful hush.
Till then your smiles are found money.
Alexander, Paul. Rough
Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Penguin.
Camus, Albert. The
Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. (Justin O’Brien, Trans.). New York: Vintage, 1991.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York:
Harper, 1971. The Collected Poems. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York:
Wagner, Linda, ed. Critical Essay on Sylvia Plath.
Boston: Hall, 1984.