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Essay on Sylvia Plath

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Sylvia Plath

By

Matthew Johnson

Mr. David Norris

English 243

3 March 2001

  

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 it.

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 nonetheless.  She 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.

The surviving 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 him.

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.

Plath’s poetry 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. 

Upon first 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.

The poem’s 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.

One more 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 figure.

 

Do you wear

A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,

A brace or a hook,

Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,


Stitches to show something’s missing?  No, no?  Then

How can we give you a thing?

 

Plath introduced 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:

How about this suit—

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.

                      .

                      .

                      .                  proof

Against fire and bombs through the roof.

Believe 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: 

“Stop crying.”

            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 despair.

            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:  murder-suicide.

            “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.

 

 

Child

 

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose names you meditate—
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Little

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.

 

Daddy

 

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.
Ach, du.

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.

 

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears a smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

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.

 

For a Fatherless Child

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.

Works Cited

Alexander, Paul.  Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath.  New York:  Penguin. 1991.

 

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: Harper, 1982.

 

Wagner, Linda, ed. Critical Essay on Sylvia Plath. Boston: Hall, 1984.