Sylvia Plath: The Imperfect Perfectionist
Sylvia Plath’s poetry is an expression of “a personal and despairing grief”. She had the gift of recreating her own past experiences in a complex form, so as to remove them from her present, that it started to seem like an obsession. Within this obsession her poems show a regular pattern of self-centeredness. It was this characteristic that lead her far from any “self-discovery” and “self-definition”, and drove her to her death, “an art” as she words it. Plath readily exploits her emotions through the personified language to build a sinister and super-natural atmosphere, in attempt of creating a “valiantly unremitting campaign against the black hole of depression and suicide”. However, her attempts went to waste when she committed suicide in the February of 1963.
Plath’s poetry enables the reader to unravel and look deep into her victimised mind. It was for this talent that she had received much praise, but much more criticism. Plath’s poetry mirrors the life of Plath, and to make sense of her poetry it is important to try and have an understanding of Plath, to see things through her perspective. This is what most critics’ lack, and so I have taken a step to try and understand her. It is for this reason I will take into consideration the perspective of psychoanalysts to aid me in my understanding of her, in particular the theories of Sigmund Freud, and the view of Marxists, to give me varied opinions.
There are many themes common in her poems, each of which have equal importance, but I have chosen to analyse the themes of colour, family and relationships, and the self-inflicted pains she puts upon herself.
Relationships were always a weak point in Plath’s life. She has always felt disappointed by the relationships she had with others, especially that between her mother, father and husband. Her poems, which are partly stimulated by them, particularly “Daddy”, “Medusa” and “Tulips”, are a powerful source of “murderous art”, where she was allowed to expose her bitterness towards them. She uses reoccurring imagery associated with the three protagonists in her life, and poetry in attempt of breaking free from the chains of a “tortured mind of the heroine”.
The relationship between Plath and her mother was very ineffectual, or that is how she exemplifies it through the use of her poetry. “Medusa”, which is said to be based on her mother is like a fantasy tale gone wrong. Plath creates a grotesque fictional jellyfish like character personified by the character of her mother. There is not even a little love being expressed in this poem, unlike ‘Daddy’.
“Who do you think you are?…A communion wafer? Blubbery Mary?
This is a hate poem, as the lines show no affection expressing hatred to such a level that the language used is so blunt and rude that it is hard to distinguish any relation between them. They also represent proof of the suppressed anger, which has brought Plath down in her life. The poem is made of many flashbulb memories, which are created at a time of high emotion. Memories of this kind are thought to be very accurate and so we cannot challenge Plath’s recollection of these events to prove that they are false, however, throughout her poems, Plath shows a habit of inflicting pain upon herself in exaggeration of the cause and affect. She uses the same technique of reminiscing about the past, whilst exploiting the pain and suffering she underwent in “Daddy”.
Another psychodynamic approach originates from explanations of attachment. Freud put forward an account, known as ‘cupboard love’, based on the child’s attachment with its mother. He states that the reason the child is attached with its mother is because they know that their mother will provide them with their needs without delay. These high expectations from a mother may also be the reason for Plath’s anger towards her mother. Plath may have blamed her mother for the death of her father, and built hatred for her for the fact that she was unable to bring her, her dad back. Stan Smith, a Marxist has similar views. He believes “a writer is a creature of circumstance”, and Plath was a creature of emotional torment. Her father’s death drove her to insanity, making her more and more obsessed with her father’s death.
Plath always recalled her dad through the imagery of the foot. She felt that the foot was to be blamed for the death of her father and used it as an excuse to build revulsion against him.
“In which I have lived like a foot”…”The boot in the face”
Daddy is a good example of her disillusions about her father. These quotes taken from “Daddy” show her misrepresentations of her father as a brutal and obsessive man, however it is learnt from many sources that his character was often described as “authoritarian” and maintained a relationship with his children with very little involvement, and so her distraught behaviour can be excused when she conveys her immense abhorrence. The line “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two” shows that she has destroyed the image of her father, and the ability to see good in anyone. Many Marxists believe this is “entirely unfair” and that she cannot blame the mistakes of one person to generalise everyone else. This is how she creates a negative image of everyone around her, including her family, by reflecting her sweeping statement upon the world.
The way in which she conveys a very pessimistic illustration of her father repeatedly shows that she is fixated on the torture she thinks her father has inflicted upon her. This defence mechanism she uses in “Daddy” and “Medusa” is explained in the ‘personality theory’, which states that any experiences through childhood, which are of excessive, pain or pleasure become fixated in the mind. Later on in life it leads to repression (when the mind tries to block out any of those threatening thoughts). I also agree with this psychological explanation, however, some of this diagnosis does not seem to be the case for Plath. Instead of eradicating these thoughts from her mind, she keeps reminding herself of them. Plath’s imagery is so constant throughout her poems that it seems she is trying to remove these thoughts and incidents from her mind and life by writing them down, but is unable to, which explains the repetition in her poems. Unlike psychoanalysts, many Marxists have a very different view, that we cannot depend on Plath’s interpretation of her parents, as Stan Smith words it, “a product of her own time and place”. I too agree with their opinion. In her poems, Sylvia deeply focuses on their faults but does not pay any attention to her own. A popular Marxist theory is that Plath and her problems with her parents is part of a much bigger problem. Compared with other issues her trouble is insignificant, and so for her to exaggerate these issues is unfair.
‘Daddy’ is somewhat Plath’s finale, to eliminate her dad from her mind and life. It seems to me that whilst recollecting memories of her father, Plath was unable to recall enough and was forced to elaborate from the small amount she has. Gradually the recollections became very heavily buried under the elaborations, and the poem becomes a stranger to her, or so that is how it seems to the reader. However, for Plath, the more disguised her poetry, the more personal her poems become. And this is why it is necessary to try and understand her, so you can dig beneath the top layer to reveal her inside. She very cleverly hides her affection for her father in the same way. It is crucial to see beneath the cruel and callous layer to see that under all of this so-called hate for her dad, Plath still has some love for him, yet all this suppressed anger and, torture, created by the imagery, can be justified.
To be able to give an explanation for anger, whilst investigating her real feeling towards her father, it is necessary to examine the imagery she uses.
“Any more, black shoe. In which I have lived like a foot”
The foot and shoe metaphors have a lot of importance in Plath’s work, as she is able to relate to them very easily to help her present her feelings. As this quote shows, the boot is “a symbol of her, suffocated and stuck”, and also of the fear of which she had to live with whilst her father was alive. His dominant status in the house oppressed Plath, and even whilst he was alive he wasn’t able to give her the love that a young child needed. They also represent the initial discovery of the diabetes, that later killed him, because he was reluctant to have his leg amputated. By using these images Al Alvarez believes that “in ‘Daddy’ she goes right down to the deep spring of her sickness and describes it purely”. I find this quite absurd that Alvarez has judged Plath’s work as an account of her sickness, rather than an exclamation from a child who has been deprived of fatherly love and affection. It doesn’t seem as if he has taken into consideration her emotions, and has made no attempt to try and understand her perspective. ‘Daddy’ is a cry of pain from a daughter who expresses incredulous psychological trauma because a father will not return unconditional love by surviving for her sake. Plath too, like any other individual should have the right to express this trauma, which is what most critics like Alvarez are forgetting and not allowing her to do. Many analysts also compare Plath’s behaviour to the Electra complex. I disagree with this theory and don’t think that Plath’s feelings for her father should not be interpreted in a sexual form.
Despite these in depth analyses, could it not be that Plath only uses the black shoe imagery as an extension of the Holocaust imagery, or even only as a link associated to her father? Liz Hood, a Marxist, believes that this over-depth study of the “black shoe” “may infact be an example of adding ones own interpretation to something which may in essence be a great deal more simple”. I think this opinion should be taken very seriously when trying to investigate Plath’ relationships and life. The “black shoe” could simply represent the initial discovery of her father’s diabetes, but is very misleading to many. It is these factors, which make the understanding of Plath nearly impossible.
Despite the hate being shown, I agree with Alvarez, concluding that ‘Daddy’ is a love poem. The brutality of the poem makes the idea of ‘Daddy’ being a love poem very obvious, but yet not so obvious. Examples of the double innuendo are shown in many places throughout the poem, but are intertwined in all the vicious imagery.
“I used to pray to recover you. Ach du…or Achoo…your gobbledygoo”
Plath refers to her father as ‘du’. Although by using ‘du’ Plath dissociates her relationship, instead by using Daddy, “there is still some kind of cooing tenderness in thus which complicates the other more savage note of resentment”, thinks Alvarez and myself. This is because Plath is torn between viewing her father in the eyes of a child and in the eyes of an adult, as you can see from the quotes above. Certain words are very childish, and make reference to Plath as a child. “She is still a daughter who never grew out of the stage that all daughters go through, thinking they’re fathers are the closest thing to God”, that she is still daddy’s little princess, and so by using these words and by referring to her father as ‘daddy’ she is compensating for the loss of her childhood without her father.
Opposing these thoughts is Hugh Kenner, another psychoanalyst, who believes “there’s a lot of nonsense being talked about in these poems”. Nevertheless, he also thinks she deserves to be accredited for her creativity. Kenner has separated her creativity and emotions into two categories, where as I think this is impossible to do. Her poetry and the sensation of the poetry are portrayed through her creativity, which are her emotions. ‘Daddy’ and ‘Medusa’ both show the complementing balance between the two. The way in which she contrasts her self made anguish with what may be seen as much more sever suffering, so simply is proof of her ability to express her own pain through literature whilst weaving in her personal grievance. This ability helps Plath to dissolve herself into her work to such an extent that she progressively exposes her feelings with more and more depth, and gradually self-destructs in ‘Daddy’. The most common imagery that she used to do this is associated with the Holocaust and religion.
Psychoanalyst Alvarez suggests that by using the Holocaust imagery, “what she does in the poem is, with a weird detachment, to turn the violence against herself so as to show that she can equal her oppressors with her self-inflicted oppression”. This is definitely the case in ‘Daddy’. Throughout ‘Daddy’, Plath compares the many conflicts in her life with images of World War 2. She creates suffering all around her, and “when suffering is there whatever you do, by inflicting upon yourself you achieve your identity, you set yourself free”. This is created by the use of the Holocaust imagery. Plath causes her own aggression by contrasting everything involved in her poem with this imagery. In her mind, there is enough comparison for her to be able to convince herself that she is “a Jew”, and by doing this has the ability to bombard every pain, in every sense, not only that of the Holocaust, upon herself, which takes her self-inflicted suffering to the highest level. The black shoe can also be interpreted as “an extension of the Holocaust and Nazi” imagery and by doing this Plath also gives an impression of her father as a Nazi.
I think it is unfair of Plath to and compare her anger and suffering with that of the Holocaust, however, Plath’s poetry is very “spiritual” and whilst criticising her work we need to take in mind that this is the “mind of the tortured heroine”. Sharing the same view is Leon Wieselter, a Marxist, who too thinks, “Whatever her father did to her, it could not have been what the Germans did to the Jews”; he goes on to say, “The metaphor is inappropriate”. I do not agree with this opinion of his. We as readers, and outsiders will be unable to experience Plath’s emotions, and so do not have the right to criticise her emotions which are portrayed through her imagery. What we may see as bearable anguish, may be comparable to murder for Plath (in the case of being separated from her father), and we have established from previous analysis and just by reading her poetry that her fathers death seriously scarred Plath mentally. Furthermore I think that Plath feels some attachment to the Jews, because of her original nationality. Challenging this opinion is Stan Smith, another Marxist, who feels “it would be wrong to see Plath’s use of the imagery in the concentration camp simply as unacceptable”.
Another very blunt try at this technique is shown throughout ‘Lady Lazarus’. “In ‘Lady Lazarus’ the…cultural resonance of the original story is harnessed to a vehemently self- justifying purpose, so that the supra-personal dimensions of knowledge-to which myth typically gives access-are slighted in favour of the intense personal need of the poet”, as Hugh Kenner describes this. This is a very accurate account of Plath in ‘Lady Lazarus’. Here she causes to experience this torture in a very direct way. We can see this from the first stanza.
“I have done it again. One year in every ten I manage it-”
These powerful lines show that Plath’s self-made agonies are her drugs. She is self generating and to get energy to write she imposes pain upon herself. By doing this she also manages to gain everyone’s attention of which she feels she was deprived from when she was younger, or maybe even all her life.
Again in ‘Lady Lazarus’ she involves some holocaust imagery and some reference to her father’s foot. However there is not much imagery of this sort in ‘Lady Lazarus’ but the language used is more frank, and revolved around her as a person. In a sense its is a summary of her life, a brief autobiography. By repeating the upsetting events in her life she reminds herself of them, and in a way by doing this she is causing herself to drown again in her own history.
Another kind of imagery, which I think scares Plath is that of colour. It seems like Plath had a phobia of the colour red. Although this is a different imagery in its own respect, I think that Plath looks too deep into the various connotations of the colour red. Red associates itself with many assorted connotations, including love and passion, hatred and anger, jealousy, roses and blood. These are just a few of the many. When scanning through these words, you are able to connect them with the various events and emotions in Plath’s life. This is why she tries to avoid red in her poems, in my opinion. However, there are exceptions. Plath feels she is able to use red as another sort of imagery to put across her feelings.
This line taken from ‘Tulip’ is an example of the exceptions she makes.
“The tulips are too red…their redness talks to my wounds…upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their colour, a dozen red lead sinkers round my neck…the vivid tulips eat my oxygen.”
These quotes show us to what extent the colour red causes her harm. In ‘Tulips’ Plath personifies the tulips, by making them able to physically hurt her, as shown by the quotes. However, as soon as she brings to light the redness of the tulip, her audience become aware of the negativity of the tulips, and a very tense atmosphere is created. By characterising the tulips she feels like everyone is victimising her, and so again brings a feeling of fear and oppression upon her. She uses red to replace someone, of whom she is writing about.
The tulips are harmless, but the redness attacks her mind.
“The patient attempts to escape by every possible means. First he says nothing comes into his head, then that so much comes into his head that he can’t grasp any of it…at last he admits that he really cannot say anything, he is so ashamed to…so it goes on, with untold variations.
I think this quote said by Freud is perfect to conclude Plath. The paper is Plath’s couch, and the pen her doctor.
Poetry is mostly created for the sake of releasing pent up emotions, that one finds impossible to keep inside them, similar to crying out, rather than creating poems for the sake of art. However, the main question, which will trouble many minds for generations to come, is, was Sylvia’s outcry disguised behind a false persona?