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The personal is the political: the poetry of Silvia Plath.

February 21, 2011

This is an essay which I wrote at university. As Sylvia Plath is quite popular I thought it might be of interest to someone.

American poetry has a tradition of being critical of America and the American way of life which reaches back to poets like Walt Whitman. The poetry of Sylvia Plath is aware of the workings of patriarchy and the effect it has on women. Many of her poems seem to be personal expressions of despair or anger; in fact she is notorious for writing ‘depressing’ poetry and is often criticised for portraying women as victims. Her famous suicide has meant that her work is often read as the direct expression of her personal feelings and this has led to the wider issues raised by the poems being ignored. As a poet we should expect her to make use of personae and try to create art rather than writing simply as a form of personal catharsis. It is perhaps because the political implications of her work were ahead of their time that they seem to have been largely ignored.

Plath herself asserted that the narrator of ‘Daddy’ was not her: “the poem is spoken by a girl with an Electra complex” (quoted in Aird, p79). It is clear then that Plath was not interested solely in the personal but also the general. This awareness opens her poetry out and suggests broader political issues may be at stake. Its evocation of Nazism and the Holocaust makes ‘Daddy’ an obvious candidate for reading in a political and cultural context. The poem opens in a tone of defiance: “You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe” (Moore, p530). The rest of the poem sees the narrator working through her feelings toward her father who, she feels, has crippled her emotionally. The title of the poem, ‘Daddy’, specifically uses the childish version of ‘father’. Feminists have noted that patriarchy infantilises women, preventing them from reaching their adult potential. It is also true that the narrator’s father died before she was old enough to use a more mature term. This fusion of personal experience with political awareness is typical of the poem and points to the fact that Plath was aware that the personal is the political.

The final line of the poem is ambiguous: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (p533). ‘Through’ can be read as defeat, an intimation of suicide, or as triumph, the final shedding of the father’s legacy. To take the second reading one must track the narrator’s progress through the poem. Early in the poem she says:

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 (p531).

The silencing of the female voice is another result of patriarchy. The narrator also displays the internalised oppression which makes her consider her own body a prison. Her jaw compared to a “barb wire snare” which also reminds us of Nazi death-camps. Her struggling repetition of “ich” shows her attempt to express her self but she can only say ‘I’ in German, the language of her father because her personality is so bound up in his. Another concern of some feminists is that language has been formed to suit the male voice and automatically excludes women from expression. The narrator’s memory of struggling to speak is in contrast to the present time when she demonstrates her ability to communicate through poetry. The use of language in the poem is highly skilled, the repetition of the sharp sound “ich” matching the image of “barb wire” and mimicking the sound of gunfire. The narrator is certainly no longer a woman who can “hardly speak”. Later in the poem her recovery is marked by the fact that she can refer to the German language, which she had found terrifying, as “gobbledygoo” (p532).

The fact that Plath is interested in wider issues than personal experience becomes obvious when the poem begins to discuss women in general: “Every woman adores a Fascist, / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you” (p532). This shocking assertion is perhaps the key to the poem’s political meaning. Through her narrator Plath explores the relationship of one woman to a Fascist. By generalising the experience Plath questions a culture in which women do allow men to treat them badly, in which abused wives return home, in which male violence is glorified by women themselves. The key word is “adore” which carries a very different meaning to “love”. Adoration implies worship and submission; love implies equality. It can be inferred that this adoration is the only relationship that can exist between men and women unless there is equality. This analysis points to the justification for the Holocaust imagery which has been attacked by some critics: “[the poem] rampages so permissively in the history of other people’s sorrows that it simply overdraws its rights to our sympathy” (Seamus Heaney, quoted in Marsack, p51). This criticism of the poem stems from a misreading of it as a biographical and personal expression of resentment. Were this solely a personal poem it might be considered that the imagery over-balanced the personal emotion. As a political poem the imagery is appropriate. Plath compares the sufferings of all women at the hands of men to the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis. A hint of misogyny can be found in any critic who considers Plath incapable of politics or that she exaggerates the oppression of women.

The influence of the father over the narrator continues from beyond the grave. This is a theme also contained in ‘The Colossus’ in which the dead father is described as “an oracle, / Mouthpiece of the dead” (p527). In ‘Daddy’ the imagery has been updated from the ancient world: “So daddy, I’m finally through. The black telephone’s off at the root, / The voices just can’t worm through” (p532). The telephone can be taken as a modern equivalent to the oracle of ‘The Colossus’ and to the “Taroc pack” earlier in ‘Daddy’. It is not clear whether the voices ever did “worm through” but the fact that the telephone is “off at the root” and that this statement follows “I’m finally through,” suggests some change. It is possible that the narrator has made the proactive decision to unplug the telephone which she has sat by for years in the vain hope of a call from her father. This reading fits with the trajectory of the poem, which is becoming more active as it builds to its climax. The next line is, “If I’ve killed one man I’ve killed two-” (p532) and the suggestion is that the narrator is beginning to take an active approach to the problem. In the final stanza the narrator finds allies in the villagers who stake her father through the heart and dance on his grave. The image of the vampire’s defeat is taken from American popular culture at the same time as taking us back to Eastern Europe (the vampire’s natural habitat). In a political context the poem looks forward to an uprising against patriarchy, a time when women need not suffer alone. There is also the suggestion that popular culture may be instrumental to this. The decade following the poet’s death showed this beginning to happen.

‘Lady Lazarus’ also uses Nazi imagery to express despair but mixes it with religious and mythological images. The poem is narrated by a thirty-year-old woman who has just survived her third suicide attempt. Written solely in the first person the political aspects of the poem are less obvious than in ‘Daddy’. It first becomes clear that the poem addresses broader concerns than the suffering of one woman in the ninth stanza:

The peanut-crunching crowd

Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot-

The big strip tease (p528).

The image of the crowd opens the poem to an awareness of voyeurism. This is not a realistic detail; instead it raises the issue of female suffering as entertainment. The fact that the crowd are eating peanuts suggests that this is a popular audience, reminiscent of the ‘groundlings’ of Elizabethan theatre; the image of the strip tease confirms this. Readers of the poem may consider themselves cultured rather than populist and remain unthreatened by the challenge to its audience but the poem extends its criticism to ‘high’ art, comparing the recovery to a “theatrical / Comeback” (p529). Plath suggests that female suffering is treated as entertainment in ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. The narrator seems to enjoy being the centre of attention, playing to the crowd: “These are my hands, / My knees”, and claiming that the audience reaction, “knocks me out” (p529).

The poet is aware that while a woman can enjoy this attention it is ultimately worthless. The narrator is imagined as a saint, worshipped by the crowd:

And there is a charge, a very large charge,

For a word or a touch

Or a bit of blood

Or a piece of my hair or my clothes (p530).

The collecting of relics is costly and the internal rhyme of “large charge” challenges the reader and suggests that the price is not purely monetary. Like the stripper the saint is dehumanised by a (predominantly) male audience. To occupy either of these positions the narrator must give up something of her essential self as either role denies her humanity. This is the “large charge” which causes the narrator so much suffering: “I turn and burn” (p530). The narrator has been annihilated, not by herself, but by her audience. She is reduced to:

A cake of soap,

A wedding ring,

A gold filling (p530).

These items were made or recovered from victims of the Holocaust but are also relevant to the poem’s concern about the restrictions placed on women. Women are expected to keep themselves clean and presentable for the sake of men; they are defined by their relationship to their father or husband, and they are expected to make themselves beautiful with (gold) jewellery. Again, Nazi imagery is used to suggest that the annihilation of women’s spirits by patriarchy is analogous to the annihilation of the Jews’ bodies by Nazism.

The poem is not without hope, however. The final stanza is defiant, looking forward to revenge:

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air (p530).

The mythical image of the phoenix draws the poem away from the personal. If the narrator is seen as a representative of all women the poem anticipates an uprising of women against their oppressors. The sufferings they have undergone will only make them stronger, strong enough to “eat men like air”.

Concern with the dehumanising effect of patriarchy on women is also the theme of ‘The Applicant’. The narrator offers a man a wife as the answer to all his problems. The woman is constantly referred to as ‘it’ rather than ‘she’, signalling the fact that she is no more than a piece of merchandise. Her function is, “To bring teacups and roll away headaches / And do whatever you tell it” (p533). The woman must be subservient and must also subsume herself in the husband, “It is guaranteed / To thumb shut your eyes at the end / And dissolve of sorrow” (p533). The woman is expected to die once her last function for her husband has been fulfilled; she has no life away from the man. The poem also recognises, like ‘Daddy’, the infantilising effect of patriarchy. The woman is addressed as “sweetie” (p534), a childish pet name which strips her of adulthood and therefore equality. She is, in fact, a blank-page to be filled by her husband:

Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,

In fifty, gold (p534).

The woman has no meaning outside marriage and the only meaning she can have is marked by the time she spends married to a man. The poem is ironic and satirical but contains a hint of defiance. The woman’s capabilities are described by the narrator: “It can sew, it can cook, / It can talk, talk, talk” (p534). Sewing and cooking are the duties of the traditional housewife. According to stereotype women are notoriously talkative. The repetition of “talk” suggests an unending stream of chatter but may also be seen as the woman’s only expression of herself. The repetition of the verb on its own (rather than ‘talk and talk and talk’, which would suggest monotony) makes the line harder, each “talk” like a stab or a shot. Women’s only weapons may be their voices, the poem suggests, which will not be silenced.

Plath’s artistry is shown in her ability to draw together personal suffering and political awareness. Poems like ‘Daddy’ affect the reader on a personal, emotional level but should also make her/him think about the broader context of the suffering expressed. Plath may have frequently portrayed women as victims but she was aware that their victimhood stemmed from oppression and saw the possibility that this oppression could end. The victims she writes about have the strength and potential to survive and even to overcome their oppressors. The theme of these poems is not depression but the impact of an impersonal political system on the personal lives of women. Plath can be seen to anticipate the raised political awareness of the 1960s and 1970s and deserves to be considered as more than just the poet laureate of teenage angst.

Bibliography.

Aird, Eileen, Sylvia Plath. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1973.

Marsack, Robyn, Sylvia Plath. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1992.

Moore, Geoffrey, ed., The Penguin Book of American Verse. London: Penguin, 1989 (first published 1977).

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From → Literature, Poetry

2 Comments
  1. Trudy Jones permalink

    Highly useful and informative. Was this a good grade?

  2. Glad you found it useful. It was a first but I can’t remember the exact figure.

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