Sylvia Plath as Social Critic

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Brianna Philbrick
Professor Hardy
Writing 150
Paper 3
May 3, 2011
“As If Domesticity Had Choked Me”:
A Close Look at Sylvia Plath as a Social Critic
Poems in Plath’s late collection Ariel, including "Purdah," "Cut," and "Lesbos" all show criticism towards images of domesticity and patriarchal society. Read as confessional, these poems can be interpreted to show Plath's personal resentment towards men and domesticity, but read as allegorical, could show Plath's genius as a social critic, one who draws on events from her own life to achieve a greater purpose beyond creating simple autobiographical accounts. Feminists have embraced Plath’s active criticism of the current social system which placed women as housewives, secretaries, and nannies, and men as scientists, CEOs, and writers. But not without disagreement among feminists about her personal opinion on domesticity.

In response to celebratory feminist readings, some critics make the argument that while married Plath actually embraced domesticity, referencing her journals to show her devotion to all things domestic, The former view is expressed by the critic Lynda K. Bundtzen. Drawing on quotes from Plath’s private journals, Bundtzen suggests that Plath “enjoyed casting herself in the role of domestic goddess” (79). She describes Plath as being fascinated by cooking and delighted by decorating. Bundtzen does this by outlining many journals in which Plath describes the glorious meals that she has created, and uses this to support her claim that Plath enjoyed being in a role of domesticity.

Others suggest that her poems cast a different light on domesticity: a shadow of hatred and oppression. The critic Jeannine Dobbs, argues that poems in Plath’s Ariel accurately depict her disdain for the typical domestic life of a woman living in the 1960s. The title of Dobbs’s essay, “Viciousness in the Kitchen,” is an excerpt from the poem “Lesbos,” which is part of the Ariel collection. This critic looks closely at several other poems in Ariel as well, including “Purdah” and “The Jailor.” Dobbs’s argument is logical, but only if Plath’s poetry is read as completely autobiographical and somehow more true than the views that she expresses in her letters and journals. This render Dobbs’s argument as one-sided; she only uses the evidence which supports her claims and never acknowledges the evidence that could support a counter-argument.

Of course, Lynda Bundtzen’s argument is also not perfect. Bundtzen talks a lot about Plath’s love for cooking, but this is the only domestic chore that Bundtzen really covers. Still she claims that Plath embraced all of domesticity. It is evident from her writing that Plath was a highly creative and innovative individual. Therefore, couldn’t her love for cooking merely be just an extension of her creativity? Bundtzen herself quotes a particular passage from the biography of Plath which says, “[Plath] did not see such a big difference between the art of composing a poem and the skill of preparing a good meal” (80). This suggests that cooking was a creative outlet for Plath when she wasn’t writing. The fact that Plath’s love of writing and her zest for cooking are connected is continuously mentioned throughout Bundtzen’s argument. For Plath, cooking may also have been a diversion, or an escape from her work. This is shown in Bundtzen’s argument through her reference of Hughes’s quote, “When she’s faced by some tedious or unpleasant piece of work she escapes into cooking” (80). Bundtzen also notes that Plath’s fondness for cooking may have been the product of a larger personality disorder. It is common knowledge that Plath was depressed all her life and had multiple psychological afflictions, and Bundtzen makes the reader question if this love for cooking may be just another string in the web of Sylvia Plath’s abnormal psyche. With all these possible reasons for Plath’s fondness for cooking explained in her argument, the idea that Plath...
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