The Self in the World: the Social Context of Sylvia Plath's Late Poems

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The Self in the World: The Social Context of Sylvia Plath's Late Poems,  
[(essay date 1980) In the following essay, Annas offers analysis of depersonalization in Plath's poetry which, according to Annas, embodies Plath's response to oppressive modern society and her "dual consciousness of self as both subject and object."] For surely it is time that the effect of disencouragement upon the mind of the artist should be measured, as I have seen a dairy company measure the effect of ordinary milk and Grade A milk upon the body of the rat. They set two rats in cages side by side, and of the two one was furtive, timid and small, and the other was glossy, bold and big. Now what food do we feed women as artists upon? --Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

The dialectical tension between self and world is the location of meaning in Sylvia Plath's late poems. Characterized by a conflict between stasis and movement, isolation and engagement, these poems are largely about what stands in the way of the possibility of rebirth for the self. In "Totem," she writes: "There is no terminus, only suitcases / Out of which the same self unfolds like a suit / Bald and shiny, with pockets of wishes / Notions and tickets, short circuits and folding mirrors." While in the early poems the self was often imaged in terms of its own possibilities for transformation, in the post-Colossus poems the self is more often seen as trapped within a closed cycle. One moves--but only in a circle and continuously back to the same starting point. Rather than the self and the world, the Ariel poems record the self in the world. The self can change and develop, transform and be reborn, only if the world in which it exists does; the possibilities of the self are intimately and inextricably bound up with those of the world. Sylvia Plath's sense of entrapment, her sense that her choices are profoundly limited, is directly connected to the particular time and place in which she wrote her poetry. Betty Friedan describes the late fifties and early sixties for American women as a "comfortable concentration camp"--physically luxurious, mentally oppressive and impoverished. The recurring metaphors of fragmentation and reification--the abstraction of the individual--in Plath's late poetry are socially and historically based. They are images of Nazi concentration camps, of "fire and bombs through the roof" ("The Applicant"), of cannons, of trains, of "wars, wars, wars" ("Daddy"). And they are images of kitchens, iceboxes, adding machines, typewriters, and the depersonalization of hospitals. The sea and the moon are still important images for Plath, but in the Ariel poems they have taken on a harsher quality. "The moon, also, is merciless," she writes in "Elm." While a painfully acute sense of the depersonalization and fragmentation of 1950's America is characteristic of Ariel, three poems describe particularly well the social landscape within which the "I" of Sylvia Plath's poems is trapped: "The Applicant," "Cut," and "The Munich Mannequins." "The Applicant" is explicitly a portrait of marriage in contemporary Western culture. However, the "courtship" and "wedding" in the poem represent not only male/female relations but human relations in general. That job seeking is the central metaphor in "The Applicant" suggests a close connection between the capitalist economic system, the patriarchal family structure, and the general depersonalization of human relations. Somehow all interaction between people, and especially that between men and women, given the history of the use of women as items of barter, seems here to be conditioned by the ideology of a bureaucratized market place. However this system got started, both men and women are implicated in its perpetuation. As in many of Plath's poems, one feels in reading "The Applicant" that Plath sees herself and her imaged personae as not merely caught in--victims of--this situation, but in some sense culpable as well. In "The...
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