Sylvia Plath’s Poetic Redemption: Patriarchal Encoding in the Body and Language
By: Mollie O'Leary
The reoccurring bodily imagery in Sylvia Plath’s poetry plays an important role in representing Plath’s struggle to reconcile female self-expression within a society that constantly demeans the feminine form. The body—as a way of interacting with the world—is inextricably linked with language; however, both of these forms of communication are limited by the patriarchal society in which they have been configured. In order to break through these linguistic and bodily limitations, Plath repeatedly inflicts harm upon the body in her poetry, even going so far as to destroy the self completely. While the naked male form carries connotations of freedom and empowerment, Plath struggles to find this sense of liberation in the unclothed female body, which seems perpetually laden with social pressures and vulnerability. The body comes to symbolize a manifestation of societal restrictions and stereotypes, turning the corporeal into a site for patriarchal power that Plath strives to annihilate. The violence in her poetry suggests that Plath can only fight destructive restrictions through self-destructive tactics; yet, she complicates her attempts at a seemingly pyrrhic victory by reaching toward a new redemptive self, perhaps unattainable but at least imagined, at the end of her poems.
In Marianne Egeland’s book Claiming Sylvia Plath: The Poet as Exemplary Figure, she cites two influential feminist theorists, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, who explore Plath’s fixation on the female body through their own critical work. Gilbert and Gubar argue that Plath attempts to convey “a sense of being enclosed within a bell jar, a cellar, or a waxhouse, and then experiencing liberation from that enclosure by ‘a maddened or suicidal or “hairy and ugly” avatar of the self” (Egeland 95). The physical body functions similarly to these exterior enclosures, causing Plath to feel trapped and violent toward her own self. Plath’s desire to imagine herself as “hairy and ugly” in order to escape these restrictions exemplifies the way in which her self-loathing can actually be liberating insofar as she is destroying the societal expectation for women to be beautiful or hairless. In projecting an image of herself as un-feminine, she is able fight against conformity and carve out a new space for herself where no pre-conceived expectations are imposed upon her. However, Plath herself does not seem convinced by this possibility because her self-loathing often culminates in self-destruction, suggesting that she cannot create a new space free of restriction—she must create a totally new self.
In order to create a new self, though, Plath must use language that is similarly constricted by patriarchal society, creating a further sense of inescapability. Egeland references Suzanne Juhasz, a professor at the University of Colorado, who points out that a female poet has “a straining double bind, which [is] constituted by her opposing roles as woman and poet. Because men traditionally made books while women made babies, Western literature has overwhelmingly been a masculine project” (93/4). Plath’s desire to make a name for herself as a female poet is not only thwarted by her femininity, but the masculinity of literature and of language more generally. Her battle with language and with the body becomes intertwined in her poetry. Juhasz points to the phrase “a body of language” because it emphasizes the important relationship between a body of words and the physical body—both of which suffer from societal restrictions (120). These similarities cultivate a symbiotic relationship between language and the body, leading Egeland to cite speculations that Ted Hughes editing of Plath’s work is “both an effort at controlling her writing and at censoring her body” (125). An effort to control Plath’s words is also a limitation on her body because the two are intimately related as forms of self-expression. This censoring is particularly relevant in the book, Ariel, where Plath explores the relationship between language and the body—and where Hughes interferes.
The corporeal nature of language and Plath’s palpable violence toward it are exemplified in her poem “Words” at the end of Ariel. The poem simply begins with a one word line: “Axes”, connecting words with a potential for violence (“Axes” 1). The metaphorical blow of words on a tree, which gives a tangibility to the act of communicating, causes sap to leak
To re-establish its mirror
Over the rock (7-10).
This reflective image is significant in relation to her efforts to create a new self because Plath is configuring words as a mirror, but it is a necessarily warped mirror. Water rippling over a rock does not create a clear or true reflection, meaning that language is distorted and cannot capture Plath’s real feminine self. Plath’s equating of the rock with a “white skull” gives further substance to her encounter with language, but a rapid deterioration of this corporeality occurs (12). By the end of the poem, words have no rider—no speaker—and essentially become disembodied subjects. They cannot reflect nor convey the image Plath wants, leading her to attempt to separate the body from language. Yet, her desire to remove her physical self from language is necessarily impossible within the strictures of the poem, which causes her to negate the self—to diminish into a skull and then to become nothing at all. Masculine language prevails over the female subject in the end. Ted Hughes chooses to conclude Ariel with this poem, ending Plath’s collection with the annihilation of the self and leaving her trapped within language; however, this is an intrusion of his hand in her work and quite an incomplete image of Plath’s poetic project.
Egeland interestingly notes that Plath, who is well-known for her biting words against men, had similar violent impulses toward women, particularly in regards to their exterior looks. Plath’s desire to break free from the socially imprisoned body seems to have a ricocheting effect, which causes the hostility she has toward her own self to bounce off on other women. The pressure of perfection society places on the female body makes each woman a reminder for Plath of her internal struggle with her own image. Egeland includes an excerpt from a letter Plath wrote to a friend where she categorizes the two types of women at Cambridge: “the fair-skinned twittering bird […] and the large, intellectual cowish type with monastically bobbed hair, impossible elephantine ankles and a horrified moo when within 10 feet of a man” (Egeland 103). This reductive and scathing description is just one example of an apparent plethora of tirades against women in Plath’s journals and letters. Plath’s quite specific, even imaginative, characterization of these women, which fixates on their physical appearance, is indicative of the way Plath’s critical eye swivels both inward and outward. She hates these women for reminding her of her own insecurities, which cause her self-destructive tendencies to turn outward on them and their bodies. Her description is also significant because men are not the catalyst behind her negative feelings. She mentions men, but the women are the perpetrators here, and Plath is reacting, not quite constructively, against the restrictive bind in which she finds herself and her body.
While Plath’s violence toward other women and their bodies is a display of an insecurity that a patriarchal society has tacitly cultivated, she also seems to be viewing herself as separate from these women. Plath attends Cambridge as well, making her characterization of the women slightly hypocritical because she excludes herself from the two categories. Egeland concludes that “Sylvia Plath easily experienced other women as threatening”; however, Plath complicates this comparative view by removing herself from these other women at Cambridge (120). This unconscious othering of herself from women resembles a real life effort to achieve what she sets out to do in her poetry. While Plath is clearly self-destructive, at times using women as a vessel through which she can channel her frustration toward society and herself, she also makes a concerted effort to go down another avenue that is not necessarily destructive, but creative. In separating herself from these women, she is imagining another category of the self for which society does not currently allow, but which she attempts to imagine in her poetry. Egeland calls attention to theorists like Alicia Suskin Ostriker of Rutgers University who notices that “Plath, whose work is filled with body images, ‘appears […] to have internalized the larger culture’s principles of flesh-rejection and aspiration toward transcendence’” (121). Plath certainly rejects the body in her poetry, but it is important to remember that she does not always end in erasure. While she is often vague and violent, Plath seems to be looking toward a way of transcending the socially constricted body
At the beginning of the poem “Lady Lazarus”, the narrator is very much entrenched in her body, which becomes the main conflict of the poem. Although suicide, the subject of “Lady Lazarus”, is a sign of mental illness, Plath transfers her mental illness onto her body. While any mention of mental pain is significantly lacking in “Lady Lazarus”, images of bodily destruction are quite abundant. She describes her suicide attempt and the subsequent public scrutiny as “the big strip tease”, which connects suicide with an image that necessarily involves the body, particularly the female one (“Lazarus” 29). Despite her attempts at destruction, she is still trapped in her body, a body which society has circumscribed and made inadequate. Rather than reflect on the mental implications of her suicide, she fixates on her physical form, saying, “These are my hands,/My knees”, admitting that they are still there, still the same, even after her attempt to wipe them out (31-2). However, Plath is not alone in her obsession with the body. She implies that her “peanut-crunching crowd” is much more interested in the physical effects of her suicide than the psychological ones, going so far as to charge for the “eyeing of [her] scars” (26, 58). She blames her body for her suicide, and in doing so, she condemns a society which has trapped her inside this body.
While the driving force of this poem seems to be a destructive one, the narrator undergoes a transformation, not simply an annihilation. There remains a perceived image of life, perhaps unrealizable but still a symbol of redemption. The title itself even suggests a resurrection through its allusion to the biblical Lazarus. In the end, the narrator concludes triumphantly, “Flesh, bone, there is nothing there”, a line which embraces her poetic destruction of the corporeal self and the freedom it promises (75). Yet, her final stanza reads,
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air (82-84).
The narrator recreates herself as a life force, rising from the ashes of her old self. The only physical description of her is her hair, implying a certain physicality but one that is only loosely defined. The narrator becomes the Lady Lazarus of the title; however, the image of this woman is ambiguous. She is powerful and even prophetic due to her relation to the Lazarus of the Bible. Plath inverts the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, taking the agency away from the male figure and granting it to the female. Lady Lazarus eats men, which further suggests a physical body, but she eats these men like air, a phrase which confuses the functions of a typical human mouth. There is a corporeal nature to Lady Lazarus, but it is not necessarily one that takes on human form. While this imperils the realistic possibility of the narrator’s solution by making her incarnation seem wholly imagined, it also allows Plath to escape from her old body and reinstate some semblance of a new one that society cannot touch. It may be a solution that can only exist in the realm of poetry, but it allows Plath to end on a note or recreation rather than defeat.
Plath’s desire to destroy her body may seem overdramatic; however, Plath is fighting against restrictions on her body that match her own extreme measures. In Sandra Lee Bartky’s essay, “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power”, she reveals the ubiquitous yet often invisible discipline placed on the female body in modern society. The way the male gaze sanctions the female body is similar to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon—the pressure to conform pervades regardless of a disciplinarian’s actual presence. Bartky cites researcher Iris Young who studies the way women act in public areas, noticing that a “[w]oman’s space is not a field in which her bodily intentionality can be freely realized but an enclosure in which she feels herself positioned and by which she is confined” (Bartky 97). The body and the immediate space around the body are not vessels for movement and expression, but entities of confinement. Women are not only expected to undergo meticulous bodily grooming such as hair removal, weight loss, and various make-up regimens, but also to train these manufactured bodies to act a certain way. This control over the body’s mannerisms is subtler than wearing make-up—perhaps it is even an unconscious compliance—which exemplifies the pervasive effects of society on the female body. Women feel the need to restrain an already restrained body, not simply in its appearance but in its behavior.
The pressure for women to constrict themselves to a certain amount of space is a seemingly arbitrary phenomenon, but it is actually quite systematic. Bartky references studies in which countless women “make themselves small, narrow and harmless; they seem tense; they take up little space” when in the public eye (97). While women tend to cross their legs and arms on public transport, men sprawl outward, often sitting with their legs wide open. Men’s strides are statistically longer than women’s, and this is not simply due to height difference. Bartky writes that “the female gaze is trained to abandon its claim to the sovereign status of seer”, meaning that women are conditioned to be looked at rather than to look (99). They submit to other men’s gazes, but this is not a mutual exchange—when a woman’s gaze is met by a man, she looks away. The reality is that a “[w]oman’s body language speaks eloquently, though silently, of her subordinate in a hierarchy of gender” (103). The body tells an implicit story of female oppression. Women may not necessarily be conscious of the ways they are confined, much like men may not be conscious of the ways they are free, but the stark differences in their body language directly correlates to Plath’s frustration with her body.
Bartky is particularly concerned by the way society’s firm grasp on the female form seems to have pervaded into the female psyche. The fact that women must change their mannerisms and they way they comport themselves in public shows that the depth of societal conditioning goes further than just bodily manipulation. She states forebodingly: “Since the standards of female bodily acceptability are impossible fully to realize, requiring as they do a virtual transcendence of nature, a woman may live much of her life with a pervasive feeling of bodily deficiency. Hence, a tighter control of the body has gained a new kind of hold over the mind” (108). Society has placed women in an impossible position. They are motivated to strive for a superficial and existentially unfulfilling standard of beauty by the tantalizing possibility of acceptance; however, this acceptance is essentially unrealizable because women can never actually achieve such an impossibly demanding standard. As Sylvia Plath admits herself, “Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children” (“Munich” 1). Female standards of beauty are sterilizing and unhealthy. Someone who embodied them completely most likely would be unable to have children not only because she would be too delicate, but because she simply would not be real. Bartky’s use of the phrase “transcendence of nature” is prophetic in its similarity to Plath’s viewpoint. Both Plath and Bartky agree that the body has been shackled by society, but they take it further than this. Women cannot simply remove their binds; they must remove their bodies altogether and transcend this stereotypical female nature.
In Margaret Kathleen Lant’s essay, “The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath”, Lant also addresses the way in which the subordination of the female body pervades more deeply than mere surface appearances. She explores the way in which nakedness is a common trope in the poetry of men as a means of stripping away societal obligations and coming closer to the true self. Lant cites lines from male poets rejoicing in nudity like Robert Lowell who writes "so much joy has come, / I hardly want to hide my nakedness” (Lant 625). Nakedness is emblematic of freedom and self-expression. For poets like Lowell and Whitman, it is honest and liberating. However, Plath does not have a similar relationship with nakedness—and Lant argues that Plath’s stance is not so much a personal choice but a decision made for her by society. Society has configured the unadorned female body, not as a symbol of empowerment, but as an object to be at best scrutinized and at worst possessed. Lant writes, “the female self is unworthy, inadequate, and—ultimately—vulnerable rather than ascendant” (625). The unclothed female body becomes exposed rather than freed because it is more susceptible to sexual assault and exploitation. The word “ascendant” is important to Plath’s poetic project because it exemplifies the way in which the female body is weighted down; it is unable to rise above the strictures that Plath wants to reject. The transcendence evident in “Lady Lazarus” is not possible while Plath’s narrator inhabits the traditional female body.
While the naked female body has the potential to be free of superficial restrictions such as a make-up, jewelry, clothing, etc., Lant points out that society forces different limitations onto it in place of these topical ones. Lant cites theorist Terence Diggory who explains that a female body in the art world is not seen as being naked for herself by as being naked for the pleasure of the viewer: “an erotic commodity” (629). A naked woman becomes “a nude”, not a representation of her true self but a representation of her body alone. Diggory asserts that “[i]n no case would her nudity express the real, or symbolize that raw honesty that nakedness embodied for Whitman and his successors” (626). The naked body of Whitman’s male narrator is a liberating assertion of self because the masculine physicality remains unharnessed by the gendered categorizations that limit the female. The male body is allowed to speak for itself while the female body is forced to be a symbol of the male fantasy, which actually falsifies the female self rather than brings it closer to truth. Plath’s entrenchment in corporeal imagery throughout her poetry suggests that she wishes to find a similar liberation in her body to that of Whitman’s narrators; yet, her subsequent need to destroy the flesh reveals her frustration toward the inadequacy of the body and of language to properly mediate this freedom. They are both too tightly hemmed in by society’s patriarchal power.
Lant observes that Plath’s retaliation against her female oppression at times results in her not overthrowing this system but simply inverting it. Plath, angry with a society that has made her own body an obstacle in her success, adopts a masculine voice. Lant includes a journal entry where Plath encodes the act of writing as masculine, describing her beginning thoughts as “ the painful, botched rape of the first page” (644). Writing is a violent project—the pen pressing onto the paper becomes a sexual attack, and Plath is the perpetrator. She seems to enjoy this position of power because it is deprived of her in real life. Society codes Plath as the victim, but in her writing, she can be the assailant. Put succinctly, “When Plath thinks of herself as artist, she thinks of herself as male” (644). While this has empowering potential, Lant points out that this does not allow Plath to actually triumph over her oppression. She is simply running in a hamster wheel, an act which enables her to let out aggression but which affords her no progress. She is just feeding into the power structure. In the poem “Daddy”, Lant argues that “the speaker of the poem does not undermine the system of control which violates her but rather turns the tables, accepting this gendering of violence as inevitable” (647). Following similar impulses that make Plath feel hostile toward other female bodies, Plath becomes the aggressor in “Daddy”. She is fighting violence with violence. The actual voice of Plath’s narrator remains that of a female, but she at times threatens this voice to the point of destruction by trying to write the female voice in a masculine schema.
Lant ultimately decides that Plath’s entrapment in her own body and attempts to break free are futile because she is forever stuck in a language which prevents female self-expression. Lant cites Margaret Homans, who argues that Plath is forced within a literary tradition which “normatively identifies the figure of poet as masculine, and voice as a masculine property” (663). Homans and Lant seem to agree that Plath, though articulate and brilliant, is doomed in her attempts to free her body and subsequently free her voice from the strictures of a patriarchal society because her words are already systematically conditioned to be double-edged swords. They give her the means to attack society, yet they hurt her, too, ultimately leading to self-destruction because they are encoded to be spoken though a male voice. Lant concludes that “…the moment Plath offered her body—her literal, real woman's body—the moment she moved toward her own physical self, she was forced into a figurative system which devalued that body as a representation of herself, of her power” (666). Since language asserts that the male body is valuable while the female body is vulnerable, Plath’s attempts to use the female body as a means of redemption and realization will inevitably fail. Not only will they fail, but as is evident through her tendencies toward self-hate and injury, her attempts will lead to demolition. Lant muses that in a more tolerant world that granted women a voice, Plath would not have been pushed to such extremes of annihilation—but in this world, desolation is eminent in all of her poetry. While accurate in her analysis of Plath’s struggles and violent behavior, Lant neglects to properly address the ways in which Plath’s destruction can actually be regenerative.
Although Lant addresses Plath’s poem, “Ariel”, in her argument, she fixates on the final stanza’s image of annihilation rather than realizing its potential for redemption. “Ariel” begins by epitomizing Plath’s desire to free herself from the body. The narrator does not simply shed clothing as a male narrator might, but she sheds “dead hands,/ dead stringencies”, suggesting that she is peeling off parts of her body (“Ariel” 21). The narrator begins with a firm rejection of the corporeal. Lant analyzes the narrator’s transformation first into “Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas” and then into “the arrow” as two gendered forces in opposition (23/27). She posits that the first transfiguration is a feminine one since the adjectives “foam” and “glitter” are more indicative of the “female orgasm” while the second change is masculine insofar as the arrow is a symbol of the phallus (Lant 655-56). The narrator’s oscillation between female and male selves makes sense given Plath’s struggle to reconcile her need to break free of female stereotypes and harness a masculine sense of power while also somehow maintaining her true female self. Lant ultimately decides that the narrator’s final transformation into “The dew that flies/ Suicidal” is a female one, and Plath then takes this transformed female narrator and subsumes her in the masculine image of the sun (“Ariel” 28-9). However, Lant’s conclusion in her essay that “the dew will be dispersed by the sun”, meaning that the female must be destroyed by the male, may not be the poem’s full message (Lant 658).
While dew has a feminine connotation and the sun is a traditionally masculine image, Plath does not totally abide by these stereotypical distinctions. The way that the dew flies through the air is still reminiscent of the phallic arrow and the alignment between the “I” of the female narrator and the “Eye” of the sun lends a certain female empowerment to this male symbol (“Ariel” 22/31). Further, the dew becomes a penetrating force while the sun becomes a receptive agent, which plays on male and female sexual functions. The sun is a “cauldron” that receives the dew, suggesting that the sun could be read as sort of vaginal orifice for the phallic dew/arrow (31). While Lant reads the consumption of the dew as a destruction of the female voice by a masculine symbol, the dew and the sun actually do not occupy these gender binaries quite so literally. In fact, Plath seems to invert this normative duality. The sun, potentially representing the female genitalia, turns an act of reception into an act of destruction. The female body cannot penetrate like the male body can, which is why Lant argues that the female body is often so vulnerable and susceptible to violation. However, Plath turns a traditionally passive receptor—the vagina, or in this case, the cauldron—into a violent agent of male destruction. The masculine force is actually dispersed at the end of this poem, allowing the disembodied female to absorb its power. Plath strips the female of bodily restrictions and turns it into a consuming sun-like force. While this metaphorical transformation can only exist in the realm of poetry, similar to the resurrection of Lady Lazarus, and Plath offers no real-life solution, the poem still represents a triumph insofar as the female is granted agency and is able to withstand both self-destruction and masculine possession in the end.
Plath’s use of violence in her poetry is not always productive and many of her poems end with bodily annihilation; however, to construct her poetics as one of self-destruction is ultimately inaccurate. She obsessively grounds her poems in the body, creating connections between the physical and the linguistic insofar as they are both forms of expression that are circumscribed by a masculine gaze and voice. Plath cannot simply strip away the clothes of her narrators and let the uninhibited female body speak for itself because female oppression goes deeper than these superficial layers. The inescapability of the patriarchal limitations imposed on the Plath’s body and her words leads her to reject the body and turn toward destruction; however, her demolition at times actually leads to a recreation of the female self—disembodied but empowered. Plath necessarily destroys the socially constricted literal self in order to create an imagined self. This new self can only exist in the pages of her poetry, allowing her a victory which is admittedly conditional even as it is hopeful. However, Plath’s creation of a new self is nonetheless emblematic of redemption and refutes the supposition that Plath can only find freedom through annihilation, which gives Ariel the potential to be read as a violent but ultimately fruitful female struggle.
Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and The Modernization of Patriarchal Power”. na, 1997. Web.
Egeland, Marianne. Claiming Sylvia Plath: The Poet as Exemplary Figure. Newcastle upon Tyne, GBR: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. ProQuest. Web.
Lant, Kathleen Margaret, “The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry
of Sylvia Plath”. Contemporary Literature 34.4 (1993): 620–669. Web.
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. New York: HaperCollins, 1999. “Words”, “Lady Lazarus”, “The Munich Mannequins”, “Ariel”. Print. Perennial Classics.
Mollie O’Leary received a B.A. from Kenyon College where she studied English and Philosophy. Her poems have been previously published in Persimmons Magazine and HIKA Magazine. She grew up in Massachusetts and is currently an English teacher in Texas.