The Willing Domesticity of Sylvia Plath: A Rebuttal of the "Feminist" Label

by Michelle Kinsey-Clinton,, May 27, 1997

[Note for March 4, 1999: This paper was posted on an older version of my website, and was not re-posted when I ripped it down and redid it. However, I keep getting requests for it, and my referer logs keep showing people getting 404s from my site off search engine queries for materials on Sylvia Plath, so here it is. Do your own homework, kids: use this as a reference but don't rip me off. I'll send Guido after you.]

[Note for January 12, 2011: It appears that when I snarked at "the kids" to do their own homework, I was failing to adequately protect myself from Indian post-graduate academics. On the plus side, now I can say I've been published. On the minus side: Suman Agarwal couldn't even steal a GOOD paper to pass off as part of her doctoral thesis? This paper reads as the work of the over-snarky, under-read twenty-year-old community college student that I was, at the time. Even more shameful is that its having been assigned by a feminist-identified professor to whom I took some superficial dislike, while I myself was deep in the throes of an unfortunate Christina Hoff Sommers phase, resulted in my making assertions here that not even I actually believed for simple provocation's sake, to wit: "the power to create a brand-new human being is far and away the highest earth-bound potential a woman has" (!!!). If I had any sense of dignity, the thing to do would be for me to bury this paper, not make a stink over its having been plagiarized. But Googling key phrases from the portions of Ms. Agarwal's book that I did not write leads to an astonishing discovery: I am in good company. Others whose work was appropriated and inserted into Ms. Agarwal's book with no attribution include the New York Times, Salon, literary critics Carolyn Burke and Jon Rosenblatt, a Filipino online encyclopedia, and--if you can believe the nerve--Ted Hughes himself. I ordered a copy of the book from India, even, just to be sure that I wasn't missing something from the online excerpts that would make this thievery less egregious. I wasn't. So my personal to-do list now includes the following task: contact the publisher of Ms. Agarwal's book--Northern Book Centre of New Delhi, India--and ask them just what they intend to do about it. UGH.]




"I think I would like to call myself 'the girl who wanted to be God'. Yet if I were not in this body, where would I be--perhaps I am destined to be classified and qualified. But, oh, I cry out against it."
-- Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath has long been hailed as a feminist writer of great significance. In her 1976 book Literary Women, Ellen Moers writes, "No writer has meant more to the current feminist movement" (qtd. in Wagner 5), and still today, at a time when the idea of equality for women isn't so radically revolutionary as it had been earlier in the century, Plath is a literary symbol of the women's rights movement. Roberta Mazzenti quotes Robert A. Piazza as writing that there is "little feminist consciousness" in Plath's work, and goes on to explain that because "Plath's work [is] being read... by readers searching for political sustenance", feminist sentiment that the author never held can easily be attributed to her writing (201). This kind of misguided attribution is illustrated in the opinions of critics like Sheryl Meyering, who states that Sylvia Plath's intense desire to be accepted by men and to eventually marry and have children was purely a product of the constrictive 1950s social mentality during which the author came to womanhood (xi). A thorough examination of the Plath oeuvre paints a different picture, however. Although Plath's awareness of and distaste for the submissive and insubstantial role a woman in the 1950s was expected to play is apparent from her early journals to the poems completed in the last month of her life, that same body of work also makes plain that she had accepted some of that role for herself on her own terms: a common theme throughout the writing is the author's intense desire to be a beloved and loving wife and, perhaps even more strong, her desire to become a mother--as long as she could still speak from within her "deeper self" through her writing.

In 1953, at age 20, Plath wrote in her journal:

I must find a strong potential powerful mate who can counter my vibrant dynamic self: sexual and intellectual, and while comradely, I must admire him: respect and admiration must equate with the object of my love (that is where the remnants of paternal, godlike qualities come in). (Journals, 73)

Here, the reader finds no hint of misandrist resistance to the idea of a strong attachment to a mate. Indeed, it seems obvious that Plath was searching for an equal to accompany her through all the aspects of a multifaceted life. To her, complete devotion was not only no betrayal of herself as a woman, it would make her whole as a person. The one provision was that this potential mate be the one special one who would not bind her into a woman she did not want to be: she would be a wife, and she would write as well.

Plath gives the subject of her divided female selves and opposing aspirations treatment in her 1956 poem "Two Sisters of Persephone" (Collected Poems 31-32). The piece paints a portrait of two sisters, different as dark and light. The first is a logical, mathematical, intellectual, indoorsy sort whose "rat-shrewd squint eyes" and "root-pale meager frame" serve to make her seem hardly a woman at all, not in the feminine sense of womanhood. The second sister is a vibrant, nature-connected woman whose setting clearly makes her a symbol of fertile womanhood: she lounges luxuriantly in the yard, "bronzed as earth", taking in the vivid "red silk flare of petaled blood" of a nearby "bed of poppies". The first of Plath's sisters goes to her grave a virgin, "with flesh laid waste, / Worm-husbanded, yet no woman", while the second becomes the "sun's bride" and "grows quick with seed". To a reader familiar with a bit of the author's background, the poem is quite obviously a self-portrait, wherein Plath sees in herself the potential for a dry, spinsterish life of intellect and little else, alongside the conflicting looming vision of herself as a vital and sparkling woman made complete in motherhood, nature's most lavish gift.

Other poems embody the notion that a man can have the power to make a woman more than she is in and of herself. "Tinker Jack and the Tidy Wives" (CP 34-35) introduces a Jack of two trades--he takes pride in his metalwork mastery, confidently inviting his audience of an unnamed lady to bring him for mending any pot or dish marred by age or imperfection, and then goes on to observe that he can make good as new her "face / Fallen from luster" as well as her cracked, scarred heart. In "Widow" (CP 164-65), the man who makes a woman whole is conspicuous by his absence:

A second time, to have him near again--
A paper image to lay against her heart
The way she laid his letters, till they grew warm
And seemed to give her warmth, like a live skin.
But it is she who is paper now, warmed by no one.

As Pamela J. Annas brought to perceptive light, Plath's use of imageries of paper in this stanza is revealing, in light of the fact that throughout many of her poems, paper is a symbol of an empty soul (137)-we see the shadow of a woman who appears to have suffered some great catastrophe in "A Life" (CP 149), the unfeeling and unknowingly cruel "cardboard" co-workers of the secretary who has miscarried her baby in "Three Women" (CP 176), an unmarried girl in "The Applicant" (CP 221), and others--which is used also in "Widow"'s first stanza: "Body, a sheet of newsprint on the fire". The inference here is that without her husband, the poem's title character suffers an internal death of her own.

Contemplating her future with the as-yet undetermined man who would make her whole, Plath's journals illustrate that she never entertained any delusions that a mate could take the place of her writing, or of any other part of a full life. In 1956, she writes: "I would live a life of conflict, of balancing children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes; and banging banging an affirmation of life out on pianos and ski slops and in bed in bed in bed" (J, 126). Linda Wagner-Martin writes, "She believed combining the erotic and the intellectual possible, and when she met Ted Hughes, a Cambridge poet, she felt that life with him would be ideal" (Wagner-Martin 665). In Ted Hughes, Plath felt she had found her equal, the man worthy of her complete devotion. Celebrating her marriage, she wrote "Wreath for a Bridal" (CP 44-45), a poem full of pure light and joy and hope. The piece describes a wedding held outdoors, "love's proper chapel", witnessed only by leaves, owls, birds, and cows. The speaker ascribes to these watchers a sense of approval and even tenderness for the newlywed couple:

Call here with flying colors all watchful birds
To people the twigged aisles; lead babel tongues
Of animal to choir: 'Look what thresh of wings
Wields guard of honor over there!' Starred with words
Let night bless that luck-rooted mead of clover
Where, bedded like angels, two burn one in fever.

The shared joy of the forest creatures in the couple's union serves as assertion that this is a marriage meant to be, conveying a sense of completion within nature's life cycle for the two joyous mates--as male and female, as creatures of nature.

Plath's desire to bring her own life cycle to full complete fruition in motherhood is also strongly evinced from the time of her earlier work, only growing more securely rooted as her writing progressed along with maturation. Writes Katha Pollitt, "the feminists, too, will have to come to terms with the tenderness and purity of Plath's maternal feelings, as displayed in 'Brasilia', 'Child', 'For a Fatherless Son', and her radio verse play Three Women" (Pollitt 71). These are but four of the pieces which appear in Plath's Collected Poems which depict first a woman at times almost desperate to have a child, and then a doting, reverent mother. Although certainly the power to create a brand-new human being is far and away the highest earth-bound potential a woman has, housewifedom and the forgoing of all work except for the loving raising of one's children goes against the feminist-establishment credo that not only should women not have to stay at home, but in fact they should not ever do so at all, for their own good. Sylvia Plath's values were just the opposite of these: a year of teaching convinced her that the professional world would only detract from her personal priorities, and thereafter stayed at home, creating her babies and the best poems of her life.

In several poems, the reader finds imagery of the baby as a god, where for the most part religious imagery is not central to Plath's work. In the tellingly-titled "I Want, I Want" (CP 106), written by the author in 1956 at a time she feared that she was sterile, the baby/god is a demanding and controlling force of nature, demanding that his mother feed him of her "dry volcanoes cracked and split", a metaphor suggesting that the mother is caught in the grip of an imaginary, as-yet unborn baby who needs for her to somehow renew her life-giving volcanic potential, for the very sake of the baby's life. The poem's opening lines, "Open-mouthed, the baby god / Immense, bald, though baby-headed, / Cried out for the mother's dug", convey that sense of the baby as god, the baby as destiny, a tyrannical force insisting that he be given proper due. In the later "Nick and the Candlestick" (CP 240-42), written after Plath had borne two children, the image of the speaker's infant son is a much more benevolent and blessed one: the poem begins with images of a hard, cold, aged, unfeeling world, using the metaphor of a cave ("The earthen womb / Exudes from its dead boredom.") which the speaker tries to soften and make livable for her baby, hanging the "cave with roses, / With soft rugs". In the end, the speaker's efforts at making her and her baby's portion of the world less harsh fail, and the baby itself is the one thing that sanctifies and makes bearable the mother's perceived sharp and unforgiving existence. The last line-"You are the baby in the barn"-is an allegorical reference to the Christ child. A poem written a few weeks after "Nick and the Candlestick", "Mary's Song" (CP 257), sets up much the same madonna-and-child metaphor, this time with a more direct and ominous warning to her innocent baby about the dangers of life in modern society: "O golden child the world will kill and eat".

Plath's realization of her lifelong fearful yet awed and enthralled desire for children made her complete in a way apart from the biological or the domestic as well. She felt, again as documented in her earlier journals, that the experience of childbirth would be a vastly revelatory experience for her. Much as she looked upon the spectre of the physical rigors of childbirth with a kind of horrified wonder, she felt that once she had survived the experience, she would be in a deep and symbolic way more of a person, and thus, in keeping with her belief that the stuff of poetry had to come from real life, more of a poet. Two quotes from the journals illustrate Plath's view of the creation of poetry and the creation of children as a kind of yin-and-yang, mutually enriched and enriching force: "I must first conquer my writing and experience, and then will deserve to conquer childbirth" (240) and "I will write until I begin to speak my deep self, and then have children, and speak still deeper" (166). Is it mere coincidence, luck of chronological progression, that has Plath breaking through into what is critically acclaimed to be that unique voice of her own deep self, captured in the Ariel poems, not long after she had become a mother? Lonna Malmsheimer writes that it is "no accident that Plath refers to poetry as 'the blood jet' [see "Kindness" (CP 269-70)] and an earlier poem, "Stillborn" [CP 142], is about poems that lack life despite their apparent technical quality" (544). The latter poem draws a more direct correlating line between the importance of Plath's two kinds of creation-witness the first of the poem's three stanzas:

These poems do not live: it's a sad diagnosis.
They grew their toes and fingers well enough,
Their little foreheads bulged out with concentration.
If they missed out on walking about like people
It wasn't for any lack of mother-love.

O I cannot understand what happened to them!
They are so proper in shape and number and every part.
They sit so nicely in the pickling fluid!
The smile and smile and smile and smile at me.
And still the lungs won't fill and the heart won't start.

Clearly expressed is both the seriousness of the author's view of the undertakings of poetry and of motherhood, and the frustration she feels when she finds that her poetry, like a stillborn baby, seem lifeless and limp and dead, in spite of the fact that the poem's "toes and fingers"-phrases, lines, stanzas-all appear to be normally, even admirably formed.

After her split with her husband, Sylvia Plath did not vengefully shake off the trappings of domestic life and reinvent herself as a new and different woman, nor did she sink into herself and become an overharried mother with no time and no energy for her art. It's been written time again of how she found the balance between the responsibilities of single motherhood and the demands and desires of her art: the poet began to write between four and eight a.m., before her babies had awakened for the day. The poems of this period are the ones universally hailed as the strongest, the deepest, the most profoundly Plath of all her work, and she began to churn them out with astonishing speed. And still, the domestic thread remained. Already mentioned in this paper was the burdened knowing of the hard lives her children would undoubtedly encounter in the harsh and lonely world that Plath expressed in "Nick and the Candlestick" and "Mary's Song". Another poignant piece which shows to the reader the poet's reflection on the future of her children-would they suffer at the hands of the world as she had?-is "For a Fatherless Son" (CP 205-206). There is no hateful bitterness toward the father who betrayed his family and moved away in this poem: only the melancholy knowledge that the innocence of her youthful baby will not last: "You will be aware of an absence, presently, / Growing beside you, like a tree". A poem with such a title might easily be written as a spiteful lashing out of a mother's misdirected, uncontrollable rage at her son for her philandering husband's betrayals, but Plath chose to focus instead on the sad truth of one more sad truth which her son would grow up carrying on his back.

There are other among Plath's poems that do not seem to be so directly personal to her own life, that help to fill in the tile-blanks of the literary mosaic which form a picture of Plath as a willing and even wanting wife and then mother. Plath's being labeled a confessional poet and the idea that "biographical and historical material is absolutely necessary for any real understanding of Plath's work" (Mazzenti 197) is a common one, but her work was not always strictly quasi-autobiographical in nature. In the fictive speakers of her poetic "I"s, we yet and still see images and ideas strongly and positively identified with domesticity. "The Munich Mannequins" (CP 262-263) begins with the almost harsh, certainly critical line "Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children". The poem is a portrait of mannequins in snow-drifted shop windows who represent artificial women whose perfection in beauty is accompanied by sterility and barrenness, "Unloosing their moons, month after month, to no purpose." Pamela Annas writes, "For Sylvia Plath, stasis and perfection are always associated with sterility" (137), and we see this metaphor prominent in "The Munich Mannequins". Also, in "Lesbos" (CP 227), the speaker of the poem who goes to visit a "sad hag" who resents her husband and her child and urges the speaker to wear racy clothes and pick up men. The speaker, a married mother of two herself, cannot understand the cheap, bitter mentality of the woman she visits: "Even in your Zen heaven we shan't meet." Margaret Dickie writes of this selection, "Despite her own emotional difficulties, the speaker presents herself as a responsible mother, a life nurturer, identified strongly with the domesticity that the woman she visits scorns" (Dickie 179).

For Plath, the most important things were always those she created: her poems, her children. Even in the aftermath of a disintegrated marriage, which must have been for her the terrible crushing of a long-cherished dream, she retained the determination to be not only the great poet she'd so long dreamed of becoming, but also a responsible mother beyond reproach. Perhaps it is in the witness of the struggle to do both and to do both well that feminists, women in search of their sole identities and in search of a liberated independence, see a kindred spirit at work. Writes Lucy Rosenthal, "Miss Plath doesn't claim to 'speak for' any time or anyone-and yet she does, because she speaks so accurately" (Rosenthal 365). This seems to be at the very crux of the claiming of Sylvia Plath by the feminist establishment: that the author was painfully aware that to become all she wanted to become would be to break the binds of stereotype and sexual double standard, and that society would not make it easy for her. But where her writing speaks of her inner dualities, and sometimes even to extreme resentment and jealousy of men for what they had that she did not, it also speaks of a woman who did want to be fully a woman, in many contrasting senses of the word, and to claim as hers some of the very things that so many women who call themselves feminists have rejected in their own searches for completion: love of a man, the raising of children, the creation of what she could create to leave her dual stamps of Woman and of Wit in indelible imprint on her world.

Works Cited

Annas, Pamela. "The Self in the World: The Social Context of Sylvia Plath's Late Poems". Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath [See's listing for this book *]. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1984. 130 - 139.

Dickie, Margaret. "Sylvia Plath's Narrative Strategies". Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath [See's listing for this book *]. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1984. 170 - 182.

Malmsheimer, Lonna M: "Sylvia Plath". American Writers: Supplement 1, Part 2 [See's listing for this book *]. Ed. Leonard Unger. Rev. ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1979.

Mazzenti, Roberta. "Plath in Italy". Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath [See's listing for this book *]. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1984. 193 - 204.

Meyering, Sheryl L., ed. Sylvia Plath: A Reference Guide 1973-1988 [See's listing for this book *]. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1990.

Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems [See's listing for this book *]. Ed. Ted Hughes. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Plath, Sylvia. The Journals of Sylvia Plath [See's listing for this book *]. Ed. Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.

Pollitt, Katha. "A Note of Triumph [The Collected Poems]". Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath [See's listing for this book *]. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1984. 67 - 72.

Rosenthal, Lucy. Modern American Literature: A Library of Literary Criticism [See's listing for this book *]. Ed. Elaine Fialka Kramer, Maurice Kramer, and Dorothy Nyren. Rev. ed. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1976.

Wagner, Linda W., ed. Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath [See's listing for this book *]. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1984.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States [See's listing for this book *]. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and Linda Wagner-Martin. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

* Amazon listings may be for other editions or printings of the same book.
Document last updated March 4, 1999.

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