Themes in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath
What can be expected from a woman who tried to kill herself twice in her life? Sylvia Plath is the most complex writer in the history of American literature. Critics even today are trying to understand what she wanted to convey though her poems. If her poetry is confessional then what does she want to confess or say to her readers about herself. Of course, these are the most difficult questions to be answered with regard to the poetic work of Sylvia Plath. The problem of ambiguity in her work increases the complexity and critics as well as students of literature find no other way except to deeply study Plath’s work in order to understand her attitude towards her family and readers. She uses gloomy and dejected subject matters for her poems. Most of the time she prefers to write while keeping in the mind the theme of death and destruction. Violence can also be found in her poetry but it is not apparent or physical violence. With regard to violence, she is not influenced by her husband; she has her own theme of violence. Seldom readers find any physical violence in her poetry but mental violence is always there. There is always violent war between her heart and mind. Psychologically, she has many messages to convey to her readers through her poetic work. Thus, a deep study not only of her work but also of her biography is required to understand the subject matter of her work.
Until now, we have understood that death, destruction, mental violence and disillusionment are common themes in the poetry of Sylvia Plath. In addition, she also talks about feminism, problems of women, double standards of the society, attitude of male sex towards females and insecurity for women. She has also written while keeping in mind some modern individualistic problems such as lack of communication, loneliness and isolation as well as emotional pain.
Death is the prominent theme in her work. She has felt death closely when she has tried to kill herself in her first attempt in which she could not succeed. She knows that it is a universal truth accepted by everyone; therefore, she writes poems while keeping in mind the concept of death. She has the ability to express it in shape of words. About her experiences of death, a critic writes:-
“Plath saw death as a real path by which she can solve her conflicts and satisfy her wishes and needs… unbearable situation, unsolved troubles and never satisfied ambition [which could not be handled by Sylvia] so dying is an art to get rid of all of that.”
Thus, she finds death an only option to get rid from all the troubles of life. From her poems, “Dady” is the first example, which comes in our mind while discussing the theme of death in the work of Sylvia Plath. In this poem, she talks about the demise of her father. She writes:-
“Daddy, I have had to kill you.
you died before I had times—”
She laments on her loss, which she experienced in such an early age. Her poetry is autobiography of her life; a life, in which she remained victim of circumstances. In this poem, she talks about her loss which was caused due to the death of her father.
Some other poems, such as “The Bee Meeting” and “Lady Lazarus” also deal with the theme of death. While critically analyzing the poem “The Bee Meeting”, Margaret Dickie writes:-
“…rector, the midwife, the sexton — those public agents of marriage, birth, death, the world in which she must now define her identity…the speaker indentifies at this point not with the flying bee, but with the empty box, an emblem of survival and a possible coffin.”
Second common theme in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, which I think is significant, is “insecurity”. After her father’s death, she was insecure about her future. This insecurity increased when she was raped. After meeting Ted Hughes she finds a temporary relief but it was not everlasting. Soon he left her and she again became insecure. These up and downs in her life made her inflexible, therefore, she preferred to end her life. The poem “Bee Meeting” illustrates the insecurity of the poet. In this poem, she writes:-
“I am nude as chicken neck, does nobody loves me?”
“I am nude as chicken neck” suggests that she has no security at all. She worries on this occasion. Everyone else is wearing something symbolically suggests that they are secure. Despite of the company of so many people, she does not feel herself protected.
Plath, in her whole life remained unprotected. Her mother was with her to care for her but she did not fee herself secure enough. It seems that her psychological breakdown is the reason behind her insecurity. Nevertheless, insecurity is also another theme, used by Plath in her poems.
Womanhood in Plath’s poetry has its own importance; she writes about miseries of females. Whether directly or indirectly but somehow she has raised voice against “woman is the nigger of the world”. Helplessness, sufferings and a miserable condition of widow has been presented in the poem “Widow”. Sylvia is in fact famous for discussing this theme. A life without loving husband is barren and a widow has to suffer her whole life because her husband has abandoned her. She has to accept the norms of society and miserable life is now her future. After the death of her husband, she is all alone in the world. The pathetic life of a widow is described in this poem.
It is not only the poem that deals with womanhood. Each poem of Sylvia shares this common theme. She is against norms of the society in which women are considered inferior to men; therefore, she wants to put this subject in front of her readers.
Apart from above, there are some other themes which Plath uses in her poetry but the above said themes have been frequently used by her. She may not have enormous collection of themes yet she has ability to present beautifully what she possesses.