What can we expect from a woman who tried to kill herself thrice? In the history of American literature, the poetry of Sylvia Plath has the most complex themes. Critics even today are trying to understand what she wanted to convey through her poems. If her poetry is confessional then what does she want to confess? If not then why her poetry is so complex? 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.
Sylvia Plath selects gloomy and dejected themes for her poetry. Most of the time Sylvia Plath prefers to write poetry on themes of death and destruction. Violence can also be found in her poetry but it is not apparent. Sylvia Plath is not influenced by her husband so far as themes of physical violence and bloodshed in her poetry are concerned. Seldom, do readers find any physical violence in her poetry but mental violence is always there. Violent wars between heart and mind are abundant in her poems. She has conveyed many psychological messages to her readers through her poetic work. Thus, a deep study not only of her work but also of her life is required to understand themes in the poetry of Sylvia Plath.
Until now, we have understood that:
- mental violence
- and disillusionment
are common themes in the poetry of Sylvia Plath. In addition, she also talks about:
- problems of women
- double standards of the society
- the attitude of the male sex towards females
- and insecurity of women.
She also writes about modern individualistic problems such as:
- lack of communication
- emotional pain
Death is one of the major themes in the poetry of Sylvia Plath. She felt it closely when she attempted suicide. She knows that death is an accepted universal truth; therefore, she conceptualizes it. She has the ability to express it in the shape of words. About her experiences with 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 the only option to get rid of all troubles of life. “Daddy” is the first poem, which comes to mind to exemplify themes of death and destruction in the poetry 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 about her loss; a loss, that she experienced at an early age. Her poetry is autobiographical. She has presented a life, in which she remained a victim of circumstances. In this poem, she talks about her loss which was caused due to the death of her father.
The poetry of Sylvia Plath, such as poems like “The Bee Meeting” and “Lady Lazarus” also deal with the themes of fear and 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.”Margaret Dickie on “The Bee Meeting”
Some other major themes in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, which I think are significant, are “insecurity” and loneliness. After her father’s death, she was insecure about her future. This insecurity increased when she was raped. After meeting Ted Hughes she found a temporary relief but it was not everlasting. Soon he left her and she again became insecure. These ups 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. Everyone else is wearing something that symbolically suggests that they are secure. Despite the company of so many people, she is alone and does not feel protected.
Plath, her whole life, remained unprotected. Her mother was with her to care for her but she did not feel secure enough. It seems that her psychological breakdown is the reason behind her insecurity. Nevertheless, insecurity is also one of the major themes, used by Sylvia Plath in her poetry.
Womanhood in Plath’s poetry has its own importance. She writes about the miseries of females. Whether directly or indirectly but somehow she has raised her voice against the vulnerability of women. Helplessness, suffering and the miserable condition of a widow have been presented in the poem “Widow”. Sylvia Plath in fact is famous for discussing these types of themes in her poetry. A life without a 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 becomes her future. After the death of the husband, a widow is all alone in the world. The pathetic life of a widow is described in this poem.
Above said poem is not the only 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 the above, there are some other themes which have been conceptualized by Sylvia Plath in her poetry but the above said themes have frequently been used by her. She may not have an enormous collection of themes yet she has the ability to present beautifully what she possesses.
- “Sylvia Plath’s poems are full of complex emotions expressed ambiguity and ambivalence”. Discuss
- Write a detailed account of some of the dominant themes in Sylvia Plath’s Poems.