Sylvia Plath’s “The Rival”

sylvia & ted
Sylvia Plath & her husband, Ted Hughes

 

THE RIVAL

By Sylvia Plath

If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.

You leave the same impression

Of something beautiful, but annihilating.

Both of you are great light borrowers.

Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected,

And your first gift is making stone out of everything.

I wake to a mausoleum; you are here,

Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes,

Spiteful as a woman, but not so nervous,

And dying to say something unanswerable.

The moon, too, abuses her subjects,

But in the daytime she is ridiculous.

Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,

Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,

White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.

No day is safe from news of you,

Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.

In her near flawless poem “The Rival,” Sylvia Plath maps the geography of her own resentment toward her husband’s mistress, Assia Weevil. The poem’s title suggests one who is engaged in competition against another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. Though many have attributed the status of the rival in this poem to Plath’s mother, Aurelia Plath, and even her husband, Ted Hughes, the poem’s title clearly refers to Assia Weevil. Considering the denotations of the word “rival,” it’s logical to say these women were competitors vying for the same thing: the handsome, charming Ted Hughes.

The first line introduces a metaphor for her husband’s mistress that Plath will sustain over the course of the poem:

If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.

You leave the same impression

Of something beautiful but annihilating

Both of you are great light borrowers.

Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected” (Plath 1-5).

By comparing Assia to the moon-a traditional symbol for cold detachment and primitive femininity-Plath depicts her antagonist as cruel and stony-hearted.  Ironically, Assia’s “beauty” is described as “annihilating,” which suggests a woman’s allure can pose danger. Like the moon which shines beautiful and white in the sky but unleashes the evil and depravity associated with night, Assia’s beauty wins her the adoration of Hughes but destroys his wife. Plath only makes one significant distinction between her enemy and the moon: while the moon “grieves at the world,” Assia appears “unaffected” (Plath 5). The fact that the moon-an inanimate object-demonstrates a warm sympathy for humanity underscores Assia’s heartlessness. In the same way that she feels indifferent toward the suffering of the world, she cares little, Plath would argue, about the devastation and heartache her affair with Ted has caused.

Assia-Wevill
Assia Wevill

Plath elaborates on this depiction in the next line when she makes an implicit comparison between Assia and Medusa:

And your first gift is making stone out of everything” (Plath 6).

Like Assia, Medusa’s beauty wins her the affections of many but eventually leads to her downfall. Originally a fair, golden-haired maiden, as a priestess of Athena, Medusa was sworn to a life of celibacy. When she broke her oath and fell in love with Poseidon, Athena punished her by transforming her into a terrifying, snake-headed monster. From then on, anyone who had the misfortune of staring into her eyes would be reduced to stone.

The parallels between Assia and Medusa are endless: both are fair and attractive, both violate a sacred oath (for Medusa, the promise to remain celibate; for Assia, the bonds of another couple’s marriage) and both see their beauty transform them into a kind of monster. By comparing her rival to something as hideous and appalling as Medusa, Plath implies her husband’s infidelity is despicable. What’s even more heart-breaking than the discovery of his betrayal is the fact that his mistress has no remorse. Like Medusa, like the moon, she is merciless, unfeeling as stone.

Many say the most hurtful thing about infidelity is not the cheating itself, but the lies and deceit that accompany such a violation of trust. This is certainly true in the case of Hughes and Plath. In the third stanza, Plath explains how she realizes Assia and her husband are having an affair when she intercepts their letters:

Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,

Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,

White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide” (Plath 13-15).

Here, the phrase “loving regularity” stings with bitter irony. For Plath, their correspondence-a symbol of their budding romance -is not “loving” but rather a kind of poison, as deadly as carbon monoxide. The fact that their affair is described as “white” and “blank” suggests that-like the colorless, odorless gas-their relationship is present but difficult to spot. After all, a husband never cheats at home. He stays at work late. He checks into a hotel. Cheating involves a large dose of deception.

What’s agonizing for the betrayed is not so much the cheating itself (which, yes, is horribly, unimaginably painful) but the constant lying such cheating entails. This subtle sense that her husband is cheating torments Plath, who accurately suspects he is having an affair but has no concrete evidence save a few of their letters. A sultry woman caller who rings during dinner. A few lingering, too flirtatious looks.  An unrelenting stream of letters. This is all Plath can see of their affair. By comparing these hints of infidelity to carbon monoxide, Plath indicates her suspicions are like a gas-they diffuse and spread but are insubstantial; she can’t see them or smell them but they consume her.

 

 

Sylvia Plath’s “The Applicant”

 

Sylvia Plath Typewriter

THE APPLICANT

By Sylvia Plath

First, are you our sort of a person?

Do you wear

A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,

A brace or a hook,

Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then

How can we give you a thing?

Stop crying.

Open your hand.

Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing

To bring teacups and roll away headaches

And do whatever you tell it.

Will you marry it?

It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end

And dissolve of sorrow.

We make new stock from the salt.

I notice you are stark naked.

How about this suit——

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.

Will you marry it?

It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof

Against fire and bombs through the roof.

Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.

I have the ticket for that.

Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.

Well, what do you think of that?

Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,

In fifty, gold.

A living doll, everywhere you look.

It can sew, it can cook,

It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.

You have a hole, it’s a poultice.

You have an eye, it’s an image.

My boy, it’s your last resort.

Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

In her remorselessly satirical poem “The Applicant,” Sylvia Plath explores the restrictive nature of 1950s gender roles.  The poem’s very title rings impersonal and business-like as it shrouds the potential candidate in anonymity. This namelessness begs the question: who is the applicant and what is he applying for?

The first stanza doesn’t answer much of our question:

First are you our sort of a person?

Do you wear

A glass eye, false teeth, or a crutch,

A brace or a hook,

Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch” (Plath 1-5).

From the very first line, the interviewer seems antagonistic and accusatory; rather than kindly introduce himself or offer the applicant a cup of coffee as is common courtesy in an interview, he opens with a tough, hardball question, one that’s almost impossible to answer: “First, are you our sort of a person?” (Plath 1). Here, the presence of the 1st person plural “our”-as opposed to the 1st person singular “my”-suggests the interviewer is not judging the applicant by his own standards but by the standards of a greater entity, perhaps society at large.

What “sort” of person society desires is a question Plath contemplates over the course of the poem. The next several lines catalog symbols of disability: a “glass eye,” “false teeth,” a “crutch,” a “brace,” a “hook,” a “rubber breast,” and a “rubber crotch.” Though one would think such handicaps would pose an obstacle to employment, the interviewer seems angry when the applicant responds that he has no disabilities:

No, no?  Then

How can we give you a thing?” (Plath 6-7).

The fact that the speaker wants him to be impaired indicates the position requires some level of disablement and demands the candidate adopt something artificial.

In the second stanza, we finally learn what position the applicant is interviewing for: the role of husband; however, as the poem progresses, the interaction between the speaker and applicant becomes less of an interview and more of a commercial:

Open your hand.

Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing

To bring teacups and roll away headaches

And do whatever you tell it.

Will you marry it?” (Plath 9-14).  

Interestingly, here Plath portrays modern marriage as a commercial transaction in which women are objects to be sold. The woman’s objectification is made clear from her first introduction as a “hand.” Rather than name the potential wife or even introduce her as a complete, functioning body, Plath presents her only as a “hand,” a fragment of a complete person, thus objectifying her. The word “hand” immediately evokes marriage (as in, to take “one’s hand”). By identifying the woman only as a “hand”-a potent symbol of matrimony-Plath reveals the devastating extent to which the role of wife comprises a woman’s selfhood.

More important is what the hand does in the poem. The hand does not sit stagnant but rather “brings” teacups and “rolls” away headaches for her husband-to-be, an indisputable symbol of women’s submission to men. The unmistakably domestic character of the verbs reinforce this image of a woman’s role in the home. By employing images that connote ill health and depicting the wife as healer of such ailments, Plath again suggests society imagines the modern woman’s proper role is as a caregiver.

4186-3187

Though “The Applicant” is no doubt a condemnation of women’s traditional gender roles, that’s not to say Plath didn’t believe men were victims of gender policing as well. In the next stanza, the speaker turns his attention from the wife for sale back to our main character:

I notice you are stark naked.

How about this suit-

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit

Will you marry it?” (Plath 19-22).  

Here, the “stiff,” “black” suit embodies masculinity in 1950s America. Just as repressive post-war America demanded women be perfect portraits of domesticity, strict, normative gender roles required men to be the heads of households and breadwinners. The fact that Plath describes the applicant’s role as something put-on like a suit reveals the artificiality of all gender roles, ultimately proving prevailing ideas of femininity and masculinity false.

For Plath, what constitutes womanhood (or manhood, for that matter) is merely a construction, not intrinsic to our actual biological gender. This reading is further supported by the fact that the applicant is “stark naked” before the speaker offers him a suit. If nudity connotes purity and innocence, the applicant’s nakedness indicates at this moment he is free of restrictive ideas about gender. It is only when he puts on the suit that he adopts his prescribed gender role and allows himself to be confined by its rigid expectations for his behavior.  

“The Applicant” finally culminates in tragedy when the poem’s signature refrain (will you marry it?) moves from question to statement a few stanzas later:

“My boy, it’s your last resort.

Will you marry it, marry it, marry it” (Plath 39-40).  

This syntactical change from interrogative to declarative may seem insignificant enough; however, it represents a major shift in the poem.  Though the prospect of marriage and a traditional, nuclear family once figured as a desirable option for the applicant, by the poem’s end, such a lifestyle is no longer a choice-it’s a requirement.  This shift from possibility to inevitability leads to an unsettling conclusion: no matter how much one rallies against ideas of masculinity and femininity, such limiting gender roles, Plath seems to contend, are inescapable. 

 

I Was A Sandy Girl

I was a Sandy girl.  And not bad Sandy, the sultry sex kitten with big hair and red lips who sashays on screen at Grease’s end.  No, no I always preferred good Sandy, the prim goody too-shoes who was just a little too perfect.

Most girls idolized bad Sandy-her effortless, cool girl demeanor, the way she self-assuredly cocked her head and said, “Tell me about it, stud”-not me.  Though I loved her tight 50s style hot pants, her bad girl act held little allure.  To me, her heavy blue eye shadow was trashy, not sexy, and her red platforms shoes screamed uniform staple of a street walker.

bad sandy

For how much I loved Grease, I’ve always detested the end.  Even before Judith Butler and Women’s Studies 101, I possessed a profound sense that the moral of the story was backwards: Shouldn’t the person you love accept you unconditionally?  Isn’t love based on mutual respect?  Change yourself” was the disturbing message that seemed to underlie Grease’s light-hearted exterior.  Rather than finally stand up to his tough guy friends and date the “good girl,” Danny only accepts Sandy when she metamorphoses into his male fantasy of her.  For me, Sandy’s transformation from demure, prudish good girl to tantalizing male play thing always represented a kind of loss: instead of affirm her own identity, Sandy-in conventional fashion-rejects her selfhood to please a man, a major defeat for feminism indeed.  All the hallmarks of bad Sandy- the smoky, charcoal eyes, the volumized, over-the-top tousled hair-became tragic symbols of the ways in which women found themselves wanting…and worked to modify themselves.

danny & sandy

Like Sandy, I- too- had a hard time accepting my inner good girl.  I can remember when my 7th grade science teacher Mr. Thompson would display our grades on the projector.  While most kids shuddered at having their mediocre C-s projected on the screen, I dreaded the moment my A+ would be laid out for all to see.  

“100%,” I remember Kenton, the class cool boy, saying sarcastically, “sexy.”  

In that moment, I had a devastating realization: being a good girl wasn’t attractive.  Getting good grades, earning student of the month 8 years in a row: these badges of a good girl were actually telltale signs of a dork.  Once I understood scholarly excellence and rule-following as roads to mockery instead of sources of pride, I became ashamed of my As.  I was embarrassed when the teacher doted on me in class.  Slowly, surely, I became more quiet and reserved.  My being a good girl left me alarmingly insecure with myself.

Like most good girls, I eventually rejected my straight-laced nature and experimented with being a “bad girl”: I drank and smoke profusely; I snorted coke in park bathrooms; I swore; and though I didn’t own a pair of 50s style hot pants, I revolted through the skinny jeans I wore.

By 2005, I was a completely different person.

Gone were the days of pristinely copied homework and neat hand-written notes.  If I did turn in my homework (which was rare), it was crumpled and torn.  Gone were the days of naive optimism and blind obedience.  By early high school, I was already wearing the aloof cynicism of much later adolescence.  Gone were the days of conservatism and mild manners.  Sophomore year had me listening to Led Zeppelin and cheering on my guitarist boyfriend.  Good Sandy was dead.  And I loved it…or so I thought.  

Despite the exhilaration of dispensing with social norms and experimenting with alternate lifestyles, my adolescent years as bad Sandy were a time when I felt profoundly lost.  A relentlessly driven, type-A sort of personality by nature, I felt disoriented without a set of rules.   Good Sandy wanted things: to be a cheerleader, to get good grades.  Bad Sandy had nothing to strive for.

Being a bad Sandy girl, I realized, was nothing but a negation, an anti-thesis of sorts.  Her only identity was as a converse; she was good Sandy’s opposite- no identity at all.  At the end of Grease, she feels sexy, perhaps, as she flies away with the hunky man of her dreams but she never realizes any of her own ambitions.

Today, I still harbor a secret admiration for bad Sandy girls, those women who are so liberated and carefree, who quite simply don’t give a shit but, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve accepted I’m just not one of them.  I love my planners and cardigans too much.

grease