Writing Lessons From Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar”

The benefits of reading are manifold.  For Ralph Waldo Emerson, what’s wonderful about booksthe bell jar is that a company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us” whereas for Honore de Balzac, reading acquaints us with “unknown friends.”  Research suggests reading not only magnifies our capacity for empathy and strengthens our ability to be open-minded, it promotes the kind of free-thinking on which democracy depends.  As writers, reading has the added benefit of helping us improve our craft.  Much like a blacksmith learns to mold metals by studying under an apprentice, a writer learns the elements of composition by dissecting (and imitating) her favorite penmen.  Writing is a kind of magic: it takes instruction under the tutelage of a master to become an enchantress of the craft.

The belief that we can become better writers by becoming better readers is at the heart of journalist and Poynter Institute senior scholar Roy Peter Clark’s new book The Art of X-Ray Reading: How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing.  A wonderful companion to his altogether indispensable Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every WriterThe Art of X-Ray Reading surveys some of the most celebrated works in all of English letters, distilling their insights into practical lessons writers- both novice and expert- can apply to their craft.  If we want to write with the lyrical beauty of a Fitzgerald or with an appreciation of the short sentence like Melville, Clark argues we must read actively with “x-ray glasses” close at hand.  Written with a profound reverence for story-telling and an obvious love of literature, The Art of X-Ray Reading will teach you to dissemble a text so you can better understand how it works.  Though as a bookish English major I’ve read most of the texts Clark examines, I closed The Art of X-Ray Reading with a newfound appreciation for many of those tattered treasures we call the “canon.”  From analyzing how Hemingway intentionally omits information to build suspense to anatomizing how Hersey harnesses the power of understatement to emphasize the drama of that fateful morning on August 6th, Clark helps us peek behind the curtain on literature’s finest sentences, revealing good writing is the product of deliberate workmanship- not of chance:

“Where do writers learn their best moves?  They learn from a technique I call X-ray reading.  They read for information or vicarious experience or pleasure, as we all do.  But in their reading, they see something more.  It’s as if they had a third eye or a pair of X-ray glasses like the ones advertised years ago in comic books.  

This special vision allows them to see beneath the surface of the text.  There they observe the machinery of making meaning, invisible to the rest of us.  Through a form of reverse engineering…they see the moving parts, the strategies that create the effects we experience from the page- effects such as clarity, suspense, humor, epiphany, and pain.  These working parts are then stored in the writer’s toolshed in boxes with names such as grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling, semantics, etymology, poetics, and that big box- rhetoric.”  

In Chapter 5 “Jolt of Insight,” Clark close reads Sylvia Plath’s first and only novel, The Bell Jar.  The story follows Esther Greenwood, an ambitious young writer who earns a coveted internship at a prestigious New York magazine as a guest editor.  Though she knows her dazzling life of big city glamor and patent leather would be the envy of most girls, Esther becomes more and more disenchanted as the novel goes on.  When she returns home to Massachusetts to find she hasn’t been accepted to a distinguished summer writing program, she sinks into a debilitating depression.  An incisive and deeply disturbing account of mental illness, The Bell Jar is one of my favorite novels not only for its historical-cultural significance (never before had a book so frankly discussed such topics as the tension between career and child-bearing or the taboo subject of a woman’s desire for sex), but for the unrivaled genius of its prose.  The Bell Jar’s first line makes evident Plath’s literary virtuoso:

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

With a linguist’s ear for the subtle effects of sound and a critic’s eye for socio-cultural references, Clark deconstructs this masterpiece of a first sentence:

“Before I read another word, I felt the need to X-ray that sentence.  At twenty-three words, it is a short and memorable first sentence for a novel, beginning with a subject and verb of the main clause, always an encouraging sign.  

“It was a queer, sultry summer…”

I feel a tension between the adjectives queer and sultry.  The first carries a judgement of distortion, something not quite right in the air.  The second, sultry, has the sense of something physical, hot and humid, but not necessarily unpleasant, perhaps carrying a sexual connotation, like the sound of a tenor sax.  (I’ve always felt that individual letters can carry hidden meanings. It may seem strange to say, but the letter makes me uneasy, especially that triple dose of it in the phrase “queer, sultry summer.”)  

What comes next is a shocking intrusion: “the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs…”  

A lot of things happened during the summer of 1953, when the story takes place: the Korea War ended, JFK and Jackie were married in Newport, Rhode Island; television was coming into its own.  An obsession with a New York Jewish couple executed for espionage aligns with queer and connects the collective paranoia of the McCarthy era with our protagonist’s distorted view of reality.  

[…] 

The whole sentence moves with remarkable efficiency from a season to an era to the confusion of a single young woman.”

So what can writers learn from this remarkable first line?  If you want to entice your readers to keep reading, Clark recommends adding an element of shock or surprise:

Writing Lesson #1 

“Many examples of good writing have a one-two-three quality to them: subject, verb, object.  In most cases, you don’t want the reader to stop or even pause.  My mentor Don Fry calls this effect the “steady advance.”  But there will be exceptions, moments when the writer will intrude on the reader’s expectations, even in the middle of a sentence.  Call it a bump in the road.  Plath achieves this effect with the insertion of the Rosenberg execution inside her first sentence.  What if the sentence had been: “It was a queer, sultry summer, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”  Clear and compelling enough, but not brilliant and explosive.  Most sentences you write will be A-B-C.  If you want to catch the reader off guard, consider A-X-B.”

sylvia plath torment

As readers, it’s often easier to understand “what” an author is saying than to decipher “how” it is she produces certain effects.  “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”  What is being said is clear enough but how it manages to linger in our memory- that’s more of a mystery.  Clark further demystifies the spell of this stellar sentence by unveiling the “how” behind its effectiveness.  Plath’s opening line is brilliant largely in part because it establishes the novel’s central motif of electrocution from the very first sentence:

“If something is important enough to place in the first sentence of a novel, even as a seeming aside, is it important enough to revisit?  We saw in Gatsby how the author introduced the green light on Daisy’s dock in the first chapter, how he reintroduced that light in the middle of the novel, and how he brought it back, with dozens of suggestive thematic implications, at the end.  We come to expect that type of exquisite story architecture from our favorite literary artists.  

So beyond my personal curiosity about the Rosenbergs, should I expect them to return to the stage later in Plath’s novel?  Here is what follows that first sentence:  

I’m stupid about executions.  The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers- google-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway.  It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.  

I thought it must be the worst thing in the world.

rosenburgs die

“It has nothing to do with me.”  Yeah, right.  It has everything to do with our protagonist, Esther Greenwood, a fill-in for Plath in this highly autobiographical novel, who, during an internship at a fashion magazine in New York City, is traumatized time and again.  

Sure enough, the Rosenbergs reappear on page 100 of my edition, the beginning of chapter 9.  Esther is speaking with another young woman at the fashion magazine about the imminent execution of Esther and Julius:  

So I said, “Isn’t it awful about the Rosenbergs?”  

The Rosenbergs were to be electrocuted late that night.  

“Yes!” Hilda said, and at last I felt I had touched a human string in the cat’s cradle of her heart.  It was only as the two of us waited for the others in the tomblike morning gloom of the conference room that Hilda amplified that Yes of hers.

“It’s awful that such people should be alive…I’m so glad that they’re going to die.”  

This dispiriting moment comes just before the crisis that will crush our protagonist at the end of the first half of the book, when a blind date turns into a muddy rape attempt that leaves her physically injured and emotionally devastated, so much so that she returns to her hotel and throws all her glamorous clothes she has accumulated off the top of the skyscraper.  

Piece by piece, I fed my wardrobe to the night wind, and flutteringly, like a loved one’s ashes, the gray scraps were ferried off, to settle here, there, exactly where I would never know, in the dark heart of New York.  

In that dark moment, Plath offers a kind of silent convergence of the public and private.  Almost at the exact time the Rosenbergs would be electrocuted, the main character undergoes a kind of symbolic death, her clothes being scatted to the winds, “like a loved one’s ashes.”

dark black heart of New York

The sign of a true artist is her every choice is intentional.  Though the reference to the Rosenbergs in the first line seems like a passing comment, Clark realizes it has a much greater significance to The Bell Jar as a whole.  Like the Jewish spies executed during that “queer, sultry” summer, Esther will be electrocuted in a botched electro-shock treatment after suffering a mental breakdown.  Foreshadowed in that first trifling twenty-three word sentence is the most tragic, climatic moment of the novel:

“It was only after I had closed the book that I was stunned by the beauty of what Plath had created.  It was like looking at daybreak pouring through the rose window of a cathedral.  All that business about the Rosenbergs- the constant references not to their execution but to their electrocution– turned out to be a prologue to the traumatic events in Esther’s life, including a medical procedure in a facility that looks and works like a prison in which she is pinned down and wired up (like the Rosenbergs, no doubt) and shot up with electricity.  It is, at least at first, her version of the death penalty.”   

REZNICK

What makes The Bell Jar such a masterful work is how it’s so architecturally sound.  One of the greatest literary geniuses of our time, Plath establishes the novel’s principal motif in the very first line, the Rosenbergs’ brutal execution by electric chair a harbinger of Esther’s barbaric treatment by electroshock.  If stories are man’s way of making sense of the world, a good story imposes order onto the messy material of real life’s chaos.  Unlike in life, in a story, each event has meaning; every interaction, every exchange, a role: to reveal character, to establish theme or tone.  Every single line operates to form a coherent narrative arc.  But in the hands of a less adept storyteller, a novel will seem the product neither of logic nor thought: incidents, both pressing and trivial, will be included at random with no regard as to whether they have a purpose like advance the plot, an object will seem symbolically significant but only be mentioned once.  An expert storyteller, on the other hand, hypnotizes us by giving the impression that every element of the narrative performs an essential part: a dramatic change in weather reflects a shift in mood, the repetition of an object will be shown to have meaning later on. 

The Bell Jar stands as a harrowing beauty of an American classic largely because Plath’s storytelling is all method and no madness.  Though she traces one woman’s terrifying descent into insanity, she writes with a control that is rational and painstaking.  It is proof of her artistry that she is able to hint at the plot’s highest point from the first few words.  Clark suggests incorporating a unifying theme, image, or motif into our work to make it similarly cohere:

Writing Lesson #2  

“Not all allusions are created equal.  When an author quotes another author or mentions historical figures (such as the Rosenbergs), he or she embeds one narrative within another.  As we’ve seen with the opening of The Bell Jar, an apparent offhand comment becomes a much grander metaphor, taking on new contexts and connotations as the narrative builds up steam.  Most coherent texts contain a dominant image- sometimes more than one-that links the parts and accelerates the action.”

Sylvia Plath’s “Magnolia Shoals”

Sylvia Plath on her first day at Mademoiselle.

Magnolia Shoals

Up here among the gull cries

we stroll through a maze of pale

red-mottled relics, shells, claws

as if it were summer still.

That season has turned its back.

Through the green sea gardens stall,

bow, and recover their look

of the imperishable

gardens in an antique book

or tapestries on a wall,

leaves behind us warp and lapse.

The late month withers, as well.

Below us a white gull keeps

the weed-slicked shelf for his own,

hustles other gulls off. Crabs

rove over his field of stone;

mussels cluster blue as grapes :

his beak brings the harvest in.

The watercolorist grips

his brush in the stringent air.

The horizon’s bare of ships,

the beach and the rocks are bare.

He paints a blizzard of gulls,

wings drumming in the winter.

Just read Sylvia Plath’s lovely poem “Magnolia Shoals,” a charming little poem about the deception of summer.

The poem begins with an anonymous “we” leisurely strolling along the coastline:

Up here among the gull cries/ we stroll through a maze of pale/ red-mottled relics, shells, claws” (Plath 1-3).

Meaning an object surviving from an earlier time, the word “relic” suggests the “shells” and “claws” are so remote to the speaker that they belong to another era entirely. The fact that Plath applies this word to rather ordinary objects found on a beach indicates the world has undergone a major historical shift without much outwardly changing at all. “Magnolia Shoals” traces this subtle shift from summer to winter as the speaker observes her surroundings, feeling betrayed as she realizes summer has deserted her and left her with a bitter winter. Throughout the poem, the landscape will give the appearance of summer-the season of leisure and unhurried reflection- only to conceal its true character as winter:

Through the sea green gardens stall/ bow, and recover their look/ of the imperishable/ gardens in an antique book,” the speaker complains, “they [the gardens] leave behind us warp and lapse” (Plath 6-12).

Here, the hypnotic quality of the repeated “g” sound (“green sea gardens”) hints at a greater deception underlying the poem: though the verdant gardens appear radiant and full of life, the fact that they have to “recover” their “look” implies their appearance is not reality-it’s superficial. Like models carefully posed and air-brushed in a fashion spread, the gardens project a distorted image of reality: while they look “imperishable” as if they’ll endure forever, their impermanence is merely constructed like an “antique book.” The words “warp” and “lapse” further this theme of delusion, revealing the speaker and her partner have been duped. The external world may appear static and unchanging, but such security is false: just as summer must fade to winter, all things in life must decay and end. Pretty red magnolias wither and droop until their petals shrivel and rejoin the soil; squirrels frolic around for a time but eventually pass on. The very setting of the poem-a beach somewhere-hints at the inevitability of such change; waves hurl themselves against the shore; coastlines erode, recede.

Magnolia Shoals” follows a young woman who grapples with this transience and explores the bitter betrayal she feels when she realizes the world has deceived her. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker personifies summer as a duplicitous traitor who “turned its back” on her, which reveals the extent of her feelings of abandonment (Plath 5). Though seasons are impersonal forces of nature with no motives or agendas, the speaker attributes the coming of winter to the treachery of summer, as if June, July and August could somehow be responsible. Such assignment of blame to a season points to a larger human dilemma: though we want to think of nature as a benevolent force sympathetic to its impact on human action, the world of this poem does not possess the capacity for thought (or deceit) as the speaker imagines-rather, the universe appears indifferent and unconcerned with the affairs of man.

 

Sylvia Plath’s “Insomniac”

blonde sylvia 

Shakespeare called sleep the “chief nourisher in life’s feast.”  For whatever reason, artists throughout the ages have not been invited to the dinner party.  In his fascinating article “On the Edge of an Abyss,” journalist Greg Johnson asserts that insomnia has tormented artists more than promiscuity or severe alcoholism:

Even more than paranoia, envy, or rampant egotism, a vulnerability to insomnia might well be the trait most commonly shared by serious writers throughout literary history, regardless of their personal temperament, aesthetic program, or country of origin. In fact, this painful and usually chronic malady has plagued writers so frequently, and with such intensity of anguish, that the insomniac state and its attendant longings might justifiably be considered metaphorical of the writer’s rarefied inner world. If insomnia is the very image of his unblinking consciousness, his stubborn refusal to conclude, however briefly, his voracious scrutiny of the world and of his own mental processes, then it is not surprising that sleep— especially “dark, dreamless sleep, in deep oblivion!”— becomes the corresponding image of his most profound and unattainable desires.”  

Like Johnson, many have supposed that there is something about the artist’s particular psychological makeup that predisposes him to insomnia.  William Wordsworth.  The Bronte sisters.  Kafka.  All complained of this nightmarish inability to rest.  Throughout her life, confessional poet Sylvia Plath also suffered bouts of excruciating sleeplessness, requiring a sedative most nights to get to bed.  Plath’s poem “Insomniac” pays tribute to the bedtime affliction that so often tormented her and, I would contend, offers us rare insight into the connection between the artist’s mind and the inability to rest:

The night is only a sort of carbon paper,

Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars

Letting in the light, peephole after peephole —

A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.

Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus

He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness

Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.

Over and over the old, granular movie

Exposes embarrassments–the mizzling days

Of childhood and adolescence, sticky with dreams,

Parental faces on tall stalks, alternately stern and tearful,

A garden of buggy rose that made him cry.

His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks.

Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars.

He is immune to pills: red, purple, blue —

How they lit the tedium of the protracted evening!

Those sugary planets whose influence won for him

A life baptized in no-life for a while,

And the sweet, drugged waking of a forgetful baby.

Now the pills are worn-out and silly, like classical gods.

Their poppy-sleepy colors do him no good.

His head is a little interior of grey mirrors.

Each gesture flees immediately down an alley

Of diminishing perspectives, and its significance

Drains like water out the hole at the far end.

He lives without privacy in a lidless room,

The bald slots of his eyes stiffened wide-open

On the incessant heat-lightning flicker of situations.

Nightlong, in the granite yard, invisible cats

Have been howling like women, or damaged instruments.

Already he can feel daylight, his white disease,

Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.

The city is a map of cheerful twitters now,

And everywhere people, eyes mica-silver and blank,

Are riding to work in rows, as if recently brainwashed.

The speaker, a stand-in for Plath herself, first describes the sky as a “sort of carbon paper/Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars/Letting in the light” (Plath 1-3). This image of the night sky as carbon paper-a type of paper used for making copies-suggests the world he observes while bogged down in thought is a mere duplicate, an inferior copy of the real one. Interestingly, the light peeping out from behind the sky is depicted as “bonewhite”- a telling image that implies the speaker’s restlessness is so unbearable that he longs for the ultimate relief, the slumber of death. Despite the extent of his suffering, our speaker finds no solace in the surrounding world: while the “eyes” of the stars watch him blankly, the moon appears sadistic as it wears a “rictus,” an ugly, twisted expression usually denoting disgust or wry amusement (Plath 5).  This idea is extended a few lines later when Plath refers to his insomnia as a “desert pillow” and his sleeplessness as a “stretching of fine, irritating sand” (Plath 6-7). Here, the bare, desolate imagery of the desert- a region universally understood as a barren symbol without vegetation or water-hints at the hopelessness of his condition; up all night, the speaker feels alone and desperate, as if he were deserted. Certainly, Plath intended for this secondary meaning of “desert” to resonate as the speaker feels that his midnight restlessness is both unfair and inescapable.

But why is the speaker plagued by this wakefulness? what is the source of his insomnia?  The second stanza attempts to explain the origins of his condition:

Over and over the old, granular movie

Exposes embarrassments-the mizzling days

Of childhood and adolescence, sticky with dreams,

Parental faces of tall stalks, alternatively stern and tearful,

A garden of buggy roses that made him cry.

His forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks.

Memories jostle each other for face-room like obsolete film stars” (Plath 8-14).

Though many imagine night time as a peaceful reprieve from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Plath envisions night as interminable hours of unbearable solitude. Rather than spend his nights in quiet contemplation, the speaker preoccupies himself with replaying the same painful memories “over and over” (Plath 8).  If insomnia is, as Greg Johnson argues, the byproduct of an overactive mind, “Insomniac” seems to warn against such over-thinking as it is just the speaker’s introspective tendency to turn inward and obsessively sit alone with his thoughts that hinders him from attaining any sort of tranquility. The fact that Plath refers to this ceaseless replaying of cognition and memory as an “old, garnular movie” reveals the story of his life is nothing more than a film: compelling and life-like but ultimately false. This almost Buddhist-like reading of reality is further supported a few lines later when Plath claims memories “jostle” each other for face time like “obsolete film stars” (Plath 14). Meaning to push, elbow or bump someone, typically in a crowd, “jostle” portrays the speaker’s mind as a tumult of thoughts where differing versions of reality compete for dominance.  If memory is nothing more than a “film star,” the speaker’s recollection of events is simply a dramatizing of reality-not reality itself. Though writers try to make sense of the world through the construction of stories, Plath suggests that imposing similar rules of resolution and climax onto our own lives is ultimately futile. No matter how many nights the speaker stays up “replaying” his days of childhood trying to extract an overarching meaning, the images of his life are always fading and granular- they’re never intelligible.  In this way, Plath proves frenzied thinking lies at the root of insomnia, which might elucidate the malady’s prominence among our greatest artists.

Plath continues to portray the artist’s “unblinking consciousness” as the source of the speaker’s nighttime suffering when she notes that his “forehead is bumpy as a sack of rocks” (Plath 13).  Figuratively, the rocks represent the heaviness of the speaker’s thoughts.  Like a sack of rocks, which is heavy and burdensome to transport, his fitful debating and analyzing weigh him down and keep him from slumber.  The fact that his unremitting thoughts disfigure his face and make his forehead “bumpy” suggests a restless mind can wreck your well-being and devastate your sanity.  Though in the rational, scientifically-oriented West we tend to glorify reason and judgement, in “Insomniac” such traditional indicators of intelligence manifest as pathologies and overall deteriorate the speaker’s health.  For artists like Wordsworth and Plath, then, “voracious scrutiny” of the world was not a gift, but a curse- causing manic, hysterical thoughts to scurry across the consciousness until it was impossible to fall asleep.

The speaker isn’t offered even momentary relief from this voracious scrutiny, we learn, because he has become “immune to pills” (Plath 15). So despairing is his condition that no pill seems to work, neither “red” nor “purple” nor “blue” (Plath 15). Rather than alleviate his symptoms and soothe his troubled mind, ironically the sleeping pills only serve to underscore his frustration: “How,” the speaker bitterly exclaims, “they lit the tedium of the protracted evening!” (Plath 16).

In the next line, Plath depicts sleeping pills as “sugary planets,” delectable sweets the speaker longs for (Plath 17).  Her choice of the word “planets” is particularly telling: like a faraway planet millions of light years away, sleep-that unfathomably ordinary yet precious thing-seems, for the speaker, unbearably remote.  When he can persuade sleep, that enticing but elusive lover, to stay the night, it transports him to another universe, another life, one “baptized in no-life for a while” (Plath 18).  And here Plath poses a lovely paradox: by equating sleep with holy water, she implies the quiet death of sleep is essential for life.  Our nightly rendezvous with slumber is purifying like water- it renews and rejuvenates us.  Here, the religious allusion to baptism seems noteworthy: if baptism is the religious rite of immersing someone in water, symbolizing purification or regeneration and admission to the Christian Church, the fact that Plath compares sleep to a baptism suggests sleep is restorative.  Furthermore, because baptism is often performed on young children and accompanied by name-giving, sleep represents a rebirth-a cleansing of the day and a chance to be reinvented and start over.  

Plath reinforces this image of sleep as rebirth in the next line when she likens awakening from a good night’s rest to the “sweet, drugged waking of a forgetful baby” (Plath 19).  Like baptisms, babies call to mind purity and freshness, which indicates the mind can be reborn when it’s been able to renew and clarify itself.  Yet rather than submerge itself in the forgetful waters of sleep and wake up to find itself revived, the insomniac mind stays up, grouchy and restless, not reborn but dead to the new day.  

The astounding power of the artist to carefully observe and render the world is just what leads to this figurative death.  Stress.  Worry.  Anxiety.  All result from a sharp, keen mind and represent the driving forces of insomnia.  Plath captures this idea perfectly when she calls the insomniac’s head a “little interior of grey mirrors” (Plath 22).  Recalling the earlier image of the sky as blue-black carbon paper, this portrait of the mind as a “mirror” reveals thought is an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to recreate the world.  After all, mirrors only reflect reality-they aren’t reality itself.  The figure of mirror also brings to mind a fun house, an erie place where the normal laws of the universe are suspended and once ordinary impressions appear distorted.  Grey-that dreadfully bland color-creates a mood of tedium and listlessness, which proves the speaker feels like a prisoner when trapped in his mind and deprived of the external.

In the end, “Insomniac” is not just about one person’s inability to sleep-it’s about the terrible power of the intellect to cut us off from existence.  For Plath, the artist’s mind is both a prison and a fun house: like a prison, the mind’s persistent thinking confines us to the four walls of our skull and, like a fun house, its depictions of our lives are often inaccurate.  

 

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.