Contemporary Trends in Feminist Criticism and Their Echo in Sylvia Plath’s Later Poems
This paper on women’s poetry seeks to demonstrate the extent to which two of Sylvia Plath’s later poems are rebellious and non- conventional for her era and how this style corresponds to two views in recent feminist
criticism ; Susan Bordo’s reading of the female body as a meaningful text and Elaine Showalter’s exploration of the essential difference between female poetry and male-oriented literary texts. Showalter establishes the idea that women’s writing is a basically different type of literature, deriving from the notion that women have a completely different experience and perception from men. This difference is echoed in style, structure ,language and themes of female writing, to name but a few , and has four realms of difference- biological, linguistic, psychoanalytic and cultural .I will relate to two essential realms of difference which Showalter addresses, which are broadly illustrated in Plath’s poetry- the social realm which situates the woman in certain social codes and the biological/corporal one, addressed by both Showalter and Bordo. Through an analysis of two of Sylvia Plath’s poems; “Ariel” and” Tulips”, written in the last months of her life, I will try to show how these insights could be applied to the poems and reveal how Sylvia Plath’s poetry was dominated by biological/corporal concepts and imagery and social attitudes of dominance and power .
Contemporary feminist critics generally agree with the fact that even the greatest male writers in literary history who wrote about strong women characters (such as Chaucer’s The Wife Of Bath and Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth), could obviously never precisely convey what it is to be a woman and their character illustration was thus probably based on the social codes of their period and their own male perspective of women . Consequently, there is an obvious distinction between the male and female discourse, relating to the attitude and point of view of women in literature;
A poetry written by men speaks a totally different language from that written by women .Women’s poetry, when treated as a gendered artifact, involves, as we have seen in a close study of feminine poetry of the 19th and 20th centuries, a scrutiny of culture related issues such as power relations between the sexes, male dominance, domestic chores and responsibilities and others. It also focuses rather often on issues that are generally associated with the female body such as sex and sexuality, body image, childbirth and other female related topics. Thus, I have decided to focus on these two realms in my paper and I will look at two of Sylvia Plath’s poems from this perspective.
Susan Bordo, in “Anorexia Nervosa: Psychopathology as Crystallization of Culture”, relates to the body as not merely physical but as permeated with cultural meanings too – an insight developed in the writing of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault claimed that the human body can be observed in many fields-the historical demography or pathology, physiological, the extent to which historical processes were involved in biological events and the most profound field-the political involvement of the body which includes power relations that have a direct physical impact on the body. By asserting that” cultural practices ….are always inscribed…on our bodies” (Bordo, p. 142) , she does not deny this relationship between political/ social procedures and the body and claims that women are not only possessors of a body but are also associated with the body, which is part of the woman’s sphere. She remarks however, that the power relations which involve male (or another sector’s) domination over the specific weaker sector (such as women) does not necessarily imply that the dominant group is always in control or that the oppressed or dominated group may not be able to take control over the situation. When Susan Bordo presents the social causes for physical disorders (such as anorexia, yet we can apply it to other factors as well), she observes the obsession with control (the control axis) and the effects of power relations (the gender/power axis) to be 2 of the most important causes for these disorders. Within the control axis, she sees the young anorecticwoman (as ninety percent of all anorectics are women) ,as possessing a feeling of control-over her hunger specifically and her body in general and over her disability to meet personal and social standards and expectationswhich she now finally accomplishes control over. This feeling of control is also shared by body- builders, which just like anorectics, are engaged in the quest for perfection which leads to a feeling of independence and security as soon as the goal is attained. This notion of total control is also associated with control over death, or immortality. Within the gender-power axis, Bordo discusses the effects of power relations on gender and claims that women protest against 3 things:
*confining role expectations
*images of women who are threatening and insatiable in physical and sexual appetites
and idealistic images of the feminine.
*their own desires.
Gender has a fundamental role within these disorders. Many anorectics have reported to have an imaginary male dictator inside them who dominates and possesses them. Bordo proposes this male will or dominator to be the cause of the women’s fear of the traditional female roles, social expectations and oppressions- which are associated with weakness and mental lassitude. Another possibility could be a deep fear of the female concept with its archetypal associations such as voracious hungers and sexual insatiability. Bordo identifies anorexia as “the dimension of protest against the limitations of the ideal of female domesticity “Anorexia is thus, a rejection of the traditional domestic roles and social expectations and of the ideal femininity of the full figured, large breasted woman. These pathologies of female protest, continues Bordo, (including agoraphobia, hysteria and anorexia)” function as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produced them. Susan Bordo thus sees in the emergence of these physical disorders rebellious performances. If society wants the woman to be thin- she will almost disappear. Additionally, if society wants her to perform her domestic obligations- by falling ill she may escape these duties. In other words, the sick woman (suffering from anorexia or other disorders) is able to conform to society’s expectations and rebel and reject them at the same time. These notions, although revealed and identified after 1961- the year Sylvia Plath committed suicide, can be vastly applied and are widely echoed in the poetry of Sylvia Plath , as my analysis will show.
Elaine Showalter, situates the woman in literature in a different position from men, both in terms of the woman as a reader and as the writer of a literary text. In “Feminist Criticism In the Wilderness”, she surveys some feminist theories and consequently reaches the inevitable conclusion that women’s literature is differentas it is based on women’s experience and not on male assumptions- as in literature written by men about women. This female vision, which was termed by Virginia Woolf as “the precious specialty”, demands new models of literary criticism that are based on women experience such as relationships between women, childbirth etc. Consequently, feminist criticism, can not rely on critical tradition as it must consider “its own subject, its own theory, and its own voice” (Showalter, p.54). The differences in the feminine poetry lie, according to Showalter, in four realms: biological, linguistic, psychoanalytic and cultural. The biological difference, which situated the women as inferior by Victorian anthropologists, lies, in Showalter’s opinion, with which I agree, in the analogy between feminine texts and gestation, labor and childbirth. Feminist criticism stresses the body as a source of imagery. The second difference Showalter discusses, which I would like to address and which will be relevant to my poem analysis is feminine writing and women’s culture. In this realm, Showalter defines a cultural theory as one which acknowledges the differences in class, race, nationality and history between men and women, and women’s culture as a collective experience within the culture binding women writers over time and space.
Throughout time, women have been ignored as a separate group within the general male culture. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the term “women’s sphere” referred to the separate roles of men and women which had little or no overlap. In contemporary terms, Showalter mentions Shirley and Edwin Ardener who have defined the women as the muted group who are not fully contained by the dominant male group. Following this, the language belongs to the dominant group and women must speak through it. Thus, women and male circles of relationship, portray an overlap between the dominant and the muted group on the large part with a slight crescent of of the muted group – which Ardener calls “wild”. This wild zone, Edwin Ardener continues, generally stands for the typically female experience, life-style and imagination which is totally inaccessible for men. The wild zone actually enables women to express her revolutionary desires through language and convey her inner unexpressed and generally repressed world. It is, as other feminist critics have termed it, a woman’s way of writing her way out of the “cramped confines of patriarchal space” ( Showalter, p.66) by traveling to a place where she can have female realization , uninterrupted by the dominant group. Nevertheless, despite this idealism, Showalter denies this possibility of a wholly feminist structure, completely outside the dominant structure .Consequently, women’s writing is generally addressed as a” double –voiced discourse” which must cohere the social , literary and cultural heritage of both groups. This means that a woman’s writing can never be strictly feminine or mothered, but would convey a dual parented voice- one which will be both fathered and mothered and which has both a dominant and a muted plot.
The poem “Ariel”, at its basic level of plot, tells the story of a runaway horse ridden by the speaker , conveying to the reader a sense of thrilling self-imperilment from the speaker’s side. The metaphor of flying and motion throughout the poem gives the reader a feeling of rage or even violent action on the side of the speaker. It conveys the feeling of lack of control, (the speaker is not able to control the horse and tries unsuccessfully to hold on to his brown neck- line 9), of getting away or escaping, of leaving everything behind and perhaps even creating a new identity.This can be seen as the poet’s desire to break free from the duties , traditions andexpectations of society.(it seems like the child’s cry in line 24 reminds the speaker of her motherly duties; childbirth or taking care of children from which she is released for the time being ) .On the other hand there is a notion of power; the speaker is invested with power – she is able to escape reality and perhaps create a new one- one in which she will be dominant and will invest complete power. The change of images following one another in quick succession and the quick pace of change give us readers again the impression that the speaker is flying on the horse and wants to get away. The question which crossed my mind is whether this escape is a metaphorical one- from her reality and duties, or is it an actual desire to get away from this world- a desire for death.(Sylvia Plath committed suicide a few months after the poem was written). This idea of leaving the world and its duties, traditions and customs can also be seen in the image of Godiva unpeeling “Dead hands, dead stringencies” .Yet, when the speaker flies into the red eye(which I observe as the rising sun), this can be seen both as having her wish granted- dying by burning from the sun’s heat or a rebirth- dying only to be born again out of the ashes. It is merely a metaphorical death in which the speaker to peel off all social constraints, duties and limitations .This notion of rebirth seems to be expressed in her hopeful ending- ” the cauldron of morning” in which the sun rising in the morning reflects the hopeful rebirth and re-illumination of another day. The poem , which is written in a dual or double voice, contains both a female voice and language full of feminine and sexual images;
“God’s lioness”, “Thighs ,hair, flakes from my heels”(arouses a sexual connotation), Godiva,” and ” the child’s cry”- (feminine duties). Additionally the poem proposes on The one hand to convey a feeling of powerlessness and fragility of the woman rider who has to struggle for control over her horse. On the other hand, there is the notion of power, force and control which are conventionally male traits. She wants to escape, she wants to be like an arrow which is endowed with that force and even manages to become one for a while. Yet, soon after she returns to the female fragility of the dew – which will surely be consumed by the sun. There is a constant battle of forces between the fragile woman speaker and the male stronger forces such as the horse and the sun. In relation to Elaine Showalter’s article, what comes into focus in this poem is the cultural and feminine chores which Sylvia Plath abandons and wishes to escape, and the use of the body as a source of imagery as suggested by Showalter .As Showalter suggested that women writers have their own unique language which is based on feminine experience, Sylvia Plath speaks a language endowed with feminine notions (as I have previously discussed). Moreover, she makes a vast use of the wild zone mentioned by Showalter and within this zone tries to break free from convention. Only by making this journey with Ariel and reaching its final destination, can she find her way out of this confined world (literally or metaphorically) , uninterrupted by the dominant male group. In this poem Plath actually takes control over the situation and causes change .As Susan Bordo asserts, the power relations between the dominant group and women does not always imply that women are always dominated by the dominant group (although it is conventionally so). Thus, in Ariel the speaker does not allow the dominant group to overcome her and takes control by escape. Sylvia Plath’s obsession with control, as seen in this poem, ended in a state of gaining control (death or abandonment of conventional life) . This may seem parallel to the anorectic woman who seeks for control over her physical hunger and her body. As soon as the goal is attained, the anorectic woman gains a feeling of accomplishment and control just as Sylvia Plath has a feeling of hope and accomplishment at the end of Ariel. When Bordo defines anorexia as a rebellious act against social conventions of the full figured, domestic female figure, this is highly echoed in Ariel in which we observe the speaker as a rebellious figure, denying conventional social roles and seeking to escape.
Many of these notions appear in another poem of Sylvia Plath,” Tulips”. In Tulips the speaker who is lying in hospital, feeling immense peacefulness, having given up all her responsibilities, identity and connection to the world “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosionshave given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses…” .However, this peacefulness is disrupted by the red tulips which were sent by her husband, invading her privacy and feeling of detachment from the world, reminding her of the outside world which she is currently separated from. The idea of lying in bed being ill is parallel to Susan Bordo’s notion of the nature of anorexia as a rebellious reaction to social norms. By lying in bed the woman denies her identity and social duties and is able to reach an escape from duties without being expected to perform these duties( being ill). At the beginning of the poem, Plath illustrates her total tranquility and passivity , allowing herself to be completely taken care of by others “my body is a pebble to them…” . This escape from her life and duties also relates to what Showalter mentions in relation to the cultural realm of difference in female literature, which is influenced by the cultural roles of women. Here, Plath has found a way to escape her domestic chores. This situation is her wild zone in which she is able to fulfill her desires. This is why she is so angry at the invasion of the tulips of the new world she has temporarily created for herself. The red tulips, disrupting the whiteness and purity of the hospital room, are a symbol of the outside room, her family and reminders of the social duties she will have to return to. By attacking even the pictures of her husband and child (” their smile catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks”), she makes this idea very clear .As the poem proceeds, she personifies the tulips (“…hear them breathe…redness talks to my wound…now I am watched…”) and blames them for consuming her oxygen and choking her. Like in “Ariel”, this escape from domestic and social traditional roles can be seen also in the light of Elaine Showalter’s article who cites Shirley and Edwin Ardener who perceived the female “wild zone” as a situation created by women where they do not wish to be interrupted by the male. The tulips, sent by the male(her husband) are in fact trespassing into her wild zone where men have no place. This “wild zone”, besides being an escape can also be regarded as a yield for death. She is situated in state of not living , being underwater (“the water went over my head”), feeling numb seems close to being dead. Death is symbolized by the whiteness and purity of the hospital (opposed to the living red tulips). The idea of quietness and purity of death as a goal may be echoed in Bordo’s perception of the anorectic’s feeling of control over physical limitations ( which death is apparently one of them and may be seen as the highest form of control).