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Plath’s Poetry is Shaped by the Restrictive Roles Open to Her As a Woman

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Plath is considered to be one of the major voices writing about feminine subjects during the 1950s and the 1960s. This was a period when feminists started to acknowledge women’s oppression and the 2nd wave feminist movement began in the early 1960s. Within Plath’s collection of poems, Ariel, published in 1965, two years after her death in 1963, we see her adopt different personas, standpoints and tones. The speakers often begin oppressed and manipulated; their roles in society shaped by the patriarchy; at times the speaker is abject, resigned, sometimes defiant and triumphant and at other times bitter and frustrated. It can be argued that Plath’s poetry is shaped by the norms and values of the fifties and sixties and is a response to the restrictions and limitations she feels as a daughter, mother and wife.

Plath explores the idea that the patriarchy shapes women’s very identities, particularly in their roles as daughters and then wives. Psychoanalytical approaches to her work have examined how Plath’s language reveals a tortured relationship with her father and this is evident in one of her most shocking and striking poems from Ariel ‘Daddy’ where we can find images of female exploitation and resistance of the patriarchy. In this poem, the father symbolises the patriarchy as Plath controversially likens him to Adolf Hitler, and her suffering as a victim of the patriarchy she associates with that of the Jews, during the Second World War. The female speaker expresses her love for her father but nevertheless her hatred and resentment is evident as she describes this patriarchal figure who has oppressed her for so many years. Interestingly, despite the vengeful tone she deliberately adopts ‘childish’ words and sounds – even the choice of the title ‘Daddy’ suggests a childlike viewpoint, as does the deliberate use of rhyme. The reader is confronted with a defiant daughter wanting to break free from the fetters of this damaging relationship which has constricted her for so long. At the beginning of the poem, she compares herself to a foot in her father’s shoes indicating that growing up she has been confined in an enclosed space where she has felt suffocated and deprived of freedom in movement and improvement; Plath rails that the speaker has barely dared to ‘breathe or achoo’ because of his overbearing presence. Both are arguably involuntary actions and yet she fears her father to such an extent that she barely dares to do what she cannot control. This indicates how submissive and subdued the female speaker is forced to be in the presence of patriarchal figures and how the patriarchy has shaped her existence. Through the poem she continues to associate her father with imagery of pure evil such as Nazis and Facists and even associating him with supernatural figures such as vampires and the devil. In line 72, ‘the Vampire who said he was you/ drank my blood for a year/ seven years, if you want to know’ Plath is describing her husband, with whom she was married to for seven years, during which he had an affair with another woman; here Plath comments on the ability of Male power to strip a woman of her sense of self. The Patriarchy has dictated her life so when she feels rejected from her husband she feels he has drained her by drinking her blood, or figuratively sucking the life out of her. Her entire identity seemed to be shaped by the validation of her husband and when that marriage ended she lost her sense of self. With this in mind it could be argued that Ariel as a collection of poetry serves as an overall expression of her resulting confusion and loss of identity attributable to the end of her marriage; which would support the argument that Plath’s poetry is shaped by her own experiences: both as a restricted, suffocated daughter and then as a wife where she continued to be a victim of patriarchal values in the 1960s.

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In Ariel, Plath’s commentary extends its focus on the suffocating ideals of femininity to the social construction that is motherhood. Feminist critics in the 1960s and 1970s discussed how Plath was writing of the familial restrictions that were still oppressing women; domesticity and the role of motherhood seemed to be at odds with creating a new true identity, free of duty. Critics argue that in ‘Ariel’ the speaker ‘envisages herself being gradually free from her own body, (‘unpeel(ing..) her skin’) until she is seamlessly connected to the natural world around her: ‘Foam to Wheat, a glitter of seas.’ At the beginning of the poem, the speaker is in a ‘calm stasis’ until the horse she is riding bolts off into a mad frenzy. Consequently, she seeks control but ‘cannot catch’ the horse’s neck. We could interpret that the horse symbolises her own suppressed desires of wanting to break free of the ideals of womanhood that have been imposed on her by a patriarchal society; specifically motherhood. The ‘calm stasis’ could reflect her conformity but once she begins to resist her maternal duties as she is forced to ignore ‘the child’s cry’ and let it ‘melt in the wall,’ she sheds her past life and ‘stringencies’; her identity as a mother. As she begins to view motherhood under the patriarchy as a “social mandate, and oppressive institution, a compromise of a women’s independence“, she finds liberation, becoming the ‘arrow’ that will lead her to her new existence. During the poem, the speaker refers to herself as ‘White Godiva’ as Plath makes a link to the wife of an English lord, who submitted herself to the humiliating condition of riding naked around the streets of the town in order to help the submissive tenants. We could argue that here the female speaker subverts the concept of shame that surrounds female bodies; which is an important process of liberating women. Adrienne Rich states that ‘the woman’s body is the terrain on which patriarchy is erected’: therefore, by making strategic use of the female body women are able to make it an avenue for resistance. Plath comments that the patriarchy has robbed females of their agency over their bodies; and in regards to motherhood under the patriarchy women’s bodies serve simply as a tool for procreation. The speaker in Ariel only reaches a state of liberation after she has rid herself of her own flesh and blood and Dermott Bond argues that by doing so she becomes ‘ethereal and powerful.’ The poem hints at the idea of ‘suicide’ at the end of the poem, perhaps Plath is commenting that the greatest form of liberation for women lies in death where they can truly separate themselves from what has essentially restricted their roles in life; their bodies.

Even if Plath’s female speakers are bold and progressive characters who fight against the patriarchy, their actions and their desire for revenge are still dictated and moulded by the restrictions enforced upon them. ‘Lady Lazarus’, as Bassnett suggests, is “a woman who understands the nature of her enemy and returns to fight back” and with fighting back she “becomes the master, a master who is more cruel than the original because all revenge is appropriate after the humiliations and torments suffered”. In this poem, the speaker moves from being a passive victim of the patriarchy to an effective avenger; issuing warns to her enemies and then threatening them. These threats, which she has issued to her patriarchal enemy, can be considered as a form of ‘public declared resistance’ in which the speaker asserts her new powerful self. At the beginning of the poem we see her as the recipient of the Male actions in which she appears to be acted upon, when they unwrap her. Then when she starts gaining power, she becomes the vigorous agent of resistance who eats men, who are now reduced to being the ones acted upon. The female speaker moves from being caged and confined by the chains of patriarchy to being liberated. So this poem can be described as “a journey from a life of abuse and nightmare to one of liberation.” So, it could be argued that Plath’s poetry is not entirely shaped by the restrictive roles in society because she is able to write a character who boldly attempts to attack the patriarchy and all it stands for; and with this reaches a state of emancipation. However, even in this defiant poem where the speaker is claiming reinvention, she depicts herself as a corpse with only ‘eye pits, the full set of teeth.’ So arguably this character has still been moulded with those restrictions and ideals of the patriarchy in mind.

Plath uses her poetry to express her critique of the patriarchal social order which restricts women and reduces them to terms of passivity, submission and dependence as she features images of female exploitation and it is constantly at the hands of men. Women are depicted as the victims of the patriarchal ideology in which they are compared to the victims of Jews in “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”. However, Plath also draws images of resistance and revolt against the oppressive patriarchal system in her poem ‘Lady Lazarus’, which arguably contradicts the idea that her poetry is entirely shaped by the restrictive roles open to women in the 1950s and 60s because she at times writes bold, progressive female speakers who desire emancipation and do not just accept their inferior role in society; However you could argue that this is an exception. What is definitely true is the fact that within Plath’s poetry there is a constant commentary on the inequality apparent in women’s lives as a consequence of the patriarchy and whether or not her female speaker is a housewife, whose identity is entirely shaped by restrictive social norms, or a female speaker who has agency and acts with intentions of being freed from her submission and passivity, at the core of Plath’s commentary is her hatred for the patriarchy and this shapes her poetry.

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Plath’s Poetry is Shaped by the Restrictive Roles Open to Her As a Woman. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/plaths-poetry-is-shaped-by-the-restrictive-roles-open-to-her-as-a-woman/
“Plath’s Poetry is Shaped by the Restrictive Roles Open to Her As a Woman.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/plaths-poetry-is-shaped-by-the-restrictive-roles-open-to-her-as-a-woman/
Plath’s Poetry is Shaped by the Restrictive Roles Open to Her As a Woman. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/plaths-poetry-is-shaped-by-the-restrictive-roles-open-to-her-as-a-woman/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Plath’s Poetry is Shaped by the Restrictive Roles Open to Her As a Woman [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/plaths-poetry-is-shaped-by-the-restrictive-roles-open-to-her-as-a-woman/
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