Suicide Parade: The Final Act of Sylvia Plath
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Sylvia Plath was born to German immigrants in the early 1930s. Her father was a strong individual who died when Plath was eight years old. After his death in 1940, Plath's mother was forced to work two jobs to care for her children. Sylvia Plath did very well in school, despite this early childhood tragedy, and, eventually, won a scholarship to Newnham College in England. Here she met Ted Hughes, a poet, who she later married. Their relationship was not what Plath wanted, and Hughes left her for another woman. This devastated Plath. Throughout her life, she tried several times to kill herself, succeeding the final time. In her poetry, Plath demonstrates a need to take control of her own life, as well as her own death. Plath seems to view death by old age as something mediocre. Perhaps, then, her repeated attempts at suicide are just her way of dying with some sort of show. In her poems, Plath appears to scorn those she believes will kill her slowly, and takes hold of her situation by trying to kill herself dramatically. In the poems "Mirror", "Daddy", and "Lady Lazarus", the reader becomes aware that Plath feels like she is losing control over her own life. This control is regained by her personal expression through her poetry, and by her repeated suicide attempts. The undercurrent in these three of Plath's poems is the motif of desperation at the state of her life. With this perspective, the reader begins to see more clearly that Plath's methods of seizing control, although twisted in a sense, spring from a desire to be the power behind her own existence. In her own words Plath confirms this:
"I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying."
Plath's poem "Mirror", written in about 1961, is typical of Plath's poetry, because the syllable count is irregular. Plath probably uses this method to allow the flow to be natural. In this poem Plath clearly illustrates an agitation with the changes time brings. In it, the reader finds imagery of the loss of a young self:
"In me she has drowned as a young girl, and in me and old woman/ rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish"
Here, the mirror becomes a lake, and the persona drowns. Plath is indicating the literal and figurative death of her persona. The persona Plath uses is a representation of herself. It is evident that Plath was pregressively more dissatisfied with her life. Plath not only struggled with mental illness, but her troubles increased even further after her separation from Ted Hughes in 1962. Later, the release of her book, The Bell Jar was met with less than satisfactory reviews, and Plath grew more and more desperate. Interestingly, her friends claimed Plath remained cheerful through all her problems. "Mirror" speaks to this however, when it says:
"Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon" (12)
This, perhaps, is a metaphor for the way Plath appeared on the outside. Possibly, she could even fool herself into thinking she was happy and successful -- by the "candlelight" it might seem so. However, the mirror tells the truth, and when Plath sees herself clearly
"she rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands" (14)
The personification of the mirror indicates the pure, unbiased reality of Plath's view of herself, which became progressively more difficult to ignore.
"Daddy" was written between 1962 and 1963, shortly before Plath's death. The poem is written in a sort of open verse. There is no consistent rhyme pattern, but there are five lines in each stanza. The poem carries a motif of journey and travel. The first line has rhythm which alludes to the sound of a train starting to move:
"You do not do, you do not do" (1)
This tool is repeated in various places throughout the poem. The most likely explanation for this usage is that Plath is mentally and emotionally dealing with her father's death- and possibly his life- over a period of time. Her poem is a narrative describing the metaphoric journey Plath travels in coping with everything relating to her father. The most obvious theme of this poem is Plath's references to Nazis and the Holocaust. Plath continually implies that she is Jewish and her father is German:
"I though every German was you./ And the language obscene// An engine, an engine/ chuffing me off like a Jew" (29-32)
Here she directly accuses her father of being the literal driving force behind her eminent demise. Plath goes through stages in the poem where she exhibits some sort of longing for her father:
"At twenty I tried to die/ And get back, back, back to you" (58-59)
The general feeling of the poem, however, is an anger and bitterness at her father's death, and a sense of blame for her own suffering. Plath uses frequent cacophony in the poem to represent these emotions:
"A man in black with a Meinkampf look// And a love of the rack and the screw" (65-66)
The words "black", "Meinkampf", "rack", and "screw" contain a harsh "k" sound. This forces the reader to pronounce the words carefully, and, in doing so, better understand their meanings. Here, Plath seems to be refering to torture. This poem presents a total picture of Plath's view about herself. She is an unwilling victim. While she blamed her father for her pain, she also took control of her fate from him:
"Daddy, you can lie back now.// There's a stake in your fat black heart" (75-76)
Her father was dead, but the way he made her feel-- like a Jew being persecuted by a Nazi-- was still alive. In this poem Plath "kills" her father and the metaphoric train ends its journey:
"Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through" (80)
Plath wrote "Lady Lazarus" around the same time as "Daddy" and similar themes run through both poems. The rhyme scheme is inconsistent, and the syllable count is irregular. This poem specifically illustrates Plath's need to be recognized. Even in her own death she seems to perform for her supposed audience:
"The big strip tease/ Gentlemen, ladies// These are my hands/ My knees" (30-32)
Plath demonstrates a feeling that everyone is critical of her, even more, perhaps, they want her to die and will delight in her death:
"For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge" (58)
She chooses, again, not to allow her death to be common. Her repeated references to the Holocaust make the reader hesitant to empathize with her feelings. The enormity of the Jewish persecution is much greater than the plight of one woman. However, Plath describes her emotional state in such a way that it becomes evident that she does feel comparable to a Jew. She presents the idea that her life--her accomplishments-- will mean nothing to anyone. When she is gone there will be nothing left of what she was:
"Flesh, bone, there is nothing there--/ A cake of soap,/ A wedding ring,/ A gold filling" (75-78)
Like the Jews who died and had their bodies burned, Plath feels that the people in her life would like to see her gone and forgotten. There would be nothing left of herself but trivial things. Plath rebukes this plan, because she cannot permit herself to be unnoticed. Certainly, when upon meeting Ted Hughes for the first time, she bit him on his cheek she was not being quiet or inconspicuous. She might die, but it would not be tactfully. Plath takes power over her own death, and with that final act, becomes more powerful than her persecutors:
"Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air" (62-64)
Not only is she triumphant, Plath also gets revenge on those she feels tried to kill her. She becomes a fire that easily consumes them. The "men" she alludes to could be harsh literary critics, Ted Hughes, her unfaithful husband, or even her father. Whoever the men are, Plath warns them in the penultimate stanza,
"Beware/ Beware" (80-81)
In "Mirror" the reader begins to recognize Plath's despair with her life. She feels like she is losing herself gradually, and has lost control of the progression of her life. "Daddy" explains one of the causes of Plath's life struggles-- her father. She places blame on him for her pain, but takes back power from him. She goes further in "Lady Lazarus" when she does not only become the force over her own death, but even punishes those who despise her. Her poetry obviously uses much hyperbole. Reasonable people do not say some of the outlandish things Plath says. However, on further study, Plath's message becomes clear:
"I am a smiling woman./ I am only thirty./ And like the cat I have nine times to die" (19-21)
Those lines from "Lady Lazarus" confirm that Plath lives for the audience and will die for the audience. This woman, so young and full of potential, would rather take her own life and be known than allow the world to kill her slowly and be forgotten. What a tragedy to steal back your power in such a dramatic way:
"What a trash/ To annihilate each decade" (23-24)
Right or wrong, Plath succeeded in this attempt. Who can forget her horrible death? After reading her painful poetry, who can remove it from their mind? No one can deny Sylvia Plath the power she paid for with her death.
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