Read as confessional, these poems can be interpreted to show Plath’s personal resentment towards men and domesticity, but read as allegorical, could show Plath’s genius as a social critic, one who draws on events from her own life to achieve a greater purpose beyond creating simple autobiographical accounts.
Feminists have embraced Plath’s active criticism of the current social system which placed women as housewives, secretaries, and nannies, and men as scientists, CEOs, and writers. But not without disagreement among feminists about her personal opinion on domesticity. In response to celebratory feminist readings, some critics make the argument that while married Plath actually embraced domesticity, referencing her journals to show her devotion to all things domestic, The former view is expressed by the critic Lynda K. Bundtzen.
Drawing on quotes from Plath’s private journals, Bundtzen suggests that Plath “enjoyed casting herself in the role of domestic goddess” (79). She describes Plath as being fascinated by cooking and delighted by decorating. Bundtzen does this by outlining many journals in which Plath describes the glorious meals that she has created, and uses this to support her claim that Plath enjoyed being in a role of domesticity. Others suggest that her poems cast a different light on domesticity: a shadow of hatred and oppression.
The critic Jeannine Dobbs, argues that poems in Plath’s Ariel accurately depict her disdain for the typical domestic life of a woman living in the 1960s. The title of Dobbs’s essay, “Viciousness in the Kitchen,” is an excerpt from the poem “Lesbos,” which is part of the Ariel collection. This critic looks closely at several other poems in Ariel as well, including “Purdah” and “The Jailor. ” Dobbs’s argument is logical, but only if Plath’s poetry is read as completely autobiographical and somehow more true than the views that she expresses in her letters and journals.
This render Dobbs’s argument as one-sided; she only uses the evidence which supports her claims and never acknowledges the evidence that could support a counter-argument. Of course, Lynda Bundtzen’s argument is also not perfect. Bundtzen talks a lot about Plath’s love for cooking, but this is the only domestic chore that Bundtzen really covers. Still she claims that Plath embraced all of domesticity. It is evident from her writing that Plath was a highly creative and innovative individual. Therefore, couldn’t her love for cooking merely be just an extension of her creativity?
Bundtzen herself quotes a particular passage from the biography of Plath which says, “[Plath] did not see such a big difference between the art of composing a poem and the skill of preparing a good meal” (80). This suggests that cooking was a creative outlet for Plath when she wasn’t writing. The fact that Plath’s love of writing and her zest for cooking are connected is continuously mentioned throughout Bundtzen’s argument. For Plath, cooking may also have been a diversion, or an escape from her work.
This is shown in Bundtzen’s argument through her reference of Hughes’s quote, “When she’s faced by some tedious or unpleasant piece of work she escapes into cooking” (80). Bundtzen also notes that Plath’s fondness for cooking may have been the product of a larger personality disorder. It is common knowledge that Plath was depressed all her life and had multiple psychological afflictions, and Bundtzen makes the reader question if this love for cooking may be just another string in the web of Sylvia Plath’s abnormal psyche.
With all these possible reasons for Plath’s fondness for cooking explained in her argument, the idea that Plath enjoyed cooking for its domestic value is unlikely, although this is what Bundtzen claims. Also, nowhere in her argument does Bundtzen give evidence that Plath enjoys other typical facets of domesticity including cleaning and motherhood. Plath’s love for cooking also does not prove that Plath enjoyed being in a role of domestic sub-ordinance in her family. This causes Bundtzen’s use of Plath’s journal entries to be only partially upportive to her argument that Plath embraces domesticity.
Looking at the flaws in both critics’ arguments, it is difficult to choose a side. Does Plath embrace domesticity as her journals may suggest, or is it her poetry A truer reflection of her contempt towards being in that type of role? If one accepts both sides, Sylvia Plath becomes a hypocrite, saying one thing in her journals and another in her poetry. However, if we look at Sylvia Plath as a social critic, it may be easier to understand why the sentiments expressed in her poetry do not match up with her real life.
As such a well-known female writer, Plath was a voice for women everywhere. She used the power of her poetic voice to criticize social standards and further the feminist movement in literature. I also believe that Plath enjoyed aspects domesticity which did allow her to express her creativity as Bundtzen suggests. But I will show that despite this enjoyment, Plath understood and was critical of the submissive role that it put her in in her life, as well as in her poetry. This difference between enjoying domesticity while rejecting male control can be seen in one of Plath’s earlier poems, “The Colossus.
Many critics including Steven Gould Axelrod discuss “The Colossus” as a representation of Plath’s struggle to find her own voice in a patriarchal literary tradition. In his book, Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words, Axelrod establishes this view by saying, “I believe that Plath transformed her conflict with her father’s memory into a larger argument with cultural memory, with the literary tradition’s ‘colossal’ list of books, with the canonical writers she thought of as ‘god-eyed’, and with the male ‘superiors’ who neglected, misunderstood, and overshadowed her” (47).
If “The Colossus” can be read to show Plath’s sentiments toward patriarchal dominance in the literary world, can it not also be read to show her feelings toward patriarchal dominance in the domestic world? In the first line, “I shall never get you put together entirely” could show Plath’s struggle to please Hughes (Collected Poems 129). It is often the case that housewives lived to makes their husband and families happy.
The image of the speaker crawling around trying to piece together the statue in this poem, could easily be interpreted as a woman cleaning up, putting everything in ts place, and striving for a happy home and family. This is the side that Plath enjoyed in her personal life. Because domestic aspects such as cooking invoked some of Plath’s creativity, it was something that she liked doing, which is why she did it for many years. However, this same line may also result in images of slavery as the Colossus is a figure of power while the figure piecing it together is insignificant and small, slaving over the statue. “Mule-bray, pig-grunt… great lips” could represent the orders, demands, and rules placed on Plath by men (129).
When she represents the subject as a god in the line “Perhaps you consider yourself an oracle, mouthpiece of the dead, or of some god or other,” it shows the power that the figure has over her, an accurate representation of the dominant-submissive relationship of the husband and wife in the 1960s (129). This is the aspect of domesticity that Plath does not embrace, the feeling of inferiority and sub-ordinance to a husband. The line “Thirty years now I have labored,” shows that Plath has worked her entire life for the sake of the statue, the representation of the powerful male figure (129).
The nature of this labor is explained a few lines later when Plath says, “Scaling little ladders with glue pots and pails of Lysol I crawl like an ant in mourning” (129). Here, the labor described is clearly domestic. Lysol, a common cleaning agent today, was largely popular in the 1960s due to its versatility. This passage provides the reader with an image of a woman crawling on her hands and knees to scrub the floor, or climbing a step ladder to wipe down hard to reach places, an image synonymous with domesticity and the daily chores of a housewife.
Of course there is some amount of trade-off for performing these duties, the promise of protection and security. This is mentioned in “The Colossus” in the line “Nights, I squat in the cornucopia of your left ear, out of the wind” (129). As mentioned, the speaker has slaved over the statue, trying to please it by creating order and cleanliness, much like a housewife. In return, the speaker receives shelter and refuge through the statue, much like a housewife receives security and protection through a husband.
The figure in “The Colossus” continues on with it’s endless chore of piecing back the ruin without objection, just as Plath cooked, cleaned, and played the role of housewife without rejection, even describing it positively in her journal entries as Bundtzen notes. This suggests that the figure in the poem, just like Plath, enjoys the work. The negative emotion in “The Colossus” comes only from the idea of the statue having control over the figure. There are other poems in Ariel, which also give the idea that Plath enjoyed domestic chores, but rejected male dominance.
A Birthday Present” is another example bearing this emotion. In this poem, the figure is at work preparing a meal, but there is also a more sinister undertone: a feeling of entrapment. This is expressed clearly in the line “When I’m quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking” (Plath, Ariel 66). Here the figure is content, quiet and peaceful at a task she enjoys. However, there is a separate entity, a Big Brother of sorts, that is watching her every move. This may represent Ted Hughes himself, or the idea of male dominance as a tangible, conscious form.
In another line, this same theme is continued: “Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus/ Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules” (66). The figure is continuing to cook, however, she isn’t doing it for herself, but for the entity, who is controlling her. As I mentioned before, there is some connection between the journals entries which Bundtzen described and some poems in Ariel. On August 17, 1956, Sylvia Plath recounts a particularly special meal that she cooks for her husband, Ted Hughes.
Mentioned in Lynda Bundtzen’s essay, “Plath’s preparations for the first birthday dinner she cooked for Ted as his wife are lovingly documented” (83). For this celebratory occasion, Plath had decided to try out a recipe for stewed rabbit. A seemingly insignificant narration of Plath’s creative cooking process, this event as described in Plath’s journal entry, can be connected to “The Rabbit Catcher,” a poem exhibiting Plath’s critical view of male dominance and control.
There are also many words that can be related back to the act of preparing a meal. Adjectives such as “simmering,” and “perfumed” tickle our senses with imagery of food. Here Plath may have reminisced on that first birthday dinner, imagining herself instead of the meal as a rabbit, caught and trapped in the snare of a predisposed role. Before writing Ariel, and before her husband left her, Sylvia Plath was busy at work on her psuedomemoir, The Bell Jar.
As Bundtzen mentions, The Bell Jar was “an outright repudiation and satire of 1950s norms for women” (87). Bundtzen explains that “Plath was still writing those rosy letters to her mother about domestic bliss with Ted Hughes and singing the praises of Ladies’ Home Journal” (87). Bundtzen uses this to show that Plath was still content with her domestic life, continuing to cook with pleasure, however Bundtzen also says that Plath did not want her mother to read The Bell Jar and originally published it under the pen name Victoria Lucas.
With this information, Bundtzen argues that Plath’s letters to her mother were an inaccurate depiction of how she was actually feeling towards domesticity and was merely a way to make her mother happy. However, I suggest that the opposite is true. Through her use of a pen name and the disconnect between what is expressed in The Bell Jar and what is shown in Letters Home, I believe that The Bell Jar is the truest representation of Plath as a social critic.
Bundtzen says herself that “It is as though Plath split herself in two: for her mother, she was the sentimental “Sivvy” of the letters, in love with soppy women’s magazines; but in The Bell Jar she is the proto-feminist Esther Greenwood, who suspects “maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state,” an epiphany that Esther arrives at after her boyfriend tells her that she won’t want to write poetry anymore after she has children” (87).
What must be remembered is that The Bell Jar is a pseudo memoir, and as such it does not necessarily mean that the main character and Plath shared the same views. Esther is a persona, a projection of herself, which Plath created in order to criticize social standards. There is a definite and direct contrast between what Plath wrote to her mother and what she expressed in The Bell Jar. For example, in December of 1962, Plath was ecstatic when she received two Ladies’ Home Journal magazines “which I fell upon with joy- that magazine has so much Americana, I love it” (Letters Home 438).
What Plath writes to her mother is the exact opposite of what is portrayed in The Bell Jar. “One episode of the novel in particular suggest that Plath regarded women’s magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal as poison – figuratively speaking” (Bundtzen 87). This scene occurs when Esther is invited along with her peers to a banquet put on by Ladies’ Day magazine. Esther eats a lot of food at the banquet, including “yellow-green avocado pear halves stuffed with crabmeat and mayonnaise” (Plath, The Bell Jar 24).
That night, Esther becomes violently ill, passing out on the bathroom floor with overwhelming nausea and diarrhea. She finds out the next morning that the crabmeat was poisoned and full of ptomaine. Why would Plath write so negatively about a magazine that she enjoys? The answer: Plath is using her own experience to criticize gender roles in her writing. As a prominent female writer in the early 1960s, a revolutionary period in American history, it is not surprising that Sylvia Plath incorporated social issues such as gender roles and feminism into her work.
The 1960s was a time of change; a time when women became rebellious, demanding the same rights and levels of respect that men had been receiving for centuries. Sylvia Plath was given an opportunity that many women at the time were not, the ability to have her voice be heard and listened to by the masses. For this reason, she was a speaker for the ideals of women, and used her poetry to knock down gender roles. Therefore, her poetry cannot be read to show her personal opinion towards domesticity as Dobbs suggests, especially since her journals express a love for cooking and other domestic chores.
The only aspect of domesticity that Plath did not embrace was the patriarchal control with which it was associated. Her love for domesticity, and hatred of male dominance are both expressed in many of her poems including “The Colossus” and “A Birthday Present. ” Also, the ways in which she draws upon her own experience to criticize social standards is shown in “The Rabbit Catcher” and The Bell Jar. Dobbs assertion that Plath rejected all of domesticity is unsupported as she uses only Plath’s published writing to support her claim.
Thus, she assumes Plath’s poetry to be confessional and neglects what is expressed in her journal entries. Bundtzen, on the other hand, relies too heavily on Plath’s enjoyment in cooking to support the argument that Plath fully enjoyed all facets of domesticity. Instead, it seems apparent that there is an in between; a rejection of male dominance, but an embracing of the creative aspects of domesticity, such as cooking. Any negative remarks on domesticity as a whole in Plath’s writing comes mostly from her role as a igurehead of feminism, but these remarks primarily focus on patriarchal control.
- Bundtzen, Lynda K. “Lucent Figs and Suave Veal Chops: Sylvia Plath and Food. ” Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture 10. 1 (2010): 79-90.
- Dobbs, Jeannine. “‘Viciousness in the Kitchen’: Sylvia Plath’s Domestic Poetry. ” Modern Language Studies 7. 2 (1977): 11-25. JSTOR. Web. 31 Mar. 2011.
- Plath, Sylvia, and Aurelia Schober Plath. Letters home: correspondence, 1950-1963. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Print.
- Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Karen V. Kukil (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 269.
- Axelrod, Steven Gould, Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1990.
- Plath, Sylvia, “The Colossus. ” Collected Poems. New York: Faber and Faber Ltd, 1981.
- Plath, Sylvia. Ariel: The Restored Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc. , 2004.