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Sylvia Plath: An Attraction to Death

Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:31 am

By Rachael Lamden

Otto Emil Plath was an educated man- a professor of Biology and German at Boston University, a German American author, an entomologist; despite his credibility, he is also recognized as the late, abusive father of Sylvia Plath. With this, the impact of his neglect and his death on Plath’s life are the main theme of one of her most expressive poems, "Full Fathom Five." Throughout the poem, she conveys the reality of her relationship with her father, communicating the intensity of the pain she experienced following his passing. As a result of her pellucidity, Plath builds a strong connection between her own life and that of her readers, for she embraces her emotions- a common trait amongst the human race. By exposing her personal truths in such a raw piece, she touches on the sensitive topic of death, which highlights what many view as a negative aspect of humanity. In correlation with the aforementioned theme running through Plath’s poem, Heather Clark in her journal of modern literature, “Tracking the Thought-Fox: Sylvia Plath's Revision of Ted Hughes,” confirms that “Plath’s most impactful pieces stem from her encounters with internal and external hardship, including the unexpected death of her draconian father” (35). The sudden passing of Plath’s father can most definitely be identified as an external struggle that she faced; his abuse serves as an internal obstacle she was forced to overcome, for the inner wound he left her shredded her insides, motivating her creative expression of pain, but also acting as an early catalyst for her severe mental breakdown. Both of her struggles, as relating to her father, contributed to the conception of “Full Fathom Five.” Furthermore, with the very first line, “Old man, you surface seldom” (1), Plath uses alliteration to emphasize the rejection of her father throughout her early childhood. She stresses the idea that after his passing at her young age he was permanently gone making his neglect everlasting. Going on to illustrate his physical characteristics, she outlines his “foam- capped: white hair, white beard, far-flung, a dragnet, rising, falling, as waves Crest and trough” (3-5). With the application of metaphor, Plath depicts him as an old man with white hair and a white beard mirroring the Greek God of the sea Poseidon. Her comparison to this powerful yet dangerous figure in Greek mythology ties into her perception of her father, for she considered him a man of great influence who was revered, yet also feared. She explores her emotions further as she introduces her father’s authoritative presence, claiming that “[his] dangers are many” (16). Typically, parents are viewed as trusted adults who have their child’s best interest in mind; however, Plath explicitly paints her father as unreliable and even harmful. Though his “dangers” died with him, the negative impact he had on her was incessant, causing her to loathe and condemn him. In accordance with Plath’s consistent theme of death, she refers to her suicidal tendencies as linked to her father; she avows, “To half believe: your reappearance proves rumors shallow” (23-24). Comprehensibly, Plath expresses that the sole moment in which her father’s existence “reappears” within her mind is when she is in her deepest sorrow and contemplating suicide.

Moreover, given that nearly all humans live with the fear of death creeping upon their shoulders, it is undeniable that the death of an individual would substantially affect the life of another person. In her poem “The Colossus,” Plath is able to successfully create a tragic image of how death dominates the living. This powerful theme voices an ever-present reality faced by humans, for they often experience a death and become vulnerable, leaving room for the grief to seep into and infect their quality of life. Greg Johnson, in his criticism, “The Art of Sylvia Plath,” claims that “Sylvia Plath is a conscious, deliberate artist, one whose most fruitful creations are derived from her darkest experiences… [including] the abrupt death of Otto Emil Plath” (107). Johnson’s observation verifies the ever-present theme of “The Colossus,” as he mentions the prevalence of death- namely her father’s-within her poetry. At the start of the poem, Plath is distraught and expresses her dejection, regretfully, she states, “I shall never get [him] put together entirely” (1). This line is particularly captivating, because the poem as a whole is an extended metaphor comparing her father to the Colossus of Rhodes which broke into pieces 54 years after it was built, and curiously 54 was the age of Otto Emil Plath when he died. Further, she refers directly to her father with the statement, “O father, all by yourself you are pithy and historical as the Roman Forum” (17-18). By employing a metaphor, Plath’s purpose is to attribute the father figure she refers to with certain traits: “pithy,” meaning ‘forcefully expressive,’ works to describe her father because he too was a being with overpowering influence, able to grasp instill fear in his subjects without the need to use excessive words. Defining the character of her father relates to the prevalence of death throughout the poem as a whole because even in his death she recognizes him to hold a certain presence. As the poem reaches its conclusion, the narrator finds ease remaining in the colossus, although it means that she must close herself off from the experiences life has to offer. She gives in and decides, "[her] hours are married to shadow" (28) . Staying in the colossus and living her life in a “shadow” is a metaphor for living in her grief; essentially, Plath suggests that she has surrendered in her battle with depression and mourning, as she has stopped looking for a rescue from her darkness. With this, she has returned to the metaphorical “cornucopia” (24) of her father’s, in turn admitting defeat to the trauma she experienced as a child.

The enduring topic of death persists, as the main focus shifts to suicide. In "Lady Lazarus", Plath ascertains that as a reult of attempting suicide on a multitude of ocassions, she has truly mastered the art of dying. Suicide is directly linked to the threat of death in that they have the same consequence, however, conversely, suicide is an escape from a natural death and unfortunately it is a route that many take in avoiding the curve-balls of life. The title of this poem, “Lady Lazarus,” is a biblical allusion to a man resurrected by Jesus in the Gospel of John, Lazarus. Lazarus, the speaker in the poem is resurrected from his death on multiple occasions, and his return to life is more forced than yearned for; rather, it is unwanted. By developing such a pessimistic mood through the use of this reference, Plath uses the character as her double, and expresses her desire to die in hopes of freeing herself from a suppressive patriarchal society. Time and time again, the speaker is forced back to life and each resurrection is described as a public show conducted for the entertainment of a “peanut-crunching crowd” (26) that neglect the speaker's longing for death. Furthermore, through simile she regretfully expresses that, “like the cat [she has] nine times to die” (21); her comparison between herself and the absurd, mythological life expectancy of a cat emphasizes that the excessive possibilities of revival are nearly torturous. Once the speaker mentions that “the second time [she] meant to last it out and not come back at all” (42-43), it was made clear that Plath had drawn a parallel between the character and herself. She points out her failed suicide attempt in her junior year of college, and explains that she did not want to be saved, but “picked the worms off [her] like sticky pearls” (45-46). With this simile, she underlines the idea that she was content with her decision to die, but was practically yanked off of her death bed involuntarily. Through her intense use of similes referencing the unfavorable balance between death and resurrection, Plath opens a portal into the truths of a suicidal mind and the darkness that sucks the enjoyment and the will to live out of an individual.

Death is a ceaseless theme dragging through Plath’s poetry and she exhibits its ever-present reality in different ways. She often turns to her father’s death and the void left by his absence as a thread throughout her work. She also addresses death as she presents the abundance of suicidal thoughts and actions she engaged in. By fearlessly tackling such an intense topic, Plath was able to connect to countless individuals as she exposed truths about the reality of mental illness and the emotional consequences of abuse and mistreatment.

Works Cited

Churchwell, Sarah. “Ted Hughes and the Corpus of Sylvia Plath.” Criticism, vol. 40, no. 1, 1998, pp. 99–132. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23118141.

Clark, Heather. “Tracking the Thought-Fox: Sylvia Plath's Revision of Ted Hughes.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 28, no. 2, 2005, pp. 100–112. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3831717.

Holladay, Hilary. American Literature, vol. 63, no. 2, 1991, pp. 353–354. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2927189.

Johnson, Greg. “THE ART OF SYLVIA PLATH.” Southwest Review, vol. 65, no. 1, 1980, pp. 105–108. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43469215.