Intersections Of Domesticity And Art: Rejection Of Feminine Double In Plath’s Work

As the 20th century is over, scholars and students will be returning to see contributors to this century’s literary canon. There are many options for poetry. But Sylvia Plath, a forceful contender, is the best choice. Plath’s dark, haunting and macabre works from the 1950s to 1960s contrast with the optimism of her generation. Plath’s work was written during the baby boom years. Plath stands out as the uncompromising mother and writer, and she also has an unwavering devotion to writing. She was also the first to discuss the tension between work and home. Plath often explores the traditional conflict between career and family. Plath’s writing and life are full of anxiety and despair at her inability to make a choice and instead attempt to have both (Dobbs 11).

Sylvia Plath was a young woman who “experienced social conventions in the fifties as an oppressive force …..” Plath imagined herself in a society where marriage and childbearing were unconcilable. (McNeil 476). These two selves can be found only in her poetry. Plath makes it a central topic of her poetry to discuss womanliness. The self is a central theme in much of American postwar poetry. Plath’s poetic voice entices the reader to a hidden part of themselves while also speaking outwards. Plath’s power is derived from this doubling. Plath is well-known for her invention and contributions to confessional poetry. Her poems “depict a subjectivity instantly recognizable to the female-and feminist-consciousness which constitutes much contemporary sensibility; indeed, Plath is one of the creators of that sensibility (McNeil, 469). This subjectivity and sensibility is what Plath is known for, and will be revealed through close readings and research. This paper will focus on two themes Plath uses to deconstruct conventional meanings. The paper will demonstrate Plath’s voice and how it moves beyond the pages where they are written to reveal the universal female voice. Plath’s humorous and unusual use of the lunar symbol in her poems represents female passivity. Plath’s poetry also uses the mirror to represent her conflicted self identity due to social pressure to manage her domestic obligations and artistic career. Moons

Plath was attracted to the classic moon metaphor. But, in her poetry, the metaphor works the opposite way. Plath’s poem Moonrise uses ominous imagery in her poem and makes allusions concerning the death Christ during pregnancy. A white body/Rots, and the smell of rot underneath its headstone/Though, the body walk out with clean linen ./…Death clears in the egg. Plath makes it clear that childbirth can be considered a death of the mother or a loss. The poem’s conclusion features a letter to Lucina (the goddess of childbirth), which Plath transforms into Lucina in the moon. Plath’s controversial views about childbirth can be seen in the ironic imagery that Lucina, or the moon, represents the negation of pregnancy.

Plath suggests that the moon represents mother. The symbol is found in Plath’s poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” which reflects Plath’s view of the mother who rejects and isolates the child. The moon is “white and very upset”, as the personification of her. Moonlight is her mother, and she becomes her deathly “mother”. Plath is unable to see the moon as the loving, nurturing symbol it should. Instead, she sees coldness and distance. Instead, she feels angry and rejected by the moon. “The moon’s mother is me.” She isn’t sweet as Mary./Her blue attires unloose small owls and bats./How I would believe in tenderness —” (17-19). Instead of nurturing her, the mother unleashes gothic predators, bats, owls, that are cold-hearted and uncomforting. The conclusion of the poem is “The moon does not see this.” She is bald, wild” (27) demonstrates that the mother doesn’t know her daughter and is independent of her child.

Plath’s use moon as a symbol is ironic. Plath wrote “The Rival”, a poem that reflects this sentiment. Plath then extends her metaphor of a rivalry between her husband and her relationship with her mother to show that she is threatening her life and taking away her light. Plath’s work is threatened by the moon. Plath now sees the woman’s moon as a threat to her life and work. Plath sees the women’s domestic and social obligations as a threat to her. “The moon, also, abuses its subjects/But during the day she is ridiculous.” (11-12). The moon’s “Whiteness and Blankness, Expansive as Carbon Monoxide” (15) is what it is. It is also deadly.

Plath wrote her last poem, “Edge”, in which she described the moon’s role as an object of indifference, abandonment and desperation. Plath remarks that women can only be perfected and achieved by death and concludes: “The moon doesn’t have anything to be sad about/Starting out of her hood made of bone./Her blacks crackle./Her blacks drag.” (19-22). Plath imagines the Moon gazing at the devastation of mother and child bodies, with heartlessness as well as indifference. “Blacks crackle, drag,” could refer to the moon’s blacks, which are curtains that blacken out the light and represent the death of all life. Crackle is a sign of static and interference in an atmosphere that causes trouble. Our vocabulary is what makes human relations with the moon possible. The Latin root “luna” means lunacy, which implies that the moon is maddening. The moon’s influence on the women’s life cycle has an obvious effect: the moon is responsible for her period of 28 days. The moon could have been influencing the horrific events she later observes.

Plath’s imagery denotes inconsistency, sterility and the death of a woman. Plath’s view of motherhood is something that threatens, and even kills it. These poems highlight the stress mental levels associated with pregnancy and maternal condition. Plath had two kids, and yet, it is evident that Plath considers motherhood to be monstrous. Plath used mirror imagery throughout her works to develop the idea that the split self is a self without identity.


Freedman 152 states that for many women writers, looking in the mirror can be a search to find their own self. Plath’s frequent use of mirrors to illustrate her anxiety about claiming an identity. This was both her writing identity and her post-childbirth identity. Plath seems to have been more interested in reflection than vanity and femininity. Her primary concern was her reflection and her place in the world. Plath was married for many years to Ted Hughes. She wanted to know herself and not be “the poet’s widow.” (Freedman 152). Plath uses the mirror to express her struggle with self-identity because of the social pressures that women must face in balancing work and home lives.

Because Plath’s poem “Mirror” is so heavily and wholeheartedly concerned the search for the feminine self within the mirror or lake, it is relevant. The poem’s “She” depicts a flattering representation of herself in the reflection lake. She “turns to those candles and the moon (12) in order to confirm the man-pleasing myths of eternal youth, docility, and sexual allure (Freedman 152). The mirror shows the image of an old woman, or “terriblefish” (18). This monstrous image is what Plath does to accept or compromise old age as beauty. Plath may explore Plath’s concern with having children. This is something that is normal and expected, but it can also compromise beauty or youth. Plath and all women face the choice between having children and being essentially replaced in identity and body. A woman can lose her autonomy after having children. Plath describes the symbol in a poem as seeing in the mirror her reflection and seeing the fishy, unidentified fish.

While “Mirror,” a comment about compromising beauty and youth after childbirth is one thing, “Three Women,” a more detailed reflection on Plath’s fears over her professional identity following the birth of children, explores Plath’s anxieties. The poem is divided into three voices, each representing a woman who gives birth in a hospital. The Third Voice refers to herself as a reflection. Sylvia could be the Third Voice. She is afraid to meet her double in mirrors or water. She gives birth, but is not ready to have, and she leaves her daughter behind at the hospital. “This is what I should have done, it is what kills me.” (126). The Third Voice describes the delivery room as “a place where shrieks are heard” (126).

The Second Voice is a female who miscarries and regains her self-identity. The Second Voice proclaims, “The mirror returns a woman without deformity/The nurses return my clothes, and an identification” (238-40). Later, it was revealed that I am not hopeless./It is a beautiful statistic. Here’s my lipstick./I draw on my old mouth./The red lips I used to identify myself with. Finally, “I’m able to go to the office today./I can love my spouse, who will understand./Who can love me through my blurred vision/As if my eyes, legs, and tongue had been removed” (248-51). The Second Voice allows these two women to be free from motherhood by either abandonment or accident. The Third Voice mirrors the self with dread. It will not reflect the mother’s image if the child has been adopted. Alternately you can see the Second Voice as a positive reflection. It is one that gives you the relief of not having been “deformed” by a bullet and is a source of joy.

“Plath’s use of mirror imagery in her poetry seems to create a dangerously shifting zone of uncertainty and intense tension. Her poetry’s reflective surfaces become transparent and reveal the world behind them.” (Ekmekcioglu 100). Plath might have lost her identity, but that was just a thought. Her poem, “Tale of a Tub”, shifts the mood to bring about reconciliation. The poem describes the strange sensation of looking into a mirror to see a stranger. Plath, the object in the mirror, is what this poem depicts. She grinnes, calls our names, and signifies death. The conclusion of the poem states that death is what gives Plath her identity. It “makes them real” as the corpse has been removed from the world of reflected image. Plath’s remarks that women can only be made perfect and accomplished by death echo her poem “The Edge.” Plath might have intended her comment about her marital and child relationships to suggest her search for an identity. She may have felt trapped within her domesticity and decided that she would be freed if her life was ended in poetic justice.

Like “Edge,” where Plath addresses the last symbol of the moon, “Contusion”, one of Plath’s final poems, deals with the “color of pearl”. The body is “washed,” meaning it has lost its color. It also indicates that there is no livelihood. Plath’s sense of loss and disillusionment is manifested in the physically depleted body.

Plath also uses different sizes for the various images, which show her relationship with her surroundings. The second stanza reads: “The sea suckers obsessively” (4). She is engulfed by the sea, which is huge. The third stanza reads: “The size/The doommark/Crawls on the wall.” The fly is not a significant “mark” against the wall. However, it is evident that her feelings of helplessness, overwhelm, and aloneiness are evident due to the sheer volume of other objects she is confronted with. External forces such as the sea can “suck” her life, rendering her powerless and weak. The tone changes to one of complete emptiness. It is said that the fly is a “doom symbol” that “crawls against the wall” and this causes a feeling of detachedness and disassociation for those who are watching. Notably, after the heart stops beating (10) it causes her to die. She is now free. “Contusion” is over: “The mirrors have been sheeted,” and they are not being replaced by doubles or the need to search for their identity. This is the death or demise of the physical being. But she will no longer be a slave for the mirror.

Plath’s use of mirrors images shows that this identity is not possible to find through society’s pressures. Plath addressed the problem of childbirth as a compromise and came up with a solution: death. Plath’s poem “Edge” depicts a dead woman with “a smile of accomplishment”. This suggests that a woman who has died is now a woman that the critic world may approve of. Dead, that strong woman is not a threat” (Wagner Martin 239). Plath may have committed suicide at the age of thirty. Plath could have felt that her only option was to end life, as she didn’t see herself as an individual in a society.

Plath did not know whether she chose to go down the path that would take her deeper into a domestic labyrinth. Because of their subject matter and the emotional stimulation they provided, it is impossible to say if Plath was conscious or unconscious. As she finished writing her last poems, her husband died. Sylvia Plath is a respected American poet whose work explores the intersections art and domesticity. She also explores themes such as family relationships and women’s roles in society. Her poetry, which speaks about the female condition in the past before the feminist movement was born in the 1970s/80s is one reason it has lasted. Plath’s writings are still relevant, even with all the improvements over the years. We can reassess what we think about women and men, and reflect on our personal experiences with gender roles. This helps us understand society better. Also, we can see the flaws and potential dangers in gender roles. Plath’s life experiences and times cannot be changed. Her work captures the female condition like no other. Her work was the first to make strides in educating us about the struggles women face in society. Sylvia Plath lit it.

Works cited

Dobbs, Jeannine. Viciousness In The Kitchen: Sylvia Plath’s Domestic Poems. Modern Language Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1977, p. 11-25. Print.

Ekmekcioglu, Neslihan. Sylvia Plath’s Mirrors reflecting Various Guises Of Self. Plath Profiles. Indiana University Northwest. 1, 1998, p. 92-100. Web.

Freedman, William. Plath’s Mirror and the Monster. Papers of Language and Literature, Vol. 108, No. 5, 1993, p. 152-69. Print.

McNeil, Helen. Sylvia Plath wrote many pieces of literature. Voices and Visions: The Poet of America. Ed. Helen Vendler. Random House in New York published the book. 1987. Print.

Plath, Sylvia. A compilation of poems by a certain author or poet. Ed. Ted Hughes wrote some of the most beautiful literature of the 20th century. His work is often reflective of his own life, as well as the natural world around him. He uses elements of nature to create vivid imagery and tell stories that are both moving and powerful. New York: Harper Perennial. 1981. Print.

Wagner-Martin, Linda W. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. Published by Simon and Schuster in New York. 1987. Print.