Amanda J. Bradley is a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. She is currently working on her dissertation on early twentieth century authors Mina Loy, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, and Louise Bogan in relation to definitions of the New Woman. She also writes and publishes poetry and plans to pursue an MFA in Poetry Writing once she's completed her doctorate.

A Vicious American Memory: Sylvia Plath's Feminist Criticism of Wars, Wars, Wars

Amanda J. Bradley

The self-revelatory nature of much of Sylvia Plath's poetry led critics to classify her as a confessional poet, suggesting to readers that her poetry should be read as predominantly autobiographical. Plath's reputation as a martyr to feminism, her highly publicized marriage to the famous poet Ted Hughes, and her readers' fascination with madness and suicide encourage the habit of reading Plath's poetry as an echo of her sensationalized life. This essay will explore how Plath's poetry may be read as both autobiographical and politically significant by examining her use of images of war in some poems written in the fall of 1962, a few months before her suicide in the February of 1963. References to war in Plath's poetry often metaphorically express the intensity of emotional or psychological wounds and the experiences of being oppressed in a patriarchal society. Her poems' poignant descriptions of the struggle against such oppression alone give her work a politically significant dimension, but some of her poetry's most powerful political commentary can be found in its criticism of war as a specifically patriarchal form of aggression.

Plath deeply resented the constraints of being female in mid-twentieth century America. In an early journal entry she identifies her "greatest trouble" as envying men their freedom:

My greatest trouble, arising from my basic and egoistic self-love, is jealousy. I am jealous of men -- a dangerous and subtle envy which can corrode, I imagine, any relationship. It is an envy born of the desire to be active and doing, not passive and listening. I envy the man his physical freedom to lead a double life -- his career, and his sexual and family life. I can pretend to forget my envy; no matter, it is there, insidious, malignant, latent. (qtd. in Lant 631)

In this passage, Plath expresses a deep-seated anger toward socially constructed femininity as passive and one-sided. She describes her jealousy of men as a corrosive mental burden with the power to penetrate all of her interactions with the world outside of herself. Elsewhere in her journal, Plath laments that the threat of rape inhibits her ability to wander freely and to experience unfamiliar aspects of society: " . . . all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery" (qtd. in Lant 644). Here Plath reiterates her frustration with her gender and defines it as precarious and confining.

Plath describes some of the inhibitions of womanhood in the fifties in her novel The Bell Jar through the character of Esther Greenwood. Esther is repeatedly troubled by the idea that she must choose between having a career and being a wife and mother. She occasionally remembers conversations with people which impressed upon her the difficulty of being a poet and raising a family. For example, she recalls that Buddy Willard had suggested to her that she would no longer want to write poems after she had children (69). She also remembers the famous lesbian poet at her college responding to Esther's suggestion that she may want to raise a family with the comment "But what about your career?" (180). Throughout the novel, Plath highlights societal pressures to choose one way or the other as if the two were mutually exclusive.

In her own life, Plath faced not only the anxiety of balancing a career as a poet with becoming a wife and mother, but also the challenge of imposing herself as a female poet upon a largely male tradition. In his book Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words, Steven Gould Axelrod traces Plath's literary education. He notes that Plath wrote only one paper in high school on a work by a female author, that her personal library contained 243 books by men and 34 by women, and that Plath wrote more in her journals and letters about male authors than female authors. Axelrod notes, "The paradox of her education was that she had been instructed to value the language of high culture but to doubt her own capacity to employ it" (37).

While Plath may have struggled with doubts concerning her ability to achieve a competent yet authoritatively female poetic voice in her work, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar suggest in the third volume of No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century that Plath succeeds in discovering just such a voice in a way her poetic foremothers never had. They write:

Internalizing misogyny, however, [Plath] did not immediately respond as women poets from Anne Bradstreet and Anne Finch to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marianne Moore did, by trying (like the first two figures) to renounce her own power or (like the second two) to disguise and distance it. Rather, her first response was to affirm her strength. (275)

Gilbert and Gubar suggest that by the time Plath wrote her Ariel poems, she was able to display "the mature skill of an artist who has finally entered into an open dialogue with literary history" (289).

Steven Gould Axelrod interprets "Daddy," one of Plath's most famous Ariel poems, as an enactment of the woman poet's struggle to rid herself of the influence of a male-dominated literary tradition. He suggests that "the poem evokes the female poet's anxiety of authorship and specifically Plath's strategy of delivering herself from that anxiety by making it the topic of her discourse" (52). Although Axelrod emphasizes that the poem is not accurately biographical, he notes the fact that Plath's father, whose early death plagued her, and her husband, whom she discovered had agreed to a divorce on the day she wrote the poem, were writers. By juxtaposing this biographical information with his interpretation of the poem, he suggests that Plath's anger at Hughes and her father acted as catalysts for the writing of the poem about "unresolved conflicts with paternal authority as a textual issue" (51-2).

In "Doing Away with Daddy: Exorcism and Sympathetic Magic in Plath's Poetry," Guinevara A. Nance and Judith P. Jones suggest that the persona-speaker of "Daddy" attempts to physically purge herself of the images she has created in her mind of her father as a demon and her husband "who is fashioned in his likeness" (127). In Nance's and Jones's formulation, the persona destroys part of herself when she destroys these imaginary models, crippling her psychological constitution. At the conclusion of their essay, Nance and Jones associate the persona-speaker with Plath directly and suggest that "After the successful exorcisms of Ariel . . . she is physically empty, effaced" (129). Nance and Jones suggest that Plath wrote herself into a suicidal mindset in writing the Ariel poems.

Both of these interpretations of "Daddy," while certainly valid and informative, limit the poem's scope to Plath's personal experiences as a writer, daughter, and wife. If the poem is given a wider interpretation, however, suggesting that the Daddy it addresses is the Father of the Law, the spirit of patriarchal rule, Plath's references to World War II become a suggestion that unmitigated patriarchy allows fascism to occur, perhaps even creates it. Given the latter interpretation, the poem becomes an exploration of the dynamics of the oppression of women, of religious sects and ethnicities, of any group of people Daddy decides to scrape flat with "wars, wars, wars" (l. 18).

Plath relates several aspects of the psychology of the oppressed. She points to the paranoia ("Barely daring to breathe or Achoo" l. 5, "I thought every German was you" l. 29); the inability to access the language of the oppressor ("The tongue stuck in my jaw. / It stuck in a barb wire snare." ll. 25-6); the eventual psychological acceptance of an inescapable situation ("I began to talk like a Jew. / I think I may well be a Jew." ll. 34-5); the fear of the empowered other ("I have always been scared of you, / With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo" ll. 41-2); the addiction to abuse (I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look / And a love of the rack and the screw." ll. 64-6). She identifies the oppressed speaker as "poor" (l. 4) and suggests that "the villagers never liked [Daddy]" (l. 79), pointing to the economic disadvantage of the oppressed. Plath's situating Daddy at the blackboard could be interpreted as figuring her father as a professor. But perhaps Daddy is shown at the blackboard perpetuating a system of beliefs which normalizes oppressive patriarchal standards. Perhaps Daddy is instructing the Hitler Youth, for example.

When read as a criticism of the Father of Law, "Daddy" becomes a poem about the birth pangs of feminism, the murder of patriarchy. Although women had been publicly fighting for equal rights since the mid-nineteenth century in America, Plath's poem addresses the need to kill once and for all what is supposedly already dead -- patriarchal society. Her linking of the oppression of women to the oppression of Jews profoundly criticizes the widespread abuse of power of patriarchal political systems by suggesting that Daddy is responsible for the atrocities of World War II and other "wars, wars, wars" (l. 18). The final lines of her poem ring powerfully when read with this interpretation. By calling Daddy a "bastard," Plath suggests that there is no legitimate origin for societies which condone economic, psychological, and physically violent oppression. She writes:

And the villagers never liked you.

They are dancing and stamping on you.

They always knew it was you.

Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through. (ll. 77-80)

Similarly, in "Getting There," a poem written almost a month after "Daddy" in the fall of 1962, Plath conflates the suffering Jew with the suffering woman. In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker is a Jew being delivered to a concentration camp in World War II. In the second stanza, Plath suggests that the speaker is a woman whose identity suffers from the misogynistic myth of Genesis: " . . . It is Adam's side, / This earth I rise from, and I in agony" (ll. 36-7). These lines suggest that the woman's identity suffers because it is tied to the idea that she was created from Adam's rib, as a companion for Adam. The implication is that her worth relies upon the man, that she is, in effect, merely a part removed from his side. She laments, "I cannot undo myself, and the train is steaming." (l. 38). In "Daddy," the oppressed Jew and the oppressed woman suffer the "boot in the face" (l. 49). In "Getting There," they have no control over what is happening to them, their destinations -- no way off the train.  

In "Daddy," Plath puts World War II in the context of "wars, wars, wars" (l. 18). Similarly, in "Getting There," she provides imagery which recalls Jews being taken to concentration camps in boxcars, but dilutes the reference to World War II specifically by calling the war described in the poem "some war or other" (l. 9). Plath also concludes the first stanza with the lines "Into the next mile, / The next hour -- / Dynasty of broken arrows!" (ll. 31-3), broadening her war reference to include a long history of wars from the days before the armaments created by the Krupp manufacturers. In "Cut," written twelve days after "Daddy," Plath refers to the "Kamikaze man" (l. 28) alongside "Redcoats" (l. 20), a pilgrim scalped by an Indian, and the Ku Klux Klan, showing Plath's tendency to figure wars as part of "one unending conflict of history" (Gilbert and Gubar 268).

The train, then, in "Getting There," becomes throughout the poem a mythical vehicle passing through a war-torn history to a destination of oblivion and rebirth. The persecuted speaker is ultimately responsible for burying the violent past: "I shall bury the wounded like pupas, / I shall count and bury the dead" (ll. 60-1). In "Daddy," Plath imagines the murder of patriarchy and persecution. In "Getting There," she imagines a rebirth of the persecuted:

And I, stepping from this skin

Of old bandages, boredoms, old faces

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Step to you from the black car of Lethe,

Pure as a baby. (ll. 65-8)

As in "Daddy," the persecuted female affirms her strength by the end of the poem. The "old bandages" have been forgotten; the train has stopped. She emerges from a history of war as the promise of a new way of life. Significantly, the two long stanzas of the poem contain thirty-three lines each, perhaps in reference to the length of Christ's life. Plath may figure the birth of a Jewish female as a hopeful metaphor for the introduction of an age of feminism and pacifism.

Along the same lines, in "Lady Lazarus," written in October 1962, Plath transforms the traditionally male Biblical character Lazarus into a resurrected female. In her article "‘More Terrible Than She Ever Was': The Manuscripts of Sylvia Plath's Bee Poems," Susan R. Van Dyne suggests that in the fall of 1962, "Plath was preoccupied with imagining a psychic rebirth for herself as she approached her thirtieth birthday" (164). As with "Daddy," readers may apply a biographical interpretation to "Lady Lazarus." We may point to the line "I am only thirty" (l. 20); we may suggest that what Plath manages "One year in every ten" (l. 2) is a suicide attempt.

But perhaps in the poem Plath accuses patriarchal hegemonies of fostering brutal contempt for people not in power. She compares the skeletal "smiling woman" (l. 19) Lady Lazarus to a Jew horribly dismembered by Nazis. "O my enemy. / Do I terrify? –" (ll. 11-2) she asks, imagining the resurrection of the tortured speaker before her enemy. Plath specifies that the enemy is "Herr Doktor," (l. 65) "Herr God, Herr Lucifer" (l. 79). The "herr" figures her enemy as specifically male. In a bold move, Plath associates Nazi doctors with the male Judeo-Christian God and with Lucifer, associating fascist rule with patriarchal religion. By using the German spelling of doctor, Plath suggests that the enemy of the poem is responsible for the atrocities committed by Nazi doctors as well as for the suffering of the woman for whom dying has become an art. Plath delegitimizes traditional ideas of good and evil by categorizing both God and Satan as one enemy. In the lines "Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware" (79-81), she emphasizes the male gender of the figureheads of good and evil forces, blaming patriarchal concepts of power for a history of brutality. The speaker warns, "Out of ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air" (ll. 82-4). Plath imagines the resurrection of an avenging female who has the capacity to put an end to physical and psychological abuses of the oppressed in patriarchal society.

Plath's association of the empowerment of females or the rise of feminism with a potential end to wars, her linking of patriarchy with brutality, may have been inspired by her readings of Virginia Woolf. Gilbert and Gubar trace some of the Woolfian influences which appear in Plath's work; they designate The Waves as especially influential for Plath. They note that Plath told her mother in the 1950s, "I get courage by reading [Woolf's diary]" because "I feel very akin to her" (284). The one paper Plath wrote in high school about a female author was about Virginia Woolf, and eight of the books Plath had with her in England were by Woolf.

In her work, Woolf suggests that patriarchal society teaches men violent ideas and behaviors, breeds in them habits of violence. In A Room of One's Own, she writes:

They too, the patriarchs, the professors, had endless difficulties, terrible drawbacks to contend with. Their education had been in some ways as faulty as my own. It had bred in them defects as great. True, they had money and power, but only at the cost of harbouring in their breasts an eagle, a vulture, forever tearing the liver out and plucking at the lungs -- the instinct for possession, the rage of acquisition which drives them to desire other people's fields and goods perpetually; to make frontiers and flags; battleships and poison gas; to offer up their own lives and their children's lives. (38-9)

Similarly, in an essay written for an American symposium on women in 1940, "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid," Woolf addresses the subject of World War II and encourages her female audience to create ideas that will help defuse the fighting instinct in men, the "subconscious Hitlerism" which is encouraged by their education and by tradition. Perhaps Woolf's idea that a male aggressiveness perpetuated by patriarchal society causes war, slavery, and other violent atrocities influenced Plath's politics in her poetry.

Clearly, Plath considered herself to be a political poet. In an October 30, 1962 interview with BBC producer Peter Orr, she said that the subjects of good poems must be "relevant to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on." She went on to say, "I'm a rather political person" (Wagner-Martin 224). By including in her poetry references to the Holocaust, other aspects of World War II, and humanity's long history of war in general, Plath relentlessly keeps alive the memory of the more gruesome and unforgivable aspects of the past. She takes these references one step further by involving them in a judgment of war as an effect of unmitigated patriarchy. Her poetry as a whole attempts to create access for women to the freedom and power Plath so longed for herself. While confessing her anger and frustration with her own life in particular, Plath makes wider political judgments which address a history of brutal customs and implicate America in this history. Memory requires responsibility, she suggests, and as an American poet, she tried to bring the brutality she observed to, at the very least, a point of closer consideration.

Works Cited

Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century, Volume Three, Letters from the Front. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

Lant, Kathleen Margaret. "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4 (Winter 1993) : 620-69.

Nance, Guinevara A. and Judith P. Jones. "Doing Away with Daddy: Exorcism and Sympathetic Magic in Plath's Poetry." Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1984.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

Plath, Sylvia. The Collected Poems. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.

Van Dyne, Susan R. "‘More Terrible Than She Ever Was': The Manuscripts of Sylvia Plath's Bee Poems." Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: G. K. Hall & Company, 1984.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1957.