Women Writers, Madness, Death and Sylvia Plath’s Gothic

Gina Wisker

Gina Wisker

These powerful, predatory images assault us with the stuff of horror: ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, ‘Nosferatu’, reminding us of monsters from nightmares, from medieval paintings of torture and hell.

Plath gives us something worse than the grim reaper. Ice-cold, unsmiling, lurking, biding their time, these are the hooded, beaked undertakers of our deepest fears — of death waiting to take us. They have labelled their prey from birth. They revel in the perfection of premature dead babies in iceboxes.

“Masturbating a glitter”, “he wants to be loved” — this fundamentally connects to sex, desire, sadism, masochism. But as the dead bell tolls and “somebody’s done for”, neither Plath nor the speaker are reclaimed. She is “not his yet”.

Writing from the recesses of our dark imaginings, Plath brings us haunted, terrible figures of our shared fears. Freud and Jung underlie her perfectly poised revelations.

This is the stuff of horror, Gothic language and imagery. But, like all good Gothic horror writers — Poe, King, Stoker, Carter, Rice — Plath slices open, exposes, dramatises those terrors in order to face them, refuse their power.

Knowing them, she and we feel we can master them, come to some arrangement. They will always be lurking, but perhaps, if you recognise them, you too will not be theirs, quite yet.

Philip Larkin recognises Plath’s Gothic horror, finding in her work some greatness, but nothing with which to identify.

Larkin mistakenly believes Plath describes her experiences (all Americans have psychiatrists, he informs us). Of her Ariel poems, he says, “How valuable they are depends on how highly we rank the expression of experience with which one can in no sense identify, and from which we can only turn with shock and sorrow.” Speak for yourself, Philip Larkin.

Larkin thinks Plath takes a mad, wrong turn. Rather, I would like to argue she utilises the strategies, images and tropes of the literary Gothic and horror as metaphors to express hidden secrets, the undersides of our complacent everyday worlds.

Ironically, Larkin, himself the poet of everyday death impinging on ontological security and of the inevitability but utter pointlessness of all lifestyles, mistakes the ways in which the confrontational characteristics of the Gothic enable movement beyond despair and disgust, handling nightmare through articulating it.

Plath’s Gothic, like the trapeze artist in ‘Aerialist’ (CP, 331–2), walks the tightrope between extremes — spinster/whore, conformist domesticated mother/daring creative artist — and between life and death.

This balance, expression and control of paradoxes is enacted in the text at one level through character, scenarios and stories, and at another through networks of motifs and images, patterning and revelatory variations enabled by internal rhyme.

Plath develops the domestic Gothic, expressing the home-confined life of the housewife/mother. The imagery of split selves exposes the constructedness, the performativity of gendered roles, the oscillation between versions of self, showing in post-existentialist, post-modern fashion how ontological security is a tenuous construction.

Finally, the strategies, formulations, tones and images of horror enable writer and reader to face up to and imagine beyond death.

In the decades following her death, critics of Sylvia Plath’s poetry tended to read the life and the poetry backwards, as if death’s fixed point put everything into perspective, defining her as only a highly-talented, golden girl suicide, and limiting the ways we read her work, as evidence of a trajectory leading inevitably to that death.

Such psycho-biographical criticism emerged also in response to ‘Letters Home’ (1975) and ‘The Journals of Sylvia Plath’ (2000).

Erica Jong recognises the consciousness-raising: “these were deeply felt perceptions of a consummate artist who had made a journey into her own personal hell and was bringing back the truth that only a voyager of genius into the nether regions of the communal unconscious can retrieve.”

Anne Sexton, Plath’s fellow student and confessional poet, also committed suicide. Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and drowned herself. How are we to interpret the talented woman writer, role-torn, contradictory, suicidal?

A. Alvarez’s sensitive response in ‘The Savage God’ (1971) famously reads the poems as suicide’s siren call. But psychological, Laingian-influenced Sixties insight mingles with traditional critical representations of the woman poet/writer as mad girl: Emily Dickinson, writing about the whirring wheels of death, her food sent up in a basket; Woolf hearing birds speaking in Greek.

These responses are critical products of an age fascinated with the psychoanalytic, toying with breakdown as breakthrough, and with the socially disruptive challenge of the trapped housewife who would shatter her prison, creating new roles.

Doris Lessing’s ‘The Summer Before the Dark’ (1973) resembles Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ (1963) in these concerns. Each grows from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892) although, unlike Gilman’s text, in which the narrator is finally, fatally mad, Lessing and Plath give their protagonists new insights, new futures.

In both historical (1960s) and ahistorical (women poets in general) terms, Plath is reduced to a brilliant, complicated, dark and unstable poet.

After all, Plath seems here to be describing death as something perfected, achieved, neither decayed nor the result of a desperate act.

Returning to her work from the current fascination with the literary Gothic, from the worlds of Angela Carter, Poppy Z. Brite, Anne Rice and Joyce Carol Oates, it is suddenly all very clear.

Plath’s work is recognised anew as ironic, revelatory, aware of paradoxes, using fantasy, the surreal and horror to express and critique contradictions of every day and the self.

A mid-century exponent of female literary Gothic, Plath is a missing historical link, using Gothic strategies and tropes when confessional poetry and romantic fictions predominated. Her literary foremothers are more properly Djuna Barnes with Nightwood’s world of split selves and troubled gender roles, and Charlotte Mew whose ‘The Changeling’, ‘Ken’ and ‘A White Night’ problematised family and the stability of self, revealing paternalism’s voyeuristic and sadistic side.

Jacqueline Rose’s ‘The Haunting of Sylvia Plath’ (1991) negotiates the treacherous rather than the biographical, psychotic readings. In what was labelled “an evil book” by Olwyn and Ted Hughes, Rose’s broader psychological/feminist interpretation of Plath’s representations of sexuality, identifies the “schizophrenia overview” readings of David Holbrook et al., as projecting visions of a (male, culturally-constructed) self-destructive femininity.

Similarly, Rose critiques simplistic feminist readings figuring Plath as patriarchy’s victim. The body is projected through words but also confronts phobias. Language, by projecting or interjecting what disgusts and terrifies, challenges constructions of identity, warding off fear through articulation.

A. Alvarez, finding her work “bare but vivid and precise”, in language “tense and twisted… ominous, odd” compares it to Grimm’s fairy tales.

Her avoidance of direct expression hid “a sense of threat, as though she were certainly menaced by something she could only see out of the corner of her eyes.” A. E. Dyson sees a “lurking menace”, arguing Plath prefers landscapes suggesting wildness and threat, and feels an affinity with death.

Plath’s poetry is “brooding and tentative”, hers is “a chillgod, a god of shades”, “intermingled with hallucination and conjecture”, ironic. Death dominates Stephen Spender’s reading.

The last thing Plath cares about is her readers or prizes, he claims, she is driven by “a pure need of expression certified… by death”. He identifies how Plath turns external objects into internal symbols or feelings, how she fuses love and hatred, seeing this process in the description of trees as “the wall of old corpses” in ‘Letter in November’.

Not denying the horror, Hugh Kenner refuses allegations that the poetry is uncontrolled. Plath’s “mad wild child” vision was enabled by stanzas of five or three lines and internal rhyme. Kenner argues that contemporary readers find in her work a spiritual fascination with death in a materialistic age.

Courting death was and is a dangerous game but ‘Lady Lazarus’, for example, moves into new life beyond death’s dangerous proximity. Plath utilises internal rhyme, symbolic structures, recording, sharing, recalling, exploring, and relating back to earlier poems in images, tones and subjects.

For a supposed crazed suicide, pouring out hysterical nonsense, there is much control.

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