In Plath’s Poetry, Women’s Voices Are Powerful And Liberated

P. Barry raises concern from the feminist movement of the 1960’s, suggesting that : “ This movement was, in important ways, literary from the start, in the sense that it realised the significance of the images of women promulgated by literature, and saw it as vital to combat them and question their authority and their coherence” Within Plath’s book Ariel, there are innumerable times where Plath insinuated that women are more than what they have been shown to be by such a male dominated society post war and that she wanted change. Plath amplifies her resentment towards misogyny and gender stereotypes within Ariel which led to a great understanding for women to realise their worth: “When Sylvia Plath’s Ariel was published in the United States in 1966, American women noticed. Not only women who ordinarily read poems, but housewives and mothers whose ambitions had awakened.” 1 The women’s liberation movement, commenced in 1848 in Seneca falls, are a series of political campaigns that ameliorate women’s rights (pay, harassment etc.) Plath presents ideas of male dominance in poetry such as Lady Lazarus where she expresses her exasperation of suffering due to the constant domination of men in the patriarchal society, however, Plath does oppose to the fact that women are oppressed as she voices women’s voices to show control and power throughout her poetry in Lady Lazarus similarly, in the poem daddy which also resides in the ariel collection. Plath persistently tries to accentuate that women are much more influential then they seem and tries to give them a greater voice through her poetry to break the degrading stereotypes which have been put in place. She further scrutinises women’s voices in the poem's “mirror” and “mad girl’s love song”.

Plath seemingly provides evidence of women’s voices being powerful and liberated in the poem “Daddy”, by implying that the speaker’s voice is finally free after years of male dominance. In the poem, Plath constantly makes references to German men, coincidently, Path’s father, Otto Plath, was of German Descent and within the poem she portrays him almost as a Nazi figure as she makes various points implying Nazim, including terms such as:” Panzer-man” which is a German tank driver, this indicates to the reader an armoured man which seems terrifying to a little girl such as the speaker, yet again showing a clear dominance between man and woman in a patriarchal society.2 Alternatively, a common perception of Nazis when mentioned, is the Holocaust, a historical genocide of the European Jews during WWII, where as many as 1.5 million Jewish children were brutally murdered at the hand of Nazi’s alongside thousands of Romani Gypsies.3 Plath, begins to identify herself as a Jew in the poem from stanza 7:” I began to talk like a Jew, I think I may well be a Jew” which although not showing liberation of women’s voice but instead confinement, as Plath indicates her father treated her like a Jew and continues to find similarities in her lifestyle with theirs, Plath then suggest later on in the poem that without dominance of men freedom of women’s voices can be had as in the last stanza she implies that it was his fault for restricting her voice but she is finally ready to escape from his dominance and use her own voice:” They always knew it was you. Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through”. Furthermore, Plath shows that the poem is connected to many women not just herself, H. Bertens suggest that: Since the way female characters were standardly portrayed had not much in common with the way feminist critics saw and experienced themselves, these characters were constructions, put together – not necessarily by the writers who presented them themselves, but by the culture they belonged to- to serve a not-so-hidden purpose: the continued social and cultural domination of males” which can relate to Plath’s writing in “Daddy” as anyone with the same experiences growing up with toxic male authority figures, or German descent etc, can find similarities in the poem that they may relate to and understand.

Moreover, Plath presents the power of female voices in poems such as Lady Lazarus and Mirror, trying to accentuate their status and give them more of a voice. In both poems Plath suggests that women find it hard to find their own identity in a patriarchal society and need to find their own path through the power of their own voice. Mirror is about Plath’s search for self; however, the mirror is actually the voice within the poem which suggests that Plath wanted to emphasise the influence that mirrors have on society, also implying the effect society has had on women’s images: “Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.

In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman” the speaker shows how the woman has replaced her identity and hid her pain behind her looks. Although the mirror is the main speaker and voice in the poem, the power of female voices is still relevant as it implies that there is so much more to a woman than what she puts out, she just cannot express it in such a society. Furthermore, Lady Lazarus blames the suffering on men as the speaker suggest that males are the ones consistently bringing her back to life and oppressing her, they are tired of the male dominated society that they live in, illustrating how women’s lives are dominated by the patriarchal society we live in. Written in 1962 just before her suicide in 1963, this poem gives an insight into suicidal minds and potential reasoning behind them. The religious connotations like Lazarus from the new testament, showing resurrection within something from the past which imply how women’s insecurities are always bought back and that they can’t get away from them, just like men. Like daddy, the speaker identifies herself to those of Jewish heritage:” my face a featureless fine Jew linen” while also comparing her skin to a Nazi lampshade, which implies how the Nazi’s made lampshades out of Jews skin during the holocaust4. Mentioning the Holocaust was a shocking thing to do and went against social norms which suggest Plath wanted to spark outrage and use her voice for the better good. A feminist approach to the resurrection of Lazarus in the bible, has revengeful plan which seems to be plotted throughout, could be to do with men as she “eats men like air” which suggest the enemies mentioned were in fact men as she is tired of living in their dominated society ‘in the ashes’. In particular the idea of “This movement was, in important ways, literary from the start, in the sense that it realised the significance of the images of women promulgated by literature, and saw it as vital to combat them and question their authority and coherence.” In P.Barry’s comment as it is like what Plath did throughout the poem of 'Lady Lazarus”.

Alternatively, In Mad girl’s love song, Plath presents themes of heartbreak throughout, through a female character's experience. The poem begins with the speaker mentioning the world without the significant other:” I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead; I lift my eyes and all is born again (I think I made you up inside my head.), the speaker is clearly heart broken and uses her imagination to get away from the reality of it all, and is struck by denial when she returns to reality. Plath could be using women’s voices here to show their power through self-manipulation as they use their own voice to create a false reality to get away from the patriarchal society and from the speakers broken heart. Similarly, as the poem moves on, the speaker becomes lost within her own mind and convinces herself that her love never existed: 'I think I made you up inside my head” implying that women’s voices (this time being inside their heads), are so powerful that they can mould their thoughts to alter the true picture. However, it ultimately seems that the speaker is trying to erase the real existence for her pain as she tries to get her lover out of her head, this offers crucial insight into P. Barry’s suggestion from feminist critics: 'it switched its focus from attacking male versions of the world to exploring the nature of the female world and outlook, and reconstructing the loss of suppressed records of female experience” However, in the final stanza, she dwells on what she could’ve done: “I should have loved a thunderbird instead” reveals her turning the blame onto herself which suggest that her voice hasn’t been liberated as she takes her own actions and words and turns them against herself.                 

07 July 2022
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