The Suicidal Body in the Works of Sylvia Plath
In Women Poets and the American Sublime, Joanne Feit Diehl identifies “the engendered body” as Sylvia Plath’s primary trope (Diehl, 136). This assertion is echoed in the writings of critics such as Kathleen Lant, who examines in Plath’s poetry “a concern with the body and with the physical” (Lant, 624), and Steven Axelrod, who illustrates a multitude of ways in which “Plath enthusiastically traced connections between body and text” (Axelrod, 9-10). The significance of Plath’s literary treatment of bodies, and particularly suicidal and female bodies, is heightened by the cultural context in which her works were written. In the rising field of psychoanalysis in twentieth century America, women were not only denied sexual agency, but also symbolically castrated via phallocentric systems of scientific thought; for instance, Sigmund Freud’s conviction that “The libido is constantly and regularly male in essence, whether it appears in man or in woman,” which Simone de Beauvoir challenges at length in The Second Sex (Beauvoir, 74). Of course, it would be nearly impossible (and likely inadvisable) to write on the treatment of human bodies in Plath’s works without acknowledging the overwhelming presence of Judaic and Holocaust imagery within them. But this essay poses no answer, however tentative, to the question of whether or not Plath’s fascination with the Holocaust is necessarily justifiable; that is to say, this piece does not intend to establish any ethical ground (or lack thereof) upon which Plath’s literature should necessarily be read. Rather, the work seeks to observe the presence and thematic relevance of suicidal bodies, including Jewish and female bodies, within The Bell Jar, ‘Daddy,’ and ‘Lady Lazarus,’ with a particular regard for their impact upon the narrative relationship between the psychological and physical in each text.
In chapter twelve of The Bell Jar, Esther observes, “It was as if what I wanted to kill wasn’t in that skin or the thin blue pulse that jumped under my thumb, but somewhere else, deeper, more secret, a whole lot harder to get at” (Plath, TBJ, 142). Of course, suicide is a defining thematic element of The Bell Jar as a novel; a relentless desire for self-inflicted death characterizes Esther’s entire narrative. But the quotation at hand bears a particular significance in its implied recognition of a sort of distance between the physical form (“that skin” and “thin blue pulse”), which Esther repeatedly brutalizes throughout The Bell Jar, and the enigmatic, unnamed something that exists “somewhere else,” and can be compellingly read as Esther’s realized sense of self—her ego or linguistic “I.” In light of this, the passage offers one possible interpretation of Plath’s preoccupation with the body; namely, that a realized identity generates tensions between the visceral and the psychological. The very word “suicide,” derived from the Latin sui (‘of oneself’) and caedere (‘kill’), indicates both linguistically and conceptually, the destruction of the self; and although Esther seeks to eliminate her physical form, recognizing the contingency of the “I” upon it, she nevertheless identifies, in her reference to “somewhere else,” a degree of separation between the body she mutilates and the self she seeks to kill. The body and the “I,” though in many ways inextricably bound, are also necessarily distinguishable from each other in the language of the narrative. This is echoed in the recurring imagery of blood, which Esther encounters repeatedly throughout The Bell Jar—most notably in the physically and psychologically gruesome experience of losing her virginity. Blood operates within The Bell Jar as one of the text’s most visceral narrative devices; but its source of its distribution, the heart, is also a primary indicator of the psychologically realized self, and its rhythm conveys that ultimate self-affirming phrase, “I am I am I am” (Plath, TBJ, 152). Beneath Esther’s relentless endeavors towards the destruction of her own anatomy, a more complex interrogation of the ego is evoked; thus, Plath constructs a narrative understanding of the body that underscores the psychoanalytic value of the text.
Published within a year of The Bell Jar, the confessional poem ‘Daddy’ apotheosizes many of the most contentious elements of Plath’s work. Like the majority of Plath’s literature, ‘Daddy’ is a terrifyingly visceral, at times even erotic poem, engaging with the body as a representative space upon which both longings and traumas are made manifest. In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, Jacqueline Rose suggests that the line, “Barely daring to breathe or Achoo” (Plath, D, ll.5) implies that the narrator’s convoluted psychological fascination with her father can be attributed to his exertion of control over her body. The narrator of ‘Daddy’ is rendered physically unable to move: she is the recipient of a psychological distress that leaves her incapable of performing the actions necessary for bodily survival. Plath, who described Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” as “[a]n almost exact description of my feelings and reasons for suicide: a transferred murderous impulse” (Plath, Journals, 280), communicates her ruthless desires through the narrator’s physical experiences and suicidal efforts; thus, “The poem…presents itself as protest and emancipation from a condition which reduces the one oppressed to the barest minimum of human, but inarticulate, life” (Rose). But of course, the most overt and controversial use of the body within “Daddy” occurs in its relation to the Holocaust, and in Plath’s appropriation of a heritage and a tragedy that is not necessarily her own. But Rose asserts that in ‘Daddy,’ “…identities are fantasies, not for the banal and obvious reason that they occur inside a text, but because the poem addresses the production of fantasy as such” (Rose); in accordance with this, even allowing for the potentially gratuitous association Plath draws between herself and the victims of an ethnic genocide, there is considerable metaphoric value to Plath’s use of Nazi symbolism. “For doesn’t Nazism itself also turn on the image of the father, a father enshrined in the place of the symbolic, all-powerful to the extent that he is so utterly out of reach?… this body suffers because the father has for too long oppressed” (Rose).
‘Lady Lazarus,’ which many critics position alongside ‘Daddy’ as one of Plath’s three “Holocaust Poems” (Fermaglich, 14), is another text inherently concerned with the body; in the graphic recounting of her suicide attempts, Plath evokes a striking image of resurrection and even of triumph. Throughout the poem, she engages unflinchingly with her body, announcing, “Gentlemen, ladies, / These are my hands. / My knees” (Plath, LL, ll.30-2). The language of the stanza is simultaneously sensual and disturbing: as she verbalizes the “big strip tease,” Plath forces the audience to reckon with the suicidal nature of her physical form. As Gayle Wurst asserts, “Graphically female, made to be unmade, [Plath’s] body…seeks to break its confinement, equating movement with the breaking of silence” (Wurst, 24). These paradigms of sexuality, subjugation, and cynicism allow the narrator’s suicidal body to be read not only as mutilated, but also as strangely powerful, and at times even revenant. Paul Breslin argues that ‘Lady Lazarus’ functions as “a legitimately mimetic representation of the psychology of suicide” (Breslin); and indeed, the text as engages with self-destruction in a trenchant, lucid manner by combining psychological fantasies of death and the erotic pleasures of a pornographic performance. Largely as a result of this, a number of vindicative perspectives on suicide arise in ‘Lady Lazarus’—most significantly, the potential to exert full and violent ownership over one’s own body, the possibility of rebirth, and the grisly but potentially triumphant severing of the psychological and physical selves.
The Bell Jar, ‘Daddy,’ and ‘Lady Lazarus’ are, in many respects, markedly different texts; nevertheless, each engages in a striking narrative confrontation with the volatile relationship between physical bodies and the conscious self. Tempestuous interactions between the mind and body, fraught as they are with varied connotations of identity and desire, form a primary thematic cornerstone of each text; and although her use of metaphor offers no clear explanations (and certainly no sense of solace) for her audience, her ruminations upon the self-destroying body carry considerable aesthetic and psychoanalytic merit. Within these three pieces, Plath engages with the suicidal body as an object of great physical and psychological fascination: in efforts to verbalize her own willful movement towards dying, she establishes the presence of suicide in her literature as an intimate narrative interrogation of violence, desire, exploitation, and resistance.
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