This paper will focus on Sylvia Plath’s poems Daddy, Lady Lazarus, Mirror and other poems discussing Holocaust, female body and the divided self as portrayed in these poems with relation to its postmodernist elements and coinciding modernist elements. In “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus” Plath combines the public and the personal therefore addressing not only her inner conflicts but societal issues as well. By personalizing the sufferings of the Holocaust victims, she presents herself as the Jewish victim. Although Plath’s poetry at first, may seem to emanate from personal experiences, it exemplifies something much more deep, rooting in historical events. Modernism also incorporated raising the issue of gender, which can be seen in Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus”. This poem which also presents a split identity of herself, a self conflict that she also poses is in her poem “Mirror”, in which the glass both hides and reflects the person’s true self.
This way she sums up the literary phenomenon of the Double in her poem, which relates to both: contradictions in man’s character and to the complex question of identity. As a whole, it can be said that Plath use of the issues of Holocaust, the female body and the divided self can be said to paint a larger picture and also work on a personal level, where her confessions depict more than just her inner contradictions. Sharing some elements of modernism ideas, Plath’s writing was more Post modernist in nature. Although considered particularly confessional, Plath shows how she has cleverly included meanings carefully embedded in her poetry that shine a light on a greater cause and more complex matters on the society and the individual. Modernism in terms of literature was a philosophical movement that opposed and broke the traditional ways of writing, both in terms of style as well as perception of the world. Beginning in the early 20th century and lasting through roughly 1965, this movement in literature brought about the virtues of experimentation and individualism. Modernism encompasses a lot of definitions as many modernists describe it in different ways and hold their own perspectives when describing this movement.
However Modernism can be generally viewed as a break from the earlier Victorian traditions. Embracing a number of issues: class, gender, the struggle for knowledge, and the senselessness and alienation of the time, it was a response to an international sense of depression, the helpless feeling held by many at that time that nothing was concrete or reliable anymore.A new literary movement called postmodernism began arising in the late 20th century, where poetry broke from modernism and took on a completely new style. Within postmodern poetry emerged confessional poetry which illustrated the notion of the personal becoming political and offered insight into psychological turbulence, family issues in addition to the human heart in conflict with itself. The Confessional poets turn their world outside-into their minds.
They internalize the moral and political disturbances of our times, and undergo them personally. Sylvia Plath, in particular is known for this skill and for being a pioneer in the confessional mode. Being a confessional poet, Plath wrote many poems at her time and the most prominent ones were form her collection of poems Ariel that was published after her death. In the post-modern era, poetry was primarily used as a form of protest or a way to express views on social and political issues. Plath often used poetry to express her opinions of women in post-war America and her endless struggle with depression resulted in her using poetry to question morality and her own identity. Two of Plath’s poems, “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy” respectively reflect and challenge the ideologies of the post-modernist era. These not only represented Plath’s view on society’s values and beliefs of the time, but also represented her attitude and state of mind. The topic of Holocaust which she brought about in these poems, were discussed during Plath’s academic life (High school and college).
The encouragement Plath gathered from her lecturers in college to link Nazism with political concern became the basis of her using the combination of psychology with history in her later poems. Though gender-ed, her approach relies heavily on Fromm’s theory which presents Nazism as a psychological problem. Although Fromm accepts that Nazism was shaped by socio-economic factors but he argues that its root stretched deep into psychological problems. Referring to the Holocaust she considers herself as a Jew in her poem “Daddy” which appears in the lines:”I began to talk like a Jew.I think I may well be a Jew.
” (Lady Lazarus)The similarities she draws between herself and the Jews are the shared sense of victim-hood which are driven by specific events of their time. Indirectly calling her father Nazi in the lines:”And your neat mustacheAnd your Aryan eye, bright blue.Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You——”, and”I made a model of you,A man in black with a Meinkampf look” , (Lady Lazarus)she paints him as the tyrannical Nazi particularly Hitler in some lines, and herself as a Jewish victim who suffers at the hand of her oppressor- her daddy.
Plath uses a holocaust imagery to establish a oppressor-oppressed relationship between herself and her father. Feeling like a victim of her father, she displays resentment towards her father’s death and picture’s him as a horrible person for abandoning her. A similar image of the female or feminized victim is presented in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”, in which the victim suffers torture by a Nazi sadist. The punishers brutally lessen their victims to “skin and bone” (Lady Lazarus).
By presenting “Herr Enemy” as a sadistic persecutor of genocide, she makes use of the real historical Holocaust events and creatively molds them into her own imaginations of domestic torture. She calls herself as Herr Enemy’s “opus”, “valuable”, “pure gold baby” who “melts to shriek”. Burnt to ash, she is reduced to a “cake of soap”, a “wedding ring”, a “gold filling” (Lady Lazarus). Plath’s final image of Lady Lazarus, in which she arises “Out of ash” assimilates her own inner life as well as the genocide of Holocaust, that includes despair and violence, as well as symbolizes relief from transcendence and desperation. This dramatic monologue can be said to center on different fragments of her reality and moments of her life. By suggesting the fragmentation of reality as well as making a reference to the Nazis, it can be said that she was alluding the World War II atrocity and aftermath:”A sort of walking miracle, my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade” (Lady Lazarus)Highly influenced by the World War II as well as the extermination of Jews by the Nazis, she experiences the real world as a fragmented place, where there is a disorientation caused by the loss of human values and a dehumanized reality.
In the context of war Plath describes fragments of human body or she refers directly to the suffering and death of Jews. Through this perception her poetry may be accounted as an outcry against war. These narratives that Plath uses to create the images of Holocaust and the World War II to relate to her personal experiences not only depict her inner conflicts but largely societal issues as well. The similarity here can be drawn between the fragmented reality that remains a theme largely discussed by modernists as well as post modernists. While modernism can be said to present a fragmented view of human subjectivity and history, it presentes this fragmentation as something tragic and to be mourned as a loss. Postmodernism, in contrast, doesn’t lament the idea of fragmentation, but rather to describe post–World War II chaos.
Plath also incorporates postmodernist feminism in her poems by utilizing the circle of death and rebirth which is an allusion to female postmodernists’ aims, this concept of death and rebirth can be seen in her poem Lady Lazarus:”Beware Beware. Out of the ash I rise with my red hair And I eat men like air.” (Lady Lazarus)She tries to re-envision and reconstruct the female identity in her poems by this pattern of death and re-birth to evoke a stronger sense of feminism. Through this pattern of death and rebirth, it can be claimed that this fragmentation of the female body and its horrible treatment was intended by Plath for creating an outlook of women in finding their place in the post modern world by being reborn as more powerful and potent.
By showing Lady Lazarus as oppressed and viewed as merely an object, Plath challenges the conventional positioning of the women as object and their positions historically being objects of gaze. The voice within this female body, seeks to break its confinement, equating movement with the breaking of silence. Plath’s references to the fragmented human body can be seen from another point of view, namely from female postmodernists’, in which they refer to the human body not as a sexual element, but as a fragmented one that becomes a symbol of their contemporary reality.
In “Lady Lazarus” although Plath refers to a strip show, where she exposes her own body, her aim is not to evoke sexual connotations. She presents distinct body parts in a frightening image, of oppression and victimization. Plath presents metaphorically the male dominion that crushes her freedom of self-expression and sense of individuality. In “Daddy,” Plath introduces the concept of male domination through using most namely her father as a representation of her submission to his power.
Plath proclaims that she has lived in a tight-fitting “black shoe…for thirty years,” where there was little space for freedom (Daddy). In other words, as the human body is related both to the holocaust and to a strip show as an object that can be abused. In a sense, it stands as an allusion to women’s oppression throughout history. Sylvia embodies in these two poems her fight against the presence of repressive male dominance that she finds within her life. The images of “bee” and the “spider” that Plath paints in her poem “Wintering” is to identify herself with the bee and the male figures with the spiders. By mentioning the words: bee and bees several times she asserts herself as as someone with the inborn ability to exist without the presence of males In this poem she doesn’t hesitate to announce that:”Into which, on warm days,They can only carry their dead.The bees are all women,Maids and the long royal lady.
They have got rid of the men,The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors.” (Wintering)Drawing these images she desires for a space of her own, without the male dominance and gaze. Her particular interest in bees in this poem bees embodies her wish to retaliate the female subjugation practiced by men in her own family and the patriarchal society in general. She in-turn tries to create an image that is set apart from what the male dominated society had decided for her and define her own identity. While Plath’s poem are highly influenced by feminism and the Holocaust, a common theme explored in many of her poems is the divided self of the persona or the narrator in her poems. In his essay “”The Monster in Plath’s Mirror” , William Freedman analyses Plath’s recurrent use of the mirror, which is a symbol of female passivity and subjugation and reflects her conflicted self-identity in its difficulty to reconcile the competing obligations of her artistic life in contrast to her domestic life. (Freedman, 1993).
A poem that suggests the her two conflicting selves in “Mirror” in which Plath personifies the mirror to present the perspective of the mirror. By using the personal pronoun “I”, the mirror claims:”I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptionsWhatever I see, I swallow immediately” (Mirror)It shows an opinion that it indifferent and unbiased. As the mirror appears to be a lake, the woman who regards her own vision in it sees herown drowning in it as a young girl and her own rising from it as an old woman. Thus, thereflection with its multiple guises carries within it the themes of death and rebirth. Reflecting surfaces demonstrate both the search for self in its multiple disguises and the disintegration of the self into pieces, and finally the rebirth of her true self. Her interest in the literary figure of “the double” in her literary analysis of the figure of the Double, in Sylvia Plath has written:”The appearance of the Double is an aspect of man’s eternal desire to solve the enigma of his own identity.
By seeking to read the riddle of his soul in its myriad manifestations, man is brought face to face with his own mysterious mirror image, an image which he confronts with mingled curiosity and fear. This simultaneous attraction and repulsion arises from the inherently ambivalent nature of the Double which may embody not only good, creativecharacteristics, but also evil, destructive ones …
The confrontation of the Double in these instances usually results in a duel which ends in insanity or death” (Plath, 1955).This concept of “the Double” is also explored in several poems of hers, “Elm” which expresses her sense of despair and loneliness. The significance of an alter-ego figure in Sylvia Plath’s late poems increases just as the desperate search for her own identity becomes hopeless. Sylvia Plath found relief in writing and creativity and she started to use in her poems most increasingly the figure of “the double” in order to evoke her sense of inner division in her soul. In her poem “In Plaster”, the double self is depicted where the real body-self inside is evaluated as “the tenant”, without whom the outer-self would perish into emptiness. The tenant in her divided self is seen in her poem:”I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,” (In Plaster)This sense of inner emptiness or worthlessness comes most often to the fore as she searches quite desperately for substantiality within her own soul. The white person “had no personality….
she had a slave mentality.” But the old yellow one, “ugly and hairy,” is a monstrous self. At the beginning the true self is weak and powerless, but gradually it “blooms” with confidence until it is convinced of its own strength and ability to conquer theobstacle of the false self that encapsulates it:”Without me, she wouldn’t exist, so of course she was grateful.I gave her a soul, I bloomed out of her as a roseI’m collecting my strength, one day I shall manage without her,And she’ll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me.” (In Plaster)In this and many of her poems the tone changes from despondent, to hopeful, to confidentlike in the final line: “One day I shall manage without her” (In Plaster). The true self is ready to break free of its confinement and believes in its ability to stand on its own without the superficial support of the false self. But the false self cannot exist without the presence of its counterpart, and in this way, the true self may be needed as a host for the false self. The divided self can be recognized in the depersonalization in Plath’s poetry where it ischaracterized by conflict between stasis and movement, isolation and engagement.
The division of the self, suggesting a desire to reconcile the two fragments, frustrates the persona.Her poems essentially show the pressure of an unbearable coexistence of opposites andthemes as the terrible insecurity of the self, the reality of indifference, lovelessness, and theinevitability of death and loss that preoccupied Plath from the beginning of her writings to the end. They present images of self-loss, an alienation bringing about extreme self-involvement, the self not as emergent but fragmented, dissipated, obsolescent by many different masks and positions.
Taking all the above into consideration, one may conclude that Plath’s poem anticipatespostmodernists’ concerns, namely personal confession, questions of femininity in art and loss of values caused by war. Thus, although Plath tries to escape oppression through a death and rebirth pattern, she has evoked important concerns of her time that is the reality of her time. As a mind in crisis, she seems to face a mental breakdown by relating it to the crisis that world around her experiences. Plath considers death as a solution, which however is not treated as a dead-end but as a means to gain a new and more intense existence. Even though, Plath has expressed her personal experiences in the poems she created, they act as mirrors reflecting the age she lived which in turn proved her as a postmodernist Therefore, writing in the Post-Modern society, she created her poetry to represent the time period by supporting women’s liberation, recalling and relating to World War two and the Holocaust in addition to addressing the Double for a reincarnated true self.