03 September, 2006

The Plath Mystique

The Plath Mystique

Picture, for a moment, the magazine image of a 1950’s housewife. Lovely, perfectly coifed, her manicured hand holding a duster like a queenly scepter. Her skirts are frilly, her apron sparkling, and her joy in knowing that the perfect roast will shortly emerge from her oven is unmistakable. She eagerly waits for her husband to return home from earning the daily bread, and while she waits she cleans, cleans, cleans and cooks, cooks, cooks. This Lady of the House, unlike her predecessors, has no need of servants - she can run a household all on her own with the help of Technology! She is the queen of all she surveys...

In many ways the image is the epitome of domesticity, as previous women were not. As Anna Quindlen says in her introduction to The Feminine Mystique, “The advances of science, the development of labor-saving devices, the development of the suburbs: all had come together to offer women in the 1950s a life their mothers had scarcely dreamed of, free from rampant disease, onerous drudgery, noxious city streets” (xi). But this new-found dream had unanticipated consequences, as she goes on to say, “the green lawns and big corner lots were isolating, the housework seemed to expand to fill the time available, and polio and smallpox were replaced by depression and alcoholism. All that was covered up in a kitchen conspiracy of denial.” A conspiracy of denial, indeed - a “problem with no name,” a hatred and fear of the domestic requirement of the era. But before Betty Friedan blew the lid off of the conspiracy in 1963, there was Sylvia Plath; criticizing her role as a housewife and mother with a viciousness that belied her outward appearance and a bitterness that resonates through the drama of her biography to continue criticizing even today.

Both Plath and Friedan have been stereotyped as “neurotic,” which means “abnormally tense or sensitive” - implying that the neurotic have created their own problems and therefore their ideas shouldn’t be given any consideration (Merriam-Webster). Certainly the patriarchy that sought to put women back in the home after the second world war had a hand in such a categorization, as did the businesses that thrived on perpetuating similar roles for women. Friedan recognized early on that no women’s magazine would publish her findings because of their investment in womens’ roles. Redbook told Friedan's agent that only neurotic housewives would identify with her work - bringing up the “n-word” again. Similarly, Plath’s chosen medium of confessional poetry can often give a reader the sense that the poet has spilled her vitriol on the page wholesale; the poems emerging like Athena from Zeus’ head, fully-formed and ready to do battle with the world. If this were true, it would be easier to dismiss Plath’s poetry as neurotic. However, there is much evidence to the contrary: the many, many drafts of even Plath’s bitterest poems, and this quote from an interview in October of 1962:

“I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind” (Interview).

All this to postulate that Plath knew exactly what she was doing, knew exactly the systems she was attacking through poetry, just as Friedan knew what she was attacking with her most famous book: the unnecessary roles women were being forced to fill in the post-WWII western world.

In 1962, Plath wrote the poem “Daddy,” a scathing exorcism of the memory of a father long-dead and his ghostly influence on the speaker’s life many years later. A queer mixture of anger and love, “Daddy” represents the father figure as an image of ultimate oppression.

“In the picture I have of you,/A cleft in your chin instead of your foot/But no less a devil for that, no not/any less the black man who//Bit my pretty red heart in two./I was ten when they buried you./At twenty I tried to die/and get back, back, back to you./I thought even the bones would do” (Plath 76)

While it is generally accepted that a poet’s poems do not necessarily speak with the voice of the poet herself, it is nearly impossible to separate the poetic voice from Plath’s own history, and from there extrapolate to the influence of her dead father over her entire life. It is also not a large leap to say that Plath’s “Daddy” goes beyond her own experience to cast judgment on patriarchal control in her society. The father is portrayed as a nazi, a devil and a vampire, exerting control over his child from beyond the grave and (as cliché as it sounds) sucking her will to live through his memory alone, just as the patriarchal structure of post-WWII society sapped the will of housewives across the United States by putting them in roles that devalued their intelligence and education, “Like a two-headed schizophrenic... once she wrote a paper on the Graveyard poets; now she writes notes to the milkman” (Friedan 23).

“The Detective” is another poem that tackles the subtle oppression of women’s housewifely roles:

“A body into a pipe, and the smoke rising,/This is the smell of years burning, here in the kitchen/These are the deceits, tacked up like family photographs,/ And this is a man, look at his smile,/ The death weapon? No-one is dead” (31).

This poem speaks to the disintegration of the woman as a whole when she is thrust into the roles created for her by a patriarchal society. The crime in the poem will never be solved because the woman no longer exists; she has disappeared piece by piece under the burden of being “in the kitchen” for years with no purpose. The deceits are the ones that kept her there; ideas that made her a housewife against her will and perpetuated by a man who does not understand. Later in “The Detective,” the woman loses her lips and so cannot speak - a loss of voice echoed by women throughout the era. Betty Friedan opens The Feminine Mystique with a similar statement about the voicelessness of women:

“The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction... Each suburban housewife struggled with it alone.... -she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question - ‘Is this all?’” (15)

Certainly the similarities between Plath and Friedan are multitude. Both women defied tradition and shattered barriers that had held their fellow housewives captive. Their ideas and theories are eerily similar, although Plath’s have the obvious overtone of depression while Friedan's sound more like determination. One wonders what Plath’s fate might have been had she held out a few more months and read Friedan’s opus - perhaps she would still be with us, continuing the fight they started.