Responses to American Poetry
The aim of this online space is to host the research work of university students or young scholars as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.
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Gothic Deflections in Sylvia Plath's “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103°”
Sylvia Plath, whose writing became more well-known after her suicide in 1963, is considered a dynamic white American female poet who greatly influenced the development of confessional poetry in the American literary scene of the 1960s. Her poems “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103°” appearing in her poetry collection Ariel, which was published posthumously in 1965 by her husband Ted Hughes, echo Plath’s voice in its most insurgent bravado that has become her trademark. This paper serves a dual purpose in its analysis; first, it aims to build the literary, socio-cultural, and feminist premises in which the elaboration on Plath’s two aforesaid poems is going to be grounded. Further, I will attempt to bridge these contexts with “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103°” in order to touch upon the Gothic tropes detected in both poems in an attempt to offer an insight into female subjectivity and anxiety.
Born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath belongs to these American generations whose imaginations were imbued with “dark” images of war and death as well as the corruption of the human mind. Ιn the World War II, USA’s official implication in the war takes place immediately after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor at Hawaii in December 1941 (Gill 23). Being the first time USA-lands were ever blitzed by a foreign country, one can imagine the anxiety that must have pervaded American citizens. As Robert Lowell, American poet and Sylvia Plath’s mentor, asserts regarding the Pearl Harbor attack “. . . my country[,US,] was in intense peril and . . . unprecedented sacrifices were necessary for national survival” (qtd. in Gill 24). We, therefore, understand that the hazards arising from the Japanese ambush infiltrated not only the imagination of the average American, but also the imagination of literary practitioners of the time as well. But, the war scenes do cease there; four years later, in August 1945, U.S responds back to Japan with the detonation of two nuclear atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Gill 24). Even though this military action marked the end of the war, the consequences of the bombings scarred both Japanese people’s minds and lives.1 One could possibly question the ethical implications of such a massacre being one of the many violent and atrocious acts that took place in the course of World War II. Due to the mushroom effect that boomed after the detonation, which has been captured in photographs, U.S citizens could also visualize the eradication of the Japanese lands and lives. Hence, the psychological toll of the destruction became from one-sided, meaning Japan, to two-sided, meaning U.S. However, that was not the first time when the American mind was traumatized by inhuman barbarity during the World War II; June 6th 1944 marks the ‘D-Day’ or ‘Operation Overload’ day when American seaborne and airborne troops along with other Allied forces landed at beaches outside the main communes2 of Normandy, France, which cost the life to thousands of young male soldiers.3 This suggests that wives lost their husbands, children lost their fathers, and parents lost their sons. This tragic feeling of loss and death was immediately after the end of World War II further enhanced in 1950 during the broadcasting of the Nuremberg Trials.4 Every American citizen could hear about all the atrocities performed by the Nazi defendants, in the concentration camps. Instantly, for the first time, apart from the bombing photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the average American citizen could visualize the results of imperialism and fascism. Now, the fear of the annihilation of human species was one step closer as the American imagination was haunted by destruction and near-death images. Last and closer to Sylvia Plath’s publication dates, the diplomatic war between U.S and the Soviet Union, known as The Cold War, found U.S citizens fearing a nuclear war taking place on their very own country after the Soviet Union had acquired the necessary technologies to build nuclear weapons. This fear became nearly a reality during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when Cuba allied itself with the Soviet Union and started installing nuclear weapons (Gill 25). Eventually, a possible nuclear attack was directed against the U.S territory. Therefore, one could argue that the anxiety about the state of the human species against its technological developments would be extremely magnified among U.S citizens.
This is the point where war-death imagery of the twentieth century aligns with Gothic writing. As Jerold E. Hogle writes about Gothic’s cultural questioning, “. . . progress generates an almost unbearable anxiety about its costs, and . . . an insatiable appetite for spectacles of grotesque violence [as] part . . . of everyday reality” (167). In this sense, here progress could symbolize technology and, subsequently, nuclear weapon anxiety could signify the fear of annihilation or the fear about the state of human beings in general, while images of violence could be associated with the near-death experiences images of wars. Hence, if by nature Gothic writing is to deal with such subjects as part of every-day occasions, it could be an accurate metonymic adage that would shed light on the fears and anxieties of human beings as well as enhance the effects such fears and violence have on the human psyche. In particular, female psychological anxieties are further exacerbated due to the overall position of women in the English-speaking world, especially referring to the U.S and England. Plath’s femininity views, therefore, appear to be incompatible with the previous century’s Victorian “angel in the house” stereotype that portrayed women as obedient within the society’s spectrum of wifehood and motherhood; women had to present themselves as happy mothers and housewives whose mere purpose in life was to care for their husband and children. Closer to Plath’s era, this stereotype had paved the way for the famous “. . . problem that has no name,” which addressed middle and upper-class women of the middle twentieth century (Friedan 44). This problem, posing the question “Is this all?”, conflates women’s asphyxiation in marriage including her discontent with marital duties such as merely taking care of her husband, her children and house chores (Friedan 44). Taking Plath’s example, one can imagine that “the problem that has no name” must have triggered the anxieties for women in the 50s and 60s U.S. and aggravated their psychological condition.
Such female anxieties and feelings of suffocation usually reverberate in Gothic writing. According to Hogle, “claustrophobia . . . [and] the ghostly voice [that materializes] out of nowhere” are imminent Gothic tropes which attempt to capture the psychological state of the literary subject (168). However, if women are already tethered psychologically, how can they voice their personal concerns? Where does Plath’s voice lie as a female artist in the fifties and sixties when she has to tackle marital and social suffocation? In her essay “Context,” included in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: short stories, prose, and diary excerpts, Plath sheds light on her poems by treating personal experiences as “deflections [that address] the real issues of our time” (Plath, “Context” 64). In both statements, we assume that the personal reflects the female anxieties about the role of women in the twentieth century. However, Plath notes that her poetry does not stop there; her poetry does not merely mirror her experiences without delving deeply into how these personal concerns are connected to the world around her. Therefore, we understand that Plath’s poetry begins within the purview of her personal experiences so as to later comment on socio-cultural issues. This of course proves how revolutionary her writing is when during the 30s and 40s the academic school of ‘New Criticism’ established basic literary qualities that opposed Plath’s overtly personal and critical writing. According to New Critics, literature should be “impersonal” and “autotelic” (Gill 16). In this manner, “impersonal” suggests that the poet’s writing should be devoid of any biographical references so as to avoid connections of the written text with the writer’s life. Also, “autotelic” refers to works that could stand on their own as self-contained; that is to say poems that could be read alone without associating them with any socio-cultural and political situations.
Therefore, having aligned together the historical, socio-cultural, and political contexts within which Plaths poems can be viewed, I believe the Gothic lens through which “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103” will be approached, magnifies the female anxieties entwined in her writing. Gothic, being a nascent theoretical scope when it comes to Plaths literary production, emerges in Plaths two poems through two basic techniques: the obsession with death visions and the doppelgänger.
In both “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103°” the persona of the poem is entrapped in a self-perpetuation state, but not through positive loops; the persona constantly reinvents herself through image-saturated death scenes, as will be explained further down.
In the following lines from “Lady Lazarus,” Plath cites the first step of the persona’s ongoing transformation after her suicide attempt:
My face a featureless, fine
Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?- (7-12)
In the first of the two tercet stanzas, the persona begins by contrasting the weight of her body with that of a paper sheet and then continues by presenting her face; her face is blank lacking any substantial features that could reveal her gender. The description finishes by identifying herself as a Jew in terms of ethnic origins. Therefore, here we see Plath revisioning herself through World War II imagery. But, this reference is intentional rather than coincidental. Plath attempts to comment on the trespassing of fundamental human rights and the lack of human compassion towards the Jewish public that was extirpated during World War II. The persona takes the napkin off her face slowly revealing the marks of war on it. The use of the verb “peel off” transforms the image into a disturbing and grotesque image as we can even hear the sound of the napkin being removed from the freshly wounded skin. Then, Plath proceeds with the use of the literary device of apostrophe — “O my enemy.” — in order to enhance the immediacy and proximity between herself and her enemy. Here, Plath, with her bold bravado instilled with irony, asks her enemy directly if their damage on her face appears repulsive in an attempt to stir empathy. Therefore, we see how Plath transgresses the personal to move to the political and the universal. By choosing to do this, specifically, via imagery that is death-associated, she amplifies her argument even more as her poetry connects with Gothic’s obsession with violence and death imagery.
In the same tempo does Plath’s “Fever 103°” waver as well. However, her criticism on imperialism takes another form. In this poem, the persona does not reinvent herself through repeating death visions of herself or suicide. She experiences, though, a moment of destruction as she suffers from an extreme high fever that is fatal. During this moment, in a state of hallucination because of the fever, the persona envisions war images from the bombings in Hiroshima. These images are evident in the following lines:
Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating it.
The sin, the sin. (22-27)
Here, Plath follows again the same stanza pattern of the two tercets. The lines start by describing that the leopard being affected by the bombing’s radiation, changed color in the process of its decay and death. She goes on to describe the bombing act as a “sin” which is repeated twice “The sin, the sin.” Hence, in this example Plath twists her writing into another dimension, which is nonetheless quite similar to the lines cited by “Lady Lazarus”. Even though she comments on war politics again, crime and death images take the form of a hallucinatory experience due to the high fever of the persona. Here, the personal destruction transmogrifies into an issue that haunts the mind. Thus, Gothic-wise, the fact that Plath chooses to comment on such political issues through death and violence imagery that projects the entrapment of the persona, the presence of psychological ‘claustrophobia’ becomes more intense.
Plath whether consciously or unconsciously borrows a major gothic technique, that of the doppelgänger. According to Marie Mulvey Roberts, the doppelgänger is frequently referred to as the‘double’self that symbolizes the belief in“[the] innate duality in man [. . .] the presence of a second self or alter ego, an archetype of otherness [. . .] that is linked to the individual [. . .]” (264, The Handbook to Gothic Literature). Reflecting on these words, one expects in Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103” to witness a transformation with the emergence of a new self behind the initial facade of Plath’s personas.
As I mentioned earlier in my analysis of “Lady Lazarus” under the umbrella-theme of ‘death visions’, the persona narrates the various phases of her metamorphosis that takes place through a deathly experience, that of the persona’s suicide. As paradoxical as it may seem, the persona is in a way rejuvenated and even in the end revived through her very own death that allows her alter ego to be liberated and come forth. This is finalized in the very last two tercets of the poem:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air. (79-84)
In the first tercet, Plath borrows the German salutation expression “Herr”in order to address God and Lucifer, which, apart from being a reference to God, is an indirect reference to the World War II Nazi Party. This salutation can only be viewed ironically as she warns them to be cautious of her power with the repetition of “Beware”. The persona is also here contrasted to the image of the phoenix, which rises back to life out of its own ashes. The persona’s dynamism reaches its climax at the two last lines where her red ‘hair’ rhymes with ‘air’. The rhyming of the two words intensifies the confidence with which the persona faces the supposedly powerful sex as she is projected with an air of victory. Through the grand vehemence the new ‘phoenix’ self embraces, she confronts and undermines all authoritative institutions. However, the persona has to die in order to gather power and re-emerge to life with a more socially liberated self, her own suicide being what propels this change; the doppelgänger is not anymore shackled by societal constructions, inferiorities, and anxieties.
Moreover, the persona in “Fever 103°” undergoes a similar transformation manifesting itself through the persona’s deathly experience of extreme high fever. After re-imagining herself through various death visions in the poem, the persona opens up to a proliferation of other selves. Towards the end of the poem when the persona is gradually reaching the end of her life, she portrays herself as a flower, camellia, in “All by myself I am a huge camelia” (41), a virgin in “Am a pure acetylene / Virgin” (46-47), and as a whore in “(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)- / To Paradise. (53-54). All these three characterizations capture the persona’s gradual transformation from a pure female self to a sexualized self. The persona’s initial facade represents the innocence that is commonly associated with flowers. As she progresses to the characterization of the‘virgin’, she enters an in-between state. She is not merely called a virgin, but an acetylene virgin. Acetylene, because of its inflammable nature, sexualizes her virginity. The persona here is presented as a virgin who is on fire because of her sexual needs that have been suppressed. Eventually, her suffering leads to the complete transformation of her initial pure self giving way to her alter ego, the doppelgänger, the dirty side of femininity when she identifies with whores. The fact that the persona desires to identify with the evil side of female sexuality, which is something she has repressed, only comes to the surface through her death, which reveals Plath’s implicit criticism on society’s view of womanhood restricted to its domestic role. The persona, featuring as a socially deviant female, through her own death allows her suppressed female sexual self to come to the surface, revealing to us her evil other that goes against the gender conventions of her time.
Thus, we reach a point where we understand that due to Gothic’s very nature that deals with violence, death, the psychological and psychological uneasiness of the characters, helps any psychological anxieties and fears to arise while magnifying their meanings and importance. Both motifs of the “death visions” and the “doppelgänger” reveal such female anxieties. The death scenes in “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103°” reveal the persona’s fears about the consequences of imperialism and nuclear wars. While, on the other hand, the “doppelgänger” Gothic trope allows the persona to break free from these anxieties as well as anxieties about her position and role in society as a woman. However, this freedom is not acquired through peaceful actions. Whereas in “Lady Lazarus” the persona’s alter ego absorbs the pain and suffering of her death and converts it into strength in her effort to confront patriarchy, in “Fever 103°” the persona’s death due to high fever liberates the persona from the sexual constructs that has been triggered by society’s constrictions. Therefore, due to Plath’s obsession with death imagery and multiple selves, Gothic, which follows a similar line of thought, helps her arguments become more clearly and vibrantly articulated.
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. The Internet Archive, 4th Ed., New York,1997, 1-473, https://archive.org/details/TheFeminineMystique/page/n5. Accessed 30 Mar. 2019
Gill, Jo. The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath. Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Hogle, Jerrold E. The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Μulvey Roberts, Marie. The Handbook to Gothic Literature. Macmillan, 1998.
Nuremberg, Army Television Release Version. The Internet Archive, United States, Department of the Army, 1950.
Plath, Sylvia. “Context.” Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: short stories, prose, anddiary excerpts, edited by Ted Hughes. Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 64-65.
Plath, Sylvia. “Fever 103°.” Ariel, edited by Ted Hughes, London, 2013, pp. 8-11.
Plath, Sylvia. “Fever 103°.” Ariel, edited by Ted Hughes, London, 2013, pp. 52-54.
“The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Radhika Chalasani, 6 Aug. 2015, https://www.cbsnews.com/pictures/anniversary-hiroshima-nagasaki-atomic-bomb-world-war-ii/
1. The two bombings obliterated around 120,000 Japanese lives, while possible survivors were immensely affected physically and psychologically by the radiation side effects (Chalasani “The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”).
2. Saint-Lô, Caen, and Bayeux.
3. The primary purpose of the mission was to free Normandy of the German occupation. Eventually, though, U.S tabulated around 22,000 thousand casualties based on the U.S VII Corps. from which around 10,000 were marked ‘killed’
4. "It follows the story of the rise and fall of Nazism from the putsch in a Munich beer hall to the Nuremberg trials, and contains flashbacks of a variety of Nazi crimes against humanity" (Nuremberg).
In order to access the poems please go to:
Sylvia Plath "Lady Lazarus":
Sylvia Plath "Fever 103°":
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