How Emancipated Sylvia Become Through Writing English Literature Essay

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Simone de Beauvoir stated in her book, The Second Sex, that 'man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him'. [1] According to such feminist thinking, the binary oppositions of the male versus the female construct, that are apparent because of this process, have changed the way that literature is approached throughout contextual and literary history. Feminism has added many differing dimensions to the analysis of texts, and has led certain critics, such as, Wolfgang Iser and Judith Fetterley, to contemplate the role of the implied reader and the authorial intent whilst taking into account gender.

The title of author has historically been considered to be masculine. Gilbert and Gubar argue in their book, The Madwoman in the Attic, [2] that due to this, women as writers, characters and as readers have been said to be perceived by patriarchy - a society dominated by men and male ideals - as one of two extremes; the 'Angel in the House' or the 'Fallen Woman'. They argue that these two concepts were created by men in order to stereotype women and force them into certain roles in society. The former was the Victorian ideal of a perfect woman; she is passive, powerless, self-sacrificing, pious, and above all, pure [3] - a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary. She was a mother and a wife first and foremost - even before being an individual. This became the masculine mould for all women - any female who did not conform to the archetype was demonised as the 'fallen woman'. This label forms as a foil to the angelic qualities of its pliable counterpart and was often synonymous with such identities as a whore and sinner. Arguably this stereotype still exists in the twenty-first century, however, with the rise of feminism and the fight for the emancipation of women from what de Beauvoir describes as 'othering' by men, has caused a change in, what should be considered as the 'normal' sex in the literary and outside world.

The idea of becoming emancipated from patriarchy, therefore, involves escaping all stereotypes and labels placed on women through the definition of what is considered 'not male' by men. Gilbert and Gubar suggest that female authors in particular, "must escape...those male texts which ...deny them the autonomy to formulate alternatives to the authority that has imprisoned them". [4] In other words, in order to become free from male definition women have to write 'against the grain'. This process involves stepping away from the conventional methods of writing, in order to create an atypical conclusion to that which has gone before. If deemed successful, this could result in emancipation of the author from society's predetermined constructs. It is with this proposal that the extent to which Sylvia Plath was emancipated through her work that shall be judged within this essay.

Ariel, Plath's final collection of poems, provides a complex insight into the domain of a female poet and figurehead for early feminism. Due to her infamous private life, many readers have found it difficult to separate her biography from her literary work. This has somewhat tarnished their perspectives with a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts; that being that her poems are an insight into her 'unstable' mental psyche and nothing else. When considering the extent to which Plath becomes emancipated through her writing, the question that needs to be asked is: was she actively seeking emancipation, or are her poems and biography used by others in order to bring emancipation about?

When looking for evidence within the poems that Plath was looking for emancipation from the predetermined status of a woman in the western world of the 1960s, would be within 'The Bee Poems'. Heralded as Plath's true feminist ideals at work, this sequence of poems highlights the progression of the central character - Plath herself? - coming to terms with changes and addressing the problems made by the labels of patriarchy. The reason that they are considered feminist is primarily due to the fact that bees are an example of a matriarchal society at work in nature; the queen bee is the most important and central member of a colony. She represents fertility and the power of the female entity in nature, and is a foil to the male characters in Plath's other poems such as the fascist in 'Daddy'. Throughout this sequence of poems, Plath's central character identifies herself with this representation of the emancipated queen.

In 'The Bee Meeting', she, although not literally in a box, is placed in 'a fashionable white straw Italian hat' in order to make her 'one of them'. [5] The fact that it is a 'fashionable' hat is suggestive of conformity and conventionality. The 'villagers' in the poem are forcing her into their ideal of the female role in society - to marry, become a mother and die - each represented by a member of the congregation; 'the rector, the midwife, the sexton...' [6] In 'Stings', she notes that the queen has the opportunity to escape and, 'become more terrible than she ever was', which suggests vengeance and revenge; showing her potential for revenge and emancipation from a society that has forced her into conventionality.

Initially, in 'The Bee Meeting', she outlines the bees as a danger to her, as they are depicted as an image of swarming fear and a pulsing power; this is because she does not understand their force or their potential for harm. This action could be likened to de Beauvoir's idea of male 'othering'. She points out that the reason for men creating the idea of the female as the 'second sex' is due to the fact that the 'Female' is mysterious and challenging to their masculinity; therefore, out of fear, they subordinate and control that which they do not understand, thereby protecting their status quo. On the other hand, although the protagonist of Plath's poems does not directly place the bees in their box, the idea of their release scares her and so she procrastinates or attempts to become invisible and disguises herself, as a 'milkweed' [7] for example. This passiveness towards any change could indicate an underlining anxiety that she has to her social position. If Plath's biography is to be taken into account to provide evidence for this assumption, her position at the time of writing this poem was unstable to say the least; the breakdown of her marriage to Ted Hughes and the revelation of his affair with another woman; encapsulated in the image of the 'new virgins // Dream[ing] of a duel they will inevitably win', [8] ; meant that she was losing her identity as a wife and mother. This would mean her status in society was becoming ambiguous - and to be ambiguous was to become the 'fallen woman'. This is something that Plath evidently does not want which could therefore be taken to mean that she was happy within her role within patriarchy; is she therefore compliant with female oppression? In one of her journals, Plath has written:

I must find a strong potential powerful mate who can counter my vibrant dynamic self: sexual and intellectual, and while comradely, I must admire him: respect and admiration must equate with the object of my love (that is where the remnants of paternal, godlike qualities come in) [9] 

It would appear from this personal account that she did not want complete emancipation from the ideal of 'the angel in the house'. Her fear of losing this position is evident in a number of poems in Ariel. Is this suggestive of a woman that does not want to lose sight of her position in society's ideals?

In 'Daddy' and 'Lady Lazarus', Plath addresses tangible figures of oppression, with the primary analogy to the oppression of the Jews by the Nazis during the holocaust. She alludes in both that she is the Jew whilst the men, and male dominated society around her, are the 'panzer' [10] men that wish to expose her in a 'big strip tease'; to peel back and define every layer until she is just 'skin and bone'. There is a defeatist tone in the former poem, as she lays out her disappointment with the male gender. She states that she 'used to pray to recover' [11] the lost image of her father - the welcome fascist of her childhood - but now feels that everything she believed her father to be, in her naivety, is no longer true. She realises that it is only natural as 'every woman adores a fascist'; [12] suggesting the complicity of women in patriarchy. Although this could be construed as an attack on the blindness of women to their own entrapment in patriarchy, the fact that she is not afraid to make public her opinion of this could trigger an awareness and therefore a catalyst for social change; for if her audience can be made aware of their denial of their oppression in society perhaps emancipation could be an outcome.

In 'Lady Lazarus', [13] it appears that she is aware of what this fascist position has control over in terms of the female identity. She becomes enraged, stating that she will now 'eat men like air', [14] and to a point has done using this poem. She emasculates Lazarus - originally a male biblical character - by stating that she is Lady Lazarus. This suggests that, like Lazarus, she will be raised from the dead; symbolic of her rise from her dead identity of which she must draw 'out of the ash' like a reborn phoenix. This is a very strong image for the want of emancipation.

'Edge', [15] has a very different perspective on the concept of the female. She states that a woman can only become perfected in death, highlighting that, perhaps, the fight to appear as 'the angel in the house' is futile. A woman can only become sinless when her very life and identity is no more. The fact that this was the very final piece Plath wrote could be taken to mean that she does not want to fight against patriarchy anymore; however she realises that she cannot live up to male expectations - death is the only way out.

It is possible to analyse her poems for some impression of feminist writing, but whether her intention was to free herself from society's conventions is a separate and debateable matter altogether. Arguably Plath was continuing a search for a new identity in society, through use of the Bee Poems. In, 'The Arrival of the Bee Box', [16] Plath's central character in the poem realises that she can have control of the bees by making the decision as to whether she opens the box or leaves it shut. By 'Wintering', a sense of peace emerges. The sleepy hibernation for Plath's bees means, that the dark 'winter' of her life is coming to an end and a new life can commence in the 'spring'. There is a sense of hope for a new beginning and a new identity different to that which has been placed on her before by patriarchy; the male figures in her previous poems are no longer present; " 'Daddy', 'the man in black', 'the rector', 'the surgeon' - all have disappeared"; [17] leaving her as herself. By arranging for this poem to close this collection could suggest that Plath wanted to present the fact that she had shaken off the ties and links that she thought her identity had to have with men. If this was in fact the case then it could be said that her choice to chose death over a life of constant comparison is a form of emancipation; however the fact that her poems were inherited by her estranged husband, giving him the power to alter her draft of the collection; is an example of the influence that 'man' can have on the identity of a woman - even in death.