Sylvia Plath– A Caged Darkness of the Mind

Sigmund Freud’s position that the artist is a successful neurotic has been contested upon but, at the same has served as a key focal point for several psychoanalytic theories in literature. In his essay, ‘Creative Writers and Daydreaming’, he ominously states, “The opposite of play is not what is serious, but what is real.” Although, it appears casual and quite literal in its sense, when actually placed in the context of the essay, it implies far more than what appears on a mere superficial level. The author is nothing but a spectator in his own imagined world. In the process of infusing his inner emotions and feelings into the characters of the text, he not only presents his most vulnerable self to the world, but also brings out what is real– both to the reader and to himself. Therefore, boundaries between reality of ‘self’ and reality of the ‘world’ become blur as the reader immerses himself in the text. Writing therefore, presents a deeper insight into the writer’s mind.

Sylvia Plath, one the renowned writers, was clinically depressed for most of her life and eventually became a victim of suicide at the age of thirty. Her poetry was intensely personal and even confessional, as she made the readers venture into some of the extremely personal moments of her individual experience and trauma. ‘I am Vertical’ and Daddy were written shortly before she died. These poems were two such personifications of her poetry which painted a vivid image of her inner psyche, rendered her soul vulnerable and free of repressed emotions. They posthumously garnered acclaim. Her poem, I am Vertical’, through vivid imagery, makes her depression poignant. Largely personified through elements of nature, the initial lines of her poetry insinuate that the poet would rather be horizontal than vertical.

There is a sense of vague confusion that emerges in the poem. However, as the poem progresses, it seems that there occurs a beautiful transgression from the vertical reality to the horizontal desire– the desire to lie down. She stands tall and immediately senses no worth or direction but longing, as she sees the trees and their flowers being appreciated for their durability and beauty. In her conversation with the sky, her desire to lie down and become one with nature is expressed. She tries to fill her own dark void with the colour, calmness and perfection of nature. As thoughts darken in the night, she hopes for an everlasting peace to draw over her. There is a detached emotionless feeling and an enamored tone as her subconscious projects feeling ‘nothing’ even though she is overwhelmed by the devils of her own mind that have consumed her existence.

‘Daddy’ remains of one of the most controversial modern poems written during her turbulent period. Dark with surrealist undertones, it offers a disturbing and painful allegory which leaves the reader uneasy and incomplete. There appears a metaphor for the ‘Electra Complex’ — the female counterpart of the Oedipus complex, wherein the daughter is embroiled in a psychosexual energy to possess her father and perceives the mother as her rival. This strong attraction and unresolved desire often manifests into a negative fixation in terms of the figure of the ‘father’. The poet almost combines the ‘personal’ with the ‘mythical’ and presents the conflicted workings of a divided self. This is done by a heightened use of symbols and there’s an eerie tone to it.

The desire is so strong that it is frightening and consuming, and her only longing is to break free of its binds and shackles. The employment of symbols like a black shoe, a swastika, a giant statue and a vampire, implicitly states that ‘Daddy situates itself in the turbulent context of the Second World War under an oppressive Nazi regime. Through all this, runs an image of a train chuffing past to reach its final destination, a train which is free from all the shackles of oppression placed both on her mind and heart. Her father becomes an amputee, the shoe which binds her childhood infatuation. To free herself of him, she has to kill him– an event oddly juxtaposed with his real-life death when she was merely eight years old. Her all powerful God stands fallen and yet, all-consuming in her mind. With images of occult symbology thrown in and a Nazi description of her father, as she struggles with her Jewish identity, the ‘swastika’ draws her in. Her first suicide attempt occurred when she tried to reunite with her father. To kill him, she must kill a part of herself. Eerily finding him in a vampire replica of the husband she falls in love with, she now needs to kill two. In this life consuming web of woven desires and encompassing darkness that trapped her mind, she ends the conflict in a vengeful assertion of daddy–the bastard.

In the poem, she ventures into all three orders of Lacanian theory- the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. The lines are blurred and in the creation of her real mythical verse, there’s an annihilation of the uncanny. Plath is removed from her own self and identity, even as her desires and subconscious consume her existence. What remains, is an abstract linguistic conquering of her soul, as she seeks liberation and guidance- to shed some light on the inner darkness through her writings.

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