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Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers by Janet Badia (review)
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Can high art have low readers? This by now old question rises again when reading Janet Badia’s Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers. Drawing on both the high modernist mode of close reading and the postmodern theories of Roland Barthes and Steven Mailloux, Badia examines depictions of Sylvia Plath’s women readers found in book reviews, films, television shows, and texts about Plath. The collective portrait—a “mythology” in the Barthesian sense—is anything but flattering and, argues Badia, anything but benign in effect. It reinforces patriarchal ideology, drives scholarly and popular reception of Plath’s work, helps generate a pathological image of the Plath reader that ultimately diminishes Plath’s work, and has influenced executors of the Plath estate: Ted Hughes and, currently, Frieda Hughes.

Badia contextualizes her study in the work of Kate Flint and others who examined the rhetoric used to describe women readers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Great Britain and the United States. These women were perceived as a separate category of readers, easily influenced and noncritical, and a variation of this rhetoric survives today. Examining hundreds of reviews, covering five decades, of Plath’s poetry and prose, Badia discovers a pattern of patronizing, misogynist, and condescendingly comic references in scholarly and mass publications by men and women, both home and abroad. Plath readers are either cult worshippers or thoughtless consumers, naive devotees or angry shrews, hysterics or feminist drones. Drawing on Mailloux’s concept that such tropes about readers reveal broader cultural and political concerns, Badia argues persuasively that this pattern documents anxieties about late twentieth-century women readers. The dis-ease voiced by critics accelerated during the 1960s and early 1970s following Plath’s suicide, as additional books by her were published. At the same time, the women’s movement was inspiring more women writers and readers, and a wave of critical invective was often directed at any author embraced by feminists. Plath’s critical reception also suffered, as did that of countless nineteenth- and twentieth-century women authors, from her commercial success and mass popularity.

Another of Mailloux’s concepts, that rhetoric can migrate from one type of discourse to another within the broader culture, leads Badia to investigate the products of popular culture that refer to Plath. She offers a compelling analysis regarding characters who read Plath in films (10 Things I Hate about You, Annie Hall, and Natural Born Killers) and television programs (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Family Guy), pointing out how they reinforce the negative rhetoric of book reviewers. However, one is forced to raise a question here. Did creators of these products read the reviews, which is entirely possible of course, or did they read, for example, The Bell Jar and then decide to attach that reading to an angry adolescent or an emotionally tortured suicide because of the novel’s content? In other words, did they draw similar conclusions about Plath readers from their reading of her work that many critics did? Or were other texts involved? Whatever the pattern, the outcome is the same: Plath readers are portrayed as unstable.

A fascinating aspect of this study is Badia’s examination of the critical reception of “The Arraignment” (1972), Robin Morgan’s poetic and controversial indictment of Hughes’s role in Plath’s suicide. Badia lays out the poem’s censorship issues (including those by feminists), and its use by critics as emblematic of Plath’s feminist readers, then places it in the context of 1970s feminist rhetoric: a language of rage, violence, and war intended to shock readers into recognizing the effects of patriarchal culture. (Of course, the larger context of that rhetoric is the Vietnam War, against which many feminists cut their radical teeth, as well as the rhetoric of rage against a racist white power structure that emerged from the Black Panthers, the Black Liberation Army, and the Black Arts movement authors.) While Badia thinks readers on all sides have read Morgan’s poem stripped of its feminist context, she is more concerned with getting us to think about the broader effects of such nonhistorical reading, particularly those generated by the...

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