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  • The Poetics of Torture:The Spectacle of Sylvia Plath's Poetry
  • Lisa Narbeshuber (bio)

Sylvia Plath, in her most ambitious poems, tackles the problem of female selfhood. What is it? Within a world where women are contained by rigid scripts and relegated to silence, how can they revolt? On the one hand, she gives us poems like "The Applicant" and "The Munich Mannequins," where women, reduced to nothing more than commodities, appear robbed of their humanity. On the other hand, in poems such as "Lady Lazarus," she presents selves in revolt, resisting assimilation to patriarchal ideals. In both cases, Plath's poetry reacts against the absence, especially for women, of a public space, indeed a language for debate, wherein one might make visible and deconstruct the given order of things. In the following, I argue that Plath deliberately blurs the borders between the public and the private in two of the most celebrated, controversial, and critiqued of her poems: "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus." Transforming the conventional female body of the 1950s into a kind of transgressive dialect, Plath makes her personae speak in and to a public realm dominated by male desires. Giving the female construct voice, so to speak, Plath prefigures recent trends in feminist criticism that read the female body as text. Susan Bordo, for example, sees in the emergence of agoraphobia in the 1950s and anorexia in the 1980s rebellious performances: The public wants to see the woman in the home, so the woman responds by fearing to go out (agoraphobia); the public wants to see the woman thin, so the woman starves herself (anorexia). Bordo summarizes her argument in a language that echoes Plath's poetic desires:

In hysteria, agoraphobia, and anorexia, then, the woman's body may be viewed as a surface on which conventional constructions of femininity are exposed starkly to view, through their inscription in extreme or hyperliteral form. They are written, of course, [End Page 185] in language of horrible suffering. It is as though these bodies are speaking to us of the pathology and violence that lurks just around the corner, waiting at the horizon of "normal" femininity. It is no wonder that a steady motif in the feminist literature on female disorder is that of pathology as embodied protest—unconscious, inchoate, and counterproductive protest without an effective language, voice, or politics, but protest nonetheless.


As we will see, in order to bring their private selves into the public realm, the speakers in "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" become public performers and rebellious exaggerators, very much like Bordo's agoraphobic and anorexic. They, too, may have trouble communicating (as we will see most obviously in "Daddy"), but this serves to reveal their public voicelessness. Plath's speakers should not be read as pathological case studies; rather it is the culture, written on their bodies, which is exposed as pathological. Likewise, their acts of rebellion almost necessarily contain an unacceptable, self-destructive side. In various ways, Plath brashly pairs the private with the public, to the point where the personal all but dissolves into a ludicrous public performance or event, with the body as displayed object.

This desire in Plath's poetry to trace the connection between the private and the public has not been explored in any depth in Plath criticism.1 Instead, most criticism reads "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" around the psychology of Plath's life, if not exclusively as biography, then as the feminist struggles of a victorious woman over a man or men. For example, critics regard the irrepressible "Lady Lazarus" as "a triumph of vitality" (Broe 175); a journey "from a life of abuse and nightmare to one of liberation" (Markey 122); a wonderful, "searingly self-confident" (Van Dyne 55) exhibition of the speaker's "true identity as a triumphant resurrecting goddess, the fully liberated, fiery true self ..." (Kroll 118-9); an expression of the struggling woman artist's "independent creative powers ... She is neither mad nor 'ugly and hairy,' but a phoenix, a flame of released bodily energy" (Bundtzen 33-4). But such statements are an expression of the commentators' need to find wholeness and steady thought in Plath's poetry, defending her against charges of...


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pp. 185-203
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