Sylvia Plath and Alice Walker

Two Women Writers Challenge Society's Conspiracy Against Women

by Catherine Cooper

O sister, mother, wife,
Sweet Lethe is my life
I am never, never, never, coming home!
I find my own
Small person
A standing self
Against the world
An equality of wills
I finally understand

The difficulties of living in a society for an individual who is in some way different from the norm or somewhat nonconformist is a subject which is thoroughly explored not only in modern literature but in literature throughout the ages. In this essay I shall look at the problems which two women writers believe are inflicted on them because of their status as women: Sylvia Plath and Alice Walker.

Both authors believe that stringent laws have been laid down by their predecessors, by the men and even by the women in their society. Much of the work of both women deals with their difficulty in coming to terms with these rules, the effect the rules have on them and sometimes (although more so in the work of Alice Walker) their attempts to overcome them.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) is as well known for her life, and particularly her death as she is for her work, it could be argued. She made her first suicide attempt at the age of twenty because the pressures put on her to conform to the role of a woman, in particular, a middle-class upwardly-mobile educated woman, by society, had become too much for her. She lacked either the strength or the courage to continue to fight against the ideals which were being continually foisted upon her.

The reasons behind this suicide attempt can be clearly seen in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Teresa de Laurentis described the novel as 'a heroine's struggle with herself and the world', [1] which is also the essence of much of Plath's poetry. The heroine, Esther Greenwood, appears to have everything she needs to be happy. She has won the chance to spend a month in New York working on a magazine, attending parties and generally living the high-life. Yet she does not feel she is in control, she feels rather that she is doing all this because it is expected of her, it is what she has been programmed from childhood to do, instead being what she herself wants to do. This feeling is reflected by words suggesting a kind of automaton existence early in the novel, such as describing herself as a 'zombie' and a 'numb trolley bus'.

Esther wishes to discover herself, discover what she really wants to do rather than just accepting as her desires and ambitions those which society has set out for her. Teresa de Laurentis notes:

Freedom for Esther is availability, refusal of classifications, growth diversity. She cannot accept the either-or of culturally-defined roles which seem to be the only alternatives open to her. What she is looking for, her own self development, is not yet visible, but by the end of the novel Esther has learned to keep looking. [2]

The fact that Esther eventually breaks down as a consequence of the pressures of conformity is presented as a necessary progression of events. Her rejection of this life is shown in symbolic ways, such as the incident when, after almost being raped and called a slut, she throws all her new, expensive clothes out of the window. She no longer desires the trinkets and trappings of being a woman, and all that they encompass.

The pressures on women to conform and Plath's desire to escape from these pressures is strongly in evidence in most of her poetic work. Although she wrote in one of her 'letters home':

I shall be one of the few women poets in the world who is a fully rejoicing woman, not a bitter or frustrated or warped man-imitator, which ruins most of them in the end. I am a woman and glad of it, and my songs will be of fertility and the earth. [3]

It appears that this must have been written in a state of uncharacteristic optimism as many of her poems express her feeling of imprisonment and a desire to find freedom, often through death. This letter extract is also rather ironically prophetic, as it is through being 'bitter', 'frustrated' and 'warped' that she causes her own ruin. Erica Jong glorified Plath's poetry as the first to 'fully explore female rage' [4], a far cry from the intention expressed in her letter.

A large number of Plath's poems deal with a feeling that as a woman she is treated as an object, a commodity, and not allowed to be an independent person. A good example of this is The Applicant where the woman is kept in a closet and sold like an item of clothing. The woman, which throughout is described as 'it', thus depersonalising her further, is advertised to the prospective buyer as a thing:

. . . willing
To bring tea cups and roll away headaches
and do whatever you tell it


It can sew, it can cook

It is also described to the buyer as being his 'last resort'. There are other images of woman as being helpless and merely looked upon as objects, unable to fend for themselves. In Purdah women are described as 'jade', and in Childless Woman as 'ivory'. In Two Campers in Cloud Country the speaker complains:

I lean to you, numb as a fossil. Tell me I'm here.

In Face Lift the speaker is anaesthetised, another form of helplessness. In Gigolo the woman claims to be a mere pocket watch and in An Appearance the woman's body opens and shuts like a Swiss watch. These women retain no personal qualities at all, they have become mere objects.

Furthermore there are examples of poems where even when the speaker retains some identity as a person (even if not a specific person) she feels unable to move, again illustrating the restrictions which Plath felt that society's conventions placed upon her. Examples of this are In Plaster and Paralytic. In In Plaster she (the inner woman) feels trapped by her outer casing (the front she has to present to fit in to society's rules). The poem begins:

I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now
This new absolutely white person and the old the yellow one

The 'old yellow one' is her real self, the white the fake. She describes how at first she hated the white, fake front but eventually saw that it had advantages, began to accept the falsity, and eventually the falseness became a way of life and she almost forgot what her real self was. She writes:

I wasn't in a any position to get rid of her
She'd supported me for so long I was quite limp
I had even forgotten how to walk or sit

The poem ends with the hope that she will someday be able to manage without the white and be accepted as herself. This is a poem in which the severity of Plath's hatred for the roles foisted on her as a woman can clearly be seen.

In Paralytic she describes herself as entirely immobile, tended to and even kept alive by outside forces, as a 'dead egg'. In Witch Burning she writes:

If I don't move about, I'll knock nothing over.

The poet appears to have a wish to have no influence on the outside world, in the hope that it will not wish to influence her. This thought is also reflected in the final verse of Paralytic:

The claw
Of the magnolia,
Drunk on its own scents,
Asks nothing of life.

These lines suggest that a hermit-like life would be easier of for her to deal with.

In other poems she desires forgetfulness and even death as the oppression gets too much for her. At the end of Amnesia she writes:

O sister, mother, wife,
Sweet Lethe is my life
I am never, never, never, coming home!

These lines imply that she hates these roles which she must fit into, and forgetting about them is her only relief. In Lesbos she writes of her despair at the bleak existence of the average housewife. The poem begins with the simple statement:

Viciousness in the kitchen.

And the whole poem has an air of claustrophobia. The kitchen is described as 'windowless', implying that to this dirty noisy kitchen is the beginning and end of this woman's world, she is confined. The child is described as a 'puppet', perhaps implying that this young girl will grow up to be a 'puppet' operating at the whims of others, just like her mother. In Lorelei she longs for oblivion from this type of life, asking to drown:

Stone, stone, ferry me down there.

In I am Vertical she implies that, as a woman, she feels she would be more use dead than alive. The poem ends:

And I shall be useful when I lie down finally:
Then the trees may touch me for once, and the flowers have time for me

These lines imply that she does not feel that she receives the attention she deserves. In All the Dead Dears she identifies with the dead woman in the museum case, writing:

This lady here's no kin
Of mine, yet kin she is.

In this poem she once again reiterates her belief that a mould has been set for her, a role she must fit into, although this time she suggests that the role has been set by her predecessors rather than by contemporary society. The fact that the glass is 'mercury-backed' emphasises that she sees herself and the dead woman as one and the same:

From the mercury-backed glass
Mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother
Reach hag hands to haul me in

Following the same kind of idea as in I am Vertical in Edge, which was probably her last poem, she writes that a woman has reached perfection when she is dead, and also suggests that this is the only thing that a woman can truly accomplish.

The woman is perfected.
Her dead
Body wears the smile of accomplishment

As is evident, much of Sylvia Plath's work dealt with the imprisonment that she felt was inflicted on her by her status as a woman, whether this is specific (as in Daddy when she likens her father to a Nazi, herself to a Jew) or more general as in many of her poems, when she feels that her role as a woman is inflicted on her by society in general, she does indeed seem to see it as a conspiracy, and the only way to escape from it as oblivion or death.

Alice Walker

An author who also felt that women, particularly black women, were typecast and have a lot to deal with is Alice Walker (1944 - ). However, her outlook on her plight is a lot more positive than that of Plath. Her work deals not only with the problems of being a black woman, but also with the possibility of change and progression, even if it is a slow process. The poem, On Stripping Bark from Myself, from her collection Good Night Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning, embodies her ideas to an extent:

I find my own
Small person
A standing self
Against the world
An equality of wills
I finally understand

Alice Walker believes that to bring about societal change, a person first has to change their own way of thinking.

Her novel Meridian is about a young black woman who wishes to change the place black women have in society, but she attempts to do this mainly through her inner person, her pursuit of 'wholeness'. Although she is a member of the 'movement', she is chastised by her friends for saying that she would not kill for its sake, as she sees this as destroying something that she is trying to create, i.e. peace.

One of the major issues in the novel is the fact that black women are often seen as little more than baby-making machines. Meridian tries to break out of this mould by giving away her child and going to college. Barbara Christian writes:

Since, in the principle, society places motherhood on a pedestal, while in reality it rejects individual mothers as human beings with needs and desires, mothers must both love their role as they are penalised for it. True for all mothers, this double-edged dilemma is heightened for black women, because society does not value their children. As they are praised for being mothers, they are also damned as baby machines who spew out their product indiscriminately upon society. [5]

Although Meridian is a strong individual, in many ways she is still portrayed as a victim of typecasting. Her first sexual encounters were sordid and demeaning and so she sees that what is expected of her is 'giving in', rather than mutual love or affection. She knows that, to an extent, her worth and person is to be seen (by others rather than by herself) in being 'so and so's girl'. So she indulges in it, although she eventually rejects this and, after her abortion, has her tubes tied to reinforce the idea that she is not going to succumb to the dubious 'ideal' of black motherhood.

However, the novel is not merely about the problems faced by black women. The author acknowledges that white women also have a role set for them which is no better and equally difficult to break out from. She writes:

Who would dream, in her hometown, of kissing a white girl? . . . they only seemed to hang about laughing, after school, until they were sixteen or seventeen they got married. Their pictures appeared in the society column, you saw them pregnant a couple of times, then you were no longer able to recognise them as girls you once 'knew'. They sank into a permanent oblivion. One never heard of them doing anything that was interesting.

The author also deals with the fact that because the roles of black and white are so set and so different it is difficult for them to mix. Lynne allows Tommy to rape her because of the guilt she feels at being white, or as Tommy says to her husband Truman: 'she's been atoning for her sins.'

Also, the death of Cameron, the 'mulatto' baby, could be symbolic of the fact that blacks and whites will never naturally be able to live in harmony and equality.

In a conversation with Claudia Tate, Alice Walker talked about the end of the novel. She said:

I can see that the expected end to that kind of struggle his death.

However, Meridian does not die at the end of the novel, nor does she get married (which the author suggested was the other end which an audience might expect). Instead of this, she passes her struggle on to Truman, so the hope for change is still there (although it is perhaps significant that she passes her struggle on to a man).

The work of Alice Walker explores the conditions which society places on women, and black people in general. It is, however, more positive than the work of Plath in that it also explores the possibility of change. Meridian breaks away from the roles which are set for her and finds wholeness that way, whereas Sylvia Plath gets torn down by the demands of her society, which eventually caused her to commit suicide as she saw this as the only way of breaking free from the rules which constricted her, (rather like Hedda Gabler). Both writers however, see society both past and present in a conspiracy against women, it is just their ways of dealing with it which are different.

[1] Teresa de Laurentis p.124
[2] ibid. p.133
[3] Erica Jong p.207
[4] ibid. p.204
[5] Barbara Christian. Black Feminist Criticism. p.220

Sylvia Plath. Collected Poems
Claudia Tate. Black Women Writers at Work
Barbara Christian. Black Women Novelists
Barbara Christian. Alice Walker: 'The Black Woman Artist as Wayward' (in the collection Black Feminist Criticism)
A. Alvarez. The Savage God
Teresa de Laurentis. 'Rebirth in The Bell Jar'. In Sylvia Plath. (Critical Heritage Series)
Sherry Zirley. 'Plath's Will-less Women'. in Literature and Psychology Vol. XX1 no. 3
Erica Jong. Letters Focus, Exquisite rage of Sylvia Plath. (Critical Heritage series)

© Catherine Cooper, April 2001

See also: American Books on Film >

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