Motherhood and Sylvia Plath’s Three Women
While students of literature are most often advised not to ponder over the personal lives of authors, it is almost impossible to do that in the case of Sylvia Plath. How does one separate Plath the poet from Sylvia the woman who suffered from severe depression that seeped into her writing and produced astounding poetry? She died almost seventy years ago, but as a confessional and feminist poet, Plath's position has only grown stronger over the years.
This article looks into Sylvia Plath's verse drama Three Women, written a year before her death in 1963. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman's film Brink of Life, Three Women portrays a bleak world where three women share similar experiences of pain of childbirth in a maternity ward. Their names are not given and only one of them, the first voice, is able to take her baby home. The second, a working woman and wife, loses a cherished child, while the last voice, a student, gives up her unwanted baby for adoption. Though failing to give rise to as much interest as Plath's collected poems Ariel, Three Women is very complex and intense, and these voices virtually are the forerunners of Plath's poetic personas in Ariel.
Most critics look at the piece as fragmentation of the poet's creative self. For example, Steven Axelrod in "The Poetry of Sylvia Plath" analyzes how even the first voice, the successful one is "frightened, powerless and marginalized," aligning herself with "historical victims":
I am breaking apart like a world. There is this blackness,
…. There is this blackness
…. The air is thick. It is thick with this working.
I am used. I am drummed into use.
The description of the of suffering of childbirth is acute and following many other women writers before her, she also felt torn between her creative self and the traditional role of a mother and wife.
Plath's contemporary writer and critic Adrienne Rich explains in her well-known article, "When We Dead Awaken," how theirs was a time in which the middle-class women were absolutely taken in with the idea of "domestic perfection." In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, Rich elaborates this idea showing how most Western women of the 1950s and 60s entertained the concept of motherhood influenced by family members and in-laws that being a mother is the only way a woman matures and becomes complete. Rich herself got married in early twenties and had three children before thirty. Plath too, thought to have found perfect blissfulness in her marriage with Ted Hughes in1956. Afterwards, even though she was devastated by her husband's infidelity, she continued to glorify motherhood.
When BBC first published the script of the radio play Three Women in1968, the first voice was identified as the "wife" because of the successful birth of the child and the crooning voice of the mother, even though there is no presence of a father. This voice envisions her son growing up to be a normal, ordinary person who would return her love and marry whoever he wishes. This character actually poses the question if a mother may not raise her children on her own. Her articulations on her son's birth reveal a mother's unquestionable love and responsibility for her child:
What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?
During her last days, Plath also wrote to her friends about her deep motherly affection for her beautiful children while she worked feverishly and vigorously on her last poems.
The second voice, often considered the strongest, is later developed in many of her later poems in Ariel. It was initially identified as the "secretary" and the "working woman" though she is the only one who seems to have a husband to go back to after the miscarriage. But there is no warmth in the relationship between this wife and her husband. He was not even there when she lost the baby. (This could be the poet herself as she also lost a child during the early days of her marriage). However, the voice is more articulate in giving vent to her frustration:
It is these men I mind:
They are so jealous of anything that is not flat! They are
That would have the whole world flat because they are.
In Plath's poetry, God (a symbol of patriarchy) and men conspire together to make women suffer for their capacity of child-bearing. For her, giving birth to children and being able to write, are both processes of creativity. Therefore, deterring women from becoming mothers, men and patriarchal social system pose a barrier to women's creativity. Even the first voice, the happy and successful voice, has complaints against the hostile atmosphere of the maternity ward. But whereas the disturbing world of the first woman is transformed into a peaceful garden after the birth of her son, the second woman becomes a peripheral being, looking on the hustle and bustle of the world from a distance, her voice bitter, her life empty. The anger and frustration towards the male dominion expressed through this voice becomes indomitable in Plath's later poem, "Lady Lazarus," where the speaker wants to "eat men up like air."
The third voice was initially identified as "the girl," and her position seems to be the saddest of them all. However, critics have given her less attention than the other two, probably considering her emotions as a mother less important, since she abandons her baby daughter. But, a careful reader will notice that she does not give up her daughter happily. Her emotions are frozen because she cannot comprehend the chain of events surrounding her:
She is a small island, asleep and peaceful,
And I am a white ship hooting: Goodbye, goodbye.
The day is blazing….
I am a wound walking out of hospital….
I leave my health behind. I leave someone
Who would adhere to me.
She returns to her everyday student life. She observes lovers, wants to feel young once more while her heart whispers, "What is it I miss? Shall I ever find it, whatever it is?" She is bitter against society, the male doctors in the ward, and resentful of the awareness of her own new identity in a world where she has been forced to enter. Linda Fraser identifies her case not as "an isolated, personal event;" rather producing "the political appropriation of the female body codified throughout Western history in seminal, mythic 'origin' narratives." (568) The difference between her and the first voice is a choice which makes the first voice utter confidently, "I am ready," whereas this girl cries bitterly, "I wasn't ready." She was not ready when she was raped, and she is not ready when she is to deliver her child.
Through these three women Sylvia Plath dramatizes women and motherhood, throwing light upon the complex psychodrama of the process of becoming a mother. They also illustrate how the relationship between a mother and her child can be ambiguous, and also how the entire surrounding, including the maternity ward tries to dominate over the mother-child relationship. Surely enough, though this piece was written more than fifty years ago, the voices of the three women can be identified in our world too.
In Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life, Linda Wagner-Martin records how Plath edited her husband's poetry, sent them to American journals, played the role of his secretary, and from a sideline watched him basking in the attention of the literary circle of London. Well-known poets and writers visiting the couple often did not even know that she wrote poetry. But in most social contexts that is still the role assigned to women. As wives, women are expected to compromise and sacrifice, as Plath also did initially. But in her later poems, she creates a new woman, in whom the critics identified a female power never displayed before by any other poet. Even though she could not sustain the power in her own life for long, Sylvia Plath's poetry later on came to be recognized as the voice of a woman who would move on with life under any adverse situation.
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities, ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.