Sylvia Plath’s Efforts for Self Discovery

In much of her later poetry, Sylvia Plath sought to give birth to a creative or “deep” self hidden within her—a Wordsworthian “imaginative power” or Whitmanian “real Me.” By unpeeling an outer self of “dead hands, dead stringencies,” she sought to unveil and give voice to an inner “queen” or “White Godiva,” a spirit of rebellious expressiveness. Although she may at least partially have achieved this goal in such celebrated poems as “Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Ariel,” she more characteristically dwelt on her fears that she would fail—that she would be unable to reveal her “deep self,” or that she did not in fact possess such a self at all. Plath’s figures for these fears were the mirror and the shadow.
While a number of critics—for example, Judith Kroll, Jon Rosenblatt, and Susan Van Dyne—have ably analyzed Plath’s imagery of rebirth, none has focused attention on these images of incapacity.

In theory, the mirror should have provided Plath with access to an “abstract Platonic realm” of pure imagination: “and so to the mirror-twin, Muse”. But in fact, it functioned merely as an agent of anxious narcissism. It was an “egoistic mirror” reflecting an ugly outer being but no inner queen—a Baudelairean mirror of despair. Similarly, her shadows represented not an imaginative second world but the insubstantiality of creative nonbeing. At uncreative times, Plath felt that she was living in the “shadow” of others, usually male. If the mirror in her poetry expressed “the corruption of matter, mere mindless matter,” the shadow expressed “the deadness of a being…who no longer creates”. Although the former emphasizes gross corporality and the latter thin evanescence, both are images of Plath’s negative vision of herself and her world. Plath’s tropes of mirror and shadow express the imaginative self-doubt that haunted her poetic career.

Plath’s interest in mirrors and shadows probably originated in her work preparing her honor’s thesis during her senior year at Smith College. This thesis, “The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevski’s Novels,” represented the most sustained intellectual inquiry she ever made. In researching the thesis, she read, among other “psychological and religious studies,” James Frazer’s chapter on “The Perils of the Soul” in The Golden Bough, Otto Rank’s chapter on “The Double as Immortal Self” in Beyond Psychology, and Freud’s essay on “The ‘Uncanny.’” Each of these works had a lasting effect on Plath and helped shape her subsequent poetic expression. All three examined the literary and psychological significance of the “double,” with the Frazer and Rank studies paying special attention to the figure’s appearance as reflection or shadow.

As a writer, Plath liked to repeat old themes and recapture popular traditions, and she turned instinctively to ancient beliefs in the supernatural as an antidote to an overly socialized, superrationalized civilization. More to the point, she used these images as an antidote to her personal oversocialization and superrationalism; she used them as an outlet for her blocked emotions. But she powerfully revised such images, no matter how venerable and hardy, to fit them into motifs specifically applicable to herself. She made the shadow evoke what was for her the equivalent of spiritual essence—imaginative identity.

In Plath’s shadow poems, this “most vital part” of the self is prevented from coming into being not only by the corporeal, factitious mask we see revealed in the mirror poems but also by external authoritarian figures. If the mirror poems dramatize a struggle that takes place wholly within the self, the shadow poems usually imply a conflict between the self and others. But again the poems vibrate with an inner contradiction: they figure the failure of figuration. Plath’s “shadow” represents precisely what cannot appear in her mirror—the ghost of creativity. Shadow betokens the imaginative self that might have been but was forbidden to be, the defeated “deep” self.

In “The Colossus,” the textual “I” states that her “hours are married to shadow”—that is, to the soul of the inanimate and oppressive father-husband who lives only in her remembrance. As a result, she herself becomes increasingly shadowlike. Indeed, she is the only shadow-being in the scene, since the “colossus” stands in the sun, making the shade that she lives in. Plath often equated “sun” with the “saying of poems”, and darkness with creative dearth. She complained of living in the “shadow” of the powerful males she felt both tied to and intimidated by. So often in the journals and letters, as in her poems, the “I” fails to make a shadow of her own: “apathetic about my work—distant, bemused, feeling, as I said, a ghost of the world I am working in, casting no shadow”. Existence in and as a shadow in “The Colossus” thus represents the creative half-life that is, rather than the full life that might have been. The “I” does not possess her own shadow, her own artistic identity, but is possessed by that of another. Frazer tells us that “injury done to the shadow is felt by the person or animal as if it were done to his body,” and conversely, “it may under certain circumstances be as hazardous to be touched” by the shadow of another.

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