Sylvia Plath and Motherhood: by Liam Doheny Group B

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Sylvia Plath is well known for documenting her life through her work – through much of her poetry we see Plath deal with the inner demons she continued to do battle with right up until her suicide. Domesticity and more specifically pregnancy and motherhood did not escape the fate of being included in some of her more darker works. Jeannine Dobbs uses ‘Viciousness in the Kitchen: Sylvia Plath’s Domestic Poetry’ to explore how Plath explored such issues and what they potentially say about her attitudes towards them.

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Plath’s attitudes towards marriage and especially motherhood was conflicted throughout her life. She seemed to switch perspectives – within a matter of years – from not wanting to be tied down to a child and a husband to feeling the need to marry. Dobbs directly quotes Plath ‘”I don’t know how I can bare to go back to the states unless I’m married”‘[1] expressing her fear of becoming ‘”one of those women […] blue stocking grotesques”‘[2]. Plath, as perhaps many women do, feared that by not becoming a wife and mother than society would reject her and denounce her status as a woman and it is due to this pressure – despite her fears – that she does marry and does become a mother.

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Yet, still not wanting to resign herself completely to domesticity and motherhood, Plath still pursued a writing career. Plath ‘wanted to have it all’ as many women do and suffered as a result. Though sometimes she seemed fulfilled by her role as wife and mother there were other times where she felt obvious resentment ‘”children seem an impetus to writing'” and often felt that her children stifled her art[3]. It is within her work, Dobbs argues, that Plath explores these conflicts of interest and her feelings towards motherhood.

Dobbs uses The Colossus to illustrate that much of the work that dealt with motherhood from that collection were primarily dark or fearful[4]. In relation to ‘The Manor Garden’ she argues that although the poem contains some positive images of pregnancy and childbirth they are ultimately overshadowed by the more darker and negative ones. Even when Plath attempts to write about the subject in a more positive way (she uses the poem ‘Metaphors’ as her example) they are her weaker poetry – arguing that she ‘could not deal with maternity or babies in a positive manner’[5] (whether Dobbs is being too harsh here is up to individual interpretation).

What Plath does in her work, in my opinion, is really interesting. She seems to dissolve the myth of all women being naturally embracing of motherhood. Plath reveals the dark truth that some mothers face – motherhood, pregnancy and childbirth can be terrifying prospects that leave some women feeling trapped, isolated and resentful, especially if they have had to give up on/damage their careers by becoming mothers.


[1] Jeannine Dobbs, ‘”Viciousness in the Kitchen”: Sylvia Plath’s Domestic Poetry’, Modern Language Studies, 7, 2, (1977), 11-25, p.12

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid., p.13

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid., p.20

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7 responses to this post.

  1. I like the interpretation of Plath you’ve presented here – it fits in well with the idea of motherhood that Shriver puts across in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ because like Plath, Kevin’s mother displays atypical reactions to becoming a mother.

    Of course Shriver is giving us a “worst case scenario” and none of Plath’s children turned into mass murdererong sociopaths, but it’s interesting to consider how the choices of the mother affect the children.

    Reply

  2. I find Plath’s thoughts about motherhood and domestic life really interesting. Often women are presented as maternal, human beings who embrace motherhood and love taking care of their children. However Plath’s own thoughts and the characters presented in her books/poems give real life women a voice. Being a wife and a mother can be a challenging process for many women and by demonstrating this, it allows many women to relate to her in some ways, realising its ok to be confused or to think that they may want a career instead. Society is changing, allowing women to have the best of both worlds if that’s what they desire to have. Every woman is different, and the good thing about today’s world is that women can, to some extent embrace that.

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  3. I think this is the reality for a lot women I have spoken to. An interesting article and essay which shows the other side of motherhood we never really hear about, let alone talk about. I don’t agree with the comment Dobbs makes about Plath’s ‘weaker work’. I just don’t see a link there.

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  4. Posted by Khadija Azfar on November 18, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    A great article about a taboo topic. The idea that a mother does not want her child seems really horrible, yet by pressuring women to get married and having children that is exactly what we are creating. Women feel the need to conform to society’s expectations and have children simply because of that; children they do not want and are not ready for. I agree that Shriver deals with this brilliantly in ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and shows both how the mother and the children suffer in such situations.

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  5. Posted by Fiona Koster k1124466 on November 19, 2013 at 11:17 am

    There seems to be a constant inner struggle to what she wants and is accepted and what she wants and is not accepted. Cailin Moran’s arguments in ‘Why You Should Not Have Children’ and Plath’s worries are linked in the sense that women fear of representing a ‘failure’ to society (and themselves) as there seems to be the view that one cannot despise what one never had/ experienced which pressures women into having children just so if they do change their mind – children are still an option.

    I personally do not know what to think,
    I find it very difficult to separate (just as Moran and Plath?) socially
    constructed views from personal (inner) views.

    Reply

  6. A number of poems of Sylvia plath deal with mothering. Sylvia plath is not sentimental about motherhood. It is not an unambiguously blessed state in her work.

    Reply

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