“We are confronted, at every new stage in the differentiation of consciousness to which civilization attains, with the task of finding a new interpretation appropriate to this stage, in order to connect the life of the past that still exists in us with the life of the present, which threatens to slip away from it,” wrote Carl Jung (1964, par. 267).
This quote by Jung refers to the archetypal patterns expressing our human dilemmas and that appear through the collective unconscious. The diverse cultures of the world enact them in individual and societal aspects. Here we explore the patterns related to the search for self through the poetry of Sylvia Plath.
Jung (1975) noted that poetry was a means for understanding the psyche. The archetypal patterns and symbols in Plath’s poetry are expressions of the psyche’s continual potential for transformation. Because her themes detail the traumatic nature of human experience and as such are timeless, her poetry has relevance half a century after she killed herself in February of 1963.
Several of Sylvia Plath’s poems, especially “The Mirror,” represent the psychological processes of disenchantment, disillusion and dissolution. Disenchantment includes feelings of disillusionment, disappointment, dissatisfaction, discontent, discontentedness, a rude awakening and cynicism. Dissolution is the second major operation in the alchemical processes for transformation. Psychologically, this represents a breaking down of the artifice of the psyche by total immersion in the unconscious, non-rational, feminine or perhaps the rejected parts of the personality. The false structures the ego protected undergo dissolution. When the known patterns dissipate, the masks of the false self come off, revealing us as real, vulnerable, and stripped of facades and illusions.
Her poems invoke archetypal imagery and the inherent paradoxes in the search for Self. Sylvia Plath describes splits and doubles, creating a depth of passion and insight often including the unexpected. She hammers out a juxtaposition of fragments, scenes and objects, experiences lived and imagined, feelings and thoughts harbored within.
For example, in the poem, “Two Sisters of Persephone” written in 1956, the first two lines set up a dichotomy between the self and its replica:
Two girls there are: within the house
One sits; the other, without.
Daylong a duet of shade and light
Plays between these. (Plath, 1981, p. 31)
Another instance, “Poem for a Birthday,” written in 1959, contains seven poems. The sixth one, “Witch Burning,” contains the line: “I inhabit/The wax image of myself, a doll’s body” (Plath, 1981, p. 135). The poetic imagery portrays the body as a lifeless shell, a wax image or doll’s body and constitutes the false self. The true self is latent and waiting to emerge (Kroll, 1978, p. 11). The struggle between the true Self and the false self, between the double and its origin, is a prevalent theme.
Her poems can be read as dark wastelands of expression, or as the reverse, as survival in a phoenix-like battle for psychological progress. The poems circle from descent to ascent. Plath’s movement towards wholeness is a desire for rebirth out of disenchantment, disillusion and dissolution.
Her writing reverberates with splits—personal and collective, mother and daughter, male and female and masculine and feminine, true and false self. Creative expression was a way of describing her entrapment and involved her pricking at patriarchal societal, familial and psychological issues. The female protagonists portray the underlying archetypal tensions for a woman as the Self tries to emerge.
Trapped “In Plaster”
Her persona, composed of many veils and guises through her writings, succeeded in forestalling anyone from knowing who Sylvia Plath really was, despite a lifelong quest to discover the answer herself. The divided self is characterized by conflict between stasis and movement, isolation and engagement. The tension accelerates, as the two selves cannot coexist. That this can cause disenchantment and disillusion is evident in Plath’s poem “In Plaster,” written later in 1961:
I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:
The new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,
And the white person is certainly the
superior one. (Plath, 1981, p. 158)
Note the desperation of the persona in these lines. The exclamation, “I shall never get out of this!” conveys the horror of the situation and the isolation of the speaker (Gill, 2006, p. 45). The enigmatic emergence carries with it a sense of emptiness and also a dislocation from her body. The old self is described as so dependent on perfection that she has forgotten how to walk and sit without the plaster covering. She also realizes that the immaculately refashioned self functions like her own coffin, threatening to cover her entirely, “fully to encase her and take her place” (Plath, 1981, p.158).
The white person in plaster represents the false self that prevents the presence of the true Self. In this poem, the double-self is depicted where the real body-self is the tenant and without whom the outer-self would perish. In the poem, the white person “had no personality…she had a slave mentality” (Plath, 1981, p.158). And, the old yellow one, “ugly and hairy,” is a profusion of monstrous forms coming from the depths and disturbing the surface. “Without me, she wouldn’t exist, so of course she was grateful./I gave her a soul, I bloomed out of her as a rose” (Plath, 1981, p.159).
At the beginning of “In Plaster”, the true Self is weak and powerless, but gradually it has confidence and is convinced of its own strength and ability to conquer the obstacle of the false self that encapsulates it. Later in the poem, the protagonist begins to separate when, “She stopped fitting me so closely” (Plath, 1981, p. 159). This poem is one of many that depict the pain of what it feels like as the facade is cracking (Axelrod, 1992, p. 36). The true Self is ready to break free of its confinement and believes in its ability to stand on its own, i.e., without the superficial support of the false self. Elsewhere, the poem’s evocation of “the self’s tortured relations with the other” suggests that the subject is “suffocated, paralyzed, imprisoned” (Axelrod, 1992, p. 34). Plath nuances the doubles by implying there is a relationship of surface vs. depth rather than of equals. The emphasis here is less on the split selves than on the fissures in the surface that might disclose the ugliness underneath.
As the poem progresses, the tone of the persona changes from despondent, to hopeful, to confident in the final lines: “I’m collecting my strength, one day I shall manage without her/And she’ll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me” (Plath, 1981, p. 160). For Sylvia Plath, the conflict between ego and Self, surface and shadow, is fundamental to the search for identity.
Like with “In Plaster,” the poem “Face Lift,” written later in 1961, sets up a binary of surface vs. depth. The poem portrays depth as hidden behind a mask, this time behind a silk scarf, representing the unknown recesses of the speaker’s mind. “Whipping off your silk scarf, exhibiting the tight white/ Mummy-cloths, smiling: I’m all right” (Plath, 1981, p. 155).
The final stanza of the poem, which one might read in the voice of either or both women protagonists, expresses relief at the loss of the aging and useless self and pride in the act of self-creation. The poem finds a kind of repository that “confirms the death of an aged, meretricious identity and the birth of a new one” (Axelrod, 1992, p. 31). The speaker sees herself as, “ Mother to myself, I wake swaddled in gauze,/Pink and smooth as a baby” (Plath, 1981, p. 156).
Both poems “In Plaster” and “Face Lift” employ medical images and settings that symbolize the source of healing and the place of refuge for the process of transformation (Didake, 2009, p. 140). The physical and psychiatric references are powerful metaphors for the dissolution necessary for the re-creation themes.
The entrapment and release of the true Self is displayed through Sylvia Plath’s use of glass imagery in several forms. The reflecting surface, like that of a mirror, demonstrates looking for the self in multiple guises. Jung (1968) says, “Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with [her]self. The mirror does not flatter;it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face” (43).
Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Mirror,” composed in 1961, is broken into two distinct parts. In the first, the persona of the mirror is portrayed as perfection, “silver and exact” and “The eye of a little god, four cornered” (Plath, 1981, p. 173). The physical aspects of the mirror connote order with circumscribed and rigid borders. The mirror as “a little god,” might represent the power of the male gaze, imposing a certain image on the woman and in so doing narrowing her into an object (Conway, 2010, p. 40). If objectified, she is bound by the male definition and motivated not by herself but to satisfy him.
The mirror claims to be without preconceptions. It swallows everything, “Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike./ I am not cruel, only truthful.”(Plath, 1981, p.173). However, it communicates to the woman that what it shows her is not what she wants to see. The woman seems helpless and dependent on the mirror for an identity based on the critical male image of her. While the mirror claims objectivity and rationality, in his light she sees her reflection as an ugly, useless object.
This mirror declares the woman not a success, and he seems pleased. What is wrong here? The poem shows Sylvia Plath’s position and of many women who assume that retaining the look of the young and beautiful her only way to be relevant (Conway, 2010, p. 45). Although Sylvia Plath uses the mirror for a commentary on women repressed in society, she vocalizes the personal female insecurities based on its “cruel truth” defining her.
To add to this, the poem points out that the mirror reveals the facts and does not lie, like the mind. The implication is that the deception of the mind divides the self. When upset with what it sees, the mind projects a false self for protection. The suggestion that the mirror is far reaching and all knowing, feeds into the idea that the mirror and the truth it shows are inescapable. The woman is drawn to this even though it brings “tears and agitation of hands”(Plath, 1981, p. 174). She returns to this image morning after morning, representing an obsession with superficial vanity, signaling a loss or disconnection where she looks to find her Self.
As part of this, the mirror’s maleness overrides the woman’s feminine aspects. The mirror reflects a sense of negation contributing to her self-annihilation. Sylvia Plath gives a vivid picture of that psychic state which speaks of “life without feeling alive” and describes the situation as one “of the feeling of the self which is partially divorced from the body” (Ekmekçioğlu, 2008, p. 94).
In addition, the mirror is a symbol for exploring the impact and inevitability of time. The attitude is that aging is unacceptable and shows an ego shallowness. The poem recognizes a wasting of life when a woman spends it consulting her outer image compulsively day after day. Yet, the mirror is also a threshold place between the conscious and unconscious. In this sense, the mirror symbolizes not only the capacity to reflect with indifferent precision the layer of reality that the senses register, but also brings up the question of what lies beyond (Ekmekçioğlu, 2008, p. 87).
The second part of the poem is a turning point. In certain ways, this part parallels the issues emerging at midlife. “Now I am a lake./A woman bends over me/Searching my reaches for what she really is” (Plath, 1981, p. 174).
In the poem the woman turns to “those liars, the candles or the moon” (Plath, 1981, p.174) Candlelight and moonlight symbolize the feminine and also are shadow makers, concealing as much as they reveal with their flickering obliqueness. They say, “I see her back, and reflect it faithfully” (Plath, 1981, p. 173). The “back” can symbolize the unconscious and all that remains unseen. The backing of the mirror with silver is another association with the moon and the feminine. Like a mirror, the moon reflects the sun’s light and is an image Sylvia Plath often uses. The moon changes the image in the silvery mirror, dims consciousness and is noted to be a liar like the candles.
The youth and beauty once reflected during the woman’s looking into the lake now takes precedence over the morning visits to the mirror. Lakes reflect like a mirror, but have more depth as the woman searches further into the truth of what she is. The mirror itself claims to reflect the truth, and by implication, the representation of the outer perception of a woman’s existence, her worth only as a beautiful object, and her worthlessness when she is no longer young. Against the male/mirror definition of womanhood that idealizes only beauty in youth, the persona looks deeper for the true Self and what she has become, maturing with age. This second section of the poem represents the part of life’s tasks, a deepening into Self. The tension increases as the persona is perplexed by this identity crisis and looking in the mirror, she no longer sees a beautiful girl, but a terrible fish emerging.
In other words, what slowly surfaces from the depths of the lake is the fact of life and aging, rendered by the simile of the fish. The poem says the woman “has drowned a young girl” with her obsessions and vanity, aging her into “an old woman . . . like a terrible fish.” (Plath, 1981, p. 174) She cannot resist that age and death encroach every day.
The poem highlights that the acts of reflection and mirroring are complex themes for a woman psychologically. To perceive one’s self in a reflecting surface, either in a mirror or a lake, is also to recognize the shadow, or the dark underside, that opposes yet is integral to the shine on the surface. This perspective comes through the alteration of light through depth. If the depths of one’s being have remained unexplored, the reflecting surfaces reveal a world behind them that may seem threatening. The previous way of seeing, while adopted with the best of intentions, may be assumed as the only way. This change in realization for a woman can drown or annihilate the limited perspective of the false self so the true self can emerge.
The poem describes the woman turning from the disenchantment of the mirror and looking into the depths of the lake. The lake repeats the doubling of images Sylvia Plath uses to depict internal and psychological splits. The youth and beauty once perceived during the woman’s morning visits to the mirror are now drowned. The woman ends up searching below the surface behavior, relationships and societal events for more. The end of the poem leaves the readers waiting for the moment when the terrible fish will break the surface. This image, along with the water and mirror, symbolizes various aspects of the unconscious, shifting and emerging.
In the poem, it now is made apparent what frightens the woman. The woman’s features are vanishing, a façade, image or sense of the transitory is replaced by the image of a drowned old woman. The woman protagonist is mourning the loss of the old that was youth while anticipating her age with trepidation. “In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman/Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish” (Plath, 1981, p. 174). These lines of the poem suggests that the old woman and the young girl are aspects of the same thought.
Symbols unfold into many layers and the fish encompasses the cold-blooded, undifferentiated, primordial and also is a symbol of the Self. Jung (1975) notes that, “from the primordial experience is the source of creativeness” (p. 96). The fish is the highest and lowest simultaneously and is a threat until dealt with and then becomes a most valuable curative remedy. (Edinger, 1996, p. 93) In alchemy, the preparations for whatever will change “correspond to the magnet that the alchemist holds in his hand to draw forth the fish from the deep” (p. 125).
Sylvia Plath read and was familiar with Jung’s use of the symbolic and the harmony that can emerge from reconciling the conflicting elements. The mirror and then the lake show the woman moving from childhood to adulthood, representing the archetypal Maiden-Mother-Crone cycles. The use of the first and third of these indicates the death-and-regeneration trope appearing throughout Sylvia Plath’s writings. As one commentator said, “The dramatically protean resurrection of the self is so terrible that release from confinement is usually figured as a journey through death so that self-recreation and self-destruction are separated by a fine line” (Bronfen, 1998, p. 64).
By comparing the old woman to a fish, Sylvia Plath emphasizes a quality of rebirth that can feel terrible and shocking, introspective and deepening to the personality. The fish mirrors a destiny the woman cannot turn from as it both appalls and fascinates. These contradictions travel in both directions just like the terrible fish can be a personal demon as well as representing spiritual depths. Perhaps for Sylvia Plath, the fish and the old woman also symbolize her cold and unknowable mother and fears of becoming like her. About her own mother she was conflicted, wanting approval and also abhorring her.
The development of self comes in part from the quality of the mirroring between the mothering parent and child. This means learning to negotiate the good and bad mother, a split situation that can create tension followed by unresolved disenchantment in mothering. Psychologically, when the mirroring between mother and child are off-balance, a negative mother archetype overtakes and becomes internalized. Symbolically, its manifestations appear in the witch, the dragon, large fish or serpent, the grave, the sarcophagus, deep water, death, nightmares, etc. The mother archetype includes the secret, hidden, dark; the abyss, the world of the dead, anything that devours, seduces, poisons and is terrifying and inescapable like fate. It is also associated with solicitude, wisdom, sympathy, spiritual exaltation, helpful instincts, and growth. The process of transformation comes about as these qualities are consciously understood and integrated.
Sylvia Plath’s literary work chronicles the splits and pressures in relation to her mother and the nice face she assumed to the world. This is especially apparent in the cheerful letters written to her mother who published them in the book entitled, Letters Home. The letters set out to deny this daughter’s efforts to achieve an individual and separate existence from her mother. She signed the letters with the name her mother used for her, Syvvie. Their cheerful tone and subject matter markedly contrast with the inner rage of Sylvia Plath’s private thoughts revealed in her Journals and in her lacerating prose and poetry. Through Sylvia Plath’s images is felt an “insistence that clandestine traumatic knowledge not only haunts its host but will strike back and shatter the protective fictions of infallibility with a force equal to the effort put into repressing this truth” (Hunter, 2009, p. 123).
“The Mirror” poem shows that a life solely orchestrated by the false self, is not life but an intolerable death-in-life that can be overcome only by dying to that life (Kroll 1978 12). The mirror reflects the kind of traumas, like Sylvia Plath’s, that were concealed by a tight and superficial composure set up to portray an ideal image. The recurrent mirror imagery, ultimately, implies Sylvia Plath’s preoccupation with the notion of a divided self. The projection of two selves, the true self and an imposed version of self are reflected through the images she utilizes of the mirror, its male gaze, and the idealization of the surface. “Plath’s exploration of the oscillation between longing for extinction and transcendence of the self translates into fantasies of transformation, of escape from constriction and engulfment, and of flight, where casting off outgrown selves and overused masks lead to naked renewal” (Bronfen, 1998, p. 64). These poems depict the persona’s ambivalent attitude towards her double as it interferes with the desire for rebirth that subsequently wins out.
Throughout her life Sylvia Plath strove for a reconciliation of inner and outer opposites, splits, conflicts. From the time of her college thesis on “The Double,” she was drawn to “man’s eternal desire to solve the enigma of his own identity” (Christodoulides, 2009, p. 86) and the feelings of curiosity and fear this confrontation entailed. She observed that it was the psychic state of the individual that determined the nature of the split character, and that careful study of these different manifestations would enlighten the “essential discord from which the division originally grew” (p. 86).
Sylvia Plath constructed many images of body and self, displaying artistry when it came to maintaining deception. Her life and work was rife with layers and illusions that both served to hide yet begged to be exposed. The split here is that Sylvia Plath was the Smith girl who could do everything with a bright smile on her face while the forces of destruction lurked beneath the duplicitous surface of an utterly perfect artificiality (Bronfen, 1998, p. 126).
Shadows in the Reflections
Being receptive to the contents of the unconscious requires an attitude of acceptance of one’s incompleteness, rather than covering up or striving for the falsity of perfection. As the shadow elements challenge the ego and the persona, it requires a moral effort to find relationship with the darker and deeper aspects to the psyche. Rather than control or disassociate from her body, a woman has the opportunity for involvement with, rather than against, her natural life cycle. The resulting psychological knowledge and increase in consciousness is a dynamic spectrum unveiling the disillusion, dissolution, and disenchantment. This is the conundrum of being real and the difficult psychological tension that Sylvia Plath so intricately pictured in her words. She set up the project of “putting together the complex mosaic of my childhood: to practice capturing feelings and experiences from the nebulous seething of memory and yank them out into black-and-white on the typewriter” (Kukil, 2000, p.168).
The poems chosen here reflect what it was during Sylvia Plath’s era to be a woman and an artist, feeling the internal splits and desires that were at odds with the conventional world and its images of women, beauty and aging. Sylvia Plath had an ability to expose the anguish of her soul leading her to write at an edge. This is especially poignant as we recall she was only thirty, a woman suddenly left by her idealized husband to care for two small children in an era less accepting than ours of such a situation. This was part of her engagement with the psychological processes of disenchantment, dissolution, and disillusion. Her creative impulse was to rescue her self and her poems may be regarded as attempts at unifying the self (Ekmekçioğlu, 2008, p. 99).
Jung (1975) says, “Every creative person is a duality or a synthesis of contradictory qualities. On the one side he is a human being with a personal life, while on the other he is an impersonal creative process” (p. 101). And, he goes on to say, “two forces are at war within [her]: on the one hand, the justified longing of the ordinary [wo]man for happiness, satisfaction, and security, and on the other a ruthless passion for creation which may go so far as to override every personal desire” (p. 102).
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2. Bronfen, E. (1998). Sylvia Plath. Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers.
3. Christodoulides, N. (2009). Beautiful Fusion with the Things of the World. Plath Profiles: 2, 55-77.
4. Conway, C. (2010). Through the Looking Glass: A Discussion of Doubling inSylvia Plath’s ‘Mirror’. Plath Profiles: 3, 39-45.
5. Didlake, R. (2009). Medical Imagery in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Plath Profiles: 2, 135-144.
6. Edinger, E. (1996). The Aion Lectures. Torono: Inner City Books.
7. Ekmekçioğlu, N. (2008). Sylvia Plath’s Mirrors Reflecting Various Guises of Self. Plath Profiles: 1, 92-102.
8. Gill, J. (Ed.) (2006). Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
9. Hunter, D. (2009). Family Phantoms: Fish, Watery Realms and Death in Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes. Plath Profiles: 2, 103-134.
10. Jung, C. G. (1975). The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
11. Jung, C. G. (1964). Civilization in Transition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
12. Jung, C. G. (1968). The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
13. Kroll, J. (1978). Chapters in a Science of Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row.
14. Kukil, K. (Ed.) (2000). The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, New York: Anchor.
15. Plath, Sylvia. (1981). The Collected Poems. New York: Harper Perennial.
Susan E. Schwartz, PhD is a Jungian analyst and a licensed clinical psychologist in Paradise Valley, Arizona. She authored several journal articles on daughters and fathers, Puella, Sylvia Plath in the online journal Plath Profiles, a Counseling textbook chapter and a chapter in Perpetual Adolescence: Jungian Analyses of American Media, Literature, and Pop Culture. She is a member of the New Mexico Society of Jungian Analysts and International Association of Analytical. Her website is www.susanschwartzphd.com.