Sylvia Plath: Self, Identity and Alienation

One of the things that students often tell me about studying Plath is that, when there are so many poems to choose from, it can be difficult selecting appropriate combinations of poetry to write about.  The Advanced Higher course places demands on students to ensure that they can demonstrate a more sophisticated level of competence than they have had to show previously when writing about literature. That is why being able to write in a comparative way is so important.  You have to manage your materials, structure the profusion of ideas that spill out of your mind in response to what you have read and create a logical, coherent piece of writing.

In the sample essay below, the writer has looked at the task and made a decision to write about “Ariel”, “Wuthering Heights”, “Lady Lazarus” and “Mirror”.  It is not an immediately obvious choice of poems.  There could certainly have been plenty of other options.  In spite of this, it is a sound essay that shows, quite helpfully I think, how to manage (or juggle) multiple texts and stay focussed on the task.  It is a little briefer than the essay you will be writing in the exam:  I edited out any repetitions and digressions.Bright summer broom - cheerful!

Plan ahead. Set out a structure that enables you to move between poems and ideas.  Create links between themes, images, word choice and so on.  Ensure that you keep coming back to the task.  Easy as pie…

Click here for sample essay: Plath – self, identity and alienation.

This is a fairly open task.  The themes of identity and alienation are visible everywhere in Plath’s poems.  You can see her exploring who she is and what it means to be a mother (“Morning Song” and “Edge”), a wife (“Daddy”, “Pheasant”, “Winter Trees”), a daughter (“Medusa”, “Daddy”), a writer (“Words”) and sometimes simply what it means to live or exist (“Ariel”, “Blackberrying”, “Poppies in July”, “Mirror”, “Arrival of the Bee Box” “Wuthering Heights”, “Two Campers in Cloud Country”, “Sleep in the Mojave Desert”, “Lady Lazarus”).  In the context of Plath’s poems, alienation is always close behind when she exploring identity.  How can she question her place in the world, her role in society, her very existence, without realising that the act of questioning places her at a distance?  How can she ever feel she belongs when the world, as she protrays it through her poetry, is so often profoundly dark and bleak?

As a revision task, review each of the set poems.  Pick out the images or lines that relate to the theme of identity and/or alienation then write them down on a large piece of paper.  Link together the ideas, lines or images that seem to you to connect most clearly. You could use a highlighter or coloured pencil to do this.

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