On the 50th anniversary of the day Sylvia Plath left milk on a tray for her two sleeping children and put her head into an oven, the cultural fascination with her shows no signs of abating. Though one might think that Janet Malcolm’s sublime study The Silent Woman, would be the last word on Plath, there is a spate of new books feeding the myth: Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted; An American Isis:The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath; Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953; and a new edition of The Bell Jar.
Quite sensibly biographers and critics have always thought that Plath’s most famous poem, “Daddy,” was about her father. I would like to float out the theory that it is really about her mother.
It is crudely reductionistic to do biographical readings of poems, of course, and it goes without saying that a poem of any accomplishment rises above the particular psychological alchemy of its making. However, in poems, as in dreams, one thing is often substituted for another; one thing stands in for another, or merges with another; codes are deployed; meanings shift and slide, often without the conscious efforts of the poet or dreamer. “Daddy” may very well, on some deeper emotional plane, mean “Mommy.”
Before you dismiss this as crazy or irritating, bear with me for a moment. In reading the angry, crashing lines of the poem—“Every woman adores a Fascist/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a brute like you”—one naturally thinks that she must be talking about a male oppressor, about her father. But Plath’s father, a German entomologist who loved bees, and died after a long period of sickness when Sylvia was 8, was a paler figure in her life, a less looming or domineering force than her mother; of course, one can harbor strong, mysterious feelings about a parent who died when one is young, but it is her mother with whom she is locked in a furious lifelong struggle.
Triumphalist feminist readings of Plath have made much of her well-documented rage against men, but Plath’s rage against her mother was a hugely defining force. There is a moment in The Bell Jar when the Plath character, Esther Greenwood, is talking about her mother to her doctor and blurts out: “I hate her.” Her doctor says, “I suppose you do.”
Her hatred of Aurelia Plath is an ongoing obsession, which she examines from every angle. Her journals describe a moment with a psychiatrist she is seeing in London:
Ever since Wednesday I have been feeling like a ‘new person.’ Like a shot of brandy went home, a sI hate her, doctor.’ So I feel terrific. In a smarmy matriarchy of togetherness it is hard to get a sanction to hate one’s mother. …
But although it makes me feel good as hell to express my hostility for my mother, frees me from the Panic Bird on my heart and my typewriter (why?) I can’t go though life calling RB up from Paris, London, the wilds of Maine long-distance: “Doctor, can I still hate my mother?’ ‘Of course you can: hate her hate her hate her.’ ”
“Daddy” is remarkable for its startling rage, its mad fury. One critic described it as “assault and battery.” But if one delves into Plath’s violent or murderous fantasies over time, they seem to be centered around her mother, rather than her father. For instance she wrote a short story, “Tongues of Stone,” in 1955 about a girl who wants to strangle her mother, and throughout her life, she reports dreams or visions like one of her mother with her eyes cut out, and another of biting her mother’s arm. In her journals she writes succinctly: “An almost exact description of my feelings and reasons for suicide: a transferred murderous impulse from my mother onto myself.”
She writes again and again in her journals about banging up against her mother as a constant impediment to her work, her happiness. “Nothing I do … can change her way of being with me which I experience as a total absence of love.”