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 sniff of cocaine, hit me where I live and I am alive and so-there. Better than shock treatment: ‘I give you permission to hate your mother.’
‘I 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.”
Why, one might ask, would the extremely uninhibited Plath not write a poem called “Mommy” if it was in some deeper way about her mother? We can’t know, of course, but she may have encrypted her feelings about her mother into a poem about her father because it was easier to face them in that form, because even the violently free Plath of the late poems was not violently free enough to put her feelings toward her mother in a more direct form for the world to see. Given how long and deeply she struggled with those feelings, it is not impossible that even at her wildest, most liberated, she was not able to dispense with the comfort of metaphors and codes.
To look closely at the poem itself: One of the defining images Plath uses is of “the vampire” that must be killed at the end of the poem: “There’s a stake in your fat black heart/ And the villagers never liked you./ They are dancing and stamping on you./ They always knew it was you./ Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”* Critics have interpreted the vampire in the poem as her father, or occasionally Ted Hughes. A male figure, in other words. But in her therapy and journals, however, it is her mother who is repeatedly described as a vampire. She writes of Aurelia, “She doesn’t know she’s a walking vampire.” Or, “the ‘vampire’ metaphor Freud uses, “draining the ego”: that is exactly the feeling I have getting in the way of my writing: mother’s clutch.”
In an attempt to salvage an image of a saner, better behaved Sylvia, Aurelia published her letters in a collection, Letters Home. The portrait of the relationship between the two of them that emerges is not the wholesome one Aurelia wanted to put forward but rather a more desperate and intense entanglement, which Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman calls “a crushing too-closeness.” Malcolm goes on to analyze the publication of letters home with this statement:
Instead of showing that Sylvia wasn’t “like that,” the letters caused the reader to consider for the first time the possibility that her sick relation to her mother was the reason she was like that. Previously the death of Plath’s father, Otto … had been thought of as the shadow-event of her life, the wound from which she never recovered. But now it looked as if the key to Plath’s tragedy might all along have lain buried in the mother-daughter relationship.
“Daddy” is a poem of disguises, of masks slipping, of Nazis turning into vampires, English into German, Jews into Gypsies, and it may be too literal to confine it to its more obvious subject matter. The fury may spill out of its overt topic, into the deeper, murkier, unresolved conflicts of her childhood and early adulthood. The most well-known line of the poem is the last one—“Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I am through.” Her letters, her therapy, her journals, her writing, all make it eminently clear: Her ongoing struggle is with her mother, the person she violently needs to be “through” with is her mother.
Feminist critics have always had a soft spot for women driven to madness or suicidal despair by the patriarchy, but the story of Plath’s mental illness resists the simplicity of that or any explanation. Our admiration for her fantastic, unruly rage against men has maybe narrowed our reading of Plath’s poem and Plath herself. Her anger is elusive, complex, defiant of interpretation, including my own, something to be beheld rather than understood.
Correction, Feb. 12, 2013: This article misquoted the last line of the poem “Daddy.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)