Sylvia Plath is a poet who writes in a confessional style. Her poetry shows her strong opinions towards patriarchy. By examining her works and researching her past, one can see that the two prominent male figures in her past are her father and Ted Hughes, her husband. In her poetry Plath uses Nazi Germany as a metaphor for the oppressive system of patriarchy women live under, while she portrays the victim as Jews. Two examples of poems where this appears are "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy". Because the Holocaust is such a sensitive subject, there are two schools of thought to Plath's metaphor. One belief is that she belittles the Holocaust. The other belief is that a metaphor is simply a metaphor. Obviously, Plath has no first hand knowledge if she uses the metaphor so trivially.
There are aspects of Plath's works that people may find hard to understand if they don't know about her history. To understand Plath's poetry, one has to understand Plath. Sylvia Plath writes confessional poetry. Because she writes in this confessional style, those who study her work must become familiar with her past. Confessional poetry is when poets write about their own experiences; thoughts, feelings, and experiences become the basis of the poetry. Thus the poems become an expression of poet's innermost person. Unlike other forms of poetry, confessional takes its material directly from the life of the poet. The tone of Plath's poetry is decidedly depressing. During her life, Plath became suicidal. As a child, she almost drowned, and later attempted to kill herself before actually succeeding.
These experiences become strong influences on Plath's poetry. Anne Sexton was another confessional poet. She met Plath at a poetry workshop and the two became good friends. When writing poems, one would call the other to get input and suggestions, or just to talk about the happenings in their lives. However, there remains a main difference between Plath's poetry and Sexton's poetry: Anne Sexton was not originally a writer, but a housewife. When the stresses became too much for her, she went to therapy. During one of her sessions, her psychiatrist suggested that she begin writing poetry to help her get at the root of her problems.
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The largest problem that Plath had was with the institution of patriarchy that surrounded her. In her poetry, she expresses her negative emotions towards patriarchy. Plath was a daughter, wife, and mother through her life. These titles also came with roles that were dictated to her by the patriarchal structure. Because she was forced into all of these roles, and expected to fulfil them all, Plath resented those who forced her into these roles, and her displeasure becomes quite evident in her poetry. There are two major male figures in Plath's life; father and husband. Her father, Otto Plath, originally lived in Grabow Poland and spoke German. He moved to the United States when he was 15, and later taught at Boston University (Modern Poetry, p. 1417).
Yet he died while Plath was still quite young. His daughter, Silvia Plath, became very resentful towards her father. This resentment is most strongly found in her poem "Daddy". Plath's husband, Ted Hughes, was also a writer. However, he did not approve of the writing of his wife. He tried to discourage her from writing, to stay home and raise a family. Many today blame Hughes for the death of Plath, and believe that he is responsible for her committing suicide. Due to the experiences that she has with patriarchy, it is understandable that Plath carried resentments. These feelings were so strong that she used Nazi Germany as a metaphor for patriarchy. However, this brought about many conflicts; while some critics defended her use of the Holocaust imagery, others vehemently defended that she was in fact belittling what the Jewish people suffered through.
In the poem "Daddy", Plath openly attacks her father. "Daddy, I have had to kill you. / You died before I had time" (Daddy, 6-7). She verbally demonstrates her need to hurt and to kill him; he is the symbol of patriarchy from her early life. Plath resents the fact that he died before she could remove him from his strong patriarchical role. This resentment grew until she began to see oppression everywhere:
I have always been scared of you,
Wish your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat moustache
And your Aryan eye, bright and blue ("Daddy", 41-44).
Plath associates her fathers' German features to Nazi features. This particular comparison also strongly draws upon a militaristic image. As "Luftwaffe" means Air Force in German, she is quite obviously comparing patriarchy to military. The idea of someone with power over her terrifies Plath.
Since patriarchy is seen as oppressive Nazi Germany, Plath sees herself as an oppressed Jew.
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Jew linen ("Lady Lazarus", 4-9)
A few images from the Holocaust are drawn here. Plath places herself in a situation where she is the victim. She draws on the idea of how Jewish people were skinned for lampshades as how badly men treat women.
Because of the metaphor she uses, Plath's poetry has sparked some serious debate. Many critics state that the use of Nazi Germany in that metaphor is very inappropriate. By using Nazi Germany as a metaphor for patriarchy, Plath accomplishes nothing, save to belittle the Holocaust. The Holocaust is the single worst event in the history of human civilization. Its uniqueness is what set it apart from other tragic events in our history. Yet some argue that if it is inappropriate to use Nazi Germany as a metaphor, then other events, such as slavery could be excluded as well. Slavery of blacks is another tragic event that can be used as a metaphor. However, it is this writer's opinion that there is too great a difference between the slavery of blacks and the Holocaust. If one looks at statistics for the death of slaves and compare it to statistics for the death of Jewish people, one will see that the numbers are relatively similar.
The difference lies in the fact that the slave totals come from many years, while Jewish total are only from five years. While slavery was still common, it was possible for a slave to escape relative harm; He (or she) could follow all the rules and be treated as well as other livestock. During the Holocaust there were no rules for Jewish people to follow. There was no such thing as a good Jew, and they were all treated worse than animals. Given the evidence of Plath's poetry, it is quite evident that she did not fully understand the atrocities of the Holocaust. Her knowledge only extended to that which most people already knew. And therefore she was not fully informed of the subject of which she trivialized.
However, other critics defend Plath's use of the metaphor by reinforcing that fact that it is simply a metaphor, and is doing what it should. It is a common argument that sometimes a metaphor is simply a metaphor. The purpose of a metaphor is to compare two completely unrelated ideas, to shock the audience into looking at the intended subject in a new light. Rose, a critic of Plath, says that she uses the shocking imagery of comparing the Holocaust to patriarchy to entice strong reactions from the reader, and if one dismissed her comparison, then one can be expected to dismiss the very idea of a metaphor. To dictate what ideas can and can't be used in metaphor negates all metaphors.
The Holocaust is not alone in the history of tragic events. If one argues that the Holocaust was horrible, one should also accept that there are other horrific occurrences. Mass slaughters are not an uncommon part of ancient history. During the time of Nero Caesar, Christians who would not bow down to the likeness of the Caesar were thrown into lion pits to be killed. African slaves, who did not obey every order of their masters, were beaten. European explorers who first explored the Americas, killed countless natives, and brought more over seas to become slaves. If one wishes to look at statistics, the number of people killed in the Holocaust, is almost the same as the number of women killed through patriarchal society.
Sylvia Plath was a poet who wrote her poems for others to read. Her metaphor of comparing patriarchy to Nazi Germany is used to shock audiences into seeing the severity of oppression that women face. However, to achieve this shock, she lessens the impact of the Holocaust. Many defend that Plath is simply using a metaphor the way it should be used. In this writer's opinion, because Plath used the Holocaust just to shock readers, is why she is belittling it. If she wrote the way Anne Sexton did before being published - that is, for personal reasons - this writer would not have a problem. As it is, the comparison was written for all to see. By being so public in her trivialization of that happened to the Jewish people, Plath's only accomplishment is to embarrass herself with writing that isn't poor, but shows a decided lack of judgement.
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