Sylvia Plath’s Recovery of Selfhood in Ariel – ‘Tulips’

220px-ArielPlathWritten in the weeks leading up to Plath’s suicide, Ariel is characterised by a desire to restore the broken self through death, and often, rebirth. A foreboding presence lurks over Plath’s final collection,  a desperation to shed her skin and recover a new identity.

Tim Kendall claims that the Ariel poems are ‘poems of becoming rather than being. Their cycle of becoming, through death and rebirth, is inexorable, and must be constantly repeated, without ever settling on a stable, monolithic identity.’


The first demonstration of this unfulfilled desire comes with the poem ‘Tulips.’ The narrator attempts to discover a new self through death, but fails. Lying in her hospital bed, she desires oblivion, having given her name, day clothes, history and body to the staff. Complete anonymity is, however, unachievable:

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
Stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.tulip_PNG9000

The narrator cannot shake the ties of human existence. The speaker is somewhere between the responsibilities of life – coping with the ‘little smiling hooks’  of her husband and child, and of total ignorance. She says, ‘I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.’ Like the anxieties expressed in Plath’s journals – ‘I sit here without identity. Faceless,’ in ‘Tulips’, facelessness is desired rather than dreaded:

I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.

The narrator’s detachment at this point is illustrated through fragmentation of her body. Plath’s speaker is composed solely of physical attributes and inanimate objects:

Now that I have lost myself I am sick of baggage –
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox.

She is a ‘stupid pupil,’ taking everything in, a pair of hands, an empty body, a cargo boat and a nun, more concerned with a bouquet of tulips than with her own situation.

An obsessive dictation of the Tulips’ movements drives the poem. The tulips are depicted as though living beings, watching, breathing and almost praying on the patient. The tulips’ harsh red life-force contrasts sharply with the narrator’s death-wish, revealing a will to recover the self through death and inanimacy.

Continued with ‘Getting There’.

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