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

Written in the weeks leading up to Plath’s suicide, Ariel is characterised by a desire to restore her 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.’


This third instalment will explore Plath’s recovery of a lost identity through her poem ‘Medusa.’ Originally titled ‘Mum: Medusa,’ Plath creates a tortured narrator, attempting to shed one identity and find another through abandonment of the mother-figure. Its original title reinforces this particular reading of the text. The poem is mostly addressed to a symbolic mother, ‘Blubbery Mary,’ from the perspective of a daughter, still metaphorically attached by the umbilical cord:


My mind winds to you,
Old barnacled umbilicus, Atlantic cable,
Keeping itself, it seems, in a state of miraculous repair.

The narrator is bound by the mother-daughter relationship, her mind tightly wound, her cable firmly held.                                                                

Maritime imagery intertwines with images suggestive of birth, ‘you steamed to me, over the sea / fat and red, a placenta,’ hinting at a fear which influenced Plath; an apprehension of the cyclical nature of parent-child relationships. Read in this context, it becomes perceivable that Plath’s pregnant narrator does not want to become like her mother, whom she finds suffocating and repressive:

In any case, you are always there,
Tremulous breath at the end of my line,
Curve of water upleaping
To my water rod, dazzling and grateful,
Touching and sucking.

In his essay, ‘Femininity,’ Freud discusses the widespread anxiety which may have inspired Sylvia Plath, saying, ‘Under the influence of a woman’s becoming a mother herself, an identification with her own mother may be revived, against which she had striven up til the time of her marriage.’

In amongst suggestions of distain towards her own mother, and expressions of fear regarding her own parenting skills, there are moments in the poem in which the narrator could be addressing a baby – steaming, like a placenta, across the sea, attached with an umbilical cord. Through labour, she becomes ‘Over-exposed, like an X ray,’ and feels motherhood has ‘paralysed the kicking lovers’  who have now become parents. Interwoven references to mother and child suggest the repetitive nature of parenthood, suggesting an ongoing desire to recover a sense of selfhood, separate from both the speaker’s status as daughter and as mother. Ultimately, ‘Medusa’ exorcises the mother-figure in order to restore the self.


  • There is an additional possibility that the mother-figure in ‘Medusa’ is symbolic of the female, rather than a literal representation of a parent. If we accept this reading, the poem becomes wholly different, exposing Plath’s feelings of entrapment by her gender, societal expectations and the need to conform. A submissive loss of identity caused by gender can also be read within ‘The Applicant,’ ‘The Jailor,’ Plath’s journals and her letters home.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Stephen Thom says:

    Just listened to Sylvia Plath reading this, and appreciate the analysis and clarification. I had a sense of addressing a baby, and I love the words, but can get a little lost in readings at times. I liked the idea of separating from a cycle. Thanks for this! 🙂

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