Sylvia Plath’s Writing: Gender Inequality in Society of the 20th Century

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Sylvia Plath was widely regarded as “one of the most celebrated and controversial post-war (‘feminists’)” writing in English” [Oates] in the twentieth century. In her ‘Ariel’ collection, Plath explores the gender inequality and expectations that plagued society at that time, and arguably today. Through her poetry, Plath criticizes the social norms and values that socially conditioned both men and women to behave in the ‘appropriate’ way. In doing this, she reveals her own personal struggle with existential misery as well as bold metaphors for death and sexuality. Having written a complex biographical body of work, Plath has often been seen as a confessional poet. Her deeply personal lamentations often achieve universality through mythic allusion, presented in pragmatic symbolism.

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Viewed as a cathartic response to her divided personae as an artist, mother, daughter, and wife, and the inescapable social binding of these roles to herself, Plath’s poems have been praised by feminist critics for shedding light on the personal and professional struggles that women faced at the time. This assigning of gender roles has been present throughout history and has, in recent years, sparked outrage and released pent up frustration on a larger scale than ever before due to the way in which men and, particularly, women have been “culturally constructed” [Bertens]. These factors, along with her suicide, have made Plath one of the world’s most eminent figures, to actively subvert gender stereotypes, in the literary world – resulting in her being recognized as an iconic martyr in the struggle against patriarchy.

Due to the age-old social, and hence cultural, construction of roles assigned to the ‘dominant’ men and ‘subservient’ women, the subtlety or extremity, gender inequality was and still is prevalent. Various forms of media - such as the “negative stereotyping of women in literature” [Bertens and Millett] - played a significant role in this. A prime example would be the behavior of male characters towards or regarding the female characters in the works of Henry Miller, who was heralded by many critics for his “daring and liberating depictions of erotic relations” [Bertens]. As Kate Millet, and other feminist critics, observed, those praised male protagonists were in fact “denigrating, exploitative and repressive in their relations with women” [Bertens]. This reflects the way in which Sylvia Plath felt and lived - enduring lifelong torment, by the oppressive men she kept closest - until claiming her own life. One of these men was her father, who died when she was eight. His abrupt death played a part in Plath's perpetual sense of abandonment.

In ‘Daddy’, Plath describes her father to have bitten her “pretty red heart in two”. It could be suggested that the color ‘red’ is symbolic of life, this is contrasted by the subsequent repetition of the color ‘black’ which only adds to the semantic field of death.

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