Intertextuality in the works of Sylvia Plath

Term Paper, 2000

16 Pages, Grade: 2,3 (B)


1. Introduction

Intertextuality - a process everybody is confronted with every day. Not only in poetry or in epic, but also in communication. H. Widdowsen defines intertextuality as follows:

“ [...] all texts reverberate with the echoes of other texts. All uses of language have a history of previous uses. Whatever I say or write is a continuation of my experience of language, a kind of recurrence. ” 1

In our linguistic course at university we read several poems of Sylvia Plath, whose poetry is as difficult as it is structured. Therefore I found it interesting to find out when and why and in what extent she uses intertextuality in her works.

Comments on the structure of my paper

I divided the main part of my paper into a theoretical and a practical part. In the first one I will give you a detailed definition of intertextuality. In addition I will take up its ambiguous meaning in literature and linguistics as well as the difficulties in interpretation.

In the second part I will examine several poems of Sylvia Plath, as well as her novel “The Bell Jar” and some short stories for intertextual processes. I picked out one special and always present motive in her work: the motive of the sea. Personally, I thought it would be interesting to examine its meaning and therefore I tried to give reasons for Sylvia Plath’s use of this motive.

2. Main Part

2.1 Theoretical Part

2.1.1. Definition of intertextuality

Literally translated intertextuality can only mean that texts interact with each other and that there is a connection between them.

Vincent Leitch defines intertextuality as follows:

“ The text is not an autonomous or unified object, but a set of relations with other texts. ” 2

Susanne Holthuis understands intertextuality “ not as a text-inherent property, but as a specific form of meaning constitution and therefore as a phenomenon of text processing. ” 3

She differentiates between intertextual semiosis and intertextual disposition. While the first sets itself up in the interaction between text and reader, intertextual disposition means that the text itself activates intertextual interpretation by special text signals. Surely, both are depending on each other.

2.1.2. Problems in defining intertextuality

Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian linguist, was the first to define intertextuality. According to her theories the author is not given any more his paramount position. Therefore he should not be idolised any longer as a genius, basically he also gets its inspiration from numerous “pretexts”, that is of stimulus or ideas received from other, already assimilated texts and also from his associative activated general knowledge. In the end an author focuses and phrases only those “pretexts”. You can notice something similar with the reader: he is also influenced by those “pretexts”, which he then relates to the existing text by setting up a new meaning.

And even the text itself looked at in this way, is only the semantic point of intersection of a number of texts, a confusion of voices of other texts.

In principle Kristeva differentiates between two axes: a horizontal and a vertical one.

As a flexible, fluent structural and semantic unity, the text therefore becomes a conglomerate of knowledge systems and cultural codes. From this point of view intertextuality then becomes a general characteristic of texts.

All this might be comprehensible, but after that, the text would be taken out of its interactive integration.

The author is no longer supporter of a certain intention that he wanted to realise by means of the text and on the other hand the recipient is not tied any longer to the handicaps of the author, he is in contrast comparatively free in his interpretations. With such a basis position there is nothing more to fix or to determine, and it is impossible to limitate intertextuality. For this reason intertextuality becomes identical with textuality.

Beaugrand, another important French linguist, defines intertextuality as the fundamental relation of each text to several other texts of a particular text type. So you could say that intertextuality is the marked or implied relation between texts of a particular genre. Susan Holthuis on the other hand points out that intertextuality is rather just achieved by the interaction between text and reader. So she does not describe textuality as an inherent characteristic. But for that reason one problem arises: what about the author- given intertextuality?

We have already mentioned that intertextuality is the relation between texts. In pragmalinguistics we only have one problem: how can a text be defined? But discussing this would be taking things too far.

Basically, pragmatic factors are important for all processes of communication. No matter if you are talking about the text production or about comprehension and processing of text statements: this is all to the greatest possible extent determined or at least characterised by communication.

Accordingly texts do not have any meaning or function by themselves, but only in relation to particular interactive contexts. Therefore it is no longer important what the intention of a text producer is, but what the recipients make of the text. But in contrast to that the praxis of communication shows:

Texts are always the basis of communication processes: whatever a person wants or means can only be (re-) constructed through definite texts.

Furthermore texts cannot be taken out of their interactive fixing. Because of being instruments of communicative management they are tied to the text producer and are well-suited to particular effects on recipients.

Another point is the fact that texts cannot been seen as interpretable unities. Surely: several recipients reconstruct one and the same text normally in a different way, but nevertheless the actual text remains the fixed point of orientation. Each attempt of interpretation is always tied to a concrete text. Tell me one who would take an obituary for a sports report! With the help of the text, the horizon of interpretation is limited. It is true that this limit is more enormous than with literal texts, but that cannot be an apologise for open interpretations.

Concerning the last paragraph, it is striking that intertextuality is defined in such a wide- ranging way. It is as difficult to define intertextuality as to define a text for example. Everybody has a different opinion of a text. For some, a poem does not count to that category, others say that even one word could be a text. It is the same with intertextuality: it is hard to say when and why a text refers to another text and if this is intended of the author or not. And it is another problem to the reader, to interpret it in the right way.

Although many linguists made a try to give a general definition of intertextuality I feel that it is not possible to limit such a wide-ranging term, deliberately if the personal opinion plays such an important part.

2.1.3. Forms and functions of intertextuality

Even if intertextuality is important in academic texts, it gets a special meaning in literal texts. In general, intertextuality is defined as the relation between one text and its pretext. You can say that intertextuality is a text overlapping phenomenon. So every text has its precursors to which it is referring in formal as well as in pragmatic aspects. Therefore you can subdivide intertextuality in two dimensions: a vertical one, that is classifiable and a horizontal one, that is associative.

The first is referring to the assignment of text copy to particular conventional text category that are genres. In contrast to that, the second dimension refers to pretexts looking on it from the semantic point of view.

The forms of intertextuality are reaching from quotation or motto, over to allusion or paraphrase, back to parody and travesty.

Concerning the functions or intertextuality, these might be affirmative or even critical. The consequence is for that reason a support, broadening or contrast of sense. The textlinguistics expands the general definition of intertextuality in several aspects. That means that it does not limit itself on text-intern phenomena, but also looks at the degree of effectiveness. This is dependant on text comprehension, which have both, author and reader in common.

De Beaugrand and Dressler both define intertextuality in this way in which “ the production and reception of a given text depends upon the participants ’ knowledge of other texts. ” 4

This is really important if you look at the active role of the reader during the reading and interpreting of a text.

A further difference is his statement that every text is an “ ensemble of presuppositions of other texts. ” 5

A text can never be autonomous, because many texts cause each other. Therefore each text is always intertext of itself.

2.1.4. Intertextuality and interpretation

I have already mentioned that even the classification of a text is dependant on the interpretation. In academic texts this does not make any difficulties. It is different in literal texts, because here interpretation appears in a different light. In literature it is individual and dependant on presuppositions, previous knowledge and preconception of the respective reader.

And right now the problems of classification start. There is no general criterion, according to which you can categorise a text. The decision is rather dependant on the individual text comprehension, historical knowledge and personal opinion of the reader. On the other hand the classification of a literal text is an important step in the process of interpretation.

This basic problem of literary studies has a negative effect on intertextuality. It is true that the term of intertextuality has a certain plausibility for each reader, who finds in texts relations to other texts. But still there is no objective criterion whether these relations really exist. “To really exist” in this case means that the author himself has intended these relations and wanted the reader to take the previous texts into account when interpreting the text.

It is never possible to decide precisely if 1) there is intertextuality at all, 2) which type of intertextuality is present (quotation, allusion, paraphrase, etc.), 3) which kind of reference exists, that is if there are relations to one single text or to a certain text type. The intention of the author will always remain a problem, because literal texts are simply characterised by a communicative openness, for which a right or false comprehension does not exist. Each interpretation can be in some way justified and it rests with the individual judgement of the reader to accept or reject the interpretation. Therefore it is difficult to say if and to what extent a text is influenced by intertextuality. Furthermore whether the author wanted the reader to recognise these relations to other texts or whether they are more or less accidental.

2.2. Practical Application

2.2.1. The myth of siren and other mermaids

There are many poems of Sylvia Plath that are about the crossing of the surface of the water. All these you might also read as a variation of one mystic topic, that is that of siren.

The picture of siren is a very old one which was firstly named in “Odyssey”. Siren is a mermaid of incredible beauty and with this power and her singing she tempts people, especially men, into the sea and thus to death.

In the myth of Lorelei the same topic is described and the idea of the erotic temptations of women and the sea can be traced since the ancient world and up to now, the endless stream of nymphs, sirens and nixes have not lost their fascination.

It is true, that there are some differences between the numerous types of mermaids, but what they all have in common are their two sides of Eros and death, that means, that on one hand there is a strong erotic temptation that comes from them - even stronger because of their bewitching singing - and on the other hand a menace of death. Our poetry marks them as natural creatures, that are on the outside of civilisation. Their singing is therefore no art, but the voice of nature itself. Certainly, the mermaid can also function as muse: the element of water is traditionally often associated with regression and therefore often serves as a symbol of the subconscious. Hence it seems reasonable to comprehend the mermaid, that lives in this element and comes out of the depth of it, as medium of the poetic inspiration - actually the poetic inspiration of men. Rather seldom we find texts, that deal with the topic of the male creatures of the sea. Texts about female and male sea creatures differ normally even in their plot: generally, nixes tempt a man into the sea and as usual, he drowns. In contrast to that, Aquarius searches for a human woman to live with him under water.

2.2.2. The myth of siren in Sylvia Plath’s poetry

In her literal examination of the siren motive, Plath uses nearly all of the traditional elements, however she evaluates them differently and sometimes even changes them. An aspect which is especially striking is that the erotic component does not even play a role in her poetry. Take for example the long and in general golden hair of the mermaid, that is traditionally a sign of her sexuality. Plath takes the element hair up, too and describes in “Lorelei” the outward appearance of the mermaids with the words:

“ They rise, their limbs ponderous With richness, hair heavier Than sculpted marble ” 6

The specific visual, that is erotic appeal of the hair here fades in importance. In poems like “Mirror” or “All the Dead Dears” the female figures are even explicitly ugly and old.

“ old woman

Rises toward her day after day ... ” 7

or: “ Rigged poker-stiff on her back With a granite grin This antique museum-cased lady... ” 8

This picture does not even change when a male water sprite is described. On the other hand the hair of the sea god is described in detail in her poem “Full Fathom Five”:

“ [...] white hair, white beard, far-flung, A dragnet, rising, falling, as waves Crest and trough. Miles long

Extend he radial sheaves Of your spread hair, in which wrinkling skeins Knotted, caught, survives

The old myth of origins Unimaginable. ” 9

Categories like beauty or erotic force of attraction do not matter any more. The text underlines the superhuman quality of the mystic father figure, shrouded in mystery; his greatness, his power, his age, instead.

There is indeed only one single place in all of the poems of Sylvia Plath that are about the siren motive, in which a sexual desire of a water creature is articulated. This is again in “Full Fathom Five”, in the line “ Your shelled bed I remember ” 10. This happens in a very distant manner, which is without a doubt typical of Sylvia Plath. Hence it becomes clear that the author cannot make the motive of siren usable just alone because of a simple sex change - she imagines a water sprite as erotic projection surface, instead of a mermaid. The reason for that might be the literal taboo of female desire in the time of origin of this poem.

Instead of erotic aspects, Sylvia Plath underlines other elements, for example the association between the water creatures and art or rather poetry, their exotic, not human character and the danger they radiate.

While Heine’s “Lorelei” and related siren figures from the Romantic period are contend to smash individual fates on the cliffs, the sea god in “Full Fathom Five” menaces the complete cosmos. It is compared to

“ kneeled ice-mountains Of the north ” 11

and it is known that even a ship like the Titanic was wrecked because of an iceberg. Menacing and frightening aspects to such an extend however do not exclude an affinity between the speaker and the mystic. The other sphere exerts its specific suction characterised of both, fascination and fear, on the lyrical “I”. Freud explains the erotic desire as follows: in reality it is a well-known process which is only always suppressed. Therefore it seems to be strange and frightening to everybody. For these reasons the under water world that stands in literature for the sexual desire also presents our subconscious.

Comments on this intimacy are explicitly given in Sylvia Plath poems. “Mirror” and “All the Dead Dears” characterise the mythic figures as distorted monstrous mirror image of the lyrical “I”:

“ Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness. In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish. ” 12

or rather as close relations:

“ ... As I think now of her head, From the mercury-backed glass Mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother Reach hag hands to haul me in, And an image looms under the fishpond surface Where the daft father went down ... “ 13

Something like that can also be found in “Lorelei”, where the mermaids are named as “ Sisters ” 14 , and even clearer in “Full Fathom Five”, where the speaker calls the mystic figure “ Father ” 15 . Furthermore the lyrical I makes clear that it views its life on earth as exile and the sea in contrast to that as its true home. This element of special affinity between woman and sea is known in the tradition of this motive, especially in the already outlined Aquarius-variation. Moreover “Full Fathom Five” alludes to the fairy-tale of the “little Mermaid” written by Hans Christian Andersen, which is indeed a natural creature of the sea. She only became a human being because she fell in love with a sailor. The life on earth is therefore unnatural and bound up with permanent pain.

2.2.3. The sea and its meaning in Sylvia Plath’s work

There are not only creatures in the sea that play an important part in Sylvia Plath’s poetry, but the sea itself. I wondered when and in what extend the sea was also used as an intertextual stylistic device.

I will start with Plath’s autobiographical text “Ocean 1212-W”. In this short story I noticed for the first time her instant relation to the sea.

She describes the sea as a kind of ideal landscape of her childhood, a place, where she could be alone and where she could hide. At this place she finds “ [the] beautiful fusion with the things of this world. ” 16

But this feeling of total harmony of early childhood begins to soften from time to time and finally stops with the death of her father and her leaving the seaside.

“ And this is how it stiffens, my vision of that seaside childhood. My father died, we moved inland. Whereon those nine first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle - beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth. ” 17

Her move inland can be compared with the expulsion from Paradise. Sea and childhood melt together, both associated with the dead father and constructed to an inaccessible, indestructible mystic world.

Moreover Sylvia Plath postulates in “Ocean 1212-W” a special affinity between herself and the sea. Even when she was a child she tried instinctively to crawl into the waves, but her mother always succeeded in holding her back. Maybe, so Plath, she would have been conformed to the life in sea otherwise.

I often wonder what would have happened if I had managed to pierce that looking-glass. Would my infant gills have taken over...? ” 18

This nearly self-destructive fascination of the sea, up to the instant wish of breathing water, we can find in several works of Plath.

So for example in her autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar”. The main character Ester Greenwood tries several times to kill herself. One time she goes to the sea and “ ...waited, as if the sea could make [the] decision for [her]. ” 19 But she failed.

“ A second wave collapsed over my feet, lipped with white froth, and the chill gripped my ankles with a mortal ache. My flesh winced, in cowardice, from such a death. ” 20 And still, she does not give up. She tries a further time to “breath water”. When she is with friends on the beach, she wants to swim out until she was too tired to swim back.

“ the only thing to do was to drown myself then and there. So I stopped. [...] I fanned myself down, but before I knew where I was, the water had spat me up into the sun [...] I dashed the water from my eyes. I was panting, as after a strenuous exertion, but floating without effort. I dived, and dived again, and each time popped up like a cork. I knew when I was beaten. I turned back. ” 21

Even in her poems “Full Fathom Five” and “Lorelei” the sea plays a very important role. In the first, a mystical father figure comes out of the sea to talk to the lyrical “I”. Her reaction remains ambivalent. On the one hand she is fascinated, “ ...Such sage humour ” 22 but on the other hand she feels that she is on the verge of danger.

“ ...All obscurity Starts with a danger: your dangers are many. ” 23

She compares her father with an ice mountain. Like an ice mountain, the biggest and most important part of this mystic figure is under water, invisible and therefore “ inscrutable ” 24 . And this part is combined directly with death and madness.

On the bottom of the sea some old, monstrous nightmarish creatures lie in wait, whose sight leads to madness. The protagonist now realises her life on land as painful, and in contrast to that, the sea as a her conformed element. With her wish to join into the mystic under water world, she connects fantasies of harmony and homecoming. Realistically seen is the breathing of water synonymous with drowning, but the death through water obviously has lost its horror for the speaker.

It is the same as in “Ocean 1212-W” or in “The Bell Jar”: she feels save in the sea and she has no fear of drowning, quite the opposite, she likes the sea and being buried there.

Now lets look closer at the parallels of “Full Fathom Five” and “Lorelei”. Sylvia Plath has written them in the same year, which may be a reason for their similar contents. In contrast to “Full Fathom Five” we have several singers in “Lorelei”, but they have the same features and functions as the mystic father figure. They also live in the sea and they are also drawn to death and madness, because they also appear from the sea to seduce the protagonist to jump into the sea, the entrance to the mystic area, which also means death.

The title of this poem describes the mystic creatures as “Lorelei”, but in contrast to it, it is about singers, that are living in the sea, instead of a mermaid sitting on the rock and brushing her hair. But nevertheless they also try to bring disaster on the protagonist, like “Lorelei” did on the sailors.

It is striking that the myth of the sea is existent in many of Sylvia Plath’s works. The sea is present in her novel “The Bell Jar”, it is present in her short stories “Ocean 1212-W” and in some of her poems. So you could say that it is a kind of leitmotif that runs through all of her works that refers to death and madness.

This only goes to show that the sea is often present in Sylvia Plath’s work. First of all as a saving place of refuge in her childhood and later as a place of refuge, where she likes to die. She combines the sea on the one hand with security and safety (compare to “Ocean 1212-W”), on the other hand with death and madness (compare to “Lorelei”).

Therefore the sea can be seen as another striking feature of intertextuality in Sylvia Plath’s work, that refers to security, death or madness. In contrast to the myth of siren and other mermaids, the reader does not need no background knowledge, but is able - one time correctly interpreted - to figurative it on all texts of Plath. For this reasons, it can be described as an inner-textual and author-intended intertextuality, that may make an interpretation easier for the reader.

3. Conclusion

At the end of my paper I want to summarise the most significant aspects I found out. In the theoretical part of my paper I have tried to give an overview on intertextuality. It is striking that that is difficult to many linguists, too. I found intertextuality so often defined in different ways, that it was hard for me to give a general definition. A further problem was, that every linguist puts the main emphasis on different topics.

Therefore I came to the conclusion that intertextuality is a wide-ranging term that everybody defines completely different.

Added to this intertextuality is a very important stylistic device. Authors use it to draw the reader’s attention to important points, concerning the interpretation. On the other hand, readers make use of it to verify their attempt of interpretation. Because of this, problems easily arise: readers misunderstand the author’s signals and therefore misinterpret the text.

A further difficulty is the fact, that texts are not connected with each other just because of the author, but that “ [t]he text is not an autonomous or unified object, but a set of relations with other texts. ” 25

Therefore it is difficult for the readers to understand a text completely and in the same way, because everybody has a different background-knowledge. So intertextuality remains a supplementary term that is mainly dependant on individual opinion. In the practical application of my paper I demonstrated that Sylvia Plath also used intertextuality in her work. I picked out the myth of siren and other mermaids and furthermore wanted to know what the meaning of the sea in her works is. So I came to the conclusion that she uses two different kinds of intertextuality. On the one hand, an inner-textual one that can be seen for example in her poem “Lorelei”, where she alludes to Heine’s poem. On the other hand I have shown that the motif of the sea runs through several of her works and therefore connects all texts that have to do with the sea. The sea stands for security and safety as well as for madness and death, topics that are present in all of Sylvia Plath works.

I enjoyed reading “The Bell Jar” and “Ocean 1212-W” very much, because I could easily identify with the characters. Reading the poems of Sylvia Plath was in contrast to that quite difficult for me, because the vocabulary was very specific and I found them hard to understand and interpret without the professional background-knowledge. But writing my paper helped me in doing that. It was fascinating to discover gradually several aspects of the characters and the background and to get a deeper understanding of the poems and of intertextuality.


1 H. Widdowsen, Practical Stylistics (Oxford: OUP, 1971) 55

2 Josef Klein and Ulla Fix, eds., Textbeziehungen: Linguistische und literaturwissenschaftliche Beiträge zur Intertextualität (Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag, 1997) 22

3 Susanne Holthuis, 1990, „Intertextuality and Meaning Constitution“, in: Approaches to Poetry, János S. Petöfi and Terry Olivi, eds. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1994), 77-92

4 Josef Klein and Ulla Fix, eds., Textbeziehungen (Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag, 1997) 40

5 Josef Klein and Ulla Fix, eds., Textbeziehungen (Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag, 1997) 41

6 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 94

7 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 174

8 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 70

9 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 92

10 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 93

11 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 92

12 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 174

13 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 70/71

14 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 94

15 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 93

16 Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (London: Faber and Faber, 1977) 126

17 Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (London: Faber and Faber, 1977) 130

18 Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (London: Faber and Faber, 1977) 123

19 Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Bantam Books, 1971) 125

20 Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Bantam Books, 1971) 125

21 Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (New York: Bantam Books, 1971) 131

22 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 93

23 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 92

24 Sylvia Plath, The Collected Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1981) 93

25 Josef Klein and Ulla Fix, eds., Textbeziehungen: Linguistische und literaturwissenschaftliche Beiträge zur Intertextualität (Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verlag, 1997) 22

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Intertextuality in the works of Sylvia Plath
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