Violence and Aesthetics. Dynamics of Creation in Sylvia Plath's Poetry

Bachelor Thesis, 2018
32 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Meaning of Violence and Placement of Plath in American Literature

3. Forms of Violence in Plath’s Opus
3.1 Historical Violence
3.2Medical Violence
3.3 Sexual Violence
3.4Psychic Violence and Death
3.5 Mythological Violence

4.Mythologization of Violence

5.Violence and Language

6.Trauma as Rhetoric


8.Works Cited

1. Introduction

“Don’t talk to me about that world needing cheerful stuff. What the person out of Belsen – physical or psychological – wants is nobody saying the birdies still go tweet-tweet, but the full knowledge that somebody else has been there and knows the worst” (Plath, Letters Home, 21 October 1962). This is a very often quoted comment from Sylvia Plath to her mother about the necessity to portray painful and traumatic experiences within art. With exactly this attitude Plath has polarized and caused controversy ever since she passed away in 1963. The relatively tragic story of her life has constantly drawn readers’ and scholars’ attention, who seemed to be unable to withdraw from the mysterious spell she has had. In her lifetime Plath contributed various articles to popular journals, wrote a collection of short stories and published a book of poetry as well as her famous novel The Bell Jar, the latter edited under a pseudonym. However, except for the novel the opus she published herself is less known and not very controversial, in contrast to what followed after her death. In the last few months before her suicide, Plath wrote a collection of poems, which is coined by a very aggressive tone, sinister character, and daring topics such as the Holocaust, hatred, and self-destruction. This contemplation as well as her journals, both of which were published posthumously by Plath’s husband Ted Hughes, really were and still are the critical instances of controversy.

Not only do the poems account for aggression, violence, brutality, and suicidal dispositions, the journals also give close insight into Plath’s biography, privacy, and inner feelings, which seem to have been shaped by mental health issues. The picture painted in these books is that of an instable woman with depression, who repeatedly attempts to commit suicide and has considerable difficulties managing her everyday-life. Firstly struck by the early death of her father when she was ten and later on suffering from high expectations of family members, society, and curators, who enable her scholarship at Smith’s college, Plath eventually seems to break down under the pressure and the feeling of not living up to everyone’s hopes. Thereto adds an apparently difficult relationship to her later husband. Plath appears to live in Hughes’ shadow; misunderstood, disrespected, and betrayed at last. However, it cannot be said with certainty which factors lead to Plath’s suicide at the age of 30 years, but surely enough her death itself was a very tragic and appalling occasion, as she is reported to have gassed herself in the oven while her two children were in the apartment with her. No doubt, one cannot deny that as reading this brief outline of the artist’s lifetime, one is necessarily drawn into the story and very soon emotionally engaged, fascinated or even shocked. Hence, people quickly start judging on the seemingly given circumstances of Plath’s history and further misuse Plath’s literary corpus as a way of tracking psychopathology. Finally, they turn her artistic endeavor into a case study (Rose 4).

There are a number of problems that those approaches raise. The first one would be that Plath’s journals are not part of her literary opus and were probably never meant to be published by her. They display personal feelings and events that, at the end of the day, are no one’s but her own business. Secondly, after her death the control over her legacy was transferred to her husband and mother, who altered and cut the original texts in a way that leaves an incomplete corpus of writing, which makes it impossible to get a real and objective impression from it (Rose 72). Additionally, only focusing on Plath’s psychological conditions misses out on acknowledging her artistic multifaceted brilliance, since there is certainly more to representing violence, death, and Holocaust metaphors in literature than revealing proof for depression.

The omnipresence of violence, psychic issues, and death does not have to be understood as a product of mental episodes. In my opinion, it has to be understood as a brave achievement to reveal not only personal, but collective truths and traumas of an overarchingly shattered society and to further qualify the brutal character of violence through binding it to artistic aesthetics. Therefore, I claim in this paper that Sylvia Plath closely binds aestheticism to violence by firstly intermingling the concepts of reality and art, by secondly manifesting violence in language’s and art’s essence, and by thirdly turning traumatic psychopathology into a rhetorical strategy. Thus, she finally entrenches violence as the very mechanism of art, so that both art and violence function as mediums of creation in her poetry.

To proof my claim, in the second chapter I will start by clarifying the paradigm of violence in literature. Then I will continue by giving a short overview of the many instances of violence in American literature throughout the centuries and additionally highlight how those representations of violence invariably mirror historical tensions. In this context, I focus on the way how certain eras such as anti-rationalism or modernism changed the functional meaning of violence in literature by attempting to establish violence as a manifestation of creativity. Afterwards, I will illustrate how Plath similarly treats imaginative violence as a possibility to creatively transcend reality’s and writing’s horrors.

In the following part, I will illustrate five examples of the different kinds of violence that I have filtered from The Colossus, The Bell Jar, and Ariel. Surely enough, this list is neither set in stone nor final. There are various other forms of violence, but for the purpose of my paper I selected what I think are the most predominant ones. Those I call historical, medical, sexual, psychic, and mythological violence. The enumeration of forms of violence shall illustrate how many different complexes of violent representation can be found in Plath’s work, how they built on each other, intermingle, and how they account for a blending of violence and aestheticism already on this basic level.

The fourth chapter will then serve as a detailed investigation of the dimension of mythological violence. For that purpose, I will demonstrate how the representation of mythological characters in Plath’s poetry changed throughout her work from a clear detachment of mythical figure and lyrical I to a unification of the two. As myth and speaker happen to inhabit the same sphere then, the realm of the fictive and imaginative on the one hand merges with the domain of real factuality on the other hand in a way that trades the one for the other. Myth, which is the imaginary, is treated as reality, which is the factual, and vice versa. As a consequence, the binary of reality and imaginary is violated and the newly created sphere is governed by what both reality and myth have in common: violence. However, the point is that this violence, which operates on the complex sphere of artistic meta-reality, is not to be seen as destructive, but as imaginative and creative since on this level the lyrical I’s use of violence serves the purpose of forming an identity.

Having proved how violence is used to establish identity, in the fifth section I will investigate the issue on a new level, namely within the dimension of language itself. I point out how language itself is characterized as a medium of both violence and the formation of identity. Consequently, violence is not necessarily a product of external parties, as is the case for the forms of violence introduced in the third chapter, but originates in language and therefore in literary art itself. Thus, art itself is violent. Nonetheless, at the same time it is creative, as the utilization of its imaginative quality enables the lyrical I to form its own identity and to transcend into an artistic meta-sphere. This juxtaposition of including destructivity and creativity within the sphere of language as shows how violence and aesthetics are unified to form a medium of creation within poetic form.

In addition to the violence that is established within poetic form, the last chapter shall discuss the violation of function on the basis of examples of historical violence. I will illustrate how Plath distorts consistency and logical succession of metaphor, temporality, and address and how this results in violation of representation of historical violence in the first place. Secondly do those violations as well as Plath’s particular use of apostrophe mirror traumatic psychopathology that Plath turns into narrative strategies to set up her art. This turns trauma into a rhetoric of art, the latter of which still maintains aesthetic transcendence. This shall be the last proof how Plath conflates violence and aestheticism in the light of creation.

2. Meaning of Violence and Placement of Plath in American Literature

Violence is conventionally understood as a physical action intendedly causing harm, hurt, trauma, or even death. In a broader sense, not only physical but also psychic abuse such as harassment, etc., has to count as violence. When talking about violence in literature, the case is more complicated. Surely enough, a text can hardly cause that much harm and damage to a reader that it might equal physical violence. However, writing may report or represent instances of physical violence that have happened in reality and perhaps still do. Therefore, we shall here understand violence in literature on the level of content as the representation of any destructive example of intended damage and harm that is caused either institutionally or individually, physically or psychically, to a group of people or an individuum, to a majority or minority, as well as to an external goal or to oneself. Secondly, on the level of function, even if the case is different from assaults, etc., writing itself may be constructed to be afflicting. By using an aggressive tone, stating accusations, and exploiting vocabulary that is commonly connotated negatively, writing might harm and damage readers’ psychic vulnerability and maybe pave the way for relived trauma. This attacking character inherent to writing shall also be taken into account here as the stylistic side of violence in literature.

Having stated what is to be examined, a closer look into American literary history reveals that violence is certainly not a newly introduced topic in literature. In fact, throughout the centuries, writers of all different epochs have thematized violence in one way or another. Whether it were the first settlers justifying genocides of Indians by their exceptional status and covenant with God, the Wild West heroes who lived frontierism and saw the need to face and cultivate the natives at any cost, the later slave holders who perpetuated the image of a savage and brutal race which had to be tamed, or simply the tales of Poe, Hemingway, and Stevenson; violence and destructivity have a deep root in literature, just as they have a deep root in history (Davis 34). Nevertheless, violent activity has not always been portrayed in the same way. The style and character of violence as a literary topic changed widely. Just to illustrate two examples, the first settlers presented violence as a necessary evil and matter of heroic obligation to fulfill their holy duty to colonize America with a new pure community. Poe, on the other hand, painted a very uncanny picture of violence in a Gothic setting, which was much more negatively connotated. All in all, the way authors presented violence varied with the times and with social and political circumstances. So did the heroic duty to violently disperse the Native Americans mirror the pilgrim fathers’ eagerness to motivate people to establish and defend their colony by any possible means. Equally, Poe as the precursor of Gothic criminal tales worked in a period, in which overpopulation in cities, foreignness of people, and the fear of the unknown shaped the setting of criminality and violence. Hence, how representations of violence were illustrated broadly mirrored the historical background and tensions at the given time (Davis 34).

Similarly, literary tropes have also experienced significant changes, such as people and times did. For instance, the era of enlightenment tried to teach people how to qualify their instincts and rather practice reason in possibly every decision they made. This rational focus labeled physical violence with a very reprehensible signification. In contrast to this, as a movement in the nineteenth century introduced a redefinition of value, the role of violence incorporated a new function: Anti-rationalism radically countered the former enlightenment ideas and valued impulse and spontaneity as true freedom and authenticity (Davis 34). Thus, as Davis states, violence as the ultimate instance of impulse and as social tool for attacking bourgeois ideals, social injustice, and moral hypocrisy was cherished as regenerative force and as a matter of recreation (Davis 34). Not only did this provide violence with a creative character for the first time, it also established a whole new meaning for writing itself. Writing, as accessible by the public, transformed into an instrument of aggression that revealed rationalism’s fake ideals (Davis 34) and thus possessed an inherent violent and inflammatory function. To rephrase this again, what writers and activists at that time did was face the for them unbearable conditions of reality, in whatever social, political, or environmental context, with both violence and creation, or rather with violence as a medium of creation.

Taking a closer look at Plath’s work then, it is not difficult to see that this is what she does as well. Her writing is indeed shaped by ubiquity of different instances of violence, amongst them psychic destructivity that has mostly been misinterpreted and falsely assigned to the author herself. Instead of treating the psychic issues mentioned as Plath’s own inner struggle, the psychological subject in her work should rather be understood as representative of society as a whole (Rose 8). This discloses the troubles and traumas of an overarching collective consciousness affected by the political and social events of its time. In this manner, Sylvia Plath writes about Holocaust, Jewish suppression, social stigmatization, turmoil, etc., all of which certainly shaped the society of the 1950s and 60s. Hence, as all the other writers before, Plath presents violence as a medium to work through sociohistorical imbalance, unspeakable horrors, and the trauma of the people who are then left with debris: “For when Plath alludes to fascism – and more specifically to the Holocaust – she is evoking that piece of collective memory which it is hardest for he culture to recall [...]. Finding its way back into memory, it then appears like the return of the repressed- a fragment of the cultural unconscious […]” (Rose 8). Plath more or less opens up a way of literary therapy for the post-war generation of the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, she also presents violence not only as the cause of trauma, but also as the witnesses’ possible reaction. The lyrical I in her work exposes a number of violent threats and dispositions that might be interpreted as a liberation strategy. Plath does therefore utilize outbursts of the subject as a possible answer to former traumatization, just as antirational fighters did.

This exploitation of art to work through a haunted collective psyche perfectly fits not only the antirational stream, but also the modernist characteristics of writing. In this context, literature is supposed to “focus on [the] affected human consciousness as it responds to [the] dehumanized world […]” (Kazin in Williams 3). Yet, this reprocessing is only the starting point for modernist literature, as it continues anti-rationalism’s tradition of a creative thrust. Only, in contrast to anti-rationalism’s violent approach, modernism makes imagination the mechanism of creation. Trough imagination, the reader is lead towards an experience of transcendence, enabling them to lose themselves in an imaginative cosmos, a world of fantasy that is solely subject to the speaker’s own restrictions, rules, and desires. Thus, the subject’s reality as well as the scope of writing can be outstepped by implicating an alternative creative meta-reality that exists beyond writing and beyond the desolation of reality (Williams 4-5). As Paul Sheehan puts it, “the violent repudiation of the past [...] becomes the basis for a new aesthetic adventure. In scouring the pretensions off nineteenth-century realism and developing a more formally expansive art, modernism exploits the secret workings of the human psyche as much as the all-too-familiar topography of the object-world, and it points up the radical instability of both” (Sheehan 91).

Plath similarly breaks the boundaries of what is written in her poetry and prose through a combined dynamic of the two eras’ forces of violence and imagination. As a result of this, violence and dehumanized circumstances that have emerged from history can be overcome, just as writing itself, which more or less directly represents the former. Following this principle, the reader is then able to find himself in an alternative reality, which is shaped by creativity and imagination that is also the central instrument to arrive there in the first place. This imaginative characteristic is crucial because, at the end of the day, all instances of breaking free from historical violence in Plath’s work, all violent rebellion implicated by the speaker, is imaginative. Hence, what is inferred is that liberation through imagination results in freedom and art as a self-created cosmos in its own rights evolves as the ultimate alternative meta-reality to life. The just outlined idea of transcending creation shall gain clarity throughout the following pages, but it has to be kept in mind as the central initiation of Plath’s achievement to combine violence and aesthetics. Before digging deeper into the matter of violent, aesthetic creation, in the following chapter I pick out some examples of the broad scope of forms of violence in the author’s work to illustrate the predominance of destructive themes and their reciprocal action.

3. Forms of Violence in Plath’s Opus

In the next few sections I want to introduce various forms of violence that I have tracked in Plath’s writing. This shall serve the purpose of highlighting the multiple examples of violence that Plath dramatizes throughout the entire scope of her writing. Discourse about Plath’s work has predominantly focused on the immorality of representing the Holocaust, whereas there is a significant number of other manifestations of violence that shall be shed a light on here. Surely, as I have indicated in the preceding chapter, all the following instances have valid relevance for the prevailing social consciousness concerning the historical, social, political, and psychological context of the decades in which Plath wrote her art. Unfortunately, the scope of the paper will not allow me to individually pick up on each and every one of these forms again, but for the sake of a quantitative impression and as a possible reference for further research, they shall be listed here.

3.1 Historical Violence

The most famous and as I have already highlighted most controversial form of violence is the Holocaust, which I categorize as historical violence. This theme is omnipresent in Plath’s later Ariel poems, especially in “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus”, which are the most famous examples of Plath’s later compilation. The two poems shall reoccur repeatedly in my argumentation about the connection of violence and aesthetics.

Plath introduces the characters in her poems as dichotomic parties that represent the oppressing and oppressed groups of the Third Reich. “Daddy” is often interpreted by those who like to turn Plath’s art into a straight biography as manifestation of the need to break free from paternal authority of the father. As the journals imply, Plath’s vision of her father seemed to haunt her still in adulthood even though he had died in her childhood. Pertinently, whenever Plath represents a father figure in her literature, it is always compared to and equated with a brute, cruel German Nazi: “A man in black with a Meinkampf look” (Plath, Ariel, 50). Contrastingly, the lyrical I is mostly in the position of the oppressed, identified with a Jew: “Chuffing me off like a Jew. / A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen. / I began to talk like a Jew. / I think I may well be a Jew” (Plath, Ariel, 49). This quote highlights the violent, gruesome character of the historical drama of the Third Reich that surely echoed in the minds of the people living in the 1950s-60s. Possible scars and traumas from Second World War persisted in individual stories, memories, and heads and possibly manifested on a higher level in society as a whole.

Other poems such as “Lady Lazarus” also take up analogies to deportation or to the metaphoric dynamics between Nazi and Jew, which are both simultaneously unified within the lyrical I itself: “[…] my skin / Bright as a Nazi lampshade, / My right foot / A paperweight, / My face a featureless, fine / Jew linen” (Plath, Ariel, 8). Here, in contrast to “Daddy”, where the dichotomic parties are represented through two different characters, the two contrasting sides are brought together in the speaker, whereby the chosen cyphers evoke the connotation of brightness, powerfulness, and emanation with the Nazi side and associations of sensitivity, weakness, and inexpressiveness with the Jewish side, due to descriptions as “fine [and] featureless” (Plath, Ariel, 8). This quote might allude to personal trauma of Holocaust victims, survivors, or ancestors, who do not know anymore where they belong, lose their clear sense of identity, and maybe also blame themselves for the horrors that have happened and thus ascribe features of the oppressor to themselves.

Either way, Plath eligibly addresses the ferociousness that shaped public and private life at the time she wrote the poems and thereby refuses to cover the horrors in silence. She ensures that whatever has happened will not be forgotten and that people have the chance to read and talk about the past, as well as work through it. This principle also applies to the following examples that equally shaped people’s life. Often those different instances of violence overlap, go hand in hand, or intermingle, as can be seen when investigating the following case, which is partly connected to historical violence.

3.2 Medical Violence

Besides just using similes of the German-Jewish-dichotomy, the lyrical I indicates Nazi doctors’ mistreatment of Jewish people in concentration camps or mutilation of corpses and belongings: “There is a charge / For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge / For the hearing of my heart - / […] And there is a charge, a very large charge / For a word or a touch / Or a bit of my blood / Or a piece of my hair or my clothes. / So, so, Herr Doktor” (Plath, Ariel, 10). It remains unclear whether “charge” shall mean cost, responsibility, accusation, or maybe each of them. Either way, a negative overtone and the sense of putting those doctors on the pillory necessarily emerges. By using the typical German phrase “so, so” and by inserting a German form of address, the speaker suggests that whom is talked about here are German physicians that have worked in concentration camps. This is supported by the line which talks about hair and clothes, as it is a well-known fact that hair, clothes, and any jewels such as wedding rings were removed from Jewish corpses.


Excerpt out of 32 pages


Violence and Aesthetics. Dynamics of Creation in Sylvia Plath's Poetry
University of Erfurt
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Violence, Art, Aesthetics, Creativity, Imagination, Transcendence, Identity, Trauma
Quote paper
Ann-Katrin Preis (Author), 2018, Violence and Aesthetics. Dynamics of Creation in Sylvia Plath's Poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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