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Trapped in language: aspects of ambiguity and intertextuality in selected poetry and prose by Sylvia Plath Critical Essay

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Trapped in language: aspects of ambiguity and intertextuality in selected poetry and prose by Sylvia Plath - Critical Essay
Andrea Gerbig

The interplay of intertextuality and ambiguity is a major feature in the work of Sylvia Plath. Critics may avoid biographical readings of her work by combining linguistic and literary approaches. Emphasis on the linguistic and meta-linguistic aspects of selected examples of her poetry and prose illustrates that what is unsettling about Plath's style is in fact unsettling about language in general. "Language speaks," to adopt the by-now proverbial dictum; it speaks all the diachronic changes of which it is the repository. Historically determined and shaped, language has its own dynamics, and users of language, however contrived the transformations they impose upon it, cannot escape them. While Plath skillfully exploits this potential by creating intertextual nets derived from a variety of cultural and personal experiences, she nevertheless falls prey to the very ambiguities she thereby establishes.


In our everyday scheme of things, we like to separate "literary" from "ordinary" language use. While literary language is often marked by the deliberate exploitation of linguistic ambiguity, ordinary language use relies strongly on conventionalized elements of speech, whose rules and regularities have been agreed upon by the members of a given culture. To put it more bluntly: where ordinary speech seeks to communicate, literary language often consciously furthers the confusion of the reader by accepting or exploring those aspects of language use that run counter to smooth communication. This broadly corresponds to our distinction between representation and reference: while literature creates the representation, the version of a world, ordinary language pretends to point to the real world. But this distinction between ambiguous literary representation and communicative reference is never absolute, and both uses of language include elements from either mode.

Contemporary literary theory and criticism is cognizant of the ambiguous nature of literary representation. Indeed, it has been stipulating ambiguity as a critical paradigm or sine qua non of "literature" for quite sometime. It is therefore striking that some critics or critical ideologies remain so strongly attracted to the possibility that an author's biography might remove ambiguity and promise interpretive closure. Their presumption is that, superimposed on the poetic material, a chronology of events of an author's life can provide the oeuvre with narrative coherence and resolve its inherent ambiguities. Criticism of the American poet Sylvia Plath offers a good case in point. Her suicide in 1963 continues to be taken as the telos toward which her life as well as her writing moved with relentless inevitability. From this perspective, her every poem makes another small step toward this terrible finale. Such a critical angle can serve particular aesthetic and political" aims, for it provides her late poetry especially with a particular, deadly authenticity while confirming Plath's role as victim of patriarchal society in general and of her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, in particular. This is a position often adopted by feminist critics. Sadly, rather than freeing the poet from the dismissive epithet "confessional" that has been bestowed upon her, especially by male critics, feminist defenders of Plath have thereby only confirmed the biographical quality of her work. (1) Furthermore, such criticism has ignored significant aspects of Plath's poetic style that have implications far beyond the limits of her life and work and that inevitably also concern the critic looking for closure. (2)

As a consequence of such problems, we will attend to those aesthetic and stylistic issues raised by Plath's poetry neglected by criticism intent on reading her work biographically. Our point of departure is the ambiguity of literary language, its paradoxically enabling and undermining effect on the poet. Ambiguity is an omnipresent stylistic feature in Sylvia Plath's work and intrinsically linked to her use of intertextuality. Through intertextual links, both with different cultural and literary contexts and within the canon of her own work, Plath establishes the kind of lexical ambiguity that, according to Su, "occurs when two or more distinct meanings or readings are tenable in a given context, rendering choice between the alternatives an uncertain one" (55). But Plath deploys intertextuality not so much with the aim of playfully exploring the ambiguous potential of language, but as a form of containment. Intertextuality allows Plath to direct the readers' interpretation according to an overall aesthetic an d thematic effect. Nevertheless, because intertextuality is so clearly bound up with ambiguity, when Plath asserts authorial dominance through intertextuality, she reveals that this strategy is not without dangers: her intertextual nets, by creating a multitude of possible references, diversify the expectations and interpretations of her readers in a way that may be contrary to her own intentions. Plath, in attempting to streamline her style, invokes the linguistic uncertainty inherent in intertextuality and is eventually caught in her own associative web.

Because of the nexus of intertextuality and ambiguity, it does not suffice merely to describe the nature and origin of Plath's intertextual motifs, the cultural and literary sources from which they might have been derived. What a fruitful analysis of Plath's poetry needs to foreground is how her use of intertextuality has simultaneously productive and counterproductive effects and thus points to the conflicting and contrary dynamics within language in general. In the following, we will illustrate how Plath's attempts to outwit the regularities of culturally based, conventionally-grown language use lead to her entrapment in her own extravagant, if not contrived, linguistic moves. Methodologically, our approach combines linguistic and literary perspectives. Our extensive quantitative and qualitative linguistic documentation, in combination with a psychoanalytically-motivated literary approach, allows us to investigate her work without repeating the biographical emphasis still prevalent in Plath studies. In illu minating the metapoetic and -linguistic aspects of Plath's work, we amend the image of Plath as a confessional poet and connect her personal tragedy to a larger area of tension, that between language user and language system.


Ambiguity is a major distinguishing feature between poetic and ordinary speech. As the linguist Widdowson writes, "It is the nature of poetry to be ambiguous" (114). Poetry draws aesthetic effects from the divergence from habitual, every-day patterns and structures of language use. Language becomes poetic in its deviation from what we consider to be "ordinary" language use. Literature, and poetry in particular, challenges the confidence in the communicative efficiency of language, expressed for instance in the famous dictum by J. R. Firth: "you shall know a word by the company it keeps" (II). To be sure, ordinary language tends to be more referential than poetic language and usually limits ambiguity. The linguistic co- and situational contexts of utterances determine the meaning of potentially ambiguous lexis. Even humor, which is the prevalent form of ambiguity in ordinary language, is more or less readily understood because of a given situational context. Corpus linguistic research, of the sort found in Fra ncis, Hunston, and Manning's Grammar Patterns, documenting a compelling congruent relationship between linguistic form of expression and meaning, corroborates this point. Furthermore, it suggests that any stylistic deviance from conventional use is explicitly linguistically marked. In a corpus-assisted analysis of Sylvia Plath's poem "The Rabbit Catcher" (1962), we will illustrate the presence of stylistic deviance in her poem, its role in the establishment of a particular aesthetic effect, and the way ambiguity simultaneously unsettles this effect. We will focus on one particularly striking passage in the poem (cited from Collected Poems):

I tasted the malignity of the gorse,

Its black spikes,

The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.

They had an efficiency, a great beauty,

And were extravagant, like torture.

Because "The Rabbit Catcher" is a late poem of Plath' s, both its theme and the way it depicts it seem to invite a biographical reading informed by the reader's knowledge about the poet's disastrous marriage with Ted Hughes and her suicide within a year of writing this poem. The poem's lyrical "I" recounts the accidental discovery of a number of craftily disguised, almost invisible animal traps ("And these snares almost effaced themselves") in a lonely spot by the sea. That the snares are described as "Zeros, shutting on nothing," with the curious "absence of shrieks," suggests that the traps are as yet empty. Nevertheless, the speaker vividly imagines the animal's agony, as the repetition "I felt [. . .] I felt" that punctuates stanza five indicates, and enters upon a detailed meditation of the hunter's malicious, intentional brutality. The analogy between trapped animal and speaker is mirrored by the merging of hunter and husband; an association made explicitly at the beginning of the last stanza: "And we, too, had a relationship." This relationship is subsequently described as a lethal trap, a "constriction," "sliding shut on some quick thing" and strangling the speaker. At the same time, the event is heightened to a moment of universal suffering by the pairing of negatively-connoted terms like "malignity" and "torture" with mysterious, quasi-religious images like "extreme unction" and "yellow candle-flowers." The solemn tone suggests that the poem is a requiem for a relationship -- a relationship that biographical readings would no doubt identify as that between Plath and Hughes.

Our analysis of linguistic corpora enables us to propose a somewhat more complex reading. For example, from the passage above, the word "spikes," as our investigation of the British National Corpus, the Longman-Lancaster Corpus, and the Bank of English reveals, (3) can be used in different co-texts, with slightly different meanings. These corpora illuminate the various frequent, typical, collocations of a word and identify the habitual co-occurrences of words and co-texts that shape the experiences and, therefore, the expectations of language users. As the example of Plath shows, the disruption of such expectations by unusual co-occurrences may cause an ambiguity that can fulfill a particular stylistic intention. A 50-million-word portion of the Bank of English, the CobuildDirect Corpus, (4) shows that almost half of the occurrences of "spikes" are in the co-texts of flowers. As shown by frequency statistics (MI and T-scores), (5) the most frequently occurring lexico-grammatical structure around (flower) "spi kes" are multiple adjectival classifications. Examples are:
, . The second most frequent collocates are "metal" and "steel" spikes. (6) So, the syntactic structure and collocational choices distinguish at least two major senses of "spikes" that an interpretation of Plath's poem must take into account. While the collocation of "spikes" with plants is typical, the majority of the other collocations are negative, occurring in very violent co-texts, such as people being on spikes and involved in

The term "spikes" exemplifies the "third-type ambiguity" in William Empson's list of seven types of ambiguity. For Empson the "point" of this type of ambiguity "is the sharpness of distinction between the two meanings, of which the reader is forced to be aware; they are two pieces of information" whose "clash in a single word will mirror the tension of the whole situation" (102, 104). Poststructuralist theory calls such a "clash in a single word" intertextuality. Paraphrasing Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of intertextuality, Julia Kristeva writes that "each word (text) is an intersection of words (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read" ("Word" 37). Words shift continuously between different signifying systems and adopt different meanings in the process. This "passage from one signifying system to another" is captured by a term, "transposition," that Kristeva uses for Intertextuality (Revolution 60). But "intertextuality" as "transposition" differs from the source study with which intertextuality is commonly associated. Rather than confirming the author's and reader's intellectual skill and scope in drawing on and deciphering literary references, Kristeva's sense of intertextuality reminds the (reading) subject that meaning is only a momentary disambiguation, that another meaning, derived from another cultural and linguistic context, is always potentially inscribed in any word. For Bakhtin and Kristeva, then "Intertextuality" corresponds to ambiguity itself.

Such a poststructuralist concept of intertextuality differs from Plath's use of intertextuality in her poetry. The poststructuralist perspective becomes of especial relevance in deciphering Plath's recurring central motifs and allusions: the sea, childhood, sexuality, violence, mythological, pagan, and Christian references, and, in various uses, the theme of death. Plath's motifs and allusions are often marked by the use of rare and unusual words. Archaic and often no longer in use, such words might well have an alienating effect because they may create a distance between poet and word as well as between reader and (learned) poet. At the same time, they may create an affiliation to the past. The thematic and metaphoric continuity established by Plath's intertextual allusions provides a basis for consistent and seemingly conclusive interpretations, not only of individual poems, but also of her work at large. But, as Bakhtin and Kristeva say, intertextuality is ambiguity. Because words can potentially participa te in and interact with different semantic fields, they hardly ever possess one single meaning. This phenomenon can also be explained as a result of the historical nature of language. Lexis is always subject to diachronic change. Words derive their meaning from conventions and habits in discourse and interaction. These conventions and habits are acquired by each new generation of speakers and, in the process, more or less modified and revalued. Because Plath was known to use dictionaries and thesauri for writing, the rarity of some of the words she uses suggests she was deliberately exploiting the historical nature of language. But, in language, that at a given synchronic moment different phases of diachronic development can co-exist creates the basis for possible ambiguity.

Thus Plath's skillful positioning of rare terms in her poetry and prose, by way of directing the interpretive maneuvers of her readers, immediately undercuts the aim of this strategy. It is the ambiguity underlying intertextuality that characterizes Plath's use of the word "spikes" and, in another example for intertextual duplicity in 'The Rabbit Catcher," the phrase "extreme unction." "Extreme unction" is the archaic term for the last of the seven sacraments given to a dying person and has today been replaced by the more frequently used "anointment." An investigation of the CobuildDirect and the British National Corpus, (7) as well as an internet search facility, FAST, (8) which accesses 200 million documents on the internet, illustrates how rare the term is. CobuildDirect provides only eleven occurrences of "unction," five of which are in the phrase "extreme unction." These occur in historical and literary sources only . (9) This rare term invests the poem with a note of religiosity and, together with such lexical choices as "malignity," "spikes," and "torture," contributes to the poem's overall associations with pain and death. While the term "extreme unction" may seem unusual in the context of the poem's very personal concerns, it emphasizes the suffering of the lyrical "I."

But the term is not only rare, it is also ambiguous. Like "spikes," it slides between the contexts on which it touches, defying a homogeneous effect. For a contemporary reader of the poem, the adjective "extreme" fits in the semantic field of violence. As a shaping part of the phrase "extreme unction," it reverberates with notions of excess that are taken up at other points in the poem. This is illustrated by the "prototypical" (in CobuildDirect, frequent, statistically relevant) adjectival collocation . In other, more neutral uses, "extreme" serves to express spatial or temporal orientation, e.g., , . It is in this temporal sense of a life coming to a merciful end that the term "extreme unction" can also be understood. The construction is based on a conjunction of death and relief that ultimately lends it a positive quality. This positive evaluation is emphasized also by other words used in the p oem, such as "efficiency," "great beauty," and, in part, "extravagant." The ensuing lexical tension of positive and negative, violence and beauty, begs the question of what the possible pragmatic effect is for the reader. "Great beauty" surely is a positive evaluation. But both "efficiency" and "extravagant" occur in mixed collocations. The corpora reveal that "extravagant" is mainly viewed negatively, often with an undertone of the socially unacceptable. Analysis of the larger co-texts in which the term appears suggests, however, that, extravagance is not only a target of social criticism, but can be admired, appreciated, and desired. In any case, "extravagant" never occurred with such violent collocations as the "torture" alongside which Plath places it.

Like "extravagant," "efficiency," while conventionally positively collocated, offers examples in the corpus data invoking xenophobic stereotypes, e.g., . Significantly, Plath has recourse to precisely this xenophobia in the remarks about language scattered throughout her writing. The spikes of the gorse, after all, recall the "dense, black, barbed-wire letters" that for Esther Greenwood, in The Bell Jar, characterize the German language and that, insurmountable, incomprehensible, "made my mind shut like a clam" (34). (10) For Esther, here, "German" is coterminous with violence. It is also depicted as preventing rather than fostering communication. In a journal entry regarding prose, Plath uses a similar lexical combination: "Prose writing has become a phobia to me: my mind shuts & I clench. I can't, or won't, come clear with a plot" (403). But the theme of closure and the prevention of communication likewise characterizes Plath's statements about poetic language. Highly skeptical even of po etry, Plath formulated distinctions between poetry and prose resembling those of contemporary linguists compiling corpora. Indeed, our corpora rarely draw on examples from poetry, probably because it is not regarded as belonging to the core of "ordinary" language use (see Sinclair, "Corpus Typology"): poetry is "skewed." Plath, in an essay in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, puts it as follows:

If a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, then a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand: it has roads, detours, destinations: a heart line, a head line; morals and money come into it. Where the fist excludes and stuns, the open hand can touch and encompass a great deal in its travels. (56)

In this frequently cited passage from "A Comparison," Plath juxtaposes an autistic, uncommunicative poetry to an expansive, communicative prose. Open and roving, the novel connects with the world it describes and thus manages to communicate its meaning; closed and condensed, poetry is walled off from reality. Plath illustrates her point with recourse to her poem "The Yew Tree":

that yew tree began, with astounding egotism, to manage and order the whole affair. It was not a yew tree by a church on a road past a house in a town where a certain woman lived [...] and so on, as it might have been, in a novel. Oh no. It stood squarely in the middle of my poem, manipulating its dark shades, the voices in the churchyard, the clouds, the birds, the tender melancholy with which I contemplated it--everything! I couldn't subdue it. And, in the end, my poem was a poem about a yew tree. That yew tree was just too proud to be a passing black mark in a novel. (57)

Plath here imagines her own poem in terms of a struggle between author and reality, with the central motif, the yew tree, as the fulcrum of writerly authority. While in prose the yew tree would provide a trigger for an expansive exploration of life, in the poem it dominates the imaginary world in which it has been placed. While in prose the yew tree is a catalyst of authorial intention, in poetry it develops a life of its own, literally "demanding" a symbolic meaning and significance within the text.

Overshadowing the process of writing the poem, it is emblematic of the failure of the poet to create a world. Plath elaborates this point elsewhere. In "Context," she describes poems as "deflections" from reality, written by poets "possessed by their poems as by the rhythms of their breathing" (92).

Surely the great use of poetry is its pleasure--not its influence as religious and political propaganda. Certain poems and lines of poetry seem as solid and miraculous to me as church altars or the coronation of queens must seem to people who revere quite different images. I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far--among strangers, around the world, even. Farther than the words of a classroom teacher or the prescriptions of a doctor; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime. (93)

Despite the conciliatory tone of her words, Plath's perspective on poetry in this passage retains the ambiguity she evinces in her journals: "Must agonizingly begin prose--an irony, this paralysis, while day by day I do poems--and also other reading--or I will be unable to speak human speech, lost as I am in my inner wordless Sargasso" (401). Although such professions as teaching and medicine are "useful," Plath suggests that poetry has a superior impact and significance, a suggestion corroborated by the marked ambiguity, if not anxiety, with which Plath saw these professions. (10) Nevertheless, the "solid" and "miraculous" nature of poetry confirms the forbidding closeness she describes in "A Comparison." Unlike prose, poetry rebuffs the reader. Linguistic creativity limits communication. Whatever pleasure poetry may incite, it has no obvious utilitarian value. Plath's overt revaluation of the genre is immediately undercut by her deeply ingrained doubts about its social significance. Poetry, to invoke a term used in "The Rabbit Catcher," is not efficient. Its inherent ambiguity prevents easy communication and instead demands of the reader a greater decoding effort.

But the rigid distinction between the closed fist of poetry and the open hand of prose is challenged by the historical dimension of these images, which have a longstanding tradition in the metadiscourse on language and literature. Early modern professional users of language, sensitive to the point of anxiety about the question of their social significance and value outside the context of patronage, used similar dualisms to illustrate the linguistic mediation of meaning. Closed fist and open hand served to differentiate logic and rhetoric, the former, as W. S. Howell suggests, associated with the "tight discourses of the philosopher," the latter "with the more open discourses of orator and popularizer" (4). That both fields are of equal significance to early modern theories of communication is suggested by how the same image serves to characterize either discipline. In the humanist trivium, rhetoric occupied the place of a mediator of knowledge. But although early modern culture could therefore see rhetoric in didactic and prudential terms, it was simultaneously highly skeptical of the persuasive intent of the rhetorician (see, for example, Kahn; Rhodes; Vickers). Whether Plath knew about the use of such imagery in the early modern period is impossible to determine, but even if this possible intertextual link is only speculative, it opens up a larger literary context that emphasizes the very historicity of Plath's position. Her democratic ideal of the open, communicative nature of prose has its roots in the far more complex view bestowed upon rhetoric in the past. The historical perspective not only illuminates how ideas develop and change; it also suggests that the problem addressed by Plath is not one of genre but of language in general, because language, despite all conventional disambiguation, always retains its fundamental potential for ambiguity.

Plath's intertextual allusions in "The Rabbit Catcher" confirm that she herself is able to use this ambiguity creatively. The manipulation of language patterns is "art's privilege," as Widdowson writes: "It is just this kind of resolution of disparity by invoking congruence of a different order which gives verbal art, and indeed all art, its essential significance" (23). For Jean-Jacques Lecercle, the breaking of linguistic frontiers is one of the operations of ordinary language use, which does not hamper or prevent the translation of meaning or communication: "An 'exception' does not make the rule it breaks invalid, it just breaches the frontier it marks. And beyond the frontier [. . .] there lies not the outer darkness of linguistic darkness, but language that is still intelligible" (23). Linguistic frontiers, in other words, are "nomadic" (25). Kristeva sees in the capacity to transgress these frontiers, to play with and change language, the subject's scope for enjoyment (29). Plath's statements on poetry, while dismissive of linguistic creativity, point to her own involvement in this enjoyment as it becomes visible in her own manipulations of language.


Shortly before his death in 1998, Ted Hughes published Birthday Letters, a volume of poetry that seemed like a reckoning with Plath and her exploitation of their private life in her poetry. In this collection, Hughes responds to "The Rabbit Catcher" in a poem with the same title. Hughes emphasizes Plath's active involvement in the violent creativity of language first by suppressing positive undertones that, as our linguistic analysis has shown, are present in Plath's "The Rabbit Catcher" and then by associating her with martial violence. Returning to the same incident on which Plath draws in her poem, Hughes remembers Plath's vehement reaction to her discovery of the traps. He describes her as staring "with iron in [her] face,/ Into some remote thunderscape/ Of some unworldly war" and continues the tone of doom and destruction by pointing out her "Germanic scowl, edged like a helmet." Then, shifting to a linguistic context, he states that Plath's face "would not translate itself." The untranslatability of Pla th's anger undermines the brief status as victim he awards her when he imagines her, like a concentration camp prisoner, "locked/Into some chamber gasping for oxygen." At the end of the poem, Hughes turns the violence of which the speaker in Plath' s poem suffers back into her face: "Those terrible, hypersensitive/Fingers of your verse closed round it and/ Felt it alive. The poems, like smoking entrails,/ Came soft in your hands." Hughes alludes to a number of Plath's recurring nightmares--war in general, her father's Germanness, the Holocaust--only to top them with an image of visceral violence he identifies entirely as Plath's own. The victim here becomes the perpetrator; the poet the murderer.

Hughes's association of Plath's. creativity and violence is not unwarranted: it is equally revealed, for instance, in her own "Rabbit Catcher." With great subtlety and skill, Plath twists a reader's interpretation into the desired one. By using spikes" instead of "spine," although this is not completely unusual from a lexical point of view, she denaturalizes the gorse, almost turning the plant into a torture instrument (the iron maiden springs to mind). This reading is corroborated by her use of "malignity" in the same poem. Malignity is a rare and archaic word and described in the OED as "wicked and deep-rooted ill-will or hatred; intense and persistent desire to cause suffering to another person; propensity to this feeling." This agentive use of the term represents the plant as the perpetrator of evil action. But it also illustrates how Plath, in declaring an everyday object a torture instrument, contributes actively to a perversion of language. (11)

"The Rabbit Catcher" thereby implies the poet in the patriarchal structures she critiques. In Jacqueline Rose's assessment, "The poem seems remarkable for the way it can offer this political analysis of patriarchal power (violence against nature, violence of the Church, and in the home) at the same time as representing, in terms of sexual pleasure and participation, the competing strains of women's relationship to it" (140). Plath is thus not merely associated with a suffering nature, she is also shown to enjoy this suffering. What is more--and here Rose's reading differs from that of other critics of Plath--she actively engages in the violence which victimizes her: "Plath writes herself into the place of the rabbit catcher; does to the reader what the poem describes as being done to her" (138). To try to decide how Plath positions herself with regard to this violence of language would be to return to the arguments that seek to apportion guilt and blame to either her or her environment. She "is not consistent ," Rose suggests, but "writes at the point of tension--pleasure/danger, your fault/my fault, high/low culture--without resolution or dissipation of what produces the clash between the two" (10). Although this challenges any reading of "The Rabbit Catcher" based on a facile analogy between the poet and the trapped animal, Plath might have intended precisely this association. Nevertheless, the conjunction of positive and negative lexis lends Plath's poem a quality of uncertainty. Shifting from the positive to the negative and back again without coming to rest, it frustrates especially readings intent on exculpating Plath and claiming her for a feminism of victimhood in which Hughes emerges as the violator and stifler of feminine creativity. (12)


Plath's "The Rabbit Catcher," with its uncertain oscillation of pleasure and pain, seems to confirm her self-critical distinction between poetry and prose: all rhetorical contortions notwithstanding, the poem defies a decisive interpretation and therefore fails to communicate one meaning alone. And yet, it is in one of her prose pieces, and the one that for obvious reasons has had a particular significance for biographical readings of her oeuvre, that Plath makes what seems to be the most outspoken statement about the nature--and the natural ambiguity--of language. The autobiographical essay "Ocean 1212-W" (in Johnny Panic) provides us with all the traumatic flotsam and jetsam that can be found in her work: the problematic relationship with her mother, her jealousy of her brother, a desire to return to her childhood as revealed in her passion for the sea. But the co-ordinates of this personal drama mark out an area of experience of universal significance: the subject's coming into language.

One particularly relevant passage of the essay describes precisely this epiphanic instance. But it only superficially refers to personal experience and instead can be seen as representing the archetypal. Following the birth of her younger brother, the child Sylvia is jealously aware of her isolation and singularity: "As from a star I saw, coldly and soberly, the separateness of everything. I felt the wall of my skin: I am I. That stone is a stone. My beautiful fusion with the things of this world is over" (120). Alone on the beach where she had sought refuge (the sea as a place of comfort and unity being a pervasive motif in her work), she finds an object washed onto the sand:

A sign of what?

A sign of election and specialness. A sign I was not forever to be cast out. And I did see a sign. Out of a pulp of kelp, still shining, with a wet, fresh smell, reached a small brown hand. What would it be? What did I want it to be? A mermaid, a Spanish infanta?

What it was, was a monkey.

Not a real monkey, but a monkey of wood. Heavy with the water it had swallowed and scarred with tar, it crounched on its pedestal, remote and holy, long-muzzled and oddly foreign. I brushed it and dried it and admired its delicately carved hair. It looked like no monkey I had ever seen eating peanuts and moony-foolish. It had the noble pose of a simian Thinker. I realize now that the totem Iso lovingly undid from its caul of kelp (and have since, alas, mislaid with the other baggage of childhood)was a Sacred Baboon. So the sea, perceiving my need, had conferred a blessing. My baby brother took his place in the house that day, but so did my marvelous and (who knew?) even priceless baboon.


The frequent lexical choices from the field of childbirth or midwifery almost reenact the birth of the brother-rival: "still shining" and "wet," the baboon is "crouched" like a baby whom the speaker "lovingly undid from its caul of kelp" and "brushed [...] and dried." The baboon's bodily features are battered, but delicate and sophisticated underneath, as attributes such as "noble," "priceless,"and "marvelous" and the metaphor "simian Thinker" suggest. This reading is furthermore emphasized by the line of religious motifs that runs through the passage, from "totem," "pedestal," "holy," "sacred" to "blessing." The overall impression left by the combination of these lexical choices is one of sublimity, birth become a sacred moment.

Apart from re-enacting a real birth, the passage can also be read as illustrating the birth of the individual into language. For the isolated child, painfully aware of her separateness, the baboon is not merely an object, but a "sign" of her ability to connect with the world through language. This can be phrased in Lacanian terms: the discovery of the baboon in "Ocean 1212-W" and the transformation of childish jealousy into creativity and communication marks the child's entry into what Lacan calls the Symbolic Order. But as Lacan suggests, the passage into the Symbolic leads not only to the painful awareness of isolation, but also to the knowledge that the subject will never possess the means to overcome this isolation. As Lacan argues in "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Ft-cud," the entry into the Symbolic Order marks the emergence of a fragmented subject as well as the beginning of the ambiguous language to which this subject must have recourse. Language can never remedy the lack felt by the "I." Plath's work allows us to illustrate Lacan's thesis. As we have been pointing out above, with her use of intertextuality Plath accepted ambiguities of language that for Lacan are the result of the entry into the world of signs. But ambiguity is not only the property of poetic language, as her own distinction betwe en poetry and prose may lead us to believe; it is apparent also, as our investigation of "Ocean 121 2-W" will now show, in explicitly non-poetic examples from her work.

Our first example is an expression, "caul of kelp," that belongs to the lexical field of birth. "Gaul" is so rare that it is not included in the CCED, (13) and it appears only extremely rarely in the other corpora we have used. It is thus likely that a reader of Plath's story would not know the term. Furthermore, it has multiple meanings, so that even "informed" readers might make different associations. The caul (amnium), the protective skin covering the new-born child, is associated with magical powers in various cultural contexts. Superstitious belief had it that those born with a caul around their head enjoyed more luck and happiness in life. Roman midwifes are said to have sold cauls by the Forum for divination and as a protection against drowning. But such positive associations are not foregrounded in Plath's essay. The expression "caul of kelp" replaces a parallel construction, "pulp of kelp," earlier in the poem, whose distinctly negative connotations inflect also our interpretation. "Pulp" is a techn ical term for crushed wood used in the production of paper; it is also used for the soft inner parts of fruit or vegetable (CCED). The word is rarely used, either in this literal (and rather neutral) sense or metaphorically, where it mainly occurs in violent contexts. A typical, statistically significant collocation is .

Other meanings of "caul" at first sight seem to contradict the negative association established by Plath. A caul was an Elizabethan headdress for women: a circle of fabric gathered to a band placed over a bun or coil at the back of the head. Today, caul is still used as the technical term for the netted substructure of a wig. (14) When seen in the context of Plath's work as a whole, therefore, "caul" leads from the birth-imagery into another pervasive and, for Plath, often negatively connoted lexical field. As headdress, "caul" suggests femininity in general and the paralysis with which Plath often associates it. The caul as a fashion prop suggests the cultural limits imposed upon women; its containing and ordering nature is in sharp contrast to the floating hair of the terrible Medusas that haunt Plath's writing. This association is also corroborated by other passages from "Ocean," for instance the "skates the shape of old pillowslips with the full, coy lips of women" (118). The sense of paralysis is taken u p again later in the same essay: "Mountains terrify me--they just sit about, they are so proud. The stillness of hills stifles me like fat pillows" (122). It recalls an early journal entry where Plath--"in my pajamas, my freshly washed hair up on curlers"--finds herself locked in the house because the door is locked: "I was trapped, with the tantalizing little square of night above me, and the warm, feminine atmosphere of the house enveloping me in its thick, feathery, smothering embrace" (16). In its most negative transformation, the image appears in The Bell Jar. Esther Greenwood describes the nurse who prepares her for her first electro-convulsive therapy session: "As she leaned over to reach the side of my head nearest the wall, her fat breast muffled my face like a cloud or a pillow" (151). When Esther drops her clothes from the window of a New York hotel, her act might be seen as a revolt against a culturally-determined notion of sanity imposed on women, for instance, by the discourses of fashion.

"Caul" is not the only word in Plath's essay where meaning dissolves into indeterminacy. In "coy lips," for instance, the lips of the skates are demure only superficially. If Plath here refers to the lips on the underside of the fish that serve as sexual organs, they are indeed a direct erotic reference that recalls similar images throughout her poetry (e.g., the "Hole-mouth" of "The Beekeeper's Daughter" and the devouring "great lips" of "The Colossus," the Mapplethorpian "hanging garden" of "Fever 103[degrees]" ("Hanging garden" being a slang-term for female genitalia) and the forbidding "mouth-plugs" of "Medusa," with their association with fellatio and the many ambiguous uses of tongue: from the "hurting," "upsetting," and "sudden" tongues of "Tulips" to the "flickering hell flames" of "Poppies in July"). Moreover, a literary association is evoked here: Andrew Marvell's metaphysical poem "To His Coy Mistress." In Marvell's treatment of the carpe diem theme ("Had we but world enough and time/This coyness, lady, were no crime"), the coyness of his adored is of course the springboard for more explicit and excessive erotic fantasies. Consider the lines "And now, like amorous birds of prey,/ Rather at once our time devour/Than languish in this slow-chapped power," whose gustatory imagery strangely resembles that of Plath in the above examples.

These recurring uses of motifs-of "signs," to recall the emphatic apostrophe of the baboon in "Ocean"--corroborates a painful awareness: that the language on whose basis the subject defines her- or himself is marred not so much by a lack as by a surplus of meaning. The implicit argumentative structure of Plath's essay reveals this problem. In a first step, Plath empties the baboon-sign of all inherent meaning, asking: "what would it be?" She then fills this emptied object with her own projections: "What did I want it to be?" (emphasis added). This question substantiates the notion that meaning here, for her, is mere interpretation and in turn corroborates the idea that subjects become makers of words and meaning, masters over their reality with the entry into the Symbolic. That the baboon remains "remote" and "oddly foreign," however, and is eventually mislaid together with other childhood baggage, undermines this attitude. In this properly Lacanian turn, language cannot be relied upon.

From the treasure-trove that is the sea emerges the gift of language. But just as the liberating sea harbors uncontrollable dangers, language is both em- and overpowering. Just as the sea is inhabited by dangerous mythical creatures, such as the sirens in "Lorelei" (1958) and the Medusa in the poem with the same title (1962), language entails its own monstrosities. Its dangers overshadow the creative process and, implicitly, Plath's self-perception as a writer: her idealization of a presumably transparent prose indicates her awareness of and dependence on the inherent dangers of language. Her tragedy is aptly captured by Lecercle: "One cannot escape one's mother tongue, the tongue of one's memories and desires, a tongue that possesses the subject to such an extent that it is always in excess of any attempt to force it within the boundaries of rules" (22). Language speaks. What it speaks, however, is a historical reality in human existence that Marx saw as a bricolage of pre-existing props and set-pieces haunt ed by the dead of history: "Human beings make their own history, yet they do not make it of their own free will, but under directly encountered, given circumstances, which have been handed down to them. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living." (16) By analogy, language is (re-)construed and perverted by all that had been said before. The problem for Plath is not only that her ideal transparent language does not exist, but that she herself is trapped in a dialectical process of language that, paradoxically, causes her to reproduce the things she fears.

All language is potentially ambiguous. The poet's struggle with her poetry is in fact a struggle with language, a fate she shares with her readers. Her very desire to communicate, her wish to make sense to her readers, drove Plath to use aesthetic strategies that ultimately subjected her writing to ambiguities rooted in the very system of language and hence ones she cannot ever escape. Because biographical readings, while leading to ideologically desired finite interpretations, fail to acknowledge that ambiguity itself maybe a basis of creativity--Sylvia Plath's and our own, they reject a major component in the process both of writing and, indeed, of interpreting.


(1.) For an invaluable critical overview of this strand of criticism, see Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath 11-28.

(2.) See especially Cynthia Sugars, who argues that biographical readings of Plath's work are forms of critical empowerment: "[Plath] seems to invite closure, to welcome determination. The critical biographizing and the insistence on reading the life into the work become the critical repetition of the suicide, providing an illusion of control and finality which in turn allows readers to satisfy an urge for autonomy and self-presence" (3).

(3.) These are large, publicly available corpora covering authentic spoken and written language use from a wide variety of situations and genres, including mainly British, but also American and other varieties of English.

(4.) Available at CobuildDirect is accessible freely on the Internet; the interface gives only restricted access to a random choice of all concordance lines (i.e., co-texts) found for the word or phrase searched for, while it gives the full statistical details on the significance of the word's occurrence in the database as well as on its relative significance of co-occurring with other words.

(5.) Examples of authentic language use from linguistic corpora are presented in diamond brackets.

(6.) MI and T-value statistics measure the frequency of joint occurrence of the investigated word with all other words in the corpus. While T-values basically give a frequency ranking with adjustments for the relatively irrelevant cases of highly frequent words co-occurring (such as grammatical words), MI additionally takes into account not only the joint occurrence of word and collocate, but also their independent frequency of occurrence in the data, relative to corpus size. Both methods are a measure of the strength of attraction between words co-occurring, not by chance, but in a statistically significant way.

(7.) A demo-version is freely accessible at Again, the number of concordance lines that can be inspected is restricted.

(8.) Available at

(9.) A literary example can be found in Hamlet; for a nonliterary example, see the painting entitled "Extreme Unction" (Oil on anvas, 1646-48) by Nicholas Poussin, the first in a series of paintings of the seven sacraments.

(10.) See Ann Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, esp. 114-32, on Plath's traumatic teaching stint at Smith College. Plath's journal entry for 1 October 1957 exemplifies her terror of teaching: "Last night I felt the sensation I have been reading about to no avail in James: the sick, soul-annihilating flux of fear in my blood switching its current to defiant fight. I could not sleep, although tired, and lay feeling-my nerves shaved to pain and the groaning inner voice: oh, you can't teach, can't do anything" (Journals 618).

(11.) On the transformation of the everyday in politically motivated physical torture, see Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.

(12.) Other examples from Plath's work also challenge such notions. Another poem from 1962, "Daddy," has the line: "every woman adores a Fascist." This provocative statement becomes even more problematic as the identity of the violent agent remains unclear in the subsequent lines: "Every woman adores a Fascist,/The boot in the face, the brute/Brute heart of a face like you." Rose asks: "Who is putting the boot in the face? The fascist certainly (woman as the recipient of a sexual violence she desires). But, since the agency of these lines is not specified, don't they also allow that it might be the woman herself (identification with the fascist being what every woman desires)?" (233). It is therefore impossible to apportion blame and guilt according to gender distinctions. Instead of answering the question who is the victim, who the oppressor in the poem, all we can identify, says Rose, "is a set of reversals which have meaning only in relation to each other."

(13.) As a policy, CCED does not include words below a marginal frequency of occurrence in their 200 million-word Bank of English.

(14.) A similar connection occurs in her poem "Zoo Keeper's Wife," where Plath imagines a "sacred baboon in his wig." The poet thereby makes the baboon the carrier of arcane meaning and undermines this notion by describing him as an actor.

(15.) Although Plath quotes from the poem, the line she cites is "At my back I hear, time's winged chariot hovering near" (Journals 33).

(16.) "Der 18te Brumaire des Louis Napoleeon." We thank Michael Stubbs for pointing us to this quotation and providing a translation of the passage, as well as for his comments on previous drafts of this paper.

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Andrea Gerbig ( is assistant professor in the department of English linguistics at the University of Trier, Germany. She is the author of Lexical and Grammatical Variation in a Corpus: A Computer-Assisted Study of Discourse on the Environment (1997). She is currently completing her post-doctoral dissertation on a corpus-based contrastive German-English study of cultural keywords. She has published in the area of corpus linguistics and language use in environmental topics. She is a reviewer for Annotated Bibliography for English Studies (Swets & Zeitlinger), reviewing publications in the field of modern corpus linguistics. She has worked in research projects on language planning in Namibia and on the bilingualism of German immigrants in Australia.

Anja Muller-Wood is assistant professor in the department of English literature at the University of Trier. She is the author of Angela Carter: Identity Constructed/DeconstruCted (1997) and has published a number of articles on contemporary Australian, British, and Canadian writers as well as on early modern drama. Having recently completed a post-doctoral dissertation on the discourse of violence in Jacobean drama, she is now planning a collaborative study on attitudes to Germany in post-war Britain.

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