Literary Love: Sylvia Plath

(FIRST. Are you our sort of a person?

Which is to say: are you flawed (but not too flawed)? Perfect (but not too perfect)? Compliant (but not too compliant)? Defiant (but not too defiant)? Intelligent (but not too intelligent)? Airheaded (but not too airheaded)? Which is to say: are you willing to dance exactly the right steps, unless we require you to make a mistake?

No, no?)

Literary Love, affectionately known as #litlove, is a feature wherein I and friends around the blogosphere extol the virtues of various bookish topics. This month we’re talking about Sylvia Plath! Don’t forget to check out the others’ posts on this topic: Alyssa on Ariel, Christina on Lady Lazarus & Witch Burning and AnQi on The Bell Jar.

Oh, Sylvia Plath.

Of all of the poets who have made me laugh and cry and wonder and shiver, I think Plath tops the list. She is a writer who pens words that seem to echo within the core of my being, dripping with emotion as raw as it is exquisite. There is something about Plath's work that tears out shreds of my heart and then, just as effortlessly, puts them back together again. Perhaps slightly crooked. (Tell us a little bit about yourself, won't you?)

The Applicant is, hands down, my favourite of Plath's poetry. Which is saying something, because I love all of her work fiercely.

But there is something aching and familiar about The Applicant, its scenes of an unnamed young woman tossed from interview to interview, from courtship to courtship, desperately trying to find a deeper sort of love in a world that wants nothing more than to objectify her as nothing more than a living doll. (In your opinion, what are your best qualities? ... Oh dear, please don't brag. We don't need an exhaustive list.) Perhaps Plath was tired of it too, this constant, ever-present fixation on shaping women into aesthetically pleasing robots. Perhaps I am. Perhaps all of us are.

Of course, you don't need me to tell you that we live in a world of striking misogyny. You know it, you've seen it, this dark, cloying stain, spreading across to the way we work and the way we love. (Tell us about your experience at your previous company. You do have work experience, don't you?) The standards to which men hold women, to which women hold themselves -- they are contradictory, paradoxical, impossibly and frustratingly high.

And Plath understands. Oh, how she understands.

The Applicant is a picture of a woman who grooms herself to become what she believes is needed by men, who makes sacrifices she does not fully understand for a prize so coveted -- and ultimately, so disappointing. (What is your greatest weakness? ... No, no, please answer honestly. This is very important for us to know.) It is a raw, striking portrait of the misogyny in marriage, one that is less an indifferent observation and more a cry for help.

But there is more to the story than despair. The last stanza displays a kind of hope -- one that is tenuous, but no less real, no less resolute. (What do you think qualifies you for this job?) It works, there is nothing wrong with it, Plath tells us. After all of the contortions and the distortions, after all of the not good enough, after all of the ways we have heard over and over that we must go further than we have ever been comfortable with:

it works, there is nothing wrong with it.

And this is what makes Plath not only a truly beautiful artist, but also a truly beautiful human being.

Maybe we don't need to rearrange our souls in order to find the right man, she seems to say. Maybe we are more than fragile artefacts to be kept behind glass, more than zoo animals in dresses and false eyelashes. Maybe we don't need to reach impossibly high or sink impossibly low, to squeeze ourselves too small or stretch ourselves too large.

Maybe who we are is good enough for now.

(And finally, why should we hire you? ... Last resort? I'm afraid I'm not quite sure what you mean.)

The Applicant is a poem of uncertainty and of oppression -- but I believe it is also more than that. In the final stanza, Plath delivers a soothing reminder: we do not exist to conform to the standards of what society demands, of what men demand. We are all that we need. Just as we are. Just as we have always been.

We are women.

And it is enough.

(Thank you for applying. We'll be in touch.)