Mind Over Myth?: The Divided Self in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath

Maria Theresa Ib, Center for English, University of Southern Denmark Kolding.
Copyright: Maria Theresa Ib, 2001, Contact: mti@deathstar.dk.
Used by permission.


Taking its point of departure in the academic research she conducted for her undergraduate thesis, The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky’s Novels, the following paper will explore the theme of the divided self in the poetry of Sylvia Plath. It will discuss the argument put forth by Judith Kroll in her study, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath, that Plath’s use of this theme is based not on mental illness or psychoanalysis, but rather on folk-tale, literature and myth (Kroll, 1976:266-7). In other words, that the image of the divided self which Plath employs in her poetry may be seen as “the mythical archetype known as the Doppelgänger [or Double]” (Levin, 1980:143).

In The Magic Mirror, Plath hypothesises that the literary phenomenon of the Double is related both to “contradictions in man’s character” and to “the complex question of identity” (1989:2). How Plath, as a poet, approached this dichotomy and “the impact [the thesis] had on Plath’s own developing tropology” (Axelrod, 1990:203) will thus be the focus of the following analysis.

Since the aim of this paper is to explore the inspirational source and the poetic methodology of Plath’s poetry based on her academic research, biographical material will be referred to only insofar as it is relevant to the hypothesis outlined above, i.e. when it serves to clarify poetic imagery or to support an argument. Excerpts from other works by literary critics and by Plath herself will, however, be taken into account for reasons of perspective and in order to shed further light on the theme of the divided self.


Since the death of Sylvia Plath in 1963, analytical approaches to her work have been as divided as the imagery of her work itself. Due to the fact that Plath committed suicide and frequently used imagery of a psychological nature in her work, a great number of critics have taken a biographical and/or psychoanalytical approach to her poetry. They have used Plath’s personal history as a primary guideline to clarify her poetic imagery. Although these approaches were predominant among the first Plath critics, and remained popular with many later critics, they are, as we shall see, precarious ones to adhere to.

In 1968, David Holbrook published his essay on Plath’s work, “R. D. Laing and the Death Circuit”, which was based on R. D. Laing’s study, The Divided Self. The latter explores the psychological disorder known as the split personality, or schizophrenia. The reason for Holbrook’s partiality to this study and a subsequent biographical and psychoanalytical approach to Plath’s poetry is undoubtedly specific examples included in The Divided Self (e.g. Holbrook, 1976:152n). A few of these examples bear a striking resemblance to the personal history of Sylvia Plath that has been made accessible to the public (cf. e.g. Laing, 1990:160-177). Holbrook uses some of these examples to support his argument that Plath’s poetry may be read as a testimony of her own alleged mental disorder.

In the follow-up to this article, Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence, Holbrook goes so far as to call Plath’s poetry “psychotic”:

Holbrook goes on to suggest that “one [cannot] enjoy [a poem by Plath] without being troubled by doubt, as to where it might be taking the reader in admiring it” (270). In doing so, Holbrook is committing a serious fallacy by equating the poet Plath with the woman Plath, as well as the various more or less troubled narrator personae of her poems, although there are no substantial grounds for this assumption.

Recognising the inherent dangers involved in comparing or equating poetry to the personal history of the poet, however, Judith Kroll subsequently published her study, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Kroll’s study appeared in reaction to the numerous biographical and psychoanalytical analyses of Plath’s poetry, which had been published up until this date. Kroll argues that Plath’s personal and psychological history is not of primary importance when it comes to analysing her poetry, and that this approach, instead of clarifying the poetry, draws the reader’s attention away from it (1978:1). Instead, Kroll attempts to explore in depth Plath’s academic research for her undergraduate thesis, The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky’s Novels, to clarify much of Plath’s poetic imagery. Kroll points out that a profound knowledge of folk-tales, psychology, and myth, drawn from the works of Sir James Frazer, Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank, and studied for use in her thesis, enabled Plath to create a personal system of poetic symbols based on mythical archetypes “into which autobiographical or confessional details [were] shaped and absorbed” (1978:2).

Kroll’s study thus rejects that of Holbrook and other biographical and psychoanalytical critics, in that its main argument is to read Plath’s poetry not as testimony of personal mental disorder, but rather as a series of poems which create an archetypal Ariadne’s Thread, and thereby become “chapters in a mythology” (Hughes qtd. in Kroll, 1976:6), i.e. while the imagery of Plath’s poetry may, at a first glance, seem to stem from personal experience, it resonates much more deeply, namely in various ancient myths. Plath recognised a correspondence between her personal experience and these collective mythical archetypes. This gave her the opportunity to create a personalised system of symbols which she then incorporated in her own poetic mythology.

If Kroll’s theory is true, Plath probably found inspiration to personalise these myths, and to mythologise her personal experiences, after reading chapter two of Otto Rank’s Beyond Psychology, “The Double as Immortal Soul”. Rank claims that “in giving the main folk-belief a tragic [literary] form, the artist … enables the public to feel sufficiently removed from the irrational elements [of folk-belief] to dare vicariously to participate in them” (1958:83). In other words, the literary work assumes a double role. On the one hand, it appears to be rational and therefore acceptable. On the other hand, it is implicitly irrational and archetypal, and therefore, in Rank’s evaluation, it engages the reader. In a sense, Rank’s claim is similar to Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, in which certain symbols are taken to be universal archetypes which invoke the same emotional effect in all of mankind, irrespective of age, nationality or social status. One of these archetypes is the shadow, Double or “alter-ego”, which constitutes the dark or hidden part of human nature.[1]

In an interview with Peter Orr, Plath herself stated that her poems arose from personal emotional experiences, but that she was a firm believer in the necessity of “[manipulating] these experiences” in order to make them “relevant to the larger things” (1966:169-70). Since so many critics have felt inclined to bring her personal history into their analyses as the most important factor, one might argue that Plath did not fully succeed in this endeavour. Nevertheless, as we shall see, Plath certainly did manipulate her experiences inspired by the works of Frazer and Rank, thereby lending a broader perspective to her creative output.

In her thesis, The Magic Mirror, Plath similarly distances herself from a psychoanalytical approach to the theme of the Double, although she is aware that “it is helpful to have a certain amount of background in the psychological sources and symptoms of schizophrenia” in relation to the theme (1989:4). She continues with the claim that,

Since Plath’s literary universe is made up of extremely similar and perhaps even derivative polarities, it would make sense to apply her academic approach to the analysis of her creative work. This I shall proceed to do in the following pages.


Plath’s knowledge of psychology derives, largely, from research conducted while writing her undergraduate thesis, The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky’s Novels. For this thesis, Plath studied essays by Freud and Rank on the literary phenomenon of the Double (Plath, 1989:53-55).

Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” discusses the phenomenon of the Double as “a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self” (1985:356). The phenomenon was explored in depth by Otto Rank, who claimed that the Double was synonymous with the immortal soul of primitive cultures and ancient religions, as well as what he called “an energetic denial of the power of death” (Rank qtd. in Freud:356). The Double was a spontaneous creation designed to preserve the life of its host.

As we saw on p. 4 of this paper, in “The Double as Immortal Self”, Rank explores the artist in relation to the phenomenon of the Double, how the artist must make his or her work both personal and archetypal, in order for the work fully to engage the reader. Rank goes on to expand his theory. In his evaluation, it is the unconscious desire of man to become immortal, and this desire the artist uses when creating his or her persona. In a sense, the persona then becomes the artist’s Double, thereby immortalising him or her.

But Rank warns against “[clinging] to the easy belief in an immortal Double by indulging in mere self-admiration” (1958:98). Rather, the artist should “work for [this] immortality by creating lasting achievements” (99). Rank’s hypothesis is extremely similar to a statement by Plath in her interview with Peter Orr, “personal experience [in poetry] … shouldn’t be a kind of shut-box and mirror-looking experience. I believe it should be relevant, and relevant to the larger things” (1966:169-170). In other words, Plath’s intentions comply with Rank’s suggestion that personal experience is not sufficient material for the poet; the personal and the universal (or archetypal) must necessarily be combined to create evocative poetry. It may be argued, then, that Plath’s “lasting achievement” was her ability to combine the personal and the mythical in her poetry, thereby endowing this with a timeless and “relevant” literary effect.

As for Rank’s suggestion that man, and in particular the artist, desires to become immortal, it is, to a great extent, speculation, but in Plath’s case, it is also a natural inference. A quote from Plath’s short essay, “Context”, supports Rank’s hypothesis in its obvious reference to the desired immortality of poetry: “I am not worried that poems reach relatively few people. As it is, they go surprisingly far…; if they are very lucky, farther than a lifetime” (1979:93). Plath’s poetry has unquestionably achieved this kind of immortality, to such a degree in fact that critics continue to be fascinated both by the effect of the poetry on the reader and by the origin of this effect. I shall now return to a detailed analysis of this origin.

The fact that the Double phenomenon preoccupied Sylvia Plath not only in her academic work but also in her creative work is evident when we look at the imagery and the metaphors she employed in her poetry. Already in her early work, there are obvious examples of a marked preoccupation with the Double as literary phenomenon. In Plath’s poem, “Two Sisters of Persephone” (Plath, 1981:31) [2], for example, the first two lines set up the dichotomy between a self and its replica:


  Two girls there are: within the house
  One sits; the other, without.
  Daylong a duet of shade and light
  Plays between these.


The type of image which occurs here can be found in several of Plath’s early poems, but, perhaps most notably, it recurs in the poem Plath’s husband and posthumous editor, Ted Hughes, regarded as the turning point of her poetic career, the poem in which Plath developed a distinctly personal voice (Newman, 1971:192), “Poem for a Birthday”. This poem is subdivided into seven poems of which the sixth, “Witch Burning”, contains the line: “I inhabit / The wax image of myself, a doll’s body” (135). The poetic imagery here is quite clear: the body is a lifeless shell which the soul “inhabits” and gives life. It is likely that Plath drew this image from another important source, namely Sir James Frazer’s, The Golden Bough. In this study, Frazer describes the beliefs of primitive cultures to whom the soul was seen as a separate entity from the physical body, yet simultaneously living within it (1990:178). But I shall explore Frazer’s influence on Plath in depth later on in the paper.

In Chapters in a Mythology, Judith Kroll hypothesises that the persona of Plath’s poetry has a true and a false self (1978:10). The false self is the exterior self, the physical body, the hollow self from which the true self must break free or emerge. The true self is the immortal self. In “Witch Burning”, then, the body of the persona, the “wax image” or “doll’s body”, constitutes the false self. The “I” of the poem is in turn the true self, latent and waiting to emerge (Kroll, 1978:11).

It is this struggle between the true and false self, between the Double and its origin, which becomes the prevalent theme in many of Plath’s subsequent poems, i.e. the struggle of the true self to shed its shell. This struggle is evident in the poem “In Plaster”:


  I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:
  The new absolutely white person and the old yellow one,
  And the white person is certainly the
  superior one. (158)


Note the desperation of the persona in these lines. As the poem progresses, the tone of the persona changes from despondent, to hopeful, to confident in the final line: “One day I shall manage without her”. The true self is ready to break free of its confinement and believes in its ability to stand on its own, i.e. without the superficial support of the false self.

The “white person” or plaster of the poem is the false self which prevents the true self from emerging. But while the true self most likely can exist on its own, the false self cannot exist without the presence of its counterpart, and in this way, the true self may literally be seen as a host for the false self:


  Without me, she wouldn’t exist, so of course she was grateful.
  I gave her a soul, I bloomed out of her as a rose (159) 


The image of the soul as a rose echoes that of the poem, “The Stones”, in which the soul as a rose is “housed” by a “reconstructed” self (137). At the beginning of “In Plaster”, the true self is weak and powerless, but gradually it “blooms” with confidence until it is convinced of its own strength and ability to conquer the obstacle of the false self which encapsulates it:


  I’m collecting my strength, one day I shall manage without her,
  And she’ll perish with emptiness then, and begin to miss me. (160)


The encapsulation of the true self (or immortal soul) can also be found in Plath’s use of glass imagery. In the poem “The Other”, glass acts as a barrier between the persona’s selves:


  Cold glass, how you insert yourself
  Between myself and myself. (202)


Here, the persona is frustrated by the division of the self. This suggests a desire to reconcile the two fragments, as opposed to the true self’s desire for independence in the poem, “In Plaster”. In the poem, “Mirror”, glass both hides and reflects the persona’s true self:


  Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
  Searching my reaches for what she really is. (174)


The persona is both fascinated and abhorred by the image of the true self, which in final line is described as a “terrible fish”. Thus, there is certain ambivalence between the desire to shed the false self or to hide behind it, so to speak.

Plath’s preoccupation with the mirror as a metaphor in the struggle between the true and false self emerges also in her academic work. In her thesis, The Magic Mirror, which incorporates the image in its title, Plath also discusses the conflict between the true and false self, but she uses the terms “real” and “counterfeit” (1989:10). She describes the conflict between the selves as an “inner duality [which] becomes a duel to the death” (10). This conflict is, in Plath’s critical evaluation, a fundamental search for identity in which the two selves must necessarily coexist in a balanced form in order for their host to survive; it is a “reconciliation of [man’s] various mirror images [which] involves a constant courageous acceptance of the eternal paradoxes within the universe and within ourselves” (52).

In this quote, Plath emphasises the ambivalence outlined above, in relation to the struggle of the selves, namely that a reconciliation of the true and the false self involves courage. It is not easy nor necessarily pleasant to be confronted by one’s true self or mirror image. In the poem, “Mirror”, Plath also points out that the mirror is the most revealing of factors, since it is “truthful” and “unmisted by love or dislike” (173); a mirror does not lie as the mind is prone to do. This deception of the mind may indeed be what divides the self in the first place. Not liking the self it sees, the mind projects a Double or false self as a dummy, which serves to protect the true self from scrutiny.

In her creative work, however, Plath seems eventually to have rejected a reconciliation of the fragments of the divided self (Kroll, 1978:170). The desirable outcome is now not so much a balance between the selves as it is a complete shedding of the inferior false self, because “a life lived by the false self, is not life but an intolerable death-in-life which can be overcome only by dying to that life” (Kroll, 1978:12). Thus for the persona, the aim is to become all soul, all true self. This aim is conceivably even more courageous than a reconciliation of the true and the false self, since it entails that the true self has nothing to support it or to hide behind.

Plath’s last poems depict the shedding of the false self via their images, e.g. the “sheeted mirrors” featured in the poem, “Contusion” (271). The doubling of the self ceases and the false self disintegrates and is shed like an “old whore petticoat” as in “Fever 103°” (232), or in onion-like layers of “old bandages, boredoms, old faces” as in “Getting There” (249). When the false self is shed entirely, Plath uses the metaphor of the new-born baby. The persona’s self is reborn and assumes its true manifestation: “Pure as a baby” (1981:249).


In 1953, Plath’s mother gave her Sir James Frazer’s anthropological study, The Golden Bough. This study had previously inspired modernist poets such as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. It also became a major source of inspiration for Sylvia Plath in both her creative and her academic work. In a letter to her mother, Plath writes, “Your book gift, The Golden Bough, comes in handy, as it has an excellent chapter on ‘the soul as shadow and reflection’” (Plath, 1978:145).font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size: 12.0pt;

Although modern anthropologists tend to reject Frazer’s study, as Steven Gould Axelrod argues, “that rejection need not concern us, as it would not have concerned Plath”; she was “more interested in the book as a rich work of the imagination than as science” (1990:204). The chapter of Frazer’s study which Plath refers to in the letter to her mother is “The Perils of the Soul” (Frazer, 1990:178-194); it contains numerous images concerned with the soul and the phenomenon of the Double, which recur both in Plath’s thesis and her poetry.

In The Golden Bough, Frazer relates various folk-tales and primitive beliefs in which the soul is considered a Double, “the man inside the man” (1990:178). He writes, for instance, that the Hurons believed “[the soul] was a complete little model of the man himself” (178), and the Baganda believed “that every person is born with a double” (40). To all of the primitive beliefs which Frazer describes, it was important to protect this soul or Double in order to preserve life. Protection of the soul simply meant keeping it inside the physical body. As Frazer states, “[t]he soul is commonly supposed to escape by the natural openings of the body, especially the mouth and nostrils” (180). Kroll points out (1978:80) that this image appears in Plath’s poem “Last Words”, in which the soul is seen as untrustworthy: “It escapes like steam / In dreams, through mouth-hole or eye-hole” (172).

According to Frazer, hooks were particularly common instruments used by various groups of primitive peoples to hinder the soul’s escape from its physical confinement (1990:180). The image of the hook likewise appears in a number of Plath’s poems. Certain critics have suggested that, to Plath, the image of the hook has negative connotations, that it represents something undesired which ties the persona to life (e.g. Annas, 1988:83). This interpretation is not impossible to support, if we agree with Kroll’s theory that Plath increasingly used the idea of the shedding of the false self or physical body as the most desirable outcome in the individual’s struggle for identity.

It would be logical to presume that the preservation of life is a positive action. But for the persona longing to die and shed his or her exterior in order to be reborn, the physical world is an obstacle to be overcome, rather than an attribute which one needs to preserve (Kroll, 1978:167). For it is only after the false self is cast off that the true self can emerge, and only in rebirth can the latter self exist in its ideal form. Thus, the hook may, indeed, be interpreted as an obstacle, hindering the emergence of the true self.

One of the poems in which Plath employs the image of the hook is also one of her most poignantly rebirth-oriented poems, “Ariel”:


	Berries cast dark

	Black sweet blood mouthfuls,
	Shadows (239)


The tone of these lines is ominous and threatening. It seems as if the persona is being hooked to life while simultaneously being driven forward into a suicidal death and rebirth in “the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning” (240). The image recurs in the poem “Elm”:


	I am inhabited by a cry.
	Nightly it flaps out
	Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.
	I am terrified by this dark thing
	That sleeps in me; (193)


From this image, it is possible to draw the conclusion that the “cry” is the soul, or true self, seeking its physical manifestation, without which it cannot exist.

This image contradicts the interpretation of “In Plaster” on p. 8, in which the true self was confident that it could exist on its own. However, as we saw, it is only in the act of rebirth that the true self obtains its actual manifestation. Thus, we may conclude that in order to become all true self, the false self must necessarily die along with its counterpart in order for the latter to be reborn and subsequently to re-emerge in its true form. Moreover, we shall see that Plath explored different possibilities in trying to resolve the conflict between the selves. In her final poems, she even distanced herself from the necessity of rebirth. As Kroll puts it, “the need [Plath] now felt seems not to have been rebirth or triumph in terms of the drama [between the selves], but to inquire whether it might be possible to detach herself from it” (1978:173).

According to Frazer’s interpretation of primitive beliefs, the soul or Double often took the form of it’s owner’s shadow (consider also the image “dark thing” in “Elm” above), which in turn precisely reflected the state of its host, and which was “so intimately bound up with the life of the man that its loss [entailed] debility or death” (1990:191). Or, as Rank puts it in relation to the Double as immortal self, “the killing of the alter-ego invariably leads to the death of the hero himself, that is, suicide” (1958:92). In the case of “Ariel”, suicidal death is exactly what the persona strives towards. As we established in the paragraph above, without death there is no opportunity for the rebirth that takes place at the same time as the persona’s collision with “the red / Eye, the cauldron of morning” (Kroll, 1978:180-185) from which the true self emerges.

Holbrook claims that no rebirth in fact occurs in the “red eye”. He takes the literal definition of the cauldron as truth, that it suggests something “hostile or malignant” (1976: 152n). In doing so, however, he misses the point, namely that according to the belief systems of various groups the cauldron bears positive connotations. Consider, for example, this line from Robert Graves’ study of poetic myth, The White Goddess: “… the cauldron of Caridwen was no mere witch’s cauldron. … it was the cauldron of rebirth and re-illumination” (1999:88). Elsewhere in the study Graves calls Caridwen the goddess of inspiration (68). The metaphor of the cauldron would therefore not, as Holbrook claims, constitute “a threat” in Plath’s poetic mythology.

The White Goddess was another major inspirational source for Plath after Hughes introduced it to her (Kroll, 1978:40). According to Graves, the effect poetry has on its reader is ultimately bound up with what he calls a “single poetic theme”, which revolves around life, death and resurrection (24). Graves writes: “Perfect faithfulness to the Theme affects the reader of a poem with a strange feeling between delight and horror” (17). If a poet manages to achieve this effect via his or her poetic imagery, Graves claims, he or she has successfully invoked the White Goddess, who is the embodiment of the Theme. The concept of the White Goddess intrigued both Plath and her husband Hughes and inspired them in their work to create poetry with mythical roots (Kroll, 1978:40).

Graves’ concept of the White Goddess consists of a complex web of images and myth, which is impossible to boil down to a satisfactory summary for this paper. Nevertheless, there are clear links between Graves’ study and Plath’s poetic imagery, as we have just seen in connection with the poem, “Ariel”. This further supports the argument put forth in the introduction that Plath’s imagery was of mythical, as opposed to psychoanalytical and personal, origin, and not solely, as Holbrook claims, testimony of a disordered mind.

In The Golden Bough, Frazer mentions a similar death to that of the persona in “Ariel”:

Although Frazer does not literally mention rebirth, it is implied in the description of the souls passing in and out of the underworld. In using the image of the rising sun, as opposed to the setting sun described in the quotation above, Plath effectively creates an image which “plunges” her persona into simultaneous death and rebirth.

Frazer’s chapter, “The Perils of the Soul”, is concerned with the soul as reflection. As we have previously seen, toward the end of her poetic career, Plath’s poems show an increasing reluctance towards a reconciliation of the fragments of the divided self and opt instead for a complete shedding of the false and physical self (cf. p. 10). Here it was also noted that Plath was preoccupied with the image of the mirror in relation to the struggle between the selves. The “sheeted mirrors” mentioned in this connection lead directly back to The Golden Bough:

If indeed the ideal for the true self was to shed its false shell in Plath’s mythology, this may conceivably be what occurs as the mirrors are sheeted in the imagery of the poem “Contusion” (271). In contrast to the imagery of “Ariel”, in which the soul and true self tries first to hang on to life with the aid of hooks and which then is hurled into simultaneous death and rebirth, the imagery of “Contusion” indicates no such hope. “The heart shuts” and the soul abandons its physical manifestation entirely; it can therefore no longer exist, unless it is reborn, but there is no suggestion in the poem that it will be (Kroll, 1978:172).

This more dark and hopeless vision of the emergence of the true self is prevalent in Plath’s final poems. It is tempting to agree with Holbrook and draw a parallel to the knowledge we have of Plath’s history, namely her suicide. But by focusing solely on the poetry, it is possible to conclude that Plath was merely exploring other ways to resolve the struggle between the fragments of the divided self, as she indeed had done before, i.e. by moving from reconciliation to division and rebirth of the self. Whichever way we choose to look at it, the fact that Plath obtained her imagery from Frazer’s Golden Bough remains obvious.

Another example which supports this theory can be found in Plath’s poem, “The Rabbit Catcher” (193-94). In her psychoanalytical study The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, Jacqueline Rose picks up where previous critics left off, by analysing the poem as Plath’s autobiographical description of life with Ted Hughes. Rose’s main argument is based on the assumption that the poem describes a rapist, that the imagery of the poem has obvious sexual connotations and that the rapist in question is likely to have been Hughes (1991:135-143). This is, however, precarious speculation on the part of Rose. Her hypothesis is by no means objective, nor is it relevant. A far more likely interpretation of the poem is that Plath once more was inspired by a passage from The Golden Bough, which describes how sorcerers from primitive cultures function as so-called “soul-catchers” (Frazer, 1990:187). According to Frazer, these men make it their profession to set traps for souls and upon capture to store them in asylums. They cannot be blamed for their actions. But, as Frazer continues,

The rabbit catcher may thus be seen not as a rapist in the form of Ted Hughes, but rather as Plath’s poetic version of a soul-catcher who catches the soul of the persona, thereby “killing [him/her] also” (Plath, 1981:194).

A noteworthy link to Graves may also be observed. According to Graves, the hare is a sacred creature; it represents the transformed soul of a young person trying to escape a man, but who, after a “relentless” chase, is caught and mauled (1999:405). This further emphasises the fact that the metaphor of the rabbit catcher ought not to be interpreted as Plath’s personal experience; as we have seen previously, there are no grounds for such assumptions.

Plath employs a similar metaphor to that of “The Rabbit Catcher” in “The Jailer” (226-27). In this poem, the persona similarly dies by a captor’s hand: “I die with variety— / Hung, starved, burned, hooked”. The final line, “… what would he / Do, do, do without me?” finds the persona expressing what scant pride he or she has left. If we regard the “jailer” as another Frazerian soul-catcher, this final question, posed by the persona, confirms his or her importance, i.e. without the persona, the jailer would have no profession, a soul-catcher can obviously only be a soul-catcher if there are souls to catch, and if he succeeds in catching them.

From the examples above, it is evident that Plath was extremely familiar with the anthropological studies of both Frazer and Graves. It is therefore natural to draw the conclusion that it was from these sources she sought, found and adapted material for her poetic imagery, just as Judith Kroll suggests in Chapters in a Mythology.


In an attempt to explore the theme of the divided self in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, I have looked at the academic research Plath conducted while writing her thesis, The Magic Mirror, as well as at the critical analyses of David Holbrook and Judith Kroll, two critics who are extremely divided in their opinions regarding the analysis of Plath’s poetry. In order to sum up, I shall begin by looking at Holbrook’s biographical and psychoanalytical approach.

Biographical criticism is a complex genre in the field of literature because it necessitates drawing conclusions about the author’s life, however fallible these conclusions may be. The danger lies in equating the author’s life with his or her literary accomplishments. The danger of psychoanalytical criticism is similar in that it often involves an analysis of the author’s mind as opposed to the author’s work. These dangers arise because whoever undertakes the task of this type of criticism automatically assumes that the source of information which he or she uses to support an argument is transparent, i.e. that it provides immediate access to the mind of the author, whether the source be a poem or a historical record. Therefore, neither the biographical nor the psychoanalytical approach is remotely satisfactory.

Realising this fact, Holbrook attempts to justify his approach by admitting that he is “extrapolating from the poems to the person, and [that] there may be, or may not be, confirmation or illumination from biographical facts” (1976:1). As readers of Plath’s poetry, this confession is of very little use to us. If Holbrook’s were the ideal way to proceed in analysing poetry, no interpretation whatsoever would be questionable. This idea is, of course, ludicrous. Moreover, by juxtaposing Holbrook’s approach and hypothesis with that of Kroll, who assumes that Plath was inspired by Frazer’s study, the conclusion would be that, in view of the fact that primitive peoples are superstitious, they are in fact borderline schizophrenics, just as Holbrook assumes Plath to have been. This idea is, likewise, impossible to support.

There are, of course, always several versions of the truth, and only so much evidence can be effectively researched. Each critic’s version of the truth tends to appear as the truth until another critic presents an alternative interpretation. It follows that there will be widely differing interpretations of what took place in a person’s life. As for the mind, it is an impossible area to analyse satisfactorily, even if the person in question were available for consultation or observation. This leads us to the question of what is in fact a satisfactory approach to the poetry of Sylvia Plath.

The question we, as readers or critics, must ask ourselves in this situation is whether or not we would in fact reach the same conclusions as a biographical or psychoanalytical critic, such as Holbrook, if we knew nothing whatsoever about Plath’s personal history. It is unlikely that we would, since the poetry itself offers no concrete answers which beyond any doubt indicate that Plath was, indeed, “psychotic” or otherwise mentally disturbed. Plath’s poetry may well be seen as a testimony of personal anguish, if we compare it only to what limited and subjective knowledge we have of her life. A far more satisfactory approach to Plath’s poetry, however, is to read it as the result of a writer’s informed artistic restructuring of mind and myth as a complete and inextricable entity.

The apparent despair of her last poems has often been connected to the suicide of Sylvia Plath. It is, of course, difficult to distance ourselves from this kind of interpretation, when we are familiar with certain details surrounding Plath’s personal history. We should, however, once more remind ourselves, as readers and critics of Plath’s poetry, that a lacking knowledge of Plath’s personal history would not necessarily lead us to these conclusions. Thus, if instead we regard Plath’s final imagery as a step further in her exploration of the theme of the divided self and the struggle between the two towards either division or reconciliation, we may conclude that, as a poet, Plath was constantly experimenting with possibilities to resolve the conflict.

At times, Plath’s poetic imagery leans towards reconciliation and what she herself called a “courageous acceptance of the eternal paradoxes … within ourselves” (1989:52). At other times, the imagery focuses on a division of the selves sometimes with the hope of rebirth and sometimes with the despair of finality. Whichever way we choose to look at it, it is evident that the various sources from which Plath drew her inspiration each provided her with her a different solution in relation to the struggle of the self with the self. The solution we see in her final poems is, perhaps, a melancholy and dark one, and this may or may not be a result of her personal state of mind, as Holbrook suggests. If Plath had not committed suicide, we might have witnessed her discovery of an entirely different solution to the struggle. For obvious reasons, however, we cannot know this. Therefore our task as readers and/or critics must be to look at the work itself and to see what it conveys about itself as art and not about its author. In his chapter, “There Are Two of Me Now”, Steven Gould Axelrod comes to the following conclusion:

Although he at times still has tendency of “extrapolating from the poems to the person” (Holbrook, 1976:1), Axelrod makes a valid point.

When we look at Kroll’s approach and take Plath’s academic research into account, we immediately discover striking links and similarities between Plath’s poetry and her research material. From the examples outlined in this paper, it is evident that Plath’s academic research had a profound impact on her own personal interest in folk-tale and myth and that this subsequently permeated her artistic work. To such a degree, in fact, that an Ariadne’s Thread of images related to the theme of the divided self is clearly detectable throughout Plath’s poetry. To use one of Plath’s own metaphors, one image “hooks” itself to the next, thereby creating Plath’s poetic mythology, which is personal and archetypal at one and the same time. Plath’s is a unique mythology which is based on personal experience, yet whose images consciously branch out and resonate far deeper in man’s collective unconscious than they appear to do on the surface.

On reading the works of Frazer, Graves and Rank, and comparing the imagery present in these studies to the imagery in Plath’s poetry, there should be little or no doubt as to the validity of Kroll’s claim, namely that a vital source of Plath’s inspiration was located in myth, and not solely in her own mind. Plath may well have been a troubled individual, but as a poet, she was extremely conscious of her poetic methodology; she recognised certain aspects of myth which corresponded to her personal experiences. In other words, Plath personalised the mythical and mythologised the personal. Perhaps the reason why the images of Plath’s poetry continue to fascinate readers is because, as Rank says, they are fundamental to mankind.



Annas, Pamela J. 1989. A Disturbance in Mirrors: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.

Axelrod, Steven Gould. 1990. “There Are Two of Me Now”. In Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words . Baltimore: The John Hopkins UP, pp.178-236.

Frazer, Sir James. 1993. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Hartfordshire: Wordsworth Edition.

Freud, Sigmund. 1985. “The Uncanny”. The Pelican Freud Library. Trans. and Ed. James Strachey et al., vol. 14. pp. 339-376. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Graves, Robert. 1999. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Holbrook, David. 1968. “R. D. Laing and the Death Circuit”. Encounter, 31.2, pp.35-45.

---. 1976. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. London: The Athlone Press, University of London.

Jacobi, Jolande. 1976. C. G. Jung’s Psykologi Copenhagen: Gyldendal.

Kroll, Judith. 1978. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper Colophon Edition.

Laing, R. D. 1990. The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Levin, Harry. 1980. The Power of Blackness. Athens, OH: Ohio UP.

Orr, Peter, ed. 1966. The Poet Speaks. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Plath, Sylvia. 1981. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber.

---. 1979. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. London: Faber & Faber.

---. 1989. The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Doestoevsky’s Novels. Rhiwargor, Powys: Embers Handpress.

Rank, Otto. 1958. “The Double as Immortal Self”. In Beyond Psychology. New York: Dover Publications.

Rose, Jacqueline. 1991. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. London: Virago Press.

Cf. Jolande Jacobi, 1976, C. G. Jungs Psykologi, (Copenhagen: Gyldendal). mso-ansi-language:EN-GB'>In particular pp. 130-135, on the shadow as archetype.

All poems referred to throughout this paper will be taken from: Sylvia Plath, 1981, Collected Poems, (London: Faber & Faber).