Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Problems of Ambiguity in Sylvia Plath

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.

Ordinary and Literary Language

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 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. 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.

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”. 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 and 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”. 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”. 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 Francis, 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.

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”. 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 haunted 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.” 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.

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