To what extent do you agree that the poems in Ariel present a drive towards self-destruction? You should make detailed reference to at least two poems in your answer.
While the theme of self-destruction may conventionally appear damaging or deleterious, Plath portrays the motif of self-annihilation in a different light through the persona’s acceptance or embrace of pain and suffering. In addition, the drive towards self-effacement and destruction is not only concurrent with the desire for a new identity, but can also be reversed in order to resurrect the sense of self. Thus, these poems explore the mind’s reaction to self-destruction, and its capability to gain control and achieve transcendence when the self is threatened by hostile environments.
A drive towards self-destruction is presented through the personas’ unconventional and disarming desire for physical mutilation and suffering. The persona’s vehement drive for self-demolition is epitomised in ‘Poppies in July’, where she demonstrates a masochistic preoccupation with intense suffering, as evident from her constant references to items of danger such as poison, blood and ‘flames’. Her series of rhetorical questions ‘Do you do no harm?’ and ‘Where are your opiates, your nauseous capsules?’ convey her tone of heightened distress and confusion, highlighting her longing for physical pain and violence. Her yearning is reinforced by her desperate exclamation ‘If I could bleed, or sleep!’, with the use of the exclamation mark emphasising her sense of entrapment and helplessness at being unharmed. Similarly, the persona’s drive towards self-annihilation is mirrored in ‘Cut’, albeit in a more calm and detached manner. The opening exclamation ‘What a thrill —’ reveals the persona’s unusual fascination and amusement after slicing her thumb, perturbing the readers as she appears to rejoice and relish in pain and suffering. The use of brief, end-stopped lines ‘Of skin, / A flap like a hat, / Dead white.’ underscore her unusually dispassionate tone in response to her maimed thumb. Therefore, Plath effectively subverts the readers’ expectations, portraying the persona’s atypical embrace and acceptance of physical pain, and by extension, destruction of the self.
The poems ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Ariel’ introduce a more sanguine and triumphant portrayal of self-destruction, presenting it as a precursor to the rebirth of a new sense of self. In ‘Lady Lazarus’, the line ‘my hands / My knees. I may be skin and bones’ incites a grotesque imagery of her physical body being dismembered into disparate fragments. By the end of her process of disfigurement, the only remnants of her are ‘Flesh, bone, there is nothing there —’, with the absolute term ‘nothing’ emphasising the extent of her complete self-mutilation. Although her sense of self had dissolved into ‘Ash, ash —’, the closing lines ‘I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.’ see her triumphant rebirth into a powerful femme fatale. She assumes the voice of defiant bravado, with the deliberate use of the verb ‘rise’ to convey a sense of self-determination, liberation and empowerment. Hence, the emergence of her new selfhood is predicated upon her initial drive towards self-effacement and destruction. Similarly, in ‘Ariel’, the description of ‘Thighs, hair; / Flakes from my heels,’ mirrors a fragmentation and dissolution of the persona’s body. Yet, she continues her intensifying, relentless drive towards self-renewal until she is completely immolated and destroyed when she becomes consubstantial with the burning sun. Her complete, triumphant self-possession is captured in the final lines of the poem ‘Into the red / Eye, the cauldron of the morning’, as she transforms into a non-corporeal, transcendent form of nature. The imagery of ‘red’ and ‘cauldron’ alludes to burning, suggesting the powerful and passionate nature of her incarnation. Plath does not depict the drive towards self-destruction as a tragic finality for both personae, but instead, as concurrent to the development, transformation and renewal of the self. Hence, the mind has the capacity to reassert a new identity and achieve transcendence, but only through an initial destruction of the self.
On the other hand, the poem ‘Tulips’ portray the drive towards self-destruction as reversible when the mind develops the capacity to reassert control over itself. The persona undertakes a psychological journey from the initial numbness and emptiness of self-destruction and death, to the slow, reluctant anticipation and acceptance of life. In her description ‘flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow’ at the beginning of the poem, she reduces her sense of self to a mere state of substanceless and inadequacy, conveying her tone of self-loathing and denigration. In addition, the phrase ‘My body is a pebble’ reinforces her retreat into a death-like state, with the imagery of ‘pebble’ suggesting a sense of motionless and absence. By relinquishing and renouncing her individuality and identity, the persona effectively destroys her sense of self. Yet, in the seemingly sadistic line ‘I have wanted to efface myself’, the striking use of present perfect tense in ‘have wanted’ hints at the denial or reversal of her desire for self-destruction. Her heart transforms into a ‘bowl of red’ opening and closing like the tulips, and the vivid imagery of her blooming heart interrupts the erasure of her body. The use of an intensifier in ‘sheer love’ reinforces her embrace and acknowledgement of her journey to recovery. Therefore, while ‘Tulips’ initially narrates the persona’s self-destroying journey, the eradication of herself is soon reversed. As such, the mind is just as capable of destructive passions as it is in creative processes; it can destroy, yet reassert and resurrect the self.
In conclusion, self-destruction serves as a predominant theme in the poems in Ariel. Through the gruesome imagery of dismembered body parts and the persona’s preoccupation with self-erasure, Plath effectively presents a drive towards destruction of the physical body, and by extension, the sense of self. However sadistic, self-destruction is not always synonymous with death, as Plath introduces the possibilities of rebirth and recovery amidst the persona’s pain and suffering.
Cherilyn Lee (18-I1)