Maternal Ambition and the Quiet Righteous Malice of Motherhood:
An Examination of Sylvia Plath’s “Medusa”

Don Tresca
Independent Scholar

Auteur
Résumé
Abstract

Don Tresca is an Independent Scholar with a Master of Arts degree in English from California State University, Sacramento.  His Master’s Thesis was on the subject of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and their alternate versions of Ariel.  He has written extensively on American popular culture and literature.  His most recent publications include essays on the works of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Joss Whedon.  He is also in the midst of editing a book of essays on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar for potential publication in 2014.

 

L’article porte sur l’image de Méduse dans le poème « Medusa » (1962) de Sylvia Plath. Je pose que les deux images de Méduse qui apparaissent dans le poème, soit la M/méduse et le monstre, et qui visent toutes deux la mère de Plath, Aurelia, ne suggèrent pas la haine vis-à-vis de la mère de la poétesse. Il s’agit de montrer, au contraire, que ce poème de Plath (comme celui portant sur son père, Otto, et intitulé « Daddy ») est la tentative de rompre le lien avec ses parents afin de se forger une nouvelle identité, à savoir celle du cycle poétique d’Ariel.

My essay addresses the image of the Medusa in Sylvia Plath’s 1962 poem “Medusa.” I postulate that the two images of the Medusa that appear in the poem (as a jellyfish and as the Monster), which are both directed at Plath’s mother Aurelia, do not suggest that the poem is one of hatred directed at her mother. Instead, I suggest that this poem (like its companion piece “Daddy” about her father Otto) is an attempt by Plath to break away from her parents in an attempt to form a new self, the persona of the Ariel cycle of poems.


Sylvia Plath loved her mother. Anyone who has ever read her Letters Home1 to her “Dearest, darling mother” knows and understands this. As much as Sylvia loved and respected her mother, she also felt a strong and keen desire to break free of her in order to establish her own (creative) identity. Nowhere is this desire more evident than in Plath’s October 1962 poem “Medusa.”2 Within the poem, Plath combines two separate sets of imagery, both of which are etymologically related to the Medusa figure—the natural (the Medusa jellyfish) and the mythological (the gorgon Medusa from Greek mythology). Plath uses the Medusa imagery within the poem to address a number of key aspects of her personality that she feels have been unduly influenced by her mother throughout her life—the physical, the spiritual, the emotional, and, most importantly for Plath as a poet, the artistic.

“Medusa” was written just a few months before Plath’s death during the height of her energetic period in late 1962, that is, when she was writing what she called “the best poems of [her] life”, poems she believed would “make [her] name.”3 Several days prior to composing Medusa, Plath wrote “Daddy,” a poem of exorcism in which she distanced herself from her dead father’s influence; in “Medusa,” she seeks to do the same with her mother, Aurelia. The jellyfish imagery in “Medusa” is easy to tie to Plath’s mother, Aurelia, as the genus name of the moon jellyfish is Aurelia aulita. As Carl Rollyson notes in his study of Plath’s life and art, this etymological connection was actually a private joke between mother and daughter4. From there, it was an easy transition for Plath to make from the medusa jellyfish to Medusa, the gorgon from Greek mythology who could transform men into stone with a gaze. Plath’s personal journals reveal that the poet always felt physically stymied by what she perceived as her mother’s constant gaze of attention. She felt her mother within her as a physical presence even when speaking with her own voice (“And you were frightened when you heard yourself stop talking and felt the echo of her voice, as if she had spoken in you, as if you weren’t quite you, but were growing and continuing in her wake, and as if her expressions were growing and emanating from your face”5). Within the poem, the Medusa is primarily described through intense physical imagery as a collection of body parts: mouth, eyes, ears, head, umbilicus, placenta. This whirligig of images highlights the failure of the daughter speaker in the poem to concentrate on the mother as an individual.6 Thus, it is easier for her to identify the mother as a monstrous figure, a destructive entity bent on smothering and drowning her, “paralyzing” and “squeezing the breath from” her until “[she] could draw no breath,” leaving her “Dead and moneyless, / Overexposed, like an X-ray.”7

An avid reader of Sigmund Freud (as evidenced by her comments on his work in her Journals),8 Plath seems to use his identification of the Medusa’s head as an image to represent the mother’s genitals,9 suggesting yet another physical connection (albeit slightly more symbolic) between the Medusa and the mother. Throughout the poem, the daughter reiterates her displeasure in continuing to be attached to her mother in such an intimate way: in Plath’s imaginary, the umbilicus (the physical method by which a child remains attached to the mother in utero) is an “Atlantic cable” that connects the daughter to her mother across the ocean that separates them. The cable “seems in a state of miraculous repair,” seemingly unable to be severed despite the daughter’s attempt to “escape”. No matter what the daughter does, the mother is “always there, / Tremulous breath at the end of [her] line.”10

The daughter even rejects basic physical necessities provided by the mother figure in an effort to free herself from her. She refuses to accept nourishment from the mother and actually seems to express disgust with any food she associates with her. As Julia Kristeva points out, “Food-loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection.”11 Kristeva further defines this phenomenon as “the struggle to separate from the maternal body.”12 In Plath’s poem, the mother’s body is identified with food the daughter is determined to reject, even if it is offered by a Virgin Mary figure (“Blubbery Mary”) or presented to her as a “Communion wafer.” Likewise, in an effort to escape the domineering mother, the daughter refuses to resort to metaphorical cannibalism (“I will take no bite of your body”) and refers to the mother as the “Bottle in which I live.” For contemporary readers of Plath’s work, this image conjures up the stifling environment of the “bell jar” in which Esther Greenwood, another of Plath’s heroines, finds herself trapped “blank and stopped as a dead baby.”13

By the poem’s end, all humanity has been stripped from the mother. Whereas before all of her physical characteristics (eyes, ears, head, sexual organs) could be associated with a human character, in the final lines, the mother is reduced to an inhuman creature, unable to communicate in any other way beyond a “hiss,” an incomprehensible animal sound14. She attacks the daughter with her eely tentacle, a maternal umbilicus/cable that becomes a murderous weapon, grasping the daughter and attempting to squeeze the life from her. The modifier “eely” suggests a connotation of evil associated with the mother’s clinginess, as if she knows she is doing serious injury to her daughter but will not stop inflicting the damage regardless of the consequences.15 And these consequences are dire indeed, for by rejecting the “eely tentacle” of the mother, the daughter appears to be paradoxically cutting herself off from the “Old barnacled umbilicus” that gave her life. This suggests that at the conclusion of the poem, the daughter has reached a decision about her life, an assertion that “[t]here is nothing between us” which can mean only one thing, that there would now be nothing at all;16 her death is all but inevitable.17

Although the physicality of the Medusa and its relationship to the daughter is evident, other scholars saw an even deeper level of connection between the two, a spiritual connection that Plath brought to the forefront of the poem through her use of specific Christian imagery in much the same manner that she used Jewish imagery to explore the relationship between the father and daughter in poems like “Daddy.” In many ways throughout her life, Plath viewed her mother as a Christ figure, a martyr who sacrificed her life and happiness for the benefit of her children. After Plath’s father, Otto, died in 1940, she made her mother sign a piece of paper “in shaky writing” on which “stood these words: I PROMISE NEVER TO MARRY AGAIN.”18 Years later, as Susan R. Van Dyne recounts in her study Revising Life. Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems, Plath developped a guilty conscience over her request19: “My mother had sacrificed her life for me. A sacrifice I didn’t want…. I made her promise she’d never marry. When [I was nine]. Too bad she didn’t break it…. She is worried about me and the man I married. How awful we are, to make her worry.”20 Plath’s guilt intensified in the summer of 1962 when, in her mother’s presence in England, she made the discovery of her husband Ted Hughes’ affair with Assia Wevill. Plath’s feeling of emotional violation of being exposed (or, rather, “overexposed”) in the presence of her mother soon exploded into a level of aggression against her mother the likes of which she had never experienced before.21

For Plath, the need to exorcise the essence of her mother within her life may ironically be due to the overabundance of love and care Aurelia lavished on her daughter. It may just be that Plath felt overwhelmed by the burden of gratitude and felt she needed to repay her mother for the sacrifices she made.22 A letter Plath wrote to her brother Warren in May 1953 suggests this is the case:

You know, as I do, and it is a frightening thing, that mother would actually kill herself for us if we calmly accepted all she wanted to do for us. She is an abnormally altruistic person, and I have realized lately that we have to fight against her selflessness as we would fight against a deadly disease…. After extracting her life blood and care for 20 years, we should start bringing in big dividends of joy for her.23

One of the many ways Plath attempted to compensate her mother for her martyrdom was to share her literary triumphs – awards, scholarships, publications – with her. Aurelia’s desire to stimulate her daughter’s artistic promise was quite clear in many of the early correspondence between the two of them. These letters also shed light on the fact that Plath specifically used her writing to win her mother’s approval24. As Barbara Mossberg underscores in her article “Sylvia Plath’s Baby Book,” this was a way for Plath to be “good,” to make her mother proud, to gain her mother’s love.25 Plath came to believe that her “[w]riting, then, was a substitute for [herself].” In one of her letters, Plath made the following bold declaration: “If you don’t love me, love my writing and love me for my writing.”26 She believed if she could not write or at least engage in some sort of literary endeavor, she would not be loved by her mother. However, she also feared that her mother’s self-sacrifice for her and her brother had been so profound and overwhelming that nothing Plath could ever do would settle the debt.27 Plath, in fact, began to believe that her frequent bouts with writer’s block were nothing more than rebellions against the indebtedness she felt toward her mother, an unconscious attempt to punish her mother and also herself for her ingratitude over everything her mother had given up for her. As is evidenced in her journals from early July 1958, Plath insinuates this very fact by referring to her unfinished novel as a “Medusa-head”, thereby revealing that to her, the punishing mother and the unwritten text are interchangeable metaphors.”28 After the summer of 1962, when Aurelia bore witness to the disintegration of Plath’s marriage to Hughes, Plath realized she could no longer sustain the image of the perfect and happy life she had built up over the years in an effort to ensure that Aurelia’s sacrifices had not been in vain. The hatred and resentment she felt toward her mother that her psychiatrist Dr. Ruth Beuscher had encouraged29 suddenly spilled out into Plath’s writing, first in the image of Esther Greenwood’s domineering and controlling mother in The Bell Jar and then into the poem “Medusa.”

The mother’s sacrifice is duly noted throughout the poem with numerous references made to Judeo-Christian symbolism that connect the mother to a Christ figure. The medusa in the poem is referred to as a “God-ball” with its “Lens of mercies.” It has a “Red stigmata at the very center” and the snake-like tentacles are described as “dragging…Jesus hair.” The mother’s body is described as both a “Communion wafer” (a symbolic reference to the body of Christ that is eaten during Catholic religious services) and as a “Ghastly Vatican.”30 Such images relating simultaneously to the two meanings of Medusa, the monstrous sea-creature and the mythic gorgon served to characterize her disgust at the heroic martyrdom the mother endured in the daughter’s younger years. However, the images also seem to serve a more noble purpose, that is, to suggest that just as the daughter had seen it necessary to revere the father’s life and influence on her legacy and work in the poem “The Colossus,” so too was this type of devotion demanded of the mother in this poem. The mother’s valiant sacrifice on behalf of her children is noted and documented with all of the proper Christian symbolism necessary to establish her martyrdom.31

For the daughter, the image of the mother as Medusa also allows her to achieve some emotional and psychological distance. As many scholars have discussed in numerous essays on the poem, many critics who read a strictly autobiographical assessment of Plath’s true feelings about her mother into the poem are missing the point of the poem entirely. These scholars maintain that this poem and its companion piece “Daddy” are less about Plath’s literal emotional feelings about her parents and more about her psychological need to break free from the trappings of her own life (including her connections to her parents) in order to achieve a “new self.”32 Neither Plath’s father in “Daddy” nor her mother in “Medusa” was for her the monstrous vampiric creature portrayed in these poems (one need only read Plath’s letters and the various interviews scholars have conducted over the years with friends and colleagues of Otto and Aurelia Plath to know that they were both loving and vivacious people who cared deeply for their family). Yet, due to the circumstances that surrounded Otto Plath’s death in 1940, Aurelia Plath’s reaction to his death and her sudden responsibility to her children as a widowed parent thereafter, Plath remained forever psychologically and emotionally dependent on her parents which led to her eventual victimization by them in her mind. Plath’s father’s death left her with much unresolved grief (exacerbated by the fact that Aurelia made the decision not to allow either of her children to attend their father’s memorial service or visit his gravesite in order to spare them further trauma). It also left her defenseless against the unintended emotional harm she suffered as a result of her mother’s self-sacrifice.33 Therefore, in order for Plath to be free of this harmful emotional dependence on her mother, she crafted in “Medusa” an effigy of her mother which could be metaphorically cast out “as a scapegoat laden with the evils of her spoiled history,”34 exorcising the maternal aspect of that history in order to make a clean break with the past in order to achieve the “new birth”35 of a revitalized and healthy self. Unfortunately for Plath, fate stepped in ultimately and dealt her a terrible blow. Rather than breaking free from this negative maternal image, she found herself drawn into a path parallel to her mother’s when her husband Ted Hughes “abandoned” her with her two young children. She became, effectively, a “widowed young mother with very slender financial means.”36 Even the sex and birth order of her two children—first a girl (Frieda), then a boy (Nicholas)—repeated the pattern set by her mother. Rather than breaking free from the negative maternal image she associated with her mother, Plath seemed to have become her mother. Ultimately, there was “nothing between us,”37 no discernible difference in the path their lives had taken. The realization that she herself was becoming that which she feared most, the dreaded Medusa, the mother who would be required to sacrifice everything she desires in life for the sake of her children, was, as Marjorie Perloff believes, the final stimulus necessary to lead Plath to the ultimate decision that if there was now “nothing between” herself and her mother, that could only mean one thing: that now there would be nothing at all.38

Scholars who view the primary struggle in the poem as the usual mother-daughter battle for individuation ignore the primary goal of the fight: the daughter’s literary freedom. Throughout Plath’s life, she fought against the artistic control her mother seemed to place on her vision. In many ways, Plath believed her literary ambitions began as a result of her sense of maternal rejection and alienation. In her essay “Ocean W-1212,” Plath details the story of how her mother would distract her attention when she was nursing Plath’s baby brother Warren by having Plath sit at her feet with a newspaper to learn the alphabet.39 Thus, for Plath, words literally served as a substitute for motherly affection. Plath’s language skills developed specifically within the context of her desire for maternal nurturing.40 Aurelia used Plath’s natural curiosity and love of language to form a bond with her, constantly giving Plath creative chores (stories to illustrate, clay figures to model, artistic and literary works to analyze and study) in an effort to stimulate her literary promise. Plath learned early on to seek her mother’s affections through her writing. This concept continued into Plath’s adulthood with her letters to her mother filled with lines of poetry that she had written, notices of publications and awards she had received for her writing, and various educational accomplishments she had achieved as a result of her writing talent.41 However, striving for literary excellence as a way to achieve maternal affection definitely had its downside as well. Plath’s frequent periods of writer’s block led to severe and dark depressions during which she felt inadequate as a daughter. In many ways, this was one of the reasons her psychiatrist Dr. Beuscher believed Plath had to give herself permission to “hate” her mother.42 Dr. Beuscher’s statement allowed Plath to understand the deep-seated hatred she felt towards her mother and helped her comprehend that she desperately wanted to be free of her desire for her mother’s approval: “What to do with her, with the hostility, undying, which I feel for her? I want, as ever, to grab my life out under her hot itchy hands.”43 Plath’s breakthrough allowed her to realize that she believed her mother lived vicariously through her achievements and helped her recognized that her own 1953 breakdown and suicide attempt (dramatized in her novel The Bell Jar) was in large part a reaction to her unhealthy attachment to her mother:

I lay in bed when I thought my mind was going blank forever and thought what a luxury it would be to kill her, to strangle her skinny veined throat which could never be big enough to protect me from the world. But I was too nice for murder. I tried to murder myself: to keep from being an embarrassment to the ones I loved and from living myself in a mindless hell. How thoughtful. Do unto yourself as you would do to others. I’d kill her, so I killed myself.44

When it came time to draft “Medusa” in October 1962, Plath took all of her feelings of hatred and rage toward her mother’s use of art and language as a nurturing tool and turned it inward on herself. Plath used the image of the snake-haired gorgon to describe her confrontation with her internal image of her monstrous mother:

Through this confrontation, the poem attempts to recuperate maternity as linguistic trace, referring to Plath’s own mother through a cryptic reference to the Latin for jellyfish, specifically locating the mother by etymology and, indeed, remaking the mother as etymology, as trace that is present, not absent, using the site of the mother’s etymological position to justify the daughter’s recuperation of inscription.45

Like Athena in one of the original variations on the Greek myth of the Medusa, Plath uses the image of the monster in the poem to create an aegis, a mirrored shield of protection against the petrifying, paralyzing force of the creature. Paralyzed and breathless at the hands of the monster, Plath uses this mirrored shield with the Medusa’s image emblazoned upon it to vanquish the creature and to recapture her self and her poetic voice. Plath’s powers of speech within the poem overwhelm the Medusa’s paralyzing phalluses (the “eely tentacle”). Plath uses the Medusa’s image as her own mirrored shield from the space of death caused by the Medusa (the near death she blamed on her mother in the Journal entries quoted earlier).46 Unfortunately for Plath, unlike Athena, she is not able to kill the gorgon, only reject it (“Off, off, eely tentacle”47), but in doing so, she deprives the creature the power to deny her her poetic voice even if the creature is eventually able to overwhelm and “kill” her. For Plath then, the terror of the Medusa is not its femininity or its maternity, but its ability to deny the poet the voice necessary to speak against it. In this way, Plath is victorious against the gorgon (a figure emblematic of the “petrification” of death) by finding a way to use the Medusa’s image against itself, as a mythic mirrored shield, to protect herself as she revealed the true nature of the beast to the world.48

Nephie Christodoulides went even further in the analysis of the Medusa as a figure whose sole purpose was to rob Plath of her poetic freedom. For Plath, language was a crucial factor in her personal philosophy of existence, her “blood reflects across the manuscript”49 and she felt herself to be “possessed by [her] poems as by the rhythms of [her] own breathing.”50 In Christodoulides’ opinion, the Medusa figure in her role as disguised mother may not even be emblematic of Plath’s biological mother, Aurelia, but all the various females in Plath’s life who played a motherly role in her linguistic development, literary predecessors and contemporaries like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Olive Prouty Higgins, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton:

Jealous one I am, green-eyed, spite-seething. Read the six women poets in the “new poets of England and America.” Dull, turgid…. I have the quiet righteous malice of one with better poems than other women’s reputations have been made by…. What is my voice? Woolfish, also but tough…. I must get philosophy in. Until I do I shall lag behind [Adrienne Rich].51

Ultimately, Plath uses “Medusa” in a sense as a poem of exorcism, to destroy all of these Medusas, both familial and literary, in order to stand on her own literary feet, especially during the last months of her life when her poetry flowed like blood from her being and became the words that cemented her reputation.52

Throughout the ages, the mythical Medusa has been seen as a symbol of duality, the supreme paradox, a fusion of opposites: mobility and immobility, woman and monster, beauty and horror.53 Plath used her poem “Medusa” to add yet another set of opposites to that list: mother and daughter. However, in an ironic twist, Plath uses the poem’s final line to create an ambiguity in regards to her own vision of the gorgon’s duality. Throughout the poem, she presents the mother and daughter as polar opposites: the mother as corrupted monster, the daughter as innocent and virginal victim. As Jacquelin Rose suggests in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, the poem’s final line “There is nothing between us” banishes this notion with its overt suggestion the mother and daughter may, in fact, not be so different after all.54 Claire Raymond continues Rose’s train of thought and concludes that the primary reason Plath may have ultimately found the resemblance between herself and her mother came from maturity and her own experiences as a mother of two small children.55 This may constitute Plath’s final understanding that her years of blaming her mother for her lack of maternal love were the result of her own feelings of inadequacy and ingratitude.

One of the final pieces of the puzzle that is Sylvia Plath’s “Medusa” may have finally been revealed with the 2013 publication of Carl Rollyson’s book American Isis. The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath. In the book, Rollyson discusses a significant meeting that took place in 1978 between Plath scholar Judith Kroll and Aurelia Plath soon after the publication of Kroll’s influential study of Plath, Chapters in a Mythology. The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Kroll was one of the first Plath scholars to make a definitive connection between “Medusa” and Plath’s complex love-hate relationship with her mother. Initially, Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, in their roles as guardians of Plath’s literary estate, felt uncomfortable with Kroll’s analysis of the poem, arguing that suggesting that “Medusa” represented Plath’s true feelings about her mother would be devastating to Aurelia who, they believed, was still convinced that Plath’s love and devotion to her were absolute based on the correspondence the two of them shared. When Kroll wrote to Aurelia to set up a meeting, she found that Aurelia was very interested in talking with her as she had heard great things about Kroll’s book but had not yet read it because the publisher had not bothered to send her a copy. Their meeting went well, and Kroll presented Aurelia with a copy of the book, still very concerned as to how Aurelia would react to her interpretation of “Medusa.” A few weeks later, Kroll received a letter from Aurelia which both put her mind at ease and revealed a great complexity to the mother-daughter relationship that no one had ever seen before. Aurelia noted that the identification between Aurelia and Medusa had been a “private joke” between the two of them about which Sylvia would “tease” her mother relentlessly. To Kroll’s comment that the poem “presents an exorcism of the oppressive parent,” Aurelia replied : “ I worked constantly to free her & encourage every act of independence. I worked to be free of her & at least live my life—not to be drawn into the complexities & crises of hers. I loved spending time with the children—but wanted freedom which Sylvia refused to grant. She, in summer ’62, showed me a house where she wished me to retire—in Eng[land]!!”56 Elsewhere in Kroll’s book, Aurelia revealed her wish to foster an autonomous Sylvia: “I sent her to camp, let her go to Smith instead of Wellesley College, rejoiced in her Fulbright!! I wanted to be free at last.”57 The line “There is nothing between us” develops an even deeper level of resonance with these details. Truly, both Sylvia and Aurelia Plath wanted the same thing from their relationship, an autonomy that would allow them to remain emotionally close but still allow them to live their own lives. Aurelia clearly did not want the intrusively constricted relationship Plath rejects in the poem any more than Sylvia did. Such details lend even further credence to the opinions of many scholars that Plath’s use of the Medusa imagery to explore the physical, spiritual, emotional, and artistic elements of her personality within the poem were meant more as a way of burning down her old self in order to forge a new self from the ashes (metaphorically suggested through the phoenix imagery in “Lady Lazarus”—another primary example of using mythological imagery in the late 1962 poems). Perhaps, if she had lived beyond February 11, 1963, and continued to write poetry from the viewpoint of this new self, both of her parents would have undergone yet another transformation in her writing, one more positive and loving than the personas readers find within “Daddy” and “Medusa.”

Unfortunately, due to her suicide, Plath was unable de continue to revise and transform her own representations of her parents’ images. The two poems that remain present Plath’s mixed feelings. She clearly felt trapped by the expectations she believed her mother placed upon her, that is, to be the perfect daughter, the happy wife, the loving mother, the successful poet. Believing she would never succeed at this goal, Plath felt suffocated. Through her poetry (and, specifically, in “Medusa”), she tried desperately to free herself from those preconceived notions she felt her mother and others were forcing on her. She used poetry as a method of exorcism, a way of releasing the demons of her past and achieving the freedom of expression she desperately desired. Clearly, it was working. These poems of exorcism, the Ariel poems, allowed her to finally express the frustrations she had endured all her life and released her voice in all its energy, leading to the final transformation of Plath from obscure poet to a giant of contemporary American poetry.


Pour citer cette page

Don Tresca, « Maternal Ambition and the Quiet Righteous Malice of Motherhood: An Examination of Sylvia Plath’s “Medusa” » dans MuseMedusa, <http://musemedusa.com/dossier_1/tresca/> (Page consultée le 21 octobre 2017).


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