Sylvia Plath & the Theatre of Mourning (Book) by Christina Britzolakis

from: ANQ - Spring 2001

by Linda Wagner-Martin

For those readers who may have missed what has happened in Plath studies during the past several decades, Christina Britzolakis's book is an apt starting place. Information is presented succinctly but authoritatively, seemingly without prejudice as to whose biography is "right" and whose "wrong"; and since much of the interest in the lives of both Sylvia Plath and her recently deceased husband, Ted Hughes, remains biographical, Britzolakis's attention to the parade of extant biographies is well taken.

She provides similar information about critical studies of Plath's work and moves from that discussion into her own valuable critical perspective. What Britzolakis attempts to provide, as her title indicates, is a pattern of largely new, and usually relevant, critical constructs that enables today's reader to approach the writing of Sylvia Plath from a more theoretical perspective than the biographies-and many of the earlier studies-provide. Creating a new grid of theoretical terminology for the Plath oeuvre is useful and may benefit younger and different readers.

One of Britzolakis's premises is that readers can understand Plath's work and its inherent contradictions by using the concept of "family romance." From the misalignment between daughter and mother accrues much of the anxiety that plagues Sylvia Plath, her mother's edition of their correspondence (Letters Home) to the contrary. The absent father is another problem. As Britzolakis contends, "[T]he scene of analysis, which decodes the patient's symptoms as the deferred effects of repressed childhood trauma, is already inscribed within the poems. Plath's conception of memory as a theatre within which a repressed Oedipal drama is revived is self-reflexive and densely intertextual; a pastiche of autobiography, literary appropriations (such as the Oresteia), and Freudian psychoanalysis" (18). Rather than offer explanations for the contradictions, this critic sees ways to contextualize the patterns that were, more than likely, causative.

Another strategy that Britzolakis introduces is a method of reading Hughes's influence on Plath as a corollary to the family romance. Within the larger context of gender studies, where Plath's work has long been comfortably placed, in this reading a relatively simple notion of sex and gender is subsumed into the complex meshes of Plath's birth family situation. If only Sylvia Plath had had several achieving women cousins, for example, she might not have so thoroughly gendered success as masculine. As Britzolakis says, "Self-realization and creativity are seen in terms of being fathered into one's 'best right self'; Ted Hughes is linked with a power of poetic voice and genius which 'will shake the world alive' in a Hopkins-like act of creative violence" (28, Plath's words quoted). Rather than set Plath's conflicts over her own talent and ambition against the social conventions of the 1950s, as most critics do, Britzolakis sees the conflict as originating within Sylvia Plath. It is a useful, and plausible, perspective.

When this critic works with the notion of "mourning," introduced early as "maternal mourning," her readings open out into more current critical perspectives. She sees Plath's skill as a poet stemming from her larger philosophical and/or psychological position as isolated, detached, even schizoid. "This mythology of subjection to otherness shapes Plath's representation of the natural world, of femininity, and of literary tradition. It turns landscape into a coded stage setting, given formula, or 'objective correlative' that defeats poetic intentionality" (53). Drawing from her premises to locate Plath as an "allegorical poet," then, Britzolakis provides a number of corrective readings of especially troublesome poems, always linking her with those writers so crucial to her personal development. She then contends that Plath's "preoccupation with familial metaphors of literary transmission ... is a sign of its self-reflexivity. A drama of failed or obstructed literary inheritance is organized around parental objects of frozen or petrified desire, and the polarization of parental legacies" (65). It is at this turn that the reading becomes importantly new.

I agree with Britzolakis's contention that "Plath's theatre of mourning is, in part, a drama of identification" (66), and I agree with a good many of her later assumptions. Although I may not be convinced that the reader needs such a complete survey of the theory of autobiography (in order to disprove that Plath was an autobiographical writer); or that Ted Hughes's comments about Plath's aesthetic are the most reliable to be found; or that (after a careful assessment that Plath's writing is all highly fictionalized) choosing excerpts from the most fictionalized of all her work-her journals-is the way to find the truth of her prolegomena, I can argue that Britzolakis is trying to provide a number of avenues into plausibility. She is looking at the oeuvre not only of Plath's work, but of the large body of critical writing on that work. Her choices might have been different had this work been published closer to its time of inception; she refers, for instance, to Jacqueline Rose's "recent" study (it was published in 1991), and there are other indications that this manuscript was a long time finding either completion or publication. Scholarly works often have such a history.

This is a balanced and informative study, which will serve readers of Plath and Plath criticism well. It may even send them into significant new avenues of appreciation, no small accomplishment on behalf of a writer as firmly established in the literary canon as Plath has become.

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