Motherhood as an Extension of Self:
A Comparison of the Literary Works of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath
In the romanticized magazines American Baby, and Pregnancy, motherhood is presented as an epiphany, a new-found source of enlightenment, as self-improvement through the new birth of a baby. However, maternity is not always a positive revelation in some women’s lives; in fact it can often prove to be the opposite. These more negative attitudes towards maternity and motherhood are noted in numerous literary works. Many woman authors discuss this alternative view of maternity. Among these women are Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. These two women examine a darker side of motherhood. The literary works of both authors are often haunted by images and symbols of death. Themes of this nature are often reflected in their poetry that examines their roles as mothers. Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath are extremely similar in their style of writing and view of maternity. Both women have deep conflicts about maternity, fertility, and domesticity. In the works of both authors, motherhood acts as an extension of, rather than a new addition, to their life. The poetry of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath reveals motherhood as one outlet for the unresolved self.
Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath spent most of their lives in search of their own identities. For both, the birth of their children was a continuation of this search. Each woman gave birth to two children during her life. Anne Sexton had two daughters, Linda Gray, born on July 21, 1953, and Joyce Ladd, born on August 4, 1955. Sylvia Plath gave birth to her daughter, Frieda Rebecca on April 1, 1960, and her son, Nicholas Farrar, on January 17, 1962. Much of the work that refers to their children shows their own attempts to establish a new life for themselves, or to achieve resurrection through their children, but these efforts are ultimately met by death. Both poets committed suicide, before the age of 50. Sylvia Plath died at the age of 31 in 1963, and Anne Sexton followed in 1974 at the age of 46.
Anne Sexton hopes to grow through her children’s development, as we see in her poem, “Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman” (Live or Die, 62). This poem is written about her first daughter, Linda, who is entering puberty. Anne gives words of wisdom to her daughter. She writes:
Oh, darling, let your body in,
let it tie you in,
in comfort. What I want to say, Linda,
is that women are born twice…
What I want to say, Linda,
is that there is nothing in your body that lies.
All that is new is telling the truth.
I'm here, that somebody else,
an old tree in the background (Sexton, Live, p.62).
Sexton associates her daughter’s blossoming into womanhood with her birth. Sexton examines the idea that, in order to grow into a woman, Linda must also recognize herself as a part of her mother. Sexton refers to herself as an “old tree in the background.” She confirms herself as a symbol of life continuing to grow in the presence of her daughter. Sexton comments on her ideas of resurrection through her daughter in the line “women are born twice.” Sexton is indicating her own sense of rebirth through Linda’s birth. Cheryl Vossekuil comments further on this line in the article, “Embracing Life: Anne Sexton’s Early Poems.” Vossekuil writes, “The persona feels reborn as she watches her children grow. As her daughters live, so too will she” (qtd. in Wagner-Martin 124). Sexton hopes to escape suicide through her children, but she is ultimately unsuccessful.
Sylvia Plath also sees her children as an extension of herself. Yet the ambition to grow through her children is not directly evident in her poetry. Her children are seen as victims in the machine of death, a machine that also controls her. Plath’s poetry is vividly somber. The poem “Morning Song” explicates such feelings:
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements...
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival…
We stand round blankly as walls…
The window square whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons (Plath p. 157).
The confessional tone of this poem shares with the reader the idea that birth is merely a timed process, “like a fat gold watch.” After the birth, it is as though the child continues to be something mechanical. The voice of the child is compared to balloons; Plath seems to imply the inanimateness of her own child. It as though the child is drifting away, balloon-like, separating itself from the living world. The child is an extension of Plath’s own depressed feelings of lifelessness. Plath would like to associate her baby with new life. Yet she concludes that the birth is just a machine-like automated process. According to the poet Marjorie Perloff, the imagery implies that “if one has no identity, having a baby cannot be more than winding a ‘fat gold watch;’ the new world of motherhood is a frozen one where breath is as ephemeral as the life of a moth” (qtd. in Wagner-Martin 118).
Plath’s poem “The Edge” also links ideas of mortality with maturity. Written days before her suicide, this poem gives insight into Sylvia Plath’s death. In it she writes:
Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded Them back into her body as petals
of a rose close…(Plath p. 272).
This poem is not romanticizing infanticide. However, it does rationalize it. According to author Judith Kroll “The children must be dead in order for the women’s history to be perfected, for she regards them as extensions of herself; that is why she speaks of folding them ‘back into her body’” (qtd. in Berman 165). Her children can be seen as fragmented pieces of Plath’s self that are ultimately reunited and finally connected into something beautiful, a rose, through death. These poems by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath hint at their own unhealthy connections between motherhood and death. Both authors internalize their role as mothers because they view their children as extensions of themselves. Sexton and Plath are unable to be comforting and nurturing mothers because they are uncomfortable with themselves. Therefore, both poets are incapable of putting themselves before their children, and their children are linked to their own unresolved identities.
Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath further explore their identity through motherhood in their reflective poems about mother-daughter relationships. In Sexton’s “The Double Image,” the main metaphor used to describe the mother-child relationship is the mirror. In this poem Sexton examines the relationship she has with her own daughter as well as the relationship she has had with her mother. “The Double Image” is a confessional poem written to her second daughter, Joy. In it, Sexton expresses the guilt she has concerning her mother’s death and the effects of this on the relationship she has with her own daughter. The poem’s title is symbolic of the way these events are continually revealed from generation to generation, as Sexton is trying to become a mother. In the lines:
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me,
Sexton longs to resolve issues of confusion and guilt associated with her mother’s death (Sexton, Bedlam, p. 61). Author Jeffrey Berman notes that Sexton “creates a daughter in her own image in a vain attempt to heal her own psychic wounds, the speaker discovers she cannot mother her ‘Joy’ because she cannot fully mother herself” (Berman 185). The poem suggests that Sexton is attempting to use motherhood to alleviate her own anxieties about her role as a daughter. The last line of the poem, “I made you to find me” hauntingly exhibits Sexton’s selfish motives for having a daughter.
Sylvia Plath examines similar themes in her short play, “Three Women.” A play that presents a triad of women in different maternal situations, “Three Women” explores similar ideas of unresolved conflict between mothers and daughters. The play focuses on three women’s experiences of giving birth. The voice of the first woman is that of a proud mother who has just given birth, and the voice of the second woman speaks about her recent miscarriage. The third voice in this play is of a mother unprepared for the role and still looking for a part of herself that is missing. This voice can be seen as a representation of Plath. She writes of an “old wound” and “a wound walking out of the hospital” (Plath, 184). The wound symbolizes both the physical pains of the woman after labor, as well as the emotional trauma associated with giving birth. The monologue indicates former connections that are still troublesome for the third voice. One may assume these may be familial connections in Plath’s case. Author Anna Brawer comments: “to be a mother that feels like a daughter in constant search of a mother, means being mother and daughter in terrible division and in search of unity” (qtd. Wagner-Martin 200). Thus, the search for unification with themselves and their mothers is another issue that plagues Sexton’s and Plath’s own roles as mothers.
Drawing from the pain that Sexton and Plath have experienced, some of their poetry embraces the protective side of the mother. Each mother, as a result of her own struggles, longs to shelter her child from the anguish that infuses her own history. In contrast to a majority of her work, Anne Sexton’s “The Fortress” is a warming and comforting poem. Written to her daughter, Joy, in it Sexton reveals her own preoccupation with death, yet she surrounds these images with an indestructible love. She writes:
Darling, life is not in my hands;
life with its terrible changes
will take you, bombs or glands…
I cannot promise very much.
I give you the images I know.
Lie still with me and watch…
We laugh and we touch.
I promise you love. Time will not take away that (Sexton, Pretty, p. 31).
The words of this poem are almost prophetic. Anne is promising that even if death should separate her from Joy, her daughter must always remember her unconditional love. Sylvia Plath’s poems also act as guardians over her children. Readers find strong ideas of protection in “Mary’s Song,” in which Plath states:
It is a heart.
This holocaust I walk in,
O Golden child the world will kill and eat (Plath p. 257).
In this poem Plath associates both historical and political ideas with the protection of her child. Plath speaks of the world as a “holocaust,” a place of pain and misery. She warns her children that the living world or “heart” is destructive. She longs to keep her “golden child” from becoming persecuted and sacrificed to a world of injustice and inhumanity. Plath almost pleads with the world in her poem “Brasilia” to leave her children unharmed and undamaged:
Oh You who eat
People like light rays, leave
Mirror safe, unredeemed
By the dove’s annihilation,
The power, the glory (Plath p. 259).
Plath repeats ideas of the world “killing and eating” her children. These poems suggest that Sylvia Plath has been “swallowed” by the misery of the world. Thus, Plath wants to save her children from a world that “eats people like light rays.” She wants to keep them “mirror safe,” or un-shattered images of innocence. Both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, although unable to mother their children fully, still long to shelter them from a world filled with corruption and affliction.
When juxtaposed, the poems of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton reveal common themes of a mother still in search of herself. Their poetry places emphasis on the self, which has yet to be resolved and identified. This conflict taints their ability to mother and often the images in their poetry tend to focus on darkness, destruction, and death. Ultimately, Sexton and Plath’s struggle with themselves in coming to terms with life and death interferes with their ability to mother their children. Despite the dark imagery of their work, the poetry honestly comments on their experiences with motherhood. These poets do not prettify their relationships with their children. These literary works allow for a more complex understanding of the darker aspects of motherhood.