Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Resources for studying Sylvia Plath's "The Applicant"

One source which possibly moved Sylvia Plath to create her poem was Cliff Richard's 1959 release, "Living Doll". With hindsight and the benefit of time, even he is embarrassed by the "dodgy" lyrics of the song. He thinks that he needed "guts" to sing it. Who would produce such sexist lyrics today?

Another important source for the poem was a painting by the Belgian surrealist artistRené François Ghislain Magritte (21 November 1898 – 15 August 1967).

Here's an extract from an essay which discusses this painting and its relationship with Plath's poem.

"The Applicant"

"Plath also denounces the role of wife, especially in "The Applicant," in which a man goes into a shop to purchase a wife. A salesperson interrogates him about his needs, recommends a model with many skills, and then summons one for him, saying "Come here, sweetie, out of the closet" (Hughes 1981, 221). Plath's image is eerily similar to Rene Magritte's "Homage to Mack Sennet (1934, "Huldigung an Mack Sennet," Musee Communale, La Louviere, Belgien), which portrays an armoire with one door open to reveal a floor length, white, long-sleeved, semi-transparent silk gown hanging from a wooden coat hanger with the front of the gown facing the door opening. The ugly, styleless armoire seems shoddily made. The mirror on its closed door reflects nothing; it is a flat surface on which gray fades into black. Nearly everything in the painting is dull, ordinary, common, and shabby-in browns, beiges, grays, and blacks-except the bodice of the gown itself, whose shape appears to cover two nippled, very realistic woman's breasts. There is no indication of hands, feet, head, or body--just breasts, which change the shape of an otherwise two-dimensional nightgown. The rest of the gown hangs limply from its hanger, without humanity or sexuality. Here--as if for sale and certainly for the taking by whoever so desires--is a hollow nothingness. Magritte, like Hollywood and Madison Avenue, has reduced woman to a pair of perfect, emblematic breasts. Forever available, this is a sex symbol which will never disagree with, annoy, or betray any man.

Similarly passive and available, Plath's mannequin waits in a closet too. It is capable of performing all wifely and housewifely tasks; it will provide a hand when its husband's hand is empty: "It will bring teacups and roll away headaches / And do whatever you tell it." Her mannequin is a "living doll" (Hughes 1981, 221); "It can sew, it can cook / It can talk, talk, talk," and is guaranteed to have "nothing wrong with it" (222). Like Ira Levin's later creation, the Stepford wives, its only function is to satisfy a husband's needs--including sexual intercourse--but does so without interest, affect, or feeling. Like Magritte's breasted gown, Plath's mannequin lacks individuality and any will of its own. All hers can do is "talk, talk, talk," but it almost certainly does so without ever saying anything worth listening to. (11)

Plath takes a painting that does not have feminist content and transforms it into a poem that does. But, unlike a feminist who thinks of other women as her sisters, Plath, in each case, attacks the woman who has accepted her role and presents the woman as subhuman--as ape, as lollipop, and as robot. Plath herself wanted to have it all."

Websites: articles, essays, comments, etc.

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About Me

I teach Film, Media and English Lit.