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Nephie Christodoulides, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking: Motherhood in Sylvia Plath’s Work (Amsterdam: Rodopi Editions, 2005, EUR $56.00 / US $76.00, 264 pages, ISBN 90-420-1772-4)—Toni Saldivar, Mount Saint Mary College


No postmodern Western thinker has had greater influence on our current understanding of motherhood in relation to woman’s subjectivity and women’s writing than Julia Kristeva; and perhaps no major American poet has drawn more profoundly on her experiences as both mother and daughter than Sylvia Plath [1932-1963]. Nephie Christodoulides’s study, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking:  Motherhood in Sylvia Plath offers a meticulous, original study of Plath and motherhood mainly through the lens of Kristeva’s theory of subject formation.

Although Christodoulides also draws on the work of several post-Freudian analysts, she finds in Kristeva the most fruitful approach to Plath’s poetry and prose. Plath’s writings, as manipulations lived experience, reveal to Christodoulides what Kristeva calls the “subject in process”:  the individual’s on-going, fluid dynamic of becoming a conscious, self-identified subject within her culture’s symbolic order. This was not an easy process for Plath [not for any woman] because of the difficulty as well as the necessity of going beyond the semiotic relation to the “unsignifiable body of the mother” so that she might enter the symbolic order of the father. Like Jacques Lacan, Kristeva understands the subject as forever seeking through language the lost object of desire: the mother. Kristeva, however, explores the complexities for women of the never-quite-severed  maternal bond.

Christodoulides begins with analyses of Plath’s children’s books and Plath’s fairy tale poems among her juvenilia to see how the maternal semiotic language, as Kristeva defines it, works in relation to paternal, symbolic language. Plath’s first attempt to write a commercially successful children’s book is dated May 1959. This effort, titled The Bed Book, failed to find a publisher because, according to Christodoulides, “it was more the voice of the eternal adult-child revealing truths to other adult-children” [16]. As a creative exercise, The Bed Book  freed Plath from writer’s block but did not allow her to escape from the “adult world full of angst and predicaments” [17]. The speaker in this clever litany of beds wants freedom from the conventional Procrustean lit, but each outrageous variation—such as “the Submarine Bed,” the” Elephant Bed,” or the “Spottable Bed,” emerges from Plath’s deeply rooted anxieties [23]. Thus, the purported entertainment for children turns out to be a “myth Plath constructed as an adult in the attempt to re-examine [her] selfhood” [17]. Christodoulides finds that the various beds with oddly specific functions “condense a lifetime” of experience of the maternal and the paternal influences and their manifestations in “orality, linguistic sterility and writing.” Adult concerns “constitute the core” of The Bed Book [23]. A few months later, Plath completed the manuscript for her second children’s book, The It Doesn’t Matter Suit, which unlike the first attempt, does have a plot, but which, again, is less a story for children than the adult Plath’s “mosaic” of her deep soul [24]. The attractions for a psychoanalytic and autobiographical reading are obvious. The name of the main character, the little Austrian boy Max Nix, is a play on words: “Max Nix” echoes the German phrase for “It Doesn’t Matter” or “Don’t Worry.” Plath took the given names for all the characters from her German father, Otto, and his family—Paul, Emil, Walter, Hugh, Johann and Max—and used the negative “Nix” as the family name. The powerful center of the family is female. Mama Nix, whose given name we never know, is a great cook and an admirable seamstress. When a mysterious box arrives containing a mustard-colored suit with mirror-bright buttons, all the males in the Nix family reject it except Max, the youngest son, who loves it. Mama Nix alters the suit to fix Max perfectly. The suit represents, in Christodoulides’s reading, Plath’s “free self,” the innocent self without embarrassment or inhibition, the self she lost when her father died and her angst-ridden mother became less a creator than an enforcer of social norms. An earlier story, “Mrs. Cherry’s Kitchen,” dating from 1957, has the same playfulness and rich imagery as The Bed Book and The It Doesn’t Matter Suit, but also the same limitations. Under the surface lies Plath’s troubled adult world.

Plath’s mother had enriched her children’s imaginations with fairy tales, so it is not surprising that Plath’s childhood poems seem obsessed with the “fairy world,” but Plath’s growing skepticism colors her juvenilia’s fairy tale motifs. Princesses, goblins, godmothers, Cinderellas, all become images for Plath’s exploring her own struggles toward an independent, creative life as a woman writer, freed from the mother’s censure and control.

When Plath met her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, in Cambridge in 1956, she was attracted to his shamanistic ease in the realms of myth and fairy tale, but Plath’s use of those motifs turned into explorations of the pleasures and the dangers of their relationship. In such poems as “Maudlin” and “Tinker Jack and the Tidy Wives,” Christodoulides shows Plath searching for a new articulation of her self, “oscillating” between the paternal, symbolic language of abstract fixed forms and the semiotic maternal language grounded in the body’s lived experience and its unappeaseable desire. For Christodoulides, this oscillation between the symbolic and the semiotic forms a continuous dynamic in Plath’s autobiographical poetry.

No experience more fully embodies this “endless rocking” of the subject in process than the experience of motherhood. According to Kristeva, the semiotic cannot be circumscribed by the symbolic. Rather, the semiotic always threatens to disrupt the symbolic [53], even to engulf it. Christodoulides focuses on Plath’s poems of “experienced motherhood,” poems that treat her own procreativity and poems that are addressed to her children. When Christodoulides attends to the maternal speakers in “The Manor Garden,” “You’re,” “Parliament Hill Fields” and “By Candlelight,” she finds the mother personae letting go of the child to allow the child “to enter the symbolic order,” but only because this process seems inevitable [68]. Without entrance into that system of cultural signs, there can be no manipulation of experience through self-conscious use of language; however, the experience of the semiotic (the experience of pre-symbolic embodied communication between mother and child felt in rhythms and heard in intonations) remains the “lived experience” of desire that seeks a way into writing.

Though difficult, a woman writer can find self-authentification in her mother/child experience, according to Christodoulides, if “there exists a linguistic rapport” between the mother and her female offspring, for then the mother can “initiate the daughter into a linguistic alchemy where the semiotic ruptures the symbolic” [145]. What remains after the maternal body “is corporated into signs” is what Kristeva calls “le feminine.” Christodoulides shows Plath giving “le feminine” exquisite form in one of her last poems, “Balloons” written in February 1963. Christodoulides emphasizes that the poem is addressed to the speaker’s daughter and that their communication encloses the infant son who is still “linguistically incompetent.” The pre-oedipal boy can respond to the balloons only with gestures, biting, and “echolalias,” not signification. The poem is “a kind of ‘linguistic conspiracy’ between the mother and daughter” which uses the semiotic to “rupture the symbolic”—that is, to open their culture’s system of signs as a site for mother/daughter self-authentication free from the oppressive rule of either the father or the phallic mother.

Every mother is also a daughter, and Plath, like all daughters, found herself trying to choose between identifying with the mother or with the father. The daughter who identifies with the mother “desires a male object” and intensifies orality. The daughter who identifies with the father represses orality and “refuses the male partner” while at the time striving for symbolic mastery over her own body and freedom from any dependence on the mother’s body [152]. For Christodoulides, Plath’s speakers often give voice to the predicament of ambivalent  daughter-personae: “They are figures hovering between father and mother, but also tantalized by the suffocating influence of any other figures likely to usurp an oppressive maternal role” [152].

Plath’s “All the Dead Dears,” then, expresses Plath’s fear of becoming one more devouring female in a long line of devouring women: she will eat and be eaten in the inevitable, non-dissolvable mother-daughter bond [159]. In psychotherapy in 1958, Plath had found Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” an accurate analysis of her own psychic state: her writer’s block resulted from repressed hatred of her mother who had not helped her mourn her lost father but had used Plath’s youthful academic and artistic successes to satisfy her own emotional needs. Plath had directed her hatred against herself, rather than against her mother—whom she pitied and loved but from whom she wanted to escape.

This “eternal drama of love and hatred, symbiosis and individuation between mother and daughter” [166] is heightened for Plath by the mother’s erasure of the father in family romance; without him as the “imaginary father” (for Kristeva, the loving father), Plath  is engulfed by suffocating mother/daughter symbiosis. In several poems, including “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” Christodoulides shows Plath trying to complete “the oedipal triangle by joining the three lines representing father, mother, and daughter” [166].

In “The Burnt Out Spa” the speaker’s goal seems to be an autonomous self, a separate subject that gives up the maternal object (the mother’s nurturing body) for the paternal function (the father’s cultural discourse), but the goal is not achieved. The speaker can find no “solace” for her want in either the semiotic relation with the mother or the symbolic language of the father [174].

In the earlier poem, “The Disquieting Muses,” Christodoulides examines the three bald enigmatic female figures from the perspective of “Kristeva’s three cases of feminine depression as analyzed in Black Sun” [176]. Each form of depression manifests a failed or incomplete separation from the maternal figure. Plath’s poem ends with the speaker carrying the maternally rooted malady within her, not freed from it.

Desperate for maternal comfort, Plath found that need met at times by her American analyst, Dr. Ruth Beuscher who treated Plath after her suicide attempt in 1953 and to whom Plath turned during her writer’s block crisis in 1958 and as her marriage failed in 1962. Christodoulides quotes from a letter Beuscher wrote Plath in the fall of 1962: “I have often thought, if I cure no one else in my whole career, you are enough. I love you” [qtd. in Christodoulides 189]. The analyst urges Plath to read Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving, which Plath did, underlining it heavily, but that reading was not enough to save Plath from the feminine depression that would kill her.

In her final Chapter, Christodoulides shows how Plath’s recovery of the maternal is regressive rather than healthy: the mother is “abjected” as “repulsive, unwanted.” The extreme closeness of Plath and her mother with no paternal presence led to a false, rather frozen relation between the mother and daughter. They each wrote to the idealized image of the other, better able to relate linguistically from a distance than face to face when dissatisfactions could not be hidden. Christodoulides finds the false sentiment beginning very early for Plath and suggests that even a “maternal [emotional] deprivation” in her first two years may have led to Plath “precocious” self-conscious use of language [201].

This focus leads Christodoulides to fresh readings of “The Rival” and “The Other”, poems not usually understood as relating to the mother-daughter bond, but Christodoulides’s interpretations are convincing. In both poems, Plath turns savagely on her mother’s literary accomplishments: her ghost writing of her husband Otto Path’s thesis for publication as the book Bumble Bees and their Ways, and his article for the anthology A Handbook of Social Psychology. Instead of being proud of her mother’s service to her father’s career, Plath, the poet-daughter, finds horror in the mother’s becoming the father’s “mouthpiece.” She usurps his place in the symbolic order and disrupts that order as both the eater of the father’s power and the eaten: the mother “wants to be devoured [read and internalized] by the daughter” and “to make her ‘impenetrable,’ and frigid,” a phallic mother like herself [204].

Can Plath free herself from a destructive mother/daughter relation only through matricide? Plath faces the “horror of primal feelings” in her 1959 sequence, “Poem for a Birthday,” a breakthrough work written in the last months of her first pregnancy when she and Hughes were artists in residence at the upstate New York artists’ colony, Yaddo [217]. This concluding segment, “The Stones” is, for Christodoulides, Plath’s exploration of the fear that her mother, for all her nurturing and sacrifice, is a death-bearing mother who will appropriate her daughter’s procreative and linguistic powers.

Using the same Kristevean lens, Christodoulides offers a stunning reading of “Elm.” The poem begins with the speaker as the elm addressing the woman poet. It is the woman’s “bad dreams” that  “possess and endow” the elm to such an extent that by the last five stanzas the addressee finds her voice as the elm, a speaker both tortured and torturing, strangling and strangled, inextricable from the maternal power which is both securing and stifling. The woman is finally exhausted and silenced by her doomed effort for individuation [222].

Christodoulides is as insightful in her reading of “Medusa” whose speaker dramatizes the “the daughter’s effort […] to achieve her linguistic identity, to establish herself as a linguistic being” [223]. This effort involves what Kristeva calls abjection: “the struggle to separate from the maternal body; to elude the semiotic and enter the symbolic order, to be come a speaking subject” by abhorring the maternal presence [225]. The struggle to separate can so difficult that the daughter must loathe the mother in order to “facilitate” the desired and necessary separation.

In “Medusa,” the speaker rejects the mother’s food, her gaze, her grasp, her linguistic censure, but ends with the ironic howl “there is nothing between us,” admitting the impossibility of separation and the inevitability of carrying the abject mother within her as “a living corpse that no longer nourishes” [Kristeva qtd. in Christodoulides 229]. Becoming conscious of the abjected mother, however, can give the speaker the linguistic freedom she must have for her own survival as a subject. As Plath’s journals and letters show, she had been cognizant since her suicide attempt and hospitalization in 1953 of the dangers of the mother/daughter bond.

Christodoulides gives fresh interpretations to such poems as “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” “The Applicant,” and “A Birthday Present” when she reads them as forms for Plath’s doomed struggle with abjection. Several final poems give evidence of the outcome:  the renunciation of life for art. Plath’s children become poems; she becomes words, “dry and riderless,” because, exhausted. Plath simply gave up being a “subject in process,” and succumbed to the death- bearing mother within her.

Christodoulides chose to avoid chronological ordering in her analyses of Plath’s prose and poetry. This organization, though posing some difficulties for the reader, does show that motherhood in its daunting complexity is a constant concern in Plath’s writing, from her earliest to her last works. Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking: Motherhood in the Sylvia Plath’s Work is a sobering book and a valuable contribution to Plath studies.

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