Academic journal article Style

Trapped in Language: Aspects of Ambiguity and Intertextuality in Selected Poetry and Prose by Sylvia Plath

Academic journal article Style

Trapped in Language: Aspects of Ambiguity and Intertextuality in Selected Poetry and Prose by Sylvia Plath

Article excerpt

The interplay of intertextuality and ambiguity is a major feature in the work of Sylvia Plath. Critics may avoid biographical readings of her work by combining linguistic and literary approaches. Emphasis on the linguistic and meta-linguistic aspects of selected examples of her poetry and prose illustrates that what is unsettling about Plath's style is in fact unsettling about language in general. "Language speaks," to adopt the by-now proverbial dictum; it speaks all the diachronic changes of which it is the repository. Historically determined and shaped, language has its own dynamics, and users of language, however contrived the transformations they impose upon it, cannot escape them. While Plath skillfully exploits this potential by creating intertextual nets derived from a variety of cultural and personal experiences, she nevertheless falls prey to the very ambiguities she thereby establishes.

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In our everyday scheme of things, we like to separate "literary" from "ordinary" language use. While literary language is often marked by the deliberate exploitation of linguistic ambiguity, ordinary language use relies strongly on conventionalized elements of speech, whose rules and regularities have been agreed upon by the members of a given culture. To put it more bluntly: where ordinary speech seeks to communicate, literary language often consciously furthers the confusion of the reader by accepting or exploring those aspects of language use that run counter to smooth communication. This broadly corresponds to our distinction between representation and reference: while literature creates the representation, the version of a world, ordinary language pretends to point to the real world. But this distinction between ambiguous literary representation and communicative reference is never absolute, and both uses of language include elements from either mode.

Contemporary literary theory and criticism is cognizant of the ambiguous nature of literary representation. Indeed, it has been stipulating ambiguity as a critical paradigm or sine qua non of "literature" for quite sometime. It is therefore striking that some critics or critical ideologies remain so strongly attracted to the possibility that an author's biography might remove ambiguity and promise interpretive closure. Their presumption is that, superimposed on the poetic material, a chronology of events of an author's life can provide the oeuvre with narrative coherence and resolve its inherent ambiguities. Criticism of the American poet Sylvia Plath offers a good case in point. Her suicide in 1963 continues to be taken as the telos toward which her life as well as her writing moved with relentless inevitability. From this perspective, her every poem makes another small step toward this terrible finale. Such a critical angle can serve particular aesthetic and political" aims, for it provides her late poetry especially with a particular, deadly authenticity while confirming Plath's role as victim of patriarchal society in general and of her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, in particular. This is a position often adopted by feminist critics. Sadly, rather than freeing the poet from the dismissive epithet "confessional" that has been bestowed upon her, especially by male critics, feminist defenders of Plath have thereby only confirmed the biographical quality of her work. (1) Furthermore, such criticism has ignored significant aspects of Plath's poetic style that have implications far beyond the limits of her life and work and that inevitably also concern the critic looking for closure. (2)

As a consequence of such problems, we will attend to those aesthetic and stylistic issues raised by Plath's poetry neglected by criticism intent on reading her work biographically. Our point of departure is the ambiguity of literary language, its paradoxically enabling and undermining effect on the poet. Ambiguity is an omnipresent stylistic feature in Sylvia Plath's work and intrinsically linked to her use of intertextuality. …

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