Sylvia Plath Short Stories
The novel’s autobiographical and confessional element finds its echoes and parallels in the short stories and prose writings and journals by Sylvia Plath. The prose writings and the journals provide important clues to the understanding of Plath. They show her obsessions and compulsions. They hold a mirror to the life of Plath. They are very frankly written. In his introduction, Ted Hughes observes: “Sylvia Plath herself had certainly rejected several of the stories here, so they are printed against her better judgement. But in spite of the obvious weaknesses, they seem interesting enough to keep description of neighbours and friends and daily happenings is mostly too personal, her criticisms frequently unjust”. Ted explains how true they are when he writes. “The limitation to actual circumstances, which is the prison of so much of her prose, later poems”
The stories have very little theme or anything of general interest with the result that they cannot be strictly considered fictional pieces. On the other hand, they are full of her own experiences, her fears and her dreams, her obsessions and her own views of people are all reflected in the prose writings. Ted Hughes divides her prose writings into 4 parts.
Under this section 12 stories and prose writings are included.
Johnny panic and the Bible of Dreams
“Johnny panic and the Bible of Dreams” is a prose piece written by Sylvia Plath while she was working in the Massachusetts general hospital writing up case histories. She worked in the psychiatric wing of the hospital and this gave her an opportunity to relish her dreams. She writes. “There is not a dream I’ve types in our record books that I don’t know by heart. There isn’t a dream I haven’t copies out at home into Johnny Panic’s Bible of Dreams. This is my real calling”. She had a recurrent dream of putrescent lake of water. She gets always a dream in which she sees a gothic vision of a cellar with skulls and bones, and dead bodies. Her boss Dr. Miss Taylor has a lame foot like her own father. Health is reflected upon asalien condition by Plath. She secretly copies down the case histories. She loves Johnny Panic. Johnny Panic is her own love of the weird, the out-of-the-way dangerous elements, the sick dreams of human beings. It is her own obsession with death.
“America: America”; is a prose piece about her own childhood and her tenure at Bradford High School. She refers to the American Dream in the prose piece and the song of America and how the children were made to sing it every day. Plath resents girl guidance counseling. She also resents the utilitarian approach to life cultivated by Americans. She rents “Sorrorities” and “Subdebs” and writes: “We even in our democratic edifice nursed to academic relics of snobbism-two sororities subdeb and sugar ‘n’ spice. Teachers preached against initiation week, boys scoffed but couldn’t stop it”
She does not like being tailored to an okay image. She castigates the accent placed by elders on superficial values.
The Day Mr. Prescott Dies
“The Day Mr. Prescott dies” is a piece about the death of neighbours. Plath exposes how the wife did not resent or mourn the death of Mr. Prescott while her own mother instructed her the right kind of mournful attitude when she took Plath with her to the house of Prescotts. The story is based on the real life incident of the death of a neighbor.
The Wishing Box
“The Wishing Box” is a story in which Ted Hughes also appears along with Plath. They narrate their dreams to each other. Plath is plagued with nightmares, Ted dreams of meeting people like Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams etc., The dreams of Agnes are so frightful that: “Agnes realized with a pang of envy, that her dream life would cause the most assiduous psychoanalyst to repress a yawn . The story is a reminiscence of her childhood when she thought wishing boxes grew on trees. Plath clearly comes out in this story when she describes the mental condition of Agnes. When Agnes could not read she started attending movies round the corner and for relaxation she drank sherry against the advice of Harold. In real life Ted Hughes tried to prevent Plath from drinking sherry whenever she felt depressed. The sherry never worked wonders. Agnes does not bother about sleeplessness any more. She feels condemned to vacancy. She felt as if the tables and chairs might assault her and her only means of escape is death which seems to be far off. She commits suicide swallowing pills. We find an echo of Plath’s suicide in this tragic incident.
“Widow Mangada” is a story about Hughes’s in Benidorm after their marriage. The story’s factual details are recorded in Plath’s Cambridge notes from which the story is made up. Plath and her husband rented a house in Benidorm, Spain. They met a widow named Mangada on the road to Benidorm from Alicante. The widow offers a nice house overlooking the bay where they could write in peace. After they got in the house, they found it had no water, and the widow gave them water from a cistern and teaches them austerity. Plath invents the two names Sally and Mark for herself and Ted Hughes respectively.
The Fifteen Dollar Eagle
“The Fifteen Dollar Eagle” is a story about Carney, a tattooist. A sailor comes and gets an eagle tattoed on his arm. Carney wants to tattoo a butterfly on a woman but none comes forward. Interestingly his own wife Laura herself hates tattoos. When the wife enters the shop, all of them leave the shop. “Went to the tattooist shop on scolly square. Miss Stella tattooed all over-brocade Orientals. I watched him cut on his hand a black, red green brown eagle and Japan’ on a Sailor’s arm. ‘Ruth’ on a school boy’s arm. I almost fainted, had smelling salts. I shall spend all next morning writing it up”
The Daughters of Bloosom Street
The story “The Daughters of Bloosom Street is interesting and it comments upon hospital particularly the Massachussets General Hospital where Plath worked for some time. The dead are spoken of as people who go to Bloosom street here in this story because the Bloosom street people send them to the undertakers, Euphemism is deliberately employed to avoid embarrassment. We read about a board meeting when they all decide to send a vase to a secretary of Admissions, Emily Russo. Plath and Dotty another secretary in Alcoholic clinic visit Emily in her room suffering from terminal cancer whose job is being held open with the hope that she would eventually get well and rejoin her post. As they hand over the vase and come out of Emily’s room they find the boy Billy Monihan who is considered a negafill whose Presence brings death. There is a storm brewing outside and most of the staff stay on in the hospital. Next they hear of Emily’s death. The storm rages and they assemble in the cafeteria and then comes Cora from the psychiatric ward and informs that Billy Monihan was dead while carrying records and he couldn’t see as there was a power failure. The story ends with a reflection that an ominous person becomes hero in death. The story shows Plath’s idea that death is heroic.
“Mothers” is a prose-piece which describes Plath’s Devonshire experiences. Plath was never a truly devout conformist, rather she tended to be a rebel and an atheist. The protagonist in the piece takes the same name as the heroine in the novel The Bell Jar. Esther is pregnant. She, Rose, another neighbour and Mrs. Nolan go to the local church for the mother’s union meeting. Esther describes how she met the rector and how he told her that she could go to the church though she was unitarian. The prose-piece throws light on Plath’s malady. Esther felt hypocritical about the church about the evensong and Mrs. Nolan when grace was said after they were served sausages and tea in the church. Her sense of alienation is evident. “If Mrs. Nolan, an England woman, by her looks and accent, and a pubkeeper’s wife as well felt stranger after six years, what hope Esther an American of infiltrating that rooted society ever it all”. And later she wonders: “She wondered if the tears weren’t caused by her vision of the vast, irrevocable gap between her faithless state and the beatitude of belief”. This prose-piece sheds light on an important facet of the rootless personality of Sylvia Plath. She never was accepted, that is what at least she thought.
“Ocean 1212-W” is one of the most overtly autobiographical confessional prose-pieces in the collection. The title refers to the telephone number of Plath’s maternal grandmother at Wintrop, Massachussets. Her ocean childhood, her experiences and her memories of the sea, her sibling rivalry, her narcissistic fixations, her thoughts are all described in this prose-piece and hence it becomes an important clue to the understanding of the complex personality of Sylvia Plath. Her child environment comprised not landscape but seascape of the Atlantic sea. When she was a child Plath’s mother iuad to her Amold’s “Foresaken Merman” and the poem made a deep impression on the young Plath’s mind. She felt as if Amold’s spirit passed into her. The birth of her brother makes her feel sad and she feels that he had usurped her importance in the family. Sibling rivalry overtakes her and she could see the separateness of everything from that day onwards. She developed hatred for everything. It is important to understand that this childhood experience is the basis to the work of Plath. When she was deprived of mother’s love at home, the sea perceived her need and threw a wooden piece which looked like a sacred Baboon. The sea was young Plath’s entertainment. None taught her to swim. Plath confesses how mountains terrified her. The sea was not only benevolent, the sea was violent as well, and hence the split in her personality, because the terrific aspect of the sea impinges on her personality. She writes: “My final memory of the sea is of violence still, unhealthy, yellow day in 1939, the sea molten, steely-stick, heaving at its leash, like a broody animal, evil violets in its eye. In those days hurricanes did not bud in Florida and bloom over cape cod … This was a monstrous specialty, a Leviathan, our world might be eaten, blown to bits we wanted to be in on it 12. She found later in her life that her seaside childhood was the foundation of her consciousness. She and her brother Warren observed the hurricane play havoc from the window of their grandmother’s house, and it made an indelible impression on Plath’s mind. Plath recalls: “And this is how it stiffens, my vision of that seaside childhood. My father died, we moved inland Whereon those nine first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth.”
“Snow-Blitz” is a realistic spine-chilling account of one of the worst snow blitzs and the circumstances and the physical coldness which Plath felt symbolized her coldness and her approaching death. The reader lives in the days of 1963 the year in which Plath killed herself. The detail is so vivid, the description so graphic, that we pity Plath-lonely with two children left to fend for herself. The account opens with Plath wondering whether England has a fall season at all and ironically the fall season comes out to be the worst she would witness for the last time in her life. As a result of the snow, the pipes freeze, even drinking water becomes scarce. The accounts of the snow-blitz by Plath show her power to recreate real life events without missing any detail.
Part II consists of 6 stories. “The Initiation” is an account of high school sororities. The protagonist Millicent is selected as an “elect from among many girls to undergo the test of fire so that at the end if she would become a member of sorority, and Millicent feels that her friend Tracy too should have been chosen. The initiates into sorority would each be attached to a senior called a big sister and she had to be obeyed and served. In the beginning Millicent has grand delusions about being part of the sorority. The initiate has to be obedient, undergo all suffering, should not even so much as laugt at boys, and should never rebel. Millicent is called “goph by the senior student which hurts Millicent. Millicent resents the maliciousness and the way she is ill-treated and begins to have doubts about the process of initiation. Her fears are confirmed in the bus journey they all make. Finally the initiates are imprisoned in a basement room also as a test of final endurance. Millicent com out successfully through the test but refuses to be in she wants to initiate herself into the world of non-conformists “And she knew that her own private initiation had just begun”. The story is important in the sense that it clearly shows the cruel practice that was obtained in new schools at the time of sororities and how juniors were ill-treated.
Sunday at Mintons
“Sunday at Mintons” is a prize-winning story. It is about a brother and sister Henry and Elizabeth Minton. Plath’s brother was Warren Plath. Plath resented Warren and his domineering attitude in real life and the story faithfully records her hate for her brother. The brother in the story always rebukes the sister. He is always accurate, studies maps and finds directions whereas the sister is hopelessly ignorant about all these things. Cartographic image can be taken as lack of identification and inability on the part of the sister who has little sense of direction either. The sister resents his lecturing and feels. “There would come a time, Elizabeth thought as she had thought so many times before, when she would confront Henry and say something to him. She did not know quite what, but it would be something rather shattering and dreadful That something comes one day when they go for a walk to the sea. Elizabeth Minton’s brooch, a legacy from her mother falls into the sea and Henry offers to retrieve it and goes down to the sea. A big tide comes and in her imagination Elizabeth feels that her brother is going down to the ocean floor. After sometime she imagines herself going down. In reality nothing of that sort happens and they return home. Death by water, a constant obsession figures in the story. The story is a story told from a slanted angle right from the beginning and Elizabeth is shown in favourable light. Butscher observes about the story thus: “But fiction continued to be Sylvia’s weak point. Her narcissism could not create any of Forster’s ’rounded characters’ and the narrative is too long”.
Superman And Paula Brown’s New Snow Shit
“Superman And Paula Brown’s New Snow Shit” is a story in which Plath describes her childhood experience at Winthrop. As a child she believed in superman with blue uniform and cap. At that time her uncle Frank was staying with them on a furlough. That was the year in which the war started. Aurelia, Plath’s mother felt happy that her husband Otto Plath did not live to see the humiliating treatment given to Germans in America. In the story the mother of the Protagonist feels exactly the same. Air raids were common during those days. Children were taken into the basement during air-raids. Superman and flying both obsessed the young Plath and she played the game with another boy by name David Sterling One day Paula Brown a neighbourhood friend invited Plath to her birthday party and she showed Plath her snow suit, a white and blue thing, sent as a present to her from Sweden. In the same year Plath won a prize in the V grade beating Jimmy Lane in the contest. One day Paula Brown invited Plath to play and someone among the children pushed Par a Brown into an oil slick left by a truck and her snow suit was spoiled. That night David came and reported the matter to Aurelia Plath. However, much Plath protested her mother did not believe that she was innocent of the crime. Frank, her uncle cajoled her and he said he would buy Paula a new suit. But the superman’s act by uncle did not change Plath a little bit and the myth of flying and superman was exploded as: “The silver airplanes and the blue capes all dissolved and vanished, wiped away the crude drawings of a child in coloured chalk from the colossal black board of the dark. That was the year the war began and the real world and the difference”. The real world was the world of injustice, pain and suffering. The story also gives life to the myth that Plath believed in any kind of optimism.
“The shadow” is a story in which the protagonist bites a girl named Leroy Kelly and is hated by the neighborhood for that. The heroine tells how her father does not attend church and we know from The Bell Jar that Plath’s father was an atheist. The heroine’s mother bored her: “give or take, my mother could not get enough of preaching. She was always after me to be meek, merciful and pure in heart, a real peacemaker”. The heroine bit Leroy Kelly because she was tickled by her which she did not like. The heroine heard the voice of the shadow on a Sunday afternoon: “Who know what evil lurks in the hearts of men. The weed of crime bears bitter fruit. Crime does not pay. In his program it never did. Will the good people? Only-How ?19. The heroine was taken to a Japanese prison camp film and the film haunted her dreams and because the child was upbraided unjustly her sense of justice also gets tilted: “The trouble was, in this dream, my pure sense of eventual justice deserted me. The dream incident had lost its original happy ending. The troops of the good ride breaking into the camp victorious, to the cheers of the movie audience and the near dead prisoners”. Her whole vision changed from thereon. The social and personal injustice makes her feel. She writes: “prepared as I was for the phenomenon of evil in the world, I was not ready to have it expand in this treacherous fashion, like some uncontrollable fungus, beyond the confines of half hour radio programs, comic book cookers; and Saturday afternoon double features to drag out past all confident predictions of a smashing quick finish Social forces, the custodians of law and order, F.B.L. and parents all could not reassure her. She writes: “Not to mention God himself. Surely with these ranked round me, circle after concentric circle, reaching to infinity. I had not been told, some piece to the puzzle I did not have in hand
One day the girl is freed from the charge of biting Leroy Kelly by the social peers and the charge is put on her father because he was German. The girl asserts that her father was not German but from the Polish corridor. Otto Plath was born in Grabow, in the Polish corridor. However, the girl’s denial is not accepted and she goes home to ask her mother about her father. Her father had been asked to go to a place in the west as he was a German and the people in the town would not feel secure with him around. This incenses Saddie, the heroine even more and cries that God would allow it happen and Saddie answers: “I don’t think there is any God, the I said dully, with no feeling of blasphemy”. The account shows how badly Plath was ill-treated while still a child and this experience had its own share in compounding the tragedy of Plath.
In the Mountains
“In the Mountains” is a prose-piece which describes Plath’s journey to Albany into the mountains where a T.B. Sanatorium is located. In real life Plath did go to Adirondacks to see Dick Norton, who was afflicted with tuberculosis. She went there along with Austin in the story. Buddy loved her earlier and loves her more now. Isobe, the protagonist of the story, narrates the story. An old man in the back seat of the bus asks her to close the Window-symbolic action for Isobe who gets the message and shuts down the memory of Austin. She loved him earlier but not any more because she was betrayed by him. When he proposes to marry her she replies: “Affairs are one thing… But signing your life away because you’re lonely, that’s something ain”. The story is pure, unsullied biography.
Part III consists of prose pieces, which are excerpts from notebooks. “Cambridge Notes” records her experiences of Newnham College and her life during her stay in England as a Fulbright scholar. “Widow Mangada” a prose-piece which has already been described, is about their stay in Benidorm, Spain. “Rose and Percy B” is a prose piece. In this Plath is in her usual self and once again we find her with her favourite obsession, namely death. “Charlie Pollard and the beekeepers” records her experiences of bee keeping which prompted the poems which are to be composed later. It is interesting to note that bees were kept by Plath’s father and he was an expert on Bumble Bees and also wrote a book on the subjects and the prose-piece is autobiographical
Part IV consists of stories which have been made available by Lilly Library of Indiana University and it consists of 9 stories in all. Some stories of this section too are highly autobiographical
Among the Bumblebees
“Among the Bumblebees” is another auto-biographical prose piece in which Plath describes her father. The heroine Alice Denway’s father was a giant of a man, his eyes were like the sky and his laughter the sound of sea tides. She loved her father, because everybody did what he commanded because he knew best and never had given a mistaken judgement. Alice often teased her younger brother as Plath did her brother Warren. Alice was her father’s pet as was Sylvia her father’s. As a child Alice imagined grandiosely about her father in the college. The examination papers marked with red pencil, an ordinary sight becomes a dangerous sight to the child. Alice’s father caught bumblbees with bare hands, released and played God with them. Plath’s father was an expert on bumblbees and he was called “Beking”. Alice’s father used to take her to swims in the ocean. Plath confuses the image of father and grandfather as it was her grandfather who took her to swim Alice’s father becomes sick and is bedridden and Alice feels frustrated. She goes into his room and whispers to him, gets no reply. She feels let down: “But he did not hear Lost and betrayed, she slowly turned away and left the room; she did not know then that in all the rest of her life there would be one to walk with her like him, proud and arrogant among the Bumblebees”. Indeed, no colossus she met, she though measured up to her father who obsessed too much that she dismissed all father surrogates and dismissed them as not worth her company in her real life.
Tongues of Stone
“Tongues of Stone”, another prose-piece describes experiences or rather thoughts of a girl in a psychiatric hospital. Being a highly auto-biographical writing, it presents clearly Plath’s fears and thoughts and thus provides an important clue to understand the pathology of Plath. In the hospital she could neither knit, nor sleep nor cry. She felt the body to be a prison. She writes that: “she was caught in the nightmare of the body; without a mind, without anything, only the soul-less flesh that get father with the insulin and yellower with the fading Ten”166 Plath’s obsession with death is clear. She feels envious of even grasshoppers because they seemed to have a create place in the sun while she had none. Loss of identity was very severe because of the intense narcissism. The recurrent obsession with death and ageing is expressed: “Daily she grew more oppressed by the suffocating sense of her body again in time”. She felt useless even to change clothes. Plath describes vividly how she had an impulse to kill her mother before she had breakdown. She felt no place safe enough to die. We find a similar description in The Bell Jar.
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