The Applicant by Sylvia Plath
Table of Contents
Plath wrote this poem, The Applicant in the last phase of poetic career on October 11, 1962. The Applicant is spiel or gossip or exchange of talks between a bride and bridegroom, critics have interpreted in autobiographical manner as exchange of talks between Sylvia Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes.
The Applicant was first published in January 1963 in the London Magazine. After the death of Plath, it was published again the volume “Ariel“. The poem is very ambiguous and obscure. The poem discusses requirements, expectations and market conditions of either husband, wife or an employee.
In this sense, it is a poem concerning conformity-conformity to the expectations inbuilt into a husband-wife or employer-employees relationship. Intriguingly enough, the aptronymic poem’s Applicant himself/herself is given no opportunity to speak for himself/herself at all. In a way, then, The Applicant in the poem is voiceless, silent, without an opportunity to get in a word, even edgewise.
It is also just possible that The Applicant in the poem is seeking membership of an organization – either “open” or “secret”. This may be one reason why The Applicant is simply inundated-overwhelmed – with questions asked by someone who may be in a position of authority or power. This element of ambiguity in the Applicant renders this poem uncertain, unstable and therefore open to a variety of interpretive strategies.
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This poem is an exchange of conversation between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. This poem has been interpreted as an exchange between Sylvia Plath, wife and Ted Hughes, the husband. Ted Hughes has written a poem “The Wound” in 1962 and The Applicant is a reply to this poem. On this point Brain, a noted critic, explains the interchange of the dialogue in the following extracts:
“….all three poems evaluate the social functions of men and women in marriage. All three anatomise the cultural, psychic, historical and sexual forces that bring men and women together in the first place. Hughes and Plath make clear that brides and grooms are products who must sell themselves, and buy each other. The worlds of these poems are worlds of loose body parts and amputations, worlds where men and women try to manufacture one another, attempting to create ideals to order, but instead making monsters.”
Summary of The Applicant by Sylvia Plath
The Applicant is a poem about an employee who seeks employment. But it has two or three meanings. It is also a conversation between a husband and wife, or between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
The speaker is a person who wants to know if another person is of the same kind.
It is as if one were an applicant at a War Veteran’s Employment Bureau or the Handicapped Person’s Employment Exchange. Except for line five, that is (line live ends on the word “crotch” which off-rhymes with the last word in line 3,”crutch”), there are no end-rhymes in this stanza. This trick immediately sets apart line 5. predominantly, from the other lines in the stanza. The job-requirements in this situation is for one to have “rubber breasts”, and the adjective is repeated in “rubber crotch”. One is here reminded of Gore Vidal’s 1968 novel, Myra Breckinridge, a Huxley-like satire on the faddish world of showbiz in Southern California, where the requirement to look beautiful is to have gorgeous” silicone breasts and where sex interchange is “in”. Plath’s allusion here to a sort of unisex bordello or bistro where women and men can put on artificial “limbs” for display or performance, at a price, is less garish than Vidal’s but no less real for that. This is the world of crass, commercialized Hermaphroditism, androgynous adventure.
Here the situation changes. The poem at this point “mutates” from the world of employment to advertising, adsel, where the “inventive” copywriter is the Merchant of Four Seasons, the Merchant of Dreams. In this Gertie-McDowell World, not to have something – even if it be grotesque — is to lack an object of desire, to be a cripple or a grotesque person. It is only the handicapped who need artificial props — like the plain and the lonely, with their invisible “stitches” (scars ?) who would want (need, desire) beauty aids, for want of natural beauty. The tone at the end of line 2 here is dramatic: the first “no”, a mere echo or repetition of what the Applicant must have said in the gaps, interstices, between the speaker’s importunate words, is followed by a rising tone: “No ?” There is a kind of double-take here, an element of comic theatre, exaggerated surprise, as if the rising tone in the end, in itself would forever fix the mute “Applicant” into an unnatural position. No ? “But how can you not…? You’re so square !”
“Will you marry
It is Guarantee”
The “hand” would, in the end, thumb shut its owner’s eyes amid dissolution of sorrows in tears. Even lachrymal, salt tears can be recycled, changed into “new stock”. An adsel or a door-to-door salesman operates on the basis of a simple maxim: “A sucker is born every minute”, and it is in one’s rhetorical skills that lies the ability of a sales-person to manufacture and manipulate wants and needs. After all, a good salesman can sell an air-conditioner to even an Eskimo in Alaska.
One “want” over, another replaces or displaces it, in a chain of “signifiers”. Since the taboo subject, death”, has come up, why not sell to an another salesman.
The Last Three Stanzas
“Block and Staff…
I can talk, talk, talk”
A hyped “Kora Kagaz” (tabula rasa?), the doll can be a ticket to write; she could be moulded into domestic drudge and a life-time partner, like the “hand” and the “black suit of the previous stanzas. Even love and marriage are not sacrosanct, proof aninst. this adwed world. The “unreal” doll, in this hype-activated world, can be said to possess even previously unsuspected virtues An oxymoronic “Living doll, this plaything can also “talk, talk, talk . (The echolalia and repetition reducing her “speech” to cither) meaningless chatter a la the absurdist theatre, or presenting it as repetitious and dreary.) But isn’t the speaker here is his/her, incessant verbiage, just like that living doll”, who can only “talk, talk, talk” besides being able to “sew” and “cook”? The speaker in the poem too can talk up a breeze.
Behind all this high-jinks, there is also a melancholic or sad note in the poem. Husbands perhaps do expect their wives to be angels in the drawing room, master-chefs in the kitchen and whores in the bedroom. Simultaneously, wives are expected, in the modern patriarchal culture, to cook, to sew and to drudge about the house; with the ability to “talk” perhaps required, but not necessary.