Paralytic: Poetry From The Brink
Silvia Plath has always been famous. She was a very open poet who wrote with so much confession, she became almost like a soap opera. Her life was a constant bout with suicide and the readers loved to watch. After one of her first suicide attempts, which is included in The Bell Jar, a novel later written by Plath, she was admitted into McLean Hospital. The poem “Paralytic” more than likely came from her time there. It is a poem about a girl who is placed into a mental institution after attempting to commit suicide.
The poem “Paralytic” goes as follows:
It happens. Will it go on?-
My mind a rock,
No fingers to grip, no tongue,
My god the iron lung
That loves me, pumps
Dust bags in and out,
Let me relapse
While the day outside glides by like ticker tape.
Tapestries of eyes,
The soft anonymous
Talkers: “You all right?”
The starched, inaccessible breast.
Dead egg, I lie
On a whole world I cannot touch.
At the white, tight
Drum of my sleeping couch
Photographs visit me-
My wife, dead and flat, in 1920 furs,
Mouth full of pearls,
As flat as she, who whisper “We’re your daughters.”
The still waters
Wrap my lips,
Eyes, nose and ears,
Cellophane I cannot crack.
On my bare back
Falling from me like rings
Hugging their lights.
Of the magnolia,
Drunk on its own scents,
Asks nothing of life.
This work is easiest to understand when it is broken down, stanza by stanza. The first question to be asked is: what is Plath talking about when she says “it happens”? I believe that she is talking about life. She has tried to take her own but has not accomplished that task and so it goes on. Plath says that her mind is a rock. This statement has many connotations. Rocks are of course heavy, solid, and hard but I think that she is comparing her mind to a rock more in a sense that it is inanimate and therefore numb, as well as weighted down because of the weight of all of the pressures and disappointments it contains which makes it heavy. Plath continues on to say that she has no fingers or tongue. This could be taken as if she has no one there for her and no one’s fingers to grip but I look at it as though she herself is missing them. I think that she feels like she has lost control of herself and her body. It is as though she can’t force herself to hold onto anything or speak. Comparing God to an iron lung also gives several connotations. An iron lung would be inflexible, unchanging, and permanent, just as God is all of these things as well as immortal.
In the second stanza, Plath continues her thought. She makes it seem as though God himself is pumping her lungs and therefore forcing her to stay alive. She must not consider this some kind of punishment, since she says that God loves her, she must also realize that he must be doing this for good reason. Comparing her lungs to dust bags is a curious thought, however. It seems as though if a person’s lungs are full of dust, they must not breath in any new air. This seems to suggest that her life is very repetitive and there is nothing new for her, or perhaps that she does not want to bring in new air.
The third stanza explains what God is trying to do. He “will not/let me relapse/while the day outside glides by like ticker tape.” God will not let her die or relapse into her attempts. Outside there is a sense of happiness which is symbolized by the ticker tape. Ticker tape is normally associated with some kind of celebration which leads the reader to think that if everyone else is happy then she can be too. The night, however, is a different idea all together. It brings violets, a flower that has a purple shade and stays in bloom at night which is rare. Most flowers close up at night but violets continue to thrive without the sun. Tapestries can be taken two different ways. In one sense, Plath could be discussing closed eyelids which are sleeping. In another, she could be talking about eyes of people looking in on her in her room.
The fourth stanza continues the night symbolization. Lights are turned on. Darkness and night often symbolize death. If we take it as intended to mean this then when people turn on lights, it would be to keep death out and an attempt to keep Plath alive. The “soft anonymous talkers” are the doctors and nurses who come in and out of her room asking if she is alright, which is part of their job. Starched, inaccessible breast is a description of the doctors. They have on work shirts or lab coats which are, of course, starched. When babies are born, they are nursed by their mother’s breast. It gives them a sense of comfort and shows the mother really cares. However, the doctors don’t care. They do not offer their breast to Plath, which is just a metaphor to say that they are not really concerned; they are just doing their job.
Plath considers herself a dead egg in stanza five. She cannot touch the world, simply because she has been incarcerated or locked up in this shell. She cannot break through it though, because the contents of the egg, her passion, emotions, and in essence, herself, are dead. She is trapped inside and cant get out because she has already been killed.
In the following stanza, stanza six, Plath moves the reader into the psychiatrist’s office of the hospital. She utilizes the metaphor of a drum for the couch because as soon as a patient is placed onto it, they are supposed to open up and talk, or in a sense, make sound. The patients are therefore the drumsticks. When she is in the psychiatrist’s office, she is shown photographs, or perhaps inkblots, in which she sees her wife. This is of course, a symbol for the part of herself she lost when she tried to kill herself. This part was very classy and elegant, wrapped “in 1920 furs” which would be very expensive, with a mouth full of pearls. When I picture a woman with a mouth full of pearls, the imagery only makes sense to me if I envision her choking on them. Why else would her mouth be full of them? Perhaps this is to show the pressures that Plath had to go through to become the picture perfect model of class and elegance. Perhaps she is trying to say that this is one thing that pushed her to the brink of disaster.
The next picture she sees, in stanza seven, is of two girls. These cannot be Plath’s children because she had a son and a daughter. Yet, they say that they are her daughters. I assume that either she or her husband, Ted Hughes, wanted two girls and felt disappointed or inadequacy when she produced a boy instead. This leads me to also believe, that the pictures must in fact be ink blots.
This stanza and the next discuss a sense of drowning and suffocation. All of her senses are blocked. Water covers her lips, eyes, nose, and ears with a cellophane she “cannot crack”. This seems to be her sense of drowning because of pressures. The pictures already have shown some of her pressures and this is the feeling that is produced by them. The waters are still. If she was fighting them, they would not be so. I take from this that she is unable to fight. She seems almost weak because of how many things have pushed her under the water. Now she cant escape them.
Plath smiles. This employs a sense of sarcasm. She has been pushed to the brink. Everything she has ever wanted or desired, all of her hopes for them, have fallen away “like rings hugging their lights”. The rings cant capture the light. They can only reflect it. Plath may be trying to say here that she can’t capture her wants and desires. She feels no sense in trying anymore. The light may also symbolize the last hope of anything she wants to come true actually becoming a reality. The light would be a last glimmer to hold on to.
The last stanza of this poem is essentially a conclusion of her feelings. Plath herself is the claw of the magnolia. Something raw and almost dangerous in the middle of something beautiful. She is “drunk” on what she has produced herself. It is what is making her so insane. She wants more than she is given but will not ask for it. Plath was always a person who wanted to do things her way and get them done correctly. In a sense, this could have made her revert to suicide. She asks for nothing from her existence. She doesn’t even ask for life. In the end, Plath just wants to die.
The title of this poem is “Paralytic”. It is a story of a time that Plath spent in a mental hospital in which her views are represented. She is paralytic because she cant do what she wants to do. She has no control and cant move. Other people control her body now. This poem is a very fine representation of Plath’s work. She is a wonderful poet who’s work was only enhanced by her experiences, especially those which have been described here, in “Paralytic”.