Images of self : a study of feminine and feminist subjectivity in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood and Adrienne Rich, 1950-1980
The thesis explores the poetry (and some prose) of Plath, Sexton, Atwood and Rich in terms of the changing constructions of self-image predicated upon the female role between approx. 1950-1980.1 am particularly concerned with the question of how the discourses of femininity and feminism contribute to the scope of the images of the self which are presented. The period was chosen because it involved significant upheaval and change in terms of women's role and gender identity. The four poets' work spans this period of change and appears to some extent generally characteristic of its social, political and cultural contexts in America, Britain and Canada. (Other poets' work, for example Rukeyser, Lorde, Levertov, is included too. ) The poets were not chosen to illustrate a pre-feminist vs. feminist opposition since a major concern is to explore what I see to be the symbiotic relation between femininity and feminism (as also between orthodoxy and heresy). However the thesis is organised chronologically because periodisation is important for a consideration of the poetry's social setting. In wanting to connect the poetry with cultural and political circumstances as much as possible I have taken Edward Said's assertion of a text's position of 'being in the world', its potential as a cultural product to help reshape reality, and its value as a 'powerful weapon of both materialism and consciousness'. This is the starting point for the study which is circular and cumulative in shape, fundamentally thematic, though each chapter is a chronological exploration of the work of one specific poet, beginning with Plath and completing with Rich. A conclusion attempts to pull the strands of each together and consider the implications raised. The thesis has four general concerns which run through its particular focus on each poet. The first involves the relations between cultural practice and ideology; the second involves the ideology of gender (through exploration of femininity and feminism); the third involves authorial ideology (through the construction of self-image in relation to femininity and feminism) while the fourth involves these concerns in terms of the overall arena of women's struggle for meaning and selfdetermination in cultural practice. More specific elements of the study include collating and comparing self-images and attempting to make connections or chart changes where images such as witch, queen, handmaid, shamaness, goddess, earth mother, whore, madwoman, etc., re-occur. Usage of myth (particularly Persephone). the Gothic, 'and articulation of lesbian desire are also explored. The emergence of a female 'hero' self-image, in opposition to 'victim', seems to be a corollary of the impact , of feminism in Rich's poetry particularly, but this tendency can be traced back through Plath. I explore the celebration of nature and the power of essentialism in the construction of heroic female images, particularly in the figure of the mother flowing with milk at the centre of 'ecriture feminine'. The concluding chapter suggests that femininity did not constitute such a repressive constraint on self-image and writing practice for women as perhaps might be supposed; and that feminism, while opening up many empowering changes for women, has raised further disturbing and unresolved questions about identity, and even helped, in some of its aspects, to create a new 'orthodoxy' in which various aspects of experience cannot easily be articulated. My example is Rich's later work where it seems to admit itself limited by its own initially liberating strategies and looks further on towards new 'heresies.'