Explication of “a Birthday Present” by Sylvia Plath

Published: 2021-09-28 21:10:03
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For many readers, the draw of Sylvia Plath’s poetry is distinctly linked to her life as well as the desire to end her life. As Robert Lowell states in the forward of Ariel, “This poetry and life are not a career; they tell that a life, even when disciplined, is simply not worth it” (xv). “A Birthday Present”, written by Plath in September of 1962 and hauntingly recorded in her own voice on audio in October of that same year, is just one of the many poems that comprise the collection titled Ariel.
Its allusion to suicide is unmistakable. Its main theme is the escape from a life that death provides. Plath’s life as well as her desire to end it is well documented, primarily because she has chosen to record her tormented existence in her prose and poetry. M. D. Uroff states, “ she put the speaker herself at the center of her poems in such a way as to make her psychological vulnerability and shame an embodiment of her civilization we should reconsider the nature of the speaker in Plath’s poems, her relationship to the poet, and the extent to which the poems are confessional” (104).
The novel, The Bell Jar, chronicles her college years and first attempt at suicide, and her poetry, primarily in the collection in Ariel, provides glimpses into her state of mind. She interjects herself into her work so deeply that it is unmistakable that the speaker in the poetry is Plath herself. With that firmly in mind, explicating this poem becomes a quest into the months that preceded her taking her own life on February 11th, 1963. A symbol used in the poem “A Birthday Present” is the veil: The veil and what it may conceal is a theme that permeates the poem in multiple forms.

Inline 1 when the speaker says, “What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful? ” The speaker continues in the successive lines to question not only what it is but for whom it is for. Inline 16, “Now there are veils, shimmering like curtains” and in lines 17 and 18 veils are compared to the light translucent material that covered the kitchen window as well as the misty air in January one would imagine she saw from her flat in England. And once again in lines 55-57 when she says “Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil.
If it were death I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes. ” Here she wants to let down the veil and face it head-on, and in the case of death, embrace it. This is certainly not the first time that the speaker has entertained the notion of ending her life. The speaker mentions inline 13 and 14 that she does not want a present as she is only alive by accident and in line 15, “I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way. ” Plath herself had a botched suicide attempt in her past that she used as a plot point in her novel, The Bell Jar.
Biographer Caitriona O ‘Reilly chronicles the incident in 1953 after Plath finished a guest editorship at Mademoiselle in New York City. After prescription sleeping pills and Electroconvulsive therapy to combat depression, Plath attempted suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills (356). The accident, as the speaker refers to it, directly relates to the fact that she was found alive and nursed back to health: at least physically. There is also an aspect of what is expected from the society of the speaker of the poem.
Women in the 1950’s were expected to get married and procreate, not getting seriously interested in education and careers. These things would prevent a woman from leading a happy and normal feminine life (Bennett 103). Bennett also speaks of this, “Like most women in the 1950s... Sylvia Plath appears to have accepted the basic assumptions of this doctrine or ideology even though she knew that in many respects they ran counter to the springs of her own nature” (103). This certainly flew in the face of what Sylvia Plath was about.
The speaker in the poem seems to lament this in lines 7 and 8, “Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus, / adhering to rules, to rules, to rules. ” Likewise, “Is this one for the annunciation? / My God, what a laugh” (9-10). Certainly, the ideals of society put forth in these lines, a woman’s place is in the kitchen and the comparison to the virgin birth of Christ, are an impossibility for an educated and tormented Plath. The speaker seems to have no other choice than ending the suffering.
In the poem, there is a conflict concerning the end of the speaker’s life. In lines 21-26 the speaker is in essence asking for the relief of death and references the religious theme of the last supper inline 26, “Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate. ” Line 27-29 states the problem with the present that is wanted, “I know why you will not give it to me, / You are terrified/ the world will go up in a shriek, and your head with it,”.
The speaker continues to lobby for relief, “I will only take it and go quietly. You will not even hear me open it, no paper crackle, / No falling ribbons, no scream at the end. / I do not think you credit me with this discretion” (Lines 33-36). The shame attached to suicide is overwhelming, not necessarily for the victim but those left to deal with societal pressures associated with it. The speaker seems to take this into account as she contemplates the act; it is more important than those left behind are unscathed than the torture that the speaker is going through. Discretion is more important than directly confronting the underlying problems.
Finally, the speaker appeals to the giver’s sense of duty when she describes how her death has been occurring incrementally but not nearly as quickly as she would like. The use of words like motes (small particles, like the dust particles that can be seen floating in the sunlight) and carbon monoxide (deadly despite being undetectable by smell or sight) described as sweetly breathable in the lines 37-43 are used to show how the speaker has suffered for years from invisible or nearly invisible things for quite a long time: “To you, they are only transparencies, clear air,” (Line 37).
Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty/ By the time the whole of it was delivered, and to numb to use it” (Lines 53-54). The speaker is frustrated by the gift bearer insistence that death comes slowly; the speaker cannot wait that long. “A Birthday Present” essentially reads like a suicide note trying to reassure those left behind that death is really a grand relief. Lowell elegantly sums it up: Suicide, father-hatred, self-loathing—nothing is too much for the macabre gaiety of her control.
Yet it is too much; her art’s immortality is life’s degradation. The surprise, the shimmering, unwrapped birthday present, the transcendence “into the red-eye, the cauldron of the morning,” and the lover, who are always waiting for her, are death, her own abrupt and defiant death (Forward xiv). Defiant in death as she was in life, one can only hope that Plath has found what she was missing.
Works Cited

Bennett, Paula. My Life A Loaded Gun, Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Lowell, Robert. "Foreword. " Ariel. New York: First Perennial Classics, 1999. xiii-xvi. Print. O 'Reilly, Caitriona. "Sylvia Plath. " N. p. , n. d. Web. 10 Nov. 2011. ;lt;http://www. us. oup. com/us/pdf/americanlit/plath. pdf;gt;.
Plath, Sylvia. "A Birthday Present. " Ariel. New York: First Perennial Classics, 1999. 48-51. Print. Uroff, M. D.. "Sylvia Plath and Confessional Poetry: a Reconsideration. " The Iowa Review 8. 1 (1977): 104-115. JStor. Web. 16 Nov. 2011. ;lt;http://www. jstor. org/stable/20158710;gt;.

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