Skip to main content

The Rejection of Self –Identity in Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips”

Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.

Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.

The recognition and placement of self in one’s context makes self-identity. Self-identity enables one to exist within one’s relationships and roles in life. As viewed in Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Tulips,” the loss of self-identity brings nothingness and yearning for death.

Structurally, “Tulips,” consists of nine septets. This provides a cohesive structural organization. There is no rhyme scheme. To provide a rhyme scheme would create a less earthly feel by giving too extensive a structural format. A rhyme scheme would also create an attractiveness that need not be present here.

The style has flowing movement through the use of alliteration in consonance and assonance. The use of consonance, in “t” is found in the first line where one meets the antagonist, the tulips. Tulips are symbolic of life and of spring; of that born, that which overcomes winter. Gliding the consonance into “it is winter here” gives a finality to the statement; a judgment. The protagonist is not in the same realm as the tulips. The protagonist is in the season of winter. The imagery of “snowed-in” presents lack of color and the absorption of sound. The protagonist’s world is where everything is without color, shape or sound.

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.

The third line of the first stanza implies some of the disquiet emotion that creates the need for the lack of color, sound, and excitable world. The protagonist is “learning peacefulness” so that we can imply that the protagonist has not had peacefulness but the opposite in life, chaos. Furthermore, we might find that the protagonist finds this chaotic world (which existed before peacefulness) through the influence of others for “lying by myself” our protagonist finds peacefulness. The peace is found merely observing the absence of stimulation, seeing whiteness, and feeling a blank self.

I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.

In the sixth line of the stanza we see that the protagonist finds happiness in being “nobody.” We find that what is found outside of this new realm of quietness is “explosions” or loud noise, color and sound; the opposite of what is currently presented. The protagonist indicates having “given my name” as though the telling of it has removed it from self – complete loss of self-identity as though the knowing of self is the explosion with which the protagonist is finding conflict. With the name goes the “day-clothes” and “my history” and “my body to the surgeons.” Thus, everything that makes the protagonist a modern human is gone: name, clothing, history. Our protagonist does not just give up self-identity but does so in a death wish manner like an autopsy, “my body to surgeons.”

I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

Thus, in the first stanza the protagonist is an unknown individual, a patient in a hospital. The antagonist is a bunch flowers but at this point we know that they are so only by the fact that they do not belong. The protagonist has no self-identity; something happily given away through some unknown dissatisfaction of being burdened by life’s responsibilities. This is not an issue before the arrival of the tulips. In the hospital everything is white, stagnant, and without personality or identity. The tulips bring “excitability.” The repetition of the white establishes nothingness after the initial image of “snowed in” and the tulips beckon in some way, even if only as an excitability; a mere visual stimulus at this point.

The second stanza begins with a total disconnect with self and a resentment at existence. It is clear that the protagonist is in the hospital bed somewhat without a self will for such a state, “They” have propped my head.” The protagonist is the image of soul; an eye. This eye is a “pupil” which can not be shut showing disinterest in looking, even a forced view. This is allusive to continuity of life at the reluctance of our protagonist. The pupil responds even when the soul wishes to depart, even in sleep. It is also a pupil in the sense of a student. Always watching, stuck in its desk and forced year after year to “take everything in.” School represents a forced identity of a pupil; every child’s forced identity and the age at which we can distinctly be forced into a role as the observing student.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.

The next remaining four lines of the stanza are a return to the starkness the protagonist wishes to maintain. While most hospital patients find nurses to be a constant nuisance this protagonist, who has given up on self, sees no problem with the neutral, stagnant, impersonal nature of the nurses. Since our protagonist has no wish to exist the manipulations of stale white uniforms flying like gulls do not bother as long as their own identities remain unknown, uncolored, soundless and impersonal. They are “no trouble” because they have no identifiable aspects.

The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

The third stanza begins with a very subtle death image. The imagery gives the speaker insignificance as a pebble; an element. The gulls merge with the pebble metaphor. We are painted repeated images of the ocean; representing a passing of the soul to a land beyond and elements of transition. The pebble being smoothed by the water implies a need for the speaker to return to dust with the allusion to “ashes to ashes; dust to dust.” She would like her body to sift away into nothingness. First is rock; then pebble, then sand, and then dust. With each touch of the nurses, each moment of time, the pebble slowly disappears. Again, our protagonist has no identity but is a “body.”

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.

The third stanza also contains the only positive image in the poem. The tulips are viewed as a negative by the speaker. The nurses are neutral. Most of the imagery falls in a negative or neutral light. However, there is one purely positive image in the third stanza. This positive image takes the alarming form of dissonant “bright needles.” She only finds peace in neutrality and sedation.

They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.

My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,

My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,

The next line is a harkening back to the first few lines where we find that the tranquility the protagonist experiences is in part as a result of being “by myself.” We find, for the first time, that our protagonist is a married woman. She is sick of “baggage” which represents the life she feels forced upon her. Her bag is a “black pillbox.” A box filled with the medicine of her life: things from home. She wishes not to be there. While the line of her family photo might imply happiness, “My husband and child smiling out of the family photo” this line is merely an observation.

The next line demonstrates the resentment of them to the protagonist. In addition to family being “baggage” they are a reminder of personal responsibility and their photo is deemed as a hook to drag her back to the land of the living, “smiles to catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.” Thus, we find needles to be something almost of glee, “bright” while smiles are “fish hooks.” Both metal images but pleasure in that which one with a normal psychology would find aversion to and a violent almost sadistic repulsion to that which one ought to find pleasurable.

Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

The fourth stanza is one in which the resentment of self-identity is most explicit. The speaker sees herself as a cargo boat, nothing more than a vessel. This cargo boat carries on the image of the sea and the realm which she seeks to pass into. Her name and address are unwanted items that are things she is “stubbornly hanging on to.” Because of her fear in life she wishes to wash existence away. Again, what one might see as a representation of happiness is actually an observation. Earlier our protagonist observed the smiling child. Here she is merely making an observation of her being neutralized in the medical process, “swabbed me clear of loving associations.” She is “wiped clean” of her identity.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.

The next two lines are a strange list of objects. These objects are the elements of a housewife: a tea-set for serving others, a bureau of linens for keeping her husband's house, and for her – books to live in a different world. She is being carried away, presumably to an ambulance as a result of her unknown malaise. She finds this sinking into nothingness peaceful as she watches the insignificant objects of her identity fade away. We also see conflict in her life; a defiling of her identity. Now, without identity, as a wife and mother, she feels as pure as a nun.

Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley
I watched my tea set, my bureaus of linen, my books
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

The total rejection of identity occurs in the next stanza. She rejects the flowers claiming she did not want them – they were forced upon her – as was the love of those who gave them. The protagonist continues with Madonna-like imagery. Her wish isn’t for flowers, which remind her of her identity and those she is bound to, but to be martyred in peacefulness. The Madonna/nun image is juxtaposed with that of a corpse. “It asks nothing” but a name tag – or toe tag. A few trinkets, a rosary in the hand or that which “the dead close on.” The image is completed with a “Communion tablet” or a Eucharistic funeral. “… I imagine them/Shutting their mouths on it…” In other words, she imagines her child and husband accepting her death and her nonexistence in one final religious act. This is also a harkening back to the reference to her body being given up to the surgeon at autopsy.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.

In the next stanza we see that the tulips “hurt” our protagonist. She claims that they are “too red.” Red, of course, represents life. They hurt her because they represent the symbol of her life obligations so much so that she imagines them breathing through their paper. We have another dissonance. The flowers breathe like “an awful baby.” The dissonance is that the only thing the flowers do like a baby is breathe. In their breathing (a necessary life process) they are awful. The baby, naturally, represents her womanly obligation, wifely obligation, and current life burdens she feels imposed upon her as she did not want them.

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.

Our protagonist affiliates the tulips with life. Her wound, now healed by surgeons “corresponds” to the tulips. Healing represents life. The tulips are juxtaposed both with a baby with “sudden tongues” that seem to need to be responded to and “lead sinkers” weighting her down. The weight, though, is the return to self-identity. Just as the picture is represented by fish-hooks the tulips are lead weights; reminders of the self she has left before her journey to the hospital where identity was checked at the door like a hat and coat.

Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle: they seem to float, though they weigh me down,
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.

The tulips watch the speaker as might her family. The tulips move in the threatening motions of life. As she watches the tulips, she sees herself as flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow. The tulips are life. The tulips have color while the speaker is white as the hospital she occupies. The tulips have strength and character, while the speaker has no identity. She sees the folly in her self-pity when she looks at the tulips.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,

The protagonist again sees herself being drawn back into her life by the gift of the tulips. They are a constant reminder. She has no face through her identity as wife and mother. She wished to “efface” herself or remove her identity. Through her identity, unwillingly given her, she denies her true self. In her view the tulips eat her life away. We can only guess why but this is a total rejection of the protagonist to her existence that the tulips represent.

And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

The eighth paragraph demonstrates the speaker’s resentment of her responsibility. She wishes to live without any fuss… playing and resting without committing. Her state of mind is in a contrast to the constant demands of domestic life. Like small children, the tulips are vivid and demand attention. She is the rust-red engine drowned by her identity by returning to the realm of color, sound, and self-identity. The tulips swim around her reminding her of her identity. The river comparison harkens back to the passage across the spiritual ocean that she had almost taken. The “snags and eddies” demonstrates the turmoil caused by the tulips. Likewise, the loud noise of the tulips is symbolic of the chaos of domestic life which our protagonist resents.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.
They concentrate my attention, that was happy
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The remaining stanza ends with a metaphor that parallels stanza seven. The tulips were somewhat of a stalking nature in stanza seven. Now they are animals of prey waiting to devour the protagonist. The walls begin to warm themselves with the life from the flowers. White is cool but now they seem to have color. The speaker resents the return to life thus, hates the flowers and their life giving qualities as their petals open in the glory of their existence.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,

Our protagonist, instead of passing the ocean of death, merely tastes its salty waters. Instead, the red blossoms remind her of her own beating heart as they remind her of the affections of those who brought them to her. She is still not complete, “far from health,” but is headed for that country despite her desires to remain in the realm of neutrality.

And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.

Sitting in a hospital room the speaker, in Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips,” feels the resentment of a life that seems forced upon her. She is peaceful in a world of no identifiable aspect and responsibility: devoid of color, sound, and sight stimulation. However, as the poem begins, tulips appear. These creatures, identified with color, motion, and self-awareness, threaten the speaker and leave her contemptuous.

The speaker’s identification forms through others. She rejects this identity which causes the distress from such an outspoken individual as a tulip seems to be reminding her of the others. In fact, our protagonist totally rejects identity. The final two lines are an epiphany, a testimony to the tone of the poem. The speaker is able to acknowledge the real cause for distress: “The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,/And comes from a country as far away as health.” With this she accepts sensation, even taste, and rejoins her rejected angry identity.

Sylvia Plath reads Tulips

Read the entire Poem:

The Poetry Foundation

Works Cited.

Graham, Ruth. "Tulips." Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

© 2014 Christine Patrice Gebera

Related Articles