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Tulips (Sylvia Plath)

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Introduction

"Tulips" Electroshock treatment, recovery from a suicide attempt and miscarriage are only a few of the times Sylvia Plath was hospitalized. Plath's doctors diagnosed her with a combination of severe depression, acute insomnia and bipolar disorder (Griffin). The time she spent in the hospital and her mental illness are reflected in her poetry. The poem "Tulips" portrays the psychological impacts the narrator experiences after either a surgical procedure or a sickness. Against the patient's will, family, love, and human empathy cause her to return from a complete loss of self and resignation from the living world. Plath uses personification and vivid imagery to describe the patient's detachment from her identity, her loss of desire to live and psychological instability. In the first five stanzas of the poem the patient is slipping away, giving up her identity and spiraling closer to death. She is lying in a hospital, evident from the mentions of the nurses, the anesthetist and the surgeons. She no longer wants to live, for her the narcotic, near-death state she is in is peaceful, pure and an escape: "how free it is, you have no idea how free-". She compares her head to an eye that will not shut. This "eye" has to "take everything in"; which is metaphorical for the overwhelming effect life has on the patient. ...read more.

Middle

The impersonal contact with the medical staff contribute to the loneliness, the feeling of negation and emptiness and the patient's separation from the human world. Plath's depiction of the hospital setting may be a reflection of her own experiences. The patient's vulnerability to the medical procedures and treatments are potentially based Plath's treatments of electroshock therapy for psychiatric disorders. The side effects of these treatments are memory impairment and loss, confusion, and damages to the capacity of speech. This could explain for the patient's loss of identity and inability to communicate with the outside world. The electroshock therapy has taken away her memory, leaving her uncertain of her own self: "They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations". After electroshock treatment, memory slowly comes back to the patient the same way the narrator remembers her family when she looks at the picture of them and the tulips in her room spark memories. The patient's mentality highly correlates with his or her recovery. A patient who has no desire to fight for his or her life is less likely to survive than an optimistic patient. Although the narrator has no desire for life, her family and the tulips keep her from letting go. The guilt of abandoning her husband and child retain her from sinking: "Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks". ...read more.

Conclusion

Her body is no longer a "pebble" but a "sunken rust-red engine". The tulips come to life even more: "the tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals". The narrator's desire to lock up the tulips is a representation of her protest against the restoration of health. Yet she becomes aware that life is inevitable: "I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes". The tone of the poem starts out as depressed and bleak then transforms into more dynamic and hopeful. The patient, although struggling, remains alive. The love from the people in the patient's life, symbolized by the red tulips, prevents her from "sinking". At the end of the poem she nowhere near well: "a country far away as health" but she is no longer a numb "shadow". The "salt water" she tastes is her own tears; she is finally feeling something. The style, diction and literary technique Plath uses in the poem reflect her own horrors of mental illness and hospitalization. There is little structure to the poem; each stanza varies in meter. The lack of organization in each stanza is a reflection of the confusion and loss of control that the speaker feels. The only structure shared between the stanzas is the abundance of punctuation. Her extensive use of enjambment creates a slow rhythm throughout the poem, mirroring the patient's life slowly dragging on: "Coming and going, breath by breath". ...read more.

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