Critical appreciation of the poem "Old Ladies' Home" by Sylvia Plath with reference to the presentation of old age

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Dealing with old age and loneliness can be both complicated and perplexing.  Sylvia Plath shows us this through her poem “Old Ladies’ Home, where she shares her views on the harsh reality of growing into old age and awaiting death alone. In this poem, the omniscient speaker employs a detached tone to describe the old ladies in the home as fragile, lifeless and neglected. The poem takes place in a home for aged women, as can be inferred from the title of the poem and contains several images and metaphors that bring out the poem’s main theme of death.

        Several symbols are used to represent death in this poem. A few such examples would be “black fabric”, “ghosts” and “coffins”. These symbols present death as dull and eerie, rather than as the celebration of a life well lived, hence building a sombre and gloomy atmosphere in the poem. This in turn reflects the old ladies’ melancholic state as they await their death in the home.

Death, for these old women, is also presented as being unpredictable and as an issue that lingers in their mind every night. For example, the last stanza of the poem says, “And Death, that bald-head buzzard, / Stalls in halls where the lamp wick/ Shortens with each breath drawn.” Metaphor is used here to compare death to the buzzard which is a scavenging bird, similar to the vulture. Death is described as something that lurks within the home, waiting for the right time to swoop down like a buzzard and engulf the lives of the old women when they go to sleep on their beds, which are “boxed-in like coffins”. Diction is used in the repetition of the word “breath” in “Shortens with each breath drawn” and “One breath might shiver to bits” to emphasize the significance of breathing and how important it is in representing life. Once breathing ceases, so does the function of our body and our life comes to an end. The shortening of the lamp wick is an analogy that represents the nearing of the end of their time on earth. As such, the old women seem to have nothing to look forward to and hence anticipate nothing much, except the end of their lives and live in gloom and misery each day.

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The fragility of old age is shown through the use of similes and metaphors in the first stanza of the poem. The old women are compared to beetles which are small insects and this comparison portrays them as insignificant and feeble. This is further emphasized by the use of a simile to compare the old women to antique pottery in “Frail as antique earthenwear”. This comparison means to show us that the women are physically and mentally weak and decrepit due to their old age. Hence old age is presented as a period of fragility and weakness.

        The speaker also ...

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This is a good essay, demonstrating understanding of and engagement with the poem. Detailed analysis is evident throughout, using appropriate quotes to support points. There are a few points for improvement: 1) The structure of the poem needed more attention. 2) Phonological devices could have been explored in detail as a separate point. 3) Although not always necessary, contextual observations can provide another insight into the poem. Writing as a mid-twentieth century American woman, Plath might be providing social comment on how some societies treat their elderly female relatives and citizens. Overall, four stars ****