Poststructuralism and Female Identity in Sylvia Plath's Ariel

By Lillian G. Robles
2020, Vol. 12 No. 09 | pg. 1/1

Sylvia Plath’s posthumously published collection of poetry, Ariel, is perhaps best defined by the vivid imagery that delves deep into Plath’s psyche. Throughout the collection, Plath explores dimensions of herself: her past, present, and future; her demons; her place in the world. Time and time again, Ariel seems to return to essential questions about Plath’s identity. If not providing a clear answer, then Ariel, at the very least, tracks the complexity and even impossibility of any single answer. Because Ariel is an exploration of a woman’s identity and existence, it may be broadened and used as an example of a woman writing her own identity and shows that writing one’s own identity can be a means of liberation. To argue this point, I will be reading Ariel through the lens of two texts: Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language, a poststructuralist text which outlines psychoanalytic and linguistic theory, and Hélène Cixous’ “The Laugh of the Medusa,” which argues for women’s liberation through the act of writing. This paper will illustrate the role of poetry and, specifically, women’s poetry in women’s liberation; how identity is a process and an action, rather than an inert thing; how Plath exhibits and explores identity in Ariel; how Plath creates identity through Kristeva’s theory of negation; and negation with respect to several roles explored in Ariel: those of a woman, wife, and mother.

Theories of Linguistics and Liberation

Before understanding and discussing Plath and Ariel, I must establish key terms and ideas of Kristeva’s in Revolution in Poetic Language. Kristeva defines language as being made up of two significant parts: the semiotic and the symbolic. Together, they form what Kristeva (1984) calls a “signifying process” (p. 21). The semiotic refers to the emotional aspect of language: primarily drives and instincts. The symbolic refers to social and cultural meaning. I must also define what Kristeva (1984) calls a chora, which is found in the semiotic, and is a “nonexpressive totality formed by the drives and their stases in a motility that is as full of movement as it is regulated” (p. 25). For the purpose of this paper, the semiotic and the chora refer to roughly interchangeable concepts: the emotional and biological drives that exist in language. Leslie W. Rabine (1977), in her article, “Julia Kristeva: Semiotics and Women” makes clear the following essential point: “The semiotic also includes the effects of pre-symbolic impulses which come into language, as ‘rhythms, intonations,’ which cannot be ‘captured as sign, signifier, signified’” (p. 45). With that in mind, we may view the semiotic as separate from traditional linguistic structures— even as a means to rebel against them.

The idea that the semiotic and the chora are separate from traditional linguistic structures may be connected to linguistic rebellion, particularly the kind that Cixous argues for in “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Cixous (1976) argues that women must write and upend traditions of writing and linguistics to reclaim their humanity: “For once she blazes her trail in the symbolic, she cannot fail to make of it the chaosmos of the ‘personal’—in her pronouns, her nouns, and her clique of referents” (p. 888). So, while Kristeva lays the groundwork of the semiotic as being outside of traditional linguistic structures, Cixous equates structures of linguistics with structures of power. If, as Cixous argues, women must find liberation by writing their own experiences and existences and by rejecting tradition, then Cixous argues that women must find liberation through the semiotic.

Now, we round the bend to arrive at Ariel, for the primary question is now this: how can the chora and/or semiotic be expressed? What expresses the experiences and drives that women must? The answer is poetry. Kristeva (1984) writes: “The theory of the unconscious seeks the very thing that poetic language practices within and against the social order: the ultimate means of its transformation or subversion, the precondition for its survival and revolution” (p. 81). Poetry itself is that rejection of the linguistic order that Cixous identifies as the crux of women’s liberation. Cixous (1976) explains that poetry “involves gaining strength through the unconsciousness...where the repressed manage to survive” (p. 879). Such a notion turns the semiotic, too, into a tool for the repressed. Considering Kristeva and considering Cixous, we may find women’s liberation in the specific type in poetry and poetic language in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. That is, in Ariel, Plath utilizes poetic form to portray intensely and intimately psychological and emotional experiences.

First, the edition of Ariel must be noted. It is not the canonical Ariel that was published posthumously by Plath’s husband, poet Ted Hughes. It is a restored edition that utilizes Plath’s original selection and arrangement, published in 2004. Ted Hughes edited Ariel before publication. If we are to speak of Plath using poetry as a tool of liberation, then we must work with her uncensored, unchanged voice. According to their daughter, Freida Hughes, who wrote the foreword, Ted Hughes cut 12 poems for the U.S. publication and 13 for the U.K. publication, replacing them with 10 and 12 others works, respectively. These were mostly poems written after the collection, just before Plath’s suicide (Hughes, 2004, p. xii). It is, of course, impossible to know either Plath’s or Hughes’ exact intentions with the book. However, this is what Freida Hughes (2004) reveals:

“[Ted Hughes] was well aware of the extreme ferocity with which some of my mother’s poems dismembered those close to her...he wished to give the book a broader perspective in order to make it more acceptable to readers, rather than alienate them… ‘I simply wanted to make it the best book I could,’ he told me” (pp. xv-xvi).

It is in that split where this paper finds its focus: Hughes was trying to create the best piece of work to present to a readership. However, in this paper, the concern is the act of writing, which can be only Plath’s and identity, which can be only Plath’s.

Self-Definition and Identification

Both Kristeva and Cixous place exceptional emphasis on process. The semiotic chora is expressed through the signifying process. For Cixous (1976), “woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement” (p. 875). Thus action is, in this paper like in Cixous and Kristeva, of utmost importance for identity and self-definition are both processes, which shines through in Ariel.

First of all, writing is an action. Rather than discussing the finished product, any liberation comes from the act itself. The action we see most in Ariel, as Sarah M. Gilbert writes in “‘My Name Is Darkness’: The Poetry of Self-Definition,” is Plath defining herself. In other words, she is writing herself “into the world and into history” (Cixous, 1976, p. 875). Gilbert (1977) explains that “the female confessional poet...writes in the hope of discovering or defining a self, a certainty, a tradition...she experiments with different propositions about her own nature” (p. 446). The point is that the action Kristeva writes of, the semiotic and symbolic making up a signifying process, is mirrored in Plath’s attempts to identify herself. The point here is not the product but the action of creating it.

So, throughout Ariel, Plath does indeed test propositions, or hypotheses, to borrow Gilbert’s language. She tests out different identities. Or, perhaps it is better to say that she tests out different lenses through which to identify herself. In the poem “Fever 103,” Plath (2004) identifies herself through virginity and purity:

I am too pure for you or anyone.

Your body

Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern—

My head a moon

Of Japanese paper, and my gold beaten skin

Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.

Does not my heat astound you. And my light.

All by myself I am a huge camellia

Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.


[I] Am a pure acetylene


Attended by roses,

By kisses, by cherubim,

By whatever these pink things mean.

Not you, nor him

Nor him, nor him

(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)—

To Paradise” (pp. 79-80)

Self-definition through purity and virginity is hardly a primary theme in Ariel; instead, it is one of the several selves that Plath tries on through the course of the collection. Even in the text of the individual poem, she acknowledges a variety of selves— “My selves dissolving”— and lends to her identity a variety of comparisons (Plath, 2004, p. 80). In this one poem, the way that Plath chooses to portray herself oscillates, almost an admission of indecision. In the course of a few stanzas, Plath is like God, a lantern, a moon, a camelia, made of pure Acetylene, and was once “old whore petticoats” (Plath, 2004, pp. 79-80). As Cixous argues, Plath defines herself and writes her experience into the text; as Kristeva argues, this is a process.

Plath defines her again in “Barren Woman,” the title of which is itself a hypothesis. Plath (2004) writes: “I imagine myself with a great public, / Mother of a white Nike and several bald-eyed Apollos. / Instead, the dead injure me with attentions, and nothing can happen” (p. 13). Contrasting with the purity of the previous passage, here, Plath defines herself as stony and barren. The poem describes an empty museum, cold and grand without purpose, to illustrate the spiritual, emotional, or reproductive barrenness of the speaker. Once again, Plath (2004) tests out multiple identities in the one poem: she imagines herself “with a great public,” then contrasts it with her actual reality (p. 13). Once again, identity is a series of statements, a production of language that attempts to describe and define.

Next, there is “Lady Lazarus,” in which Plath defines herself through an ability to die repeatedly and return to life. Plath’s identity in this poem is attached to death. Part of the process of identification, then, is the process of dying and returning. Rather than being personal or emotional, she turns it into an act and monetizes it. Even so, Plath identifies herself as Lady Lazarus, showing an unusual combination of sorrow and pride. She describes herself, further, through a drawn out Nazi simile:

A sort of walking miracle, my skin

Bright as a Nazi lampshade,

My right foot

A paperweight,

My face a featureless, fine

Jew linen (Plath, 2004, p. 14)

Plath takes several attempts in defining herself, in this poem alone, not only as the spectacular Lady Lazarus, but with Nazi violence. She makes clear that her show and her miracle is also violence inflicted on herself. This time it is more subtle, but Plath’s poetry displays the range of selves she tries in the act of self-definition.

Finally, the most complicated of the acts of self-definition is in “Tulips,” in which Plath’s (2004) self-definition comes in the form of a lack of definition, writing: “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 the surgeons” (p. 18). Again, Plath presents a hypothesis for who she is, and this time detaches herself from her past and all that is around her. However, even a lack of definition and identity is a definition and identity. This passage, too, presents a possible version of herself.

Through a series of hypotheses, Plath presents Cixous’ basic idea of woman writing herself and that this is, inherently, a process. Furthermore, as seen in Kristeva’s work, Plath’s experiences (drives, emotions) are expressed in poetry (the appropriate form for the semiotic and chora), which are then represented in the symbolic, taking the form of the written word, its denotative meanings, and cultural associations. It is worth looking, too, at the cultural associations that Plath uses. She ties her identity into history and society. In “Fever 103,” she is a symbol of Christian purity and virginity; in “Barren Woman,” she ties herself to Greek myth with Nike and Apollo; and in “Lady Lazarus,” she uses Nazi Germany. The point is that Plath defines herself through cultural associations that would fall under the category of the symbolic, rather than the semiotic. As established earlier, the semiotic is what contains the chora, which is the mode of female liberation. So, we may turn to “Tulips,” in which Plath (2004) seems to reject cultural associations with the line, “I have nothing to do with explosions” (p. 18). So, is the self-definition in “Tulips” the most liberating? That is difficult to answer, because “Tulips” is also a poem of self-destruction. Perhaps it shows that the barrier separating liberation from destruction is tenuous. Or rather, perhaps it shows the difficulty of woman writing herself and creating all-new associations, completely rupturing the socio-linguistic order. Regardless, here we see that Plath’s identity takes the form of a process: the act of writing.

Identity through Negation

When applying Kristeva’s concepts to the ways that Plath builds an identity, or at least, attempts self-definition in Ariel, it must next be brought up that Kristeva’s (1984) idea of how a sense of identity takes place is through her concept of negation: “In other words, denotation would be understood as the subject’s ability to separate himself from the ecosystem into which he was fused, so that, as a result of this separation, he may designate it” (p. 52). Simply put, then, for Plath to be able to define herself, she will negate that which she is not. As a first example, we may return to poems discussed in the previous section: “Fever 103,” “Barren Woman,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Tulips.”

As already touched upon, the first three define Plath by the outside world, and the fourth by an attempt to escape it. The point of negation is not to completely reject the outside world, but at least to acknowledge difference. Plath defines herself through her relationship to what goes on around her and what goes on in the world, which is the point of negation. However, to discuss purely negation for a moment, it is worth noting that self-identifying through negation makes your relationship to the outside world central to your identity. If that identity is alienated from society, the alienation will become more pronounced through negation. This is because, as Rabine explains, negation is what forms social structure. Anyone who deviates from a social structure helps to further define it: “A structure is established by what she calls a ‘cleavage,’ which cuts it away from process, and although process is repressed or excluded, it forms the unified structure by acting as its outside limits” (Rabine, 1977, p. 44). Having established how negation functions, we will return to Ariel.

The poem “Tulips” continues to be a prime example of Plath (2004) negating and how negation forges 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.

Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillow trolley

I watched my teaset, 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 (p. 18)

“Tulips” is, of course, more complicated than simply negation: it is a poem that takes place within the fraught space between life and death. Here, negation is not a simple tool of self-definition; instead, Plath negates herself well into self-destruction. After all, negation may lead to alienation. In the above passage, Plath rejects social structures like her name and address, her books, and her worldly possessions. The next question is, then, is this: is the leftover her identity? Or, if “her identity” is too objective a term, is that which is left how she defines herself at this particular moment? The passage does strengthen the structures from which she cuts away in the passage.

Men and Negation

Because negation positions the speaker against that which is not the speaker, negation works differently with women than with men. The difference is because men control the dominant social structure, so, when women negate, they must negate the vast majority of the dominant social structure—men—which returns to the idea that negation isolates women. As a matter of fact, women’s ostracization is due to men negating woman, Rabine (1977) explains:

As the ‘Other’ sex, they [women] became the receptacle for those impulses that had to be repressed in men if a cohesive, unified, and stable society were to be maintained. Then, as such receptacles, women became unworthy of inclusion in that society. From Kristeva’s point of view, therefore, a study of women in literature becomes a study of the repression on which an entire social order is based (p. 43)

The inverse of this is that women must negate the entire social order to forge an identity for themselves: an impossibly tall order. What, then, does negating the social order lead to? As Gilbert points out, of female confessional poets, there is a problem of multiple identities. In other words, it is difficult to pin down a specific sense of self when that identity must be created through the dominant, male societal force:

For as she struggles to define herself, to reconcile male myths about her with her own sense of herself, to find some connection between the name the world has given her and the secret name she has given herself, the woman poet inevitably postulates that perhaps she has not one but two (or more) selves, making her task of self-definition bewilderingly complex (Gilbert, 1977, p. 451)

Finding an identity through the dominant male social force leads this paper to the men in Plath’s life and poetry.

The looming presence of Plath’s father is clearest in her poem “Daddy,” in which he is described primarily in relation to his German ancestry and an extended Nazi metaphor. He is a dictatorial presence:

I have always been scared of you,

With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.

And your neat moustache

And your Aryan eye, bright blue (Plath, 2004, p. 75)

Here, Plath’s father’s role as a representation of the dominant social structure is hardened and metaphorically militarized. So, Plath’s identity is built by the negation (or rejection) of her father and his presence in her life.

There is another example of the negation of men and male structures of power in the poem “The Jailor”: “He has been burning me with cigarettes, / Pretending I am a negress with pink paws. / I am myself. That is not enough” (Plath, 2004, p. 23). Here, however, it’s different. As already established, men negate women and shun them from the social order to create cohesiveness and strength. So, this quotation shows the negation of Plath by the man known as “the Jailor.” She is pushed out of the dominant social sphere, which results in her identity and existence being affirmed in a somewhat complicated way. First, she writes, “I am myself,” pointing to the affirmation of her existence (Plath, 2004, p. 23). Then it wavers. So, because she is negated by the entirety of the dominant social sphere, it’s hardly a positive, life-affirming action. Through her negation, she is shunned; thus, she “is not enough” (Plath, 2004, p. 23).

To focus more broadly on women being negated and the subsequent, complicated generation of an identity: yes, negation strengthens a social structure; however, the negation of women may not strengthen them. Perhaps it affirms that, yes, women exist; however, then women only become what men are not: what the powerful are not, what is not acceptable. Those traits become the “male myth,” as Gilbert (1977) writes and the public face of women (p. 451). So, while women may define themselves by negating the outside world, when the outside world negates women, it is hardly helpful. Instead, as Gilbert writes, there are competing identities: the male mythologized version and the private version.

Motherhood and Negation

While the process of negation takes place between men and women, negation is also, according to Kristeva, based in the mother. Kristeva (1984) explains:

The gap between ... the mother and the demand made on her, is precisely the break that establishes what Lacan calls the place of the Other as the place of the "signifier." … this other, who is no longer the mother (from whom the child ultimately separates … ), presents itself as the place of the signifier that Lacan will call "the Other." (p. 48)

In other words, Kristeva places the very first step in the formation of identity in negating the mother. Plath’s mother is not a primary subject of Ariel; however, conceptually, negation of the mother places Plath and her identity in a tenuous position. That Plath is a mother is discussed and Plath is again being negated by virtue of being a mother. Further, she places herself in the role of a daughter. As already seen when being negated by men, negation can be problematic for women. Ariel must balance Plath being the object of negation in the development of other identities and negating to develop her own.

Cixous (1976), when considering motherhood, argues similarly: that the mother, as a position, is enough taken from to have individual identity harmed: “The relation to the ‘mother,’ in terms of intense pleasure and violence, is curtailed no more than the relation to childhood (the child that she was, that she is, that she makes remakes, undoes, there at the point where, the same, she others herself)” (p. 882). Together, Kristeva and Cixous can be read like this: the mother’s role, if to bring up a child, is then to be negated; while being negated strengthens the existence of a social structure, it does not strengthen the existence or, notably, the identity of a woman. Because mothers care for and raise the children who negate them, they become agents of their own negation, which makes the development of self-identification and self-definition even more difficult. So, we return to Plath’s demonstration.

First of all, Plath represents herself in Ariel as both mother and child. In “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” Plath (2004) writes:

The eyes lift after it and find the moon.

The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.

Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.

How I would like to believe in tenderness—

The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,

Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes (p. 65)

According to Kristeva, this maternal figure, the moon, is what Plath must negate. So, what exactly does the moon stand for, and what does Plath (2004) negate? The moon is “not sweet,” she is somewhat frightening, unleashing “bats and owls”—this is what Plath negates (p. 65). And the process of negation subtly happens in this passage— Plath would like to believe in the opposite of what the moon is, this moon that is her mother, this moon that she negates.

The poem “Nick and the Candlestick” addresses Plath’s sleeping child. It focuses on Plath’s efforts to make a space for her child:

The earthen womb

Exudes from its dead boredom


O love, how did you get here?
O embryo


The pain

You awake to is not yours

Love, love,

I have hung our cave with roses,

With soft rugs—


You are the one

Solid the spaces lean on, envious.

You are the baby in the barn (Plath, 2004, p. 47-48)

According to Kristeva, for child Nick to mature, he must negate his mother, Plath. The action of negation happens when one is able to “separate himself from the ecosystem into which he was fused” (Kristeva, 1984, p. 52). Thus, the poem “Nick and the Candlestick” explores that beginning ecosystem— that place which Plath must create, which Nick must negate. Plath’s identity, then, is yet again re-designated as what is cut away from: the “earthen womb,” the “cave with roses,” and the “pain that is not yours” (Plath, 2004, pp. 47-48). Together, reading Plath portraying herself as both mother and child, negated and negating, there is an emphasis in warmth. The moon is not warm and she negates the moon. She creates warmth and nurturing out of a cave, which shall be negated, with which she shall be left. That warmth and that nurturing become a fixture of the self-definition in Ariel.


Plath, if she does not find liberation in Ariel (for that was never the question), moves toward it. Or, at the very least, Ariel serves as a sample for how one might. Ariel exhibits Cixious’ emphasis on writing one’s self, on taking action, and on writing very clearly one’s own identity and experiences. She does so, or, we may interpret it, through Kristeva’s semiotic and symbolic, the chora, and the act of negation. If Ariel is an example, or prototype, for Kristeva’s and Cixous’ arguments, (Ariel was originally published about ten years before the original publication of both Revolution in Poetic Language and “The Laugh of the Medusa”), then the takeaway is simply what may be said about Ariel, broadened. Writing is an essential action, not only for the product, but in the act; identity is important and complicated; emotions and drives are a cornerstone of identity. As for Plath, Ariel becomes both exploration of the self and manifesto, instructions for how others may do the same: define an identity through the creation of poetic text.


Cixous, H. (1976). The laugh of the medusa. Signs, 1(4), 875-893.

Gilbert, S. M. (1977). My name is darkness: The poetry of self-definition. Contemporary Literature, 18(4), 443-457.

Hughes, F. (2004). Foreword. Ariel: The restored edition (pp. xi-xxi). HarperCollins.

Kristeva, J. (1984). Revolution in poetic language. (M. Waller, Trans.). Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1974)

Plath, S. (2004). Ariel: The restored edition. HarperCollins.

Rabine, L. W. (1977). Julia Kristeva: Semiotics and women. Pacific Coast Philology, 12, 41-49.

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