Life and Death in Sylvia Plath’s ‘Tulips’

The theme of life and death is often considered one of the most prevalent ideas explored through the course of the history of literature. Through the more traditional connotations of death, it is often concluded that in order to truly appreciate life, one must inevitably understand death – a task that more often than not proves ultimately impossible. Alternatively, and sometimes simultaneously, death can be presented as a motif rife with mysticism and omnipotence; as a god-like being above humanity, reveling in its noncomprehending facets

One such poet that often follows suit in the stance that humanity must be able to understand death to understand life itself is American poet Sylvia Plath. Plath’s poetry, which is ostensibly viewed at times as the utter ramblings of  a madwoman, really makes aims to unpick death and all its complexities, using it as a motif to understand her place in the world. To Plath, it seems as though death serves as a constant reminder of its antithetical counterpart – the potential to live. This is an extremely prevalent idea in her 1961 poem ‘Tulips’ in which the speaker, while lying in a hospital bed, contemplates her potential for life through the presence of the red tulips which are presumably given to her by a visitor.

An important characteristic of Plath’s poetry – which acts as one of the many keys to understanding it – is her intense concentration on colour-symbolism and its relevance to life and death. Death, to Plath is often associated with the colour ‘white’ – denoted in Ted Hughes’ poem ‘Red’ (follow the link for my own analysis of ‘Red’) which is actually about Plath as ‘the bone-clinic whiteness’. When analyzing Plath’s use of colour in her poetry, Ted Hughes’ ‘Red’ is in fact an extremely useful lens in which to look through, not just for the colour ‘white’, but also and more obviously, the significance of ‘red’. Hughes denotes that ‘in the pit of red / You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness’, which if we assume refers to Plath herself seems to indicate a sense of vitality and life associated with the colour red. But, returning to ‘Tulips’ with this in mind, we can see that life and vitality in the tulips fundamentally holds back the speaker from their romanticized view of death. The speaker claims that ‘the tulips are too excitable…[they] are too red in the first place, they hurt me’, which seems to ultimately suggest a desire for death, but the presence of vitality and ‘red’ at times overturns this wish; but this is ultimately viewed negatively by the speaker. The speaker seems to visualize death as a cathartic release which will bring about a ‘peacefulness’ as she lies there in a ‘snowed-in’ environment filled with death, but the tulips hold her back from submitting to it and draw her focus to life itself. The picture of the speaker’s family serves as the ultimate reminder for life and the potential to live, although this again is viewed pejoratively; ‘their smiles catch onto [her] skin, little smiling hooks’.

Plath's grave surrounded by red Tulips in St.Thomas' Churchyard, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England.

Plath’s grave surrounded by red Tulips in St.Thomas’ Churchyard, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England.

 

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