Analysis of the Poem "The Applicant" by Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath and The Applicant
The Applicant is a poem that explores the meaning of marriage, gender stereotype and social pressures by using the framework of an interview, in which the speaker questions the applicant, a male.
As the poem progresses it becomes apparent that the male interviewee is being given the chance to own something, namely a wife. The wife is a commodity, a thing of the market-place, and the applicant has to be the right sort of person to receive her.
As Sylvia Plath herself explained:
'In this poem...the speaker is an executive, a sort of exacting super-salesman. He wants to be sure the applicant for his marvellous product really needs it and will treat it right.'
Written on October 11th 1962, the poem was first published in the London Magazine, 17th January 1963 and appeared in the book Ariel, in 1965, which has since become a classic volume, full of powerful poetry, despite or because of, the controversy surrounding its content and editorship.
The Applicant is an important contribution to the debate over the role of the woman in conventional marriage, which first started to be seriously questioned in the early 1960s when Plath wrote this poem.
Subsequent developments in politics and social issues - inequality and feminism especially - have helped keep this poem in the spotlight. It questions in a rather subverted, slightly sarcastic way, the notion that society knows best and that a woman should be treated like a domestic thing, ready to do whatever her husband needs her to do.
Sylvia Plath did have these fears, as she wrote in her journals, that domesticity would interfere with her creativity; that chores, kids and husband would undermine her writing.
This poem could have been inspired by the rise of satirical shows on t.v. in the early 1960s which began to prod and stir the established conventions. It is full of typically vivid Plath imagery and delivers quite a body blow to the conformist point of view.
But it is also a complex and layered piece of work. The speaker seems to be interviewing a male applicant come seeking a job but those initial questions reveal something quite different.
- Is the candidate all there, or is he lacking a body part? Or is he a kind of misfit? Such questions puzzle, such poetic lines break awkwardly. The idea seems to be that, in order to make it in society, you have to lose pieces of yourself. That is some sacrifice.
- The tone is matter of fact and sharp, as if time is of the essence, as it often is in the high-powered world of commercial markets. Consumerism and societal pressures reinforce the stereotypes.
The reading by Sylvia Plath in the video is well worth a listen. Many think it is one of her best.
First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,
Stitches to show something's missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand
To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed
To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt.
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit——
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they'll bury you in it.
Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that?
Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she'll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it's a poultice.
You have an eye, it's an image.
My boy, it's your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
Analysis of The Applicant - Stanza by Stanza
The Applicant is Sylvia Plath's satirical, sarcastic and dark take on the role of women in marriage. It's a kind of parody on a religiously based institution, only instead of a priest there is a salesman; the husband is the applicant and the wife is a commodity.
The opening scene is set. A person, the applicant, is being interviewed. The first line takes the form of a question, which is fitting and quite straightforward and logical, but from then on the poem starts to diverge, taking the reader into uncharted territory as the speaker's sales pitch is revealed.
It soon becomes crystal clear that this is no ordinary interview. It becomes more of a tick-box exercise, the speaker reeling off a list of aids and items, including prosthetic body parts, that would signify the applicant as being the right person for a deal.
It seems the applicant has nothing missing, which puzzles the speaker, already on his fourth question at line seven. Because the male applicant is complete he might not be suitable, implying that they won't be able to give him anything.
That fourth question hurts. The sensitive applicant is crying, a very human thing to do when rejection might be on the table. But the speaker doesn't tolerate tears. There is something to sell, a deal to be made, so emotions are not needed.
An open hand is needed, an empty hand. Note the repeated hand and empty as stanza three approaches. As the woman's hand approaches.
Now the hands are joined together - just as in marriage - but the woman's hand does more than just fill the empty hand of the man. It will bring teacups, that most English of items, and get rid of headaches and most other things.
The question is: Is this a disembodied hand? Image-wise it could well be. Or is it attached to a woman? It's certainly a metaphor for all that is domestic in the ideal married life.
The hand of the subservient woman, the wife at the beck and call of the would be husband. And here comes the first of three repeated lines - Will you marry it? The emphasis is on that little impersonal pronoun 'it'. In total there are 14 examples of it.
The woman is objectified, partly dehumanised. And the language is related to the market and commercialism - guaranteed.
That same hand, that same woman, will be with the man even when he dies, (til death do us part) and then dissolve of sorrow....another vivid image for the reader to consider.
The implication is that the woman's life also ends with the man's death, she will be so distraught that she'll disappear in a pool of her own tears.
- Perhaps the next line, line 18, is the poem's most devastating, the turning point.
- The reference 'We' must mean the company the speaker represents, which is also the society at large.
- The 'new stock' is either the goods being refreshed, newly made, or is capital - it could also mean stock as used in cooking, the marrow boiled down, the vegetables reduced to a tasty base ready for building up a sauce or dish.
- And the 'salt' might come from the dried tears; unless it's the salt of the earth, the ordinary woman on the street.
Further Analysis of The Applicant
The applicant, the male, is naked, just like Adam in the old testament. He is offered a black suit and asked if he wants to marry it. Again. This is the second time. Again there is no answer. There is never an answer.
This suit is protection against all disaster, it's like a suit of armour, it's a metaphorical power-suit fit for the right person. It's so important it'll go with the applicant to the grave.
Out of all the stanzas this is the one with full rhymes, so it makes for a tight and reassuring familiarity.
Onto the applicant's head, brain, mind, which is empty, like the previous hand. But the speaker has just the ticket, to coin an idiom, and no ordinary ticket at that. With a condescending 'sweetie' out of the closet comes forth the woman.
This woman, a paper image, that is, like a blank sheet, ready for anything, doesn't get to say a word. In this respect she is one wit the applicant who likewise has no voice. The speaker is the sole voice, he's got what he wants at his fingertips, seems to have an answer for everything.
The enjambment now ends and the reader has to pause at each end line which, with the addition of more punctuation, slows things down.
The woman may be a blank sheet now but over time she'll change value. More like go up in value, like some asset. Silver and gold are wedding anniversary elements.
Not only that she'll be your living doll, defined as a helpless, docile person, a plaything. Perhaps there is some suggestion of a sexual object here.
Domestically this woman, doll, wife, has all the skills. And of course 'it' goes on talking. Note the recurrent three (talk, talk, talk).
The climax to the poem has the speaker in a slightly desperate mode. There is just a hint that the speaker is cracking up - there is the use of You, twice, and My boy..plus the triple repeat of the last line is a forceful finale to what has been a near interrogative piece of salesmanship.
Again the impersonal pronoun raises its ugly head. It, it, it....will help heal you, will be whatever you see in it. Whatever it takes to make you a man, misfit that you are not, this will be it.
The last line, line 40, hammers home the message of the matrimonial market.
Rhyme, Meter and Literary Devices of The Applicant
The Applicant, a free verse poem, has 8 stanzas, 40 lines in total, each stanza being a quintain (5 lines).
There is no fixed, regular rhyme scheme but there is a mix of perfect, full and near rhymes in each stanza. This on-off rhyming brings a certain dissonance and monotony (with the repeats) which reflects the odd situation.
Stanza 1: crutch/crotch
Stanza 2: thing/crying + hand x2
Stanza 3: it x2
Stanza 4: salt/suit
Stanza 5: fit/it/it + proof/roof
Stanza 6: that x2 + closet/start
Stanza 7: look/cook/talk
Stanza 8: it x2
There are certain words producing textures and sounds that weave a thread and form loose bonds...take note of:
Alliterative phrases and words bring a certain energy to some lines and add interest for the reader:
Stitches to show something's.
Here is a hand
it can cook.
Metre (meter in American English)
There is no set, rhythmic pattern in the poem. It isn't needed. The lines are conversational and offer a mixed bag of poetical feet.
Six out of the eight stanzas have lines that run on to the next to maintain sense and commit the reader to the flow. The final two stanzas have lines that are stopped or paused by punctuation, bringing the poem to a steady shuddering series of repeats and sharp short bursts.
100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
© 2018 Andrew Spacey