Born to middle class parents in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath
published her first poem when she was eight years old. Sensitive, ittelligent, compelled
toward perfection in everything she attempted, she was, on the surface, a model daughter,
popular in school, earning straight As winning the best prizes. By the time she entered
Smith College on a scholarship in 1950 she already had an impressive list of publications
and while at Smith she wrote over four hundred poems.
Although Sylvia Plath's career as a poet was a short one, there is quite a
difference between her early poetry and the poetry she wrote in the last six months of her
life. "Ariel," a poem from Plath's final months, was written only eight years after "Tale
of a Tub," but her growth as a poet is apparent. Many of Plath's trademarks exist in
"Tale of a Tub," including her use of alliteration, slant rhyme, color, imagery of the
physical body, imagery of the horrible and unnatural, and her recurring themes of lost
identity or re-created identity, and actuality vs. desire (Hughes, p67). These poetic
devices and themes appeared in poems written throughout her career, but by the time
"Ariel" was written, they had been developed for maximum effect. Also, by the time
Plath had written "Ariel," she had begun to write more poems with shorter line lengths, a
form that seemed to allow her distinctive voice and vision to more fully emerge (Collins,
p20). The title, "Tale of a Tub" is a reference to one of Jonathan Swift's first major
works similarly entitled A Tale of a Tub. The narrator of this book frequently turns
away from the main story line, and in the most well-known of these digressions, entitled
"A Digression Concerning Madness," Swift tends to use a lot of sarcasm, he satirizes the
notion that all spiritual and mental states are caused by the state of the physical body
(Collins, p22). Underlying his satirical tone, however, Swift raises this disturbing
question: what right has any human being to trust that he is sane? Plath's approach is
different. She doesn't doubt that spiritual and mental states are affected by the state of
the physical body; in fact, she views them as intricately connected (Sawhill, p36). She
also takes the idea further by suggesting that sanity or insanity is related to the power of
our imagination and whether or not it can overcome the limitations of the physical body.
Imagination that triumphs over the facts of the physical body (reality) is insanity.
Furthermore, imagination is preferable to what is viewed in the poem as the awfulness of
the physical, which must be avoided at all costs. "Tale of a Tub" is a poem about the
horribleness of the actual reality. Every day we create our lives because "accuracy must
not stalk at large" (35). The danger in allowing the true facts of our lives to be known is
that they are a threat to our dreams and everything that we wish were true. What we
create to hide the true facts of our lives is nothing less than madness, and the poem ends
by suggesting that only in death can we escape this illusion and become "real."
The poem is set in the bathroom and the tub, places where the physical body and
all its personal peculiarity must come under close analysis. The true facts of our lives are
manifest in our physical body, so the bathroom is a potentially dangerous place. The
imagery Plath employs in this setting is somewhat repulsive and shocking; the banal facts
of our physical reality are repellent. These physical realities must be concealed everyday
in the clothes of illusion, which are also horrible. What we see in the mirror reflects not
only our "public grin" (7) or mask, but also what we recognize as the awful, true facts of
our lives (Sawhill, p45).
There is another level to this poem which is that beneath the physical lies all of
our dreams and an imaginative inner world which cannot transcend these physical facts
of the body, and perhaps this is the real reason that the physical facts of the body must be
hidden from the world. There is a struggle throughout the poem between the actuality
of things and what these things could otherwise suggest, a struggle between fact and
imagination. "Tale of a Tub" is a complex poem operating on many different levels at
once (Collins, p18).
From the opening lines, the reader is immediately