Hughes’ difficulty to understand, and empathise with, Plath’s trauma
The breakdown of their relationship
Poems by Plath it can be paired with:
This poem speaks directly with Plath’s Fever 103°. In it, Hughes offers his perspective on Plath’s experience with illness.
Hughes’ characterisation of Plath’s illness as ‘a real ailment’ can be understood as a sly comment on the nature of her other ailment: her mental illness. He is suggesting that it is not real. The opening stanza depicts the ordinariness of said illness, and the mundanity of caring for her. That tone is broken with the melodramatic ‘’Help me,’ you whispered, ‘help me.’’ It is clear that Plath’s illness is responsible for transforming their ‘Spanish house’ into ‘a tomb.’ Accordingly, we get the growing sense that Hughes maybe resents Plath for her dramatics; he revisits the melodrama with ‘You cried for certain / You were going to die.’ Nonetheless, he adopts the role of caretaker, and indicates that he relishes in the opportunity to provide practical support in ‘I liked the crisis of the vital role. / I felt like things had become real.’ Here, Hughes is revealing how he appreciates being able to help Plath with her recovery as it makes him feel valued, a quality not afforded to him during her struggles with mental illness. The irony of Hughes drawing on the image of a mother offering care must also be noted, given Plath’s desire for a father-figure, and Hughes’ awareness of that. The imagery ‘your helpless, baby-bird gape’ conveys Plath’s vulnerability. Despite this affectionate portrayal, Hughes once more hints at his resentment towards Plath with ‘’I’m going to die.’, as he continues to question the extent of her sickness with ‘How sick is she? Is she exaggerating?’ That doubt culminates with the repetition of the line ‘Stop crying wolf.’ The apparent distance that has grown between them is further highlighted through Hughes’ ostensibly tone-deaf ‘She is crying / As if the most impossible of all / Horrible things had happened.’ Of course, it is known that Plath composed her poem after she had discovered that Hughes had been having an affair. Indeed, the ‘worst’ had happened. Thus the poem is revealed to not only depict Plath’s vulnerability while unwell, but also reflects on the anguish she suffered during the last few months of her life. The imagery in the second last poem conveys the freezing of their relationship, and the way in which the climaxing emotion, brought into focus during this moment of vulnerability, is allowed no resolution, and thus the distance between them grows – ‘I said nothing.’ The pair’s return to emotional strangers is encapsulated within ‘The stone man made the soup. / The burning woman drank it.’
In Fever, Hughes offers a somewhat unfiltered glimpse into his thoughts on his relationship with Plath. By turns, he is compassionate and resentful, but concludes by acknowledging the emotional distance that had grown between them.