A Birthday Present

Sylvia Plath

KEY IDEAS

The key ideas of this poem are the destructive nature of social convention and gender roles, the submissiveness demanded from women and the oppressiveness assumed by men, resistance and feminine identity; feminine identity as resistance and death as liberation or resistance

This poem can by paired with Hughes' A Picture of Otto

Overview

Plath begins her poem by introducing the ‘present’ as ‘shimmering,’ which immediately establishes a sense of allure and intrigue. She feels its constant pull as she performs her domestic duties, (‘When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking’), which the ‘present’ (which is death) mocks her for; ‘Is this the elect one… / Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules…. / My god, what a laugh!’).

 

Moving on, Plath reflects on the deceptive beauty of social convention, by juxtaposing the innocence of youth with grotesque imagery, which infers the restrictiveness the institution of marriage imposes. Beginning with ‘Can you not see I do not mind what it is,’ Plath begs for death – as well as escape from the confines of her domestic duties – from Hughes, whom she taunts by clarifying that she does not hold many expectations of him to deliver. She then anticipates the public outcry that the news of her death will be met with but promises Hughes that he will be shielded from it (‘Do not be afraid, it is not so.’)

 

The poet sums up her view that forced adherence to social convention is killing her with her emotive imagery ‘If only you knew how the veils were killing my days.’ Plath then urges Hughes to let her exercise her freedom and take her own life, stating that he always tends to get himself involved. The rhetorical question, ‘Must you kill what you can?’ is a direct challenge to the violence of the patriarchy, which Plath ostensibly views as a destructive, oppressive force.

Accordingly, Plath conceptualises the institution of marriage as a tool of that oppression, as she manipulates the image of the bed – usually a symbol of intimacy – into one of everlasting imprisonment: ‘my sheets, the cold dead centre / Where split lives congeal and stiffen to history.’

 

The poem concludes with Plath addressing the prospect of death and the liberation it will afford her directly: ‘If it were death… / And the universe slide from my side.’ 

 

Perhaps more than any other poem, A Birthday Present articulates Plath’s resentment for social convention and its suffocating effects, and her desperation for release from the grasp of the patriarchy. 

quote table

Quote
Technique
Idea
‘Pure and clean as the cry of a baby, / And the universe slide from my side.’
Simile, Imagery
Perspective on death
‘But my god, the clouds are like cotton. / Armies of them. They are carbon monoxide.’
Simile, Metaphor
Impact of attitude on death
‘Let us eat our last supper at it, like a hospital plate.’
Biblical allusion, Smilie
Death, Domesticity
White as babies’ bedding and glittering with dead breath. / O ivory!’
Symbolism, Juxtaposition
Perspective on death
‘Now there are these veils, shimmering like curtains’
Simile
Impact of domesticity on mental health
‘Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus, / Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules’
Repetition
Impact of domesticity
‘What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, it is beautiful?’
Rhetorical question
Impact of domesticity on mental health

Plath Poetry

Daddy

Nick and the Candlestick

A Birthday Present

Fever
103°

Lady Lazarus

The Arrival of the Beebox