The poems that Sylvia Plath wrote toward the end of her life have layers of depth that are often overlooked by critics who mistakenly view Plath’s poetry through the lens of her suicide. While this may seem rational in view of Plath’s death, reading her poetry as if it is a tragic biography, and painting her in the image of a martyr, discredits her as a writer. Narbeshuber makes the point that, in her writing, Plath “deliberately blurs the borders between the public and the private” in her Ariel poems, including themes that extend beyond chronicles of her own struggles (185). Plathdoes this by intertwining the image of herself with her personal experiences and views of society to create different personae. In her poetry, she often “imagines a fragile self (very often feminized), subject to inhuman, and specifically modern, processes of rationalization (i.e., where the self is ‘paved over’…)” (Narbeshuber 192). The changing of the self that is depicted by these various “processes of rationalization” exposes social constructs, historical events, and aspects of status quo that, to Plath, were “ultimately metaphors of the terrifying human mind’” (Poetry Foundation). While much of her later poetry presents such themes in very pointed and dark ways, it can be argued that one of Sylvia Plath’s children’s stories, The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit, portrays the themes of the self and identity similarly despite a marked difference in genre and tone.
Sylvia Plath had both a turbulent personal life and a natural gift for writing from a young age. She was born in 1932 in Boston, spending the first 8 years of her life by the ocean until her father, Otto Plath, died abruptly in 1940 (Poetry Foundation). As a teenager, Plath developed her gift for writing, publishing “stories and poetry in national magazines” and winning awards for writing and academics (Poetry Foundation). Despite Plath’s outward success, the death of her father impacted her greatly; her struggles with grief and bipolar depression can be felt in her private journal entries as well as her poetry. Plath’s only published novel, The Bell Jar, gives a fictionalized account of her 1953 suicide attempt and subsequent recovery. A year before her death and during the year of her divorce with poet Ted Hughes, Plath published her other major work, a poetry collection titled The Colossus. The poems that would eventually be compiled to create Ariel were also written in this short period “after an intense burst of creativity” and extreme mental anguish (Poetry Foundation).
Reading her poetry as if it is a tragic biography, and painting her in the image of a martyr, discredits her as a writer.
Ariel, Plath’s collection that was published posthumously by her ex-husband Ted Hughes, was written in the last dark year of her life. With the end of her marriage to Hughes in 1962, Plath was left as a single mother of two young children, pouring her creative energy into the works that “‘are personal testaments to the loneliness and insecurity that plagued her’” (Poetry Foundation). Although deeply personal, Plath’s Ariel poems possess a level of complexity that pushes them beyond the realm of strictly confessional. Plath melded her struggles with striking parts of the socio-political environment in which she was immersed, using external events to express what was happening internally. Reflecting on this tendency, Plath wrote that “‘personal experience shouldn’t be a kind of shut box and mirror-looking narcissistic experience. I believe it should be generally relevant, to such things as Hiroshima and Dachau, and so on.’” This can be seen in poems such as “Daddy,” which parodies Plath’s troubled relationship with men in her life, particularly her “authoritarian father,” in the context of the horrors of the Holocaust (Poetry Foundation, para. 3; Narbeshuber). Other poems in Ariel do not focus on a specific historical event to make a point, but rather gain inspiration from the “various discourses of power” that Plath observed (Narbeshuber 187). For example, “The Munich Mannequins” and “The Applicant” depict the impact of society on the development of the self, a phenomenon that Plath was both experiencing personally and witnessing in the world around her (Debata).
During the same time that Plath was crafting the poems that would make up Ariel, in one of the bleakest periods of her life, she was also experiencing the beginnings of motherhood. Because Plath’s own experiences and mental musings were the main inspirations for her works, it is logical that she began drafting children’s stories after becoming pregnant. These stories have a joyous quality that contrasts starkly with Plath’s Ariel poems, despite being written almost in tandem. However, while Ariel is a critically-acclaimed collection that secured Plath’s reputation as one of the most memorable 20th-century poets, there is almost no scholarship devoted to Plath’s three children’s stories. From the surface, these stories depict Sylvia Plath as a mother, a wife, and a brilliant creative. They speak to Plath’s humanity, and they remind readers that her struggles with interpersonal relationships, bipolar depression, and suicidal ideation were merely one very exposed part of her short life. At the same time, the concept of the self that Plath fixates on in much of Ariel appears in The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit. Plath was as versatile as she was consistent, and one only has to read between the lines to recognize similarities between her children’s story and her Ariel poems.
According to Sylvia Plath’s journals, The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit was most likely first drafted in September of 1959, shortly before the birth of Plath’s first child (Popova). Poet Ted Hughes, Plath’s then-husband, had started drafting children’s stories in 1956 and publishing them in local periodicals in 1958, so Plath most likely was inspired by his ventures into children’s literature (Winter). Despite being completed in only a few months alongside her three other children’s stories, the final copy of The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit was not published until 1996, over 30 years after Plath’s death, with illustrations by German artist Rotraut Susanne Berner (Popova). Maria Popova, the author of the online literary platform Brain Pickings, describes The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit as a “charming cautionary tale about the perils of self-consciousness.” Here, Popova sheds light on the deeper meaning beneath the lighthearted tale of seven-year-old Maximilian “Max” Nix.
The internal struggle that Max has over society’s views of him seems far beyond the mental reach of an innocent seven-year-old, showing that Plath injected much of her psyche into the character of Max.
In the town of Winkleburg, Max Nix lives in a small mountain house with his six older brothers, Papa Nix, and Mama Nix. Max is a happy child, but “more than anything in the world Max Nix wanted a suit of his own” (4). Max has a fine pair of trousers and a sweater, but Max envies the variety of suits that his older brothers and father wear, and, as the youngest child, he does not get many new items. In hopes to fit in with the older males in his life, Max wishes for a suit for “All-Year-Round” (9). He wants to be dressed in such a way that all of the villagers will “flock to their doors and windows when he went by” (9). One day, after Max has dreamed extensively of such a marvelous suit, a mysterious package arrives at the Nix household, addressed to, merely, “Nix.” While Max’s brothers shake and measure the box to guess its contents, Max does not join the inspection, stating that the package “is too fine…to be for me” (13). When it is discovered that the package contains a bright “mustard-yellow” suit of unseen quality, the brothers each try on the suit to determine who is going to claim it.
At this point in the story, the reader has a grasp of Max’s character. Plath specifies that he is the youngest and the smallest of seven total children, and, unlike his older siblings, he does not yet have a suit. The suits Max describes are worn by the men in Winkleburg for birthdays, holidays, exercise, chores, and work, but none of them are the “mustard-yellow” color of the suit that the postman brings to the Nix Family doorstep (14). As the story continues, each of Max’s brothers has Mama Nix tailor the suit to fit them, but they each reject the suit for specific reasons, deciding that the suit is a “silly colour for a ski-suit,” “too fancy,” or would be perceived as “showing off,” among other assumptions (17–23). While Max’s siblings are too self-conscious to appreciate the suit, Max wears the suit with pride. The story ends with Max doing all of the activities that his brothers were scared to do with such a suit: skiing, toboggan racing, fishing, biking, feeding pigs on the family farm, and walking around town. With his new suit, Max seems like an entirely new character, exuding confidence, and true happiness that was not present at the beginning of the story. The internal struggle that Max has over society’s views of him seems far beyond the mental reach of an innocent seven-year-old, showing that Plath injected much of her psyche into the character of Max.
While The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit’s whimsical illustrations, repetitive phrasing, and simple plot make it perfect for a young audience, it is “less a story for children than the adult Plath’s ‘mosaic’ of her deep soul” (Saldivar). Like Plath’s poetry, The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit is riddled with coincidences, striking similarities to Plath’s family and personal life, which are too convenient to be unintentional. The largest coincidence is seen in the names of the characters: Paul, Emil, Otto, Walter, Hugo, Johann, and Max. Christodoulides points out that “That Plath meant The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit to be associated with her own experiences is obvious…Otto was her father’s first name, and Emil his middle. If one considers the first three names as a unity, one can see that they constitute her father’s initials: P.E.O” (34). Sylvia Plath’s father, who died when she was eight-years-old, was a German immigrant professor. The loss of Plath’s father left an enormous void in her life, influencing her writing. Although it possesses a very different tone, Plath’s poem “Daddy” in the Ariel collection also incorporates a complex image of her father (Plath 56–59). Winkleburg, the remote village in the mountains in which the Nix family resides, also bears resemblance to a setting somewhere in Germany or Austria (Christodoulides 34). Plath’s ties to her distant German and Austrian heritage make frequent appearances in her later poems, which were written at the same time as her story of the Nix family. For example, the German city of Munich is featured in the title of “The Munich Mannequins,” indicating that Plath felt a deep sense of place in connection with her German and Austrian heritage (Plath, Ariel). The “mosaic” that comprises The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit also includes more subtle connections to Plath’s life and her other works, including Plath’s decision to focus the story around the “wooly whiskery brand-new mustard-yellow suit with three brass buttons,” which functions as a symbol for identity (4).
With the death of her father at her young age, Plath lost stability and was swept up by the chaos of mental illness.
When analyzing the deeper themes and symbols in The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit, the reception of the suit by Max’s family and Max himself becomes important. The Nix family is very preoccupied with how others in Winkleburg view them, not unlike the mid-20th century society in which Plath lived. In Max’s mind, even “the cats…and the dogs…would follow him uptown and downtown, purring and grrring with admiration” (10). In this sense, a suit is equated with admiration, acceptance, and secure identity, which is confirmed by the shift in Max’s character after he receives the it-doesn’t-matter suit. When the suit first arrives, each family member besides Max dislikes the suit because of its outlandish appearance. Because Max’s siblings are older, they already own suits and have established places in society with norms to follow. Papa Nix is a banker, and each of his sons has a sport or activity of focus. On the other hand, Max is young enough to not have a fixed hobby — he is seen at the end of the story doing all of the activities that Plath assigned to his brothers — and he has no suit to help him fit into the public realm, a world beyond the home, that his brothers and father have already entered. Because of this, when Mama Nix tailors the suit to fit Max Max “as if it were made-to-order,” it makes sense that Max has a very different reaction as he is finally recognized positively by his peers (30).
The symbolism that the suit holds and, more broadly, the theme of self and identity in Plath’s work is not unique to The It-Doesn’t-Matter-Suit. As mentioned previously, critics have pointed out that the theme of the self, of the destruction and reconstruction of identity, is very apparent throughout Ariel; a men’s suit is a common symbol. In the poem “The Applicant,” Plath’s description of the male and female forms as “a glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,/A brace or a hook,/Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch” speaks to her views on the dehumanization of people by society in favor of materialism (Plath, Ariel 4). The “hollow man” and “mechanical doll woman” in the poem gain identity and wholeness through marriage and, in the man’s case, through the acquisition of a “black and stiff” suit (Debata 12; Ariel, Plath 4). The suit “gives him form, standing for the role he plays in a bureaucratic society, for the work he does” and the woman gains identity by “making contact with the world only through the medium of the man” (Debata 13). In the same way that Max was able to enter the social realm once his family allowed him to keep the suit in The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit, the “junk heap of fragmented parts” in “The Applicant” buys into society through the acquisition of his suit (Debata 12; Plath, Ariel). The material exterior of the suit allows him to assume the form of a man and to become, at the same time, a cohesive object in and a subject of society (Debata).
The continuation of the theme of self and identity from Plath’s Ariel collection, which “made ‘poetry and death inseparable,’” to one of her three children’s stories shows the power that such a theme must have had on Plath’s life (Poetry Foundation para. 7). While the symbolism of the suit is intentional in “The Applicant,” the symbolism seems too heavy and complex when placed within the context of the Nix family. Christodoulides, who analyzes The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit and Plath’s other stories in her paper, sheds light on parts of Plath’s personal life that may have been the inspiration, or causation, for such a repeated, powerful symbol.
Plath’s struggle with bipolar depression and rocky interpersonal relationships left her searching for an identity.
Christodoulides states that “like Max, who, by wearing the bright mustard-yellow suit, puts on a free self uninhibited by shame, Plath wishes with different clothes to establish an identity” (33). Plath’s struggle with identity and self-image was closely tied to material items, particularly expensive clothing, which is apparent through her journal entries and letters to her mother. In one journal entry, Plath describes why she spent a month’s pay on a coat, not unlike the shiny new suit that Max cherishes:
Today I bought a raincoat — no, that was yesterday — yesterday I bought a raincoat with a frivolous pink lining that does good to my eyes because I have never ever had anything pink-colored, and it was much too expensive — I bought it with a month’s news office pay, and soon I will not have any money to do anything more with because I am buying clothes because I love them and they are exactly right, if I pay enough. (Plath, The Unabridged Journals 183)
Plath’s struggle with bipolar depression and rocky interpersonal relationships left her searching for an identity, and clothes allowed Plath to build an identity over which she had complete control. In a 1962 entry in Letters Home, a posthumous collection of personal letters from Plath to her mother, Plath confirms this point by writing: “I feel like a new woman in them” (480). Like Max, Plath’s material possessions were what brought her self-worth and comfort.
Because writing was such a significant part of Sylvia Plath’s life, her life became part of her writing.
In her article, Saldivar also brings Otto Plath into the equation, suggesting that Max’s suit in The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit works to represent Plath’s desire for “the innocent self without embarrassment or inhibition, the self she lost when her father died.” At 7 years old, Max is one year younger than the age of Plath at the time of her father’s death. To Plath, Max represents her when she was whole and happy before her father’s death uprooted her family and left her emotionally stranded. Indeed, Max’s father is named Otto, and is almost entirely absent in the story, besides being the object of other characters’ dialogues or actions. Max shows slight contempt for his simple sweater and trousers, which can be seen as representative of the absence of materialism, yet he thrives in the expensive flashiness of the new, yellow suit (Plath, The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit). This echoes Plath’s tastes for equally lavish clothing items and therefore connects the dots between the symbol of the suit and the theme of the self in Plath’s Ariel, Plath’s personal life, and the inspiration behind the character of Max Nix.
Overall, Plath’s Ariel poems, of which “The Applicant” is the focus in this article, clearly narrate Plath’s struggles with her self-image and a concrete identity. With the death of her father at her young age, Plath lost stability and was swept up by the chaos of mental illness. One of the few constants in her life was her poetry: she published two major works in her short lifetime and created pieces for countless others. Because writing was such a significant part of Sylvia Plath’s life, her life became part of her writing, influencing the themes, characters, and settings of her pieces. Naturally, The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit, Plath’s second story for children that she drafted in 1959, follows the same pattern with its resemblance to her family and values. These similarities between Plath’s personal life, The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit, and “The Applicant” are evidence of connections between the world in which Plath lived, the world Plath perceived, and the worlds she created in both her adult poetry and children’s stories.
Christodoulides, Nephie J. Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking: Sylvia Plath as Mother-Creator in Light of Julia Kristeva’s Theory of Subject Formation. 2001. University of Stirling, Ph.D. dissertation. dspace.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/1893/3467/1/Christodoulides%20%282001%29%20-%20Out%20of%20the%20cradle%20endlessly%20rocking.pdf.
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Popova, Maria. “The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit: Sylvia Plath’s Little-Known, Lovely Children’s Book.” Brain Pickings, www.brainpickings.org/2013/03/27/the-it-doesnt-matter-suit-sylvia-plath/. Accessed 10 Nov. 2019.
Saldivar, Toni. “Nephie Christodoulides, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking: Motherhood in Sylvia Plath’s Work.” Cercles, 2005. www.cercles.com/review/r24/christodoulides.htm. Accessed 24 Nov. 2019.
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