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Rivalry, Betrayal, and Exclusion: Traumatic Reenactments and Female Peer Relations in Sylvia Plath’s Short Fiction

Sylwia Gryciuk


Although previously the critical interest in Sylvia Plath’s output revolved around her most famous poetic and prose pieces, the beginning of the twenty-first century saw a rise of a new branch of Plath criticism which aims at a more comprehensive perspective on the variety of her artistic and intellectual work. Adopting such an approach, this article examines six of Plath’s short stories with a special emphasis put on female peer relations presented therein. As the analysis reveals, although the stories in question are concerned with various life periods, all of them still follow similar narrative formula which always intertwines the (sub)plots of female peer relations with the themes of rivalry, betrayal and exclusion. Importantly, when read through the prism of contemporary trauma theory, such portrayals of female relations may be interpreted as a series of traumatic reenactments or failed attempts at integrating the original traumatic scenario which introduced the concept of a female as a threatening other.

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1Although Sylvia Plath went down in a literary history as a poet, she was a prolific writer of fiction as well. Luke Ferretter, the author of the most comprehensive study of Plath’s fiction to date, emphasizes that “[t]here was no time in [her] life, from the time she was a teenager, during which she was not writing fiction” (2). In his introduction to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Ted Hughes estimates that about seventy of Plath’s numerous short stories were preserved (11), yet at the time of her death the vast majority of them remained unpublished. Even the 1979 edition of the above-mentioned collection includes only a carefully selected sample of fiction work Plath produced.

2Plath was indeed correct in her predictions that the poems later included in Ariel would “make her name” (qtd. in Ferreter 1), as to this date the volume remains at the center of common and critical attention alike. Nonetheless, as Ferretter observes, the twenty-first century saw a rise of an alternative branch of Plath criticism which is concerned not only with non-Ariel poems, but also with a variety of other forms of artistic and intellectual expression that Plath engaged in throughout her short life. Importantly, the critical aim of this developing movement is not questioning the importance of Plath’s late poetry but rather attaining a fuller perspective on Plath and her works (1).

3As Ferretter observes, when it comes to fiction, Plath’s texts deal primarily with women characters (19) and indeed, nearly all of the twenty-two stories included in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams are focalized through a female protagonist—referred to as a Plathian protagonist/persona in the context of this article. Adopting the above-mentioned approach to Plath’s oeuvre, the following analysis examines a sample of Plath’s short stories with a special emphasis put on the (sub)plots of female peer relations read through the prism of contemporary trauma theory.

4Importantly, the biographical shadow hanging over Plath’s works has often motivated her readers to search for the figure of an authoritarian father and/or a deceitful husband. As Plath’s tragic death coincided with the dawn of the second wave of feminism, for some it became easy to think of her as a feminist martyr oppressed by a violent, male-dominated society. Commenting on the feminist cult around Plath, Harold Fromm bitterly remarks that: “[a]fter her suicide in 1963 [Plath’s] writings sold like editions of the National Enquirer, providing a convenient sand box for voyeurs and crude feminists on the lookout for mudpie effigies of ‘Daddy’” (245). Fromm’s tone may be overly scornful, but he rightly draws attention to the blatant simplification to which Plath’s personal history has often been subjected. Judith Kroll’s assessment is perhaps more balanced when she concludes that “[t]he reading of [Plath’s] work has been entangled in a fascination with her suicide and the broken marriage which preceded it, and such misreading is as widespread among her admirers as among her detractors; she has become for both a convenient symbol” (1). Indeed, as mentioned above, the complex father-daughter and husband-wife relations recurring throughout Plath’s works have been simplified and often politicized. Their conspicuousness made it clear for many readers—both professional and common—that they lay at the heart of Plath’s oeuvre. Yet, a more careful reading of Plath’s writings reveals that this is quite a hazardous assumption.

5In her journals Plath once concluded: “I fight all women for my men. My men. I am a woman, and there is no loyalty, even between mother and daughter. Both fight for the father, for the son, for the bed of mind and body” (Plath qtd. in Stevenson 71). This all-passionate conviction is implicitly embedded in her professional writings as well. Its blatant anti-women bias, measuring women’s value through the amount of men’s love they have managed to win, may be difficult to integrate for those who see Plath as a feminist icon. In truth, the actual villain of Plath’s writing is often not a man but another female. The figures of a toxic mother and a ruthless romantic rival cannot be overlooked even in the course of a superficial reading of Plath’s most famous works, but these are not the sole female antagonists in the Plathian universe. Upon careful examination, one discovers that a lack of healthy and rewarding female relationships at all stages of development is a rule for which only few exceptions can be found.

6In feminist readings of Plath’s texts, the Plathian persona is often presented as a woman whose growing self-awareness and ambition motivate her continuous attempts at challenging male authority understood on both personal and institutional level. As argued by Susan Van Dyne, “Plath's dynamic relation to her culture produces an individual negotiation of cultural possibilities, a creative resistance to gender expectations, and a poetic revision of female identity” (2). What is more, the persona’s mental anguish as well as the series of her strained relationships tend to be presented as side-effects of undertaking the feminist struggle to recognize one’s subjectivity and agency. For example, Van Dyne points out that by alienating herself from the mother a feminist subject may in fact try to “[reject] her victimization,” as the mother figure represents female compliance and submissiveness leading to the preservation of the status quo (77).

7Similarly, Susan Bassnett argues against the popular perception of the Plathian persona as abnormal and unable to hold a healthy relationship. As Bassnett claims, the relational struggles Plath wrote about were actually a common subject in the writings of the women authors of Plath’s generation, and the attempts at defining one’s own female identity in relation to other females as well as males were rarely easily enacted or conclusive. The difference setting Plath apart from her female contemporaries was that she did not live long enough to see the coming of the second wave of feminism and hear the other female voices describing similar dilemmas (62-63).

8Indeed, the knowledge of these social and cultural contexts provides one with a valuable interpretative lens. It remains debatable though as to whether the persistent and apparently insolvable female-on-female conflict can be easily explained away as an expected if unfortunate consequence of a female liberation struggle. If a female-oriented perspective is to be employed, it seems important to think of whether Plath’s anti-female bias is not in fact a manifestation of an internally conflicted female self whose liberation is partial if not illusory. Although she unquestionably attempts to challenge male authority in numerous ways, the Plathian persona still succumbs to the male-centered world perception in which males (even if in the end deceptive and treacherous) are viewed as desired allies and companions while fellow females are cast as adversaries and potential threats.

9In order to illustrate the durability and pervasiveness of this explicit as well as implicit female-on-female conflict within the context of a single genre, this article focuses on six short stories penned by Plath in the course of thirteen years, with a special emphasis put on the themes of female rivalry, betrayal and exclusion. The first two stories—“Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit” (1954) and “The Shadow” (1959)—center on childhood female peer relations, the next two—“A Day in June” (1949), “The Initiation” (1952)—on high school female peer relations, and finally, the last set—“Mothers” (1962) and “Day of Success” (1960)—concerns adult female peer relations. Importantly, the following analysis does not discuss the stories in the chronological order of their publications, as its structure reflects the maturation process of the Plathian protagonist instead. This structural choice is meant to flesh out the character herself better as well as to enhance my argument’s clarity.

10Even if one views Plath’s short stories mostly as her literary exercise—as suggested by Peter K. Steinberg (139)—they nonetheless provide one with an invaluable literary context as well as a treat of “foreshadowings, cross-references, influences and insights” (Atwood qtd. in Steinberg 139). Therefore, although they have attracted much less critical attention than Plath’s poems or even her only novel, their knowledge offers a fuller picture of the Plathian universe—the intricate combination of recurring characters, tropes, themes and motifs. As argued by Bassnett, “the way to read [Plath’s] varied texts is as parts of the kaleidoscopic whole that is Sylvia Plath's life-work. Each piece of glass in a kaleidoscope contributes to the overall pattern; remove a piece and the pattern changes; shake up the parts and the pattern changes again” (41).

11Similarly, I suggest to approach Plath’s oeuvre as an interconnected narrative system bound together by recurring plots, characters and themes which can be easily discerned without the help of the biographical interpretative lens. Therefore, in this study the historical figure Sylvia Plath remains of secondary importance while the emphasis is put on Plath understood as an author of a body of work. Importantly, even though I use the term “Plathian persona” I am not concerned with whether this recurrent character is in fact Plath’s alter ego, as many critics traditionally would. Instead, I approach the Plathian persona only as a literary construct who keeps resurfacing under different names and yet is struggling with similar relationship dynamics, experiences and dilemmas. What is more, in order to see the bigger picture, I not only analyze the stories as individual, self-contained pieces—I also try to read them in context of other similar Plathian texts of the genre, and—if I deem it noteworthy—I attempt to place my findings in the greater context of Plath’s oeuvre.

12To further contextualize the findings, I refer to contemporary trauma theory. In literary studies the concept of trauma was first conceptualized by researchers working within the poststructuralist paradigm who often argue that—due to the psychologically disruptive yet incomprehensible nature of trauma—experimental literary forms are best at representing traumatic experiences and their consequences. For example, Anne Whitehead posits that “[n]ovelists have frequently found that the impact of trauma can only adequately be represented by mimicking its forms and symptoms, so that temporality and chronology collapse, and narratives are characterized by repetition and indirection” (3). And yet, critics such as Alan Gibbs note that this initially descriptive remark soon acquired a prescriptive character. In consequence, the conventional or realist literary representations of trauma attracted less critical attention (24). In line with this dissent, I argue that even though Plath’s short stories often fall under realist convention, they may be read as representations of trauma, or—precisely speaking—of traumatic reenactments. Such a reading becomes more convincing when the stories are indeed studied as a part of a greater narrative and not as self-contained pieces.

13In her seminal book, Judith Herman defines psychological trauma somewhat enigmatically as “affliction of the powerless.” As she then elaborates: “At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force…. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning” (24). Cathy Caruth, the pioneer of the literary trauma theory, provides a definition which also stresses the disruptive nature of the traumatic experience. According to her, trauma is

[the] wound of the mind—the breach in the mind’s experience of time, self, and the world— [which] is not, like the wound of the body, a simple and healable event, but rather an event that… is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor. (4)

14Importantly, Caruth also highlights the repetitive nature of trauma, and indeed, compulsive reenactments of the traumatic circumstances—be them conscious or subconscious—are one of the common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. As Herman notices, these are often theorized to be “spontaneous attempts to integrate the traumatic event” (30), even though they are often involuntarily, as the “traumatized people find themselves reenacting some aspect of the trauma scene in disguised form, without realizing what they are doing” (29).

15Following these observations, I argue that the dysfunctional and repetitive female relations in Plath’s short stories can be viewed as a series of compulsive reenactments through which the Plathian protagonist involuntarily tries to integrate a pre-existing traumatic scenario. It remains debatable, though, if the scenario is indeed described in the stories. One can argue that vague or absent depictions of the original traumatic event are in themselves good indications of traumatic experiences since the “wound of the mind” remains still “unassimilated” and “unavailable to consciousness,” as Caruth puts it. Nonetheless, I suggest that the traumatic scenario can be located in Plath’s writings which narrate early childhood experience, namely those that feature deteriorating and dissatisfying mother-daughter relations. Below, I briefly comment on an example which is here a case in point—“Ocean 1212-W.”

16Admittedly, “Ocean 1212-W” is generally classified as an autobiographical essay rather than a short story, so its connection to the analyzed material may, at first glance, appear tenuous. Still, I consider it at least worth mentioning as it incorporates the essential Plathian characters, motifs, and plots, and a search for these is the motivation behind my research. Importantly, as the analytical perspective that I employ remains indifferent to the author’s biography as well as other extra-literary events, I do not draw a clear line between the texts officially classified as fiction and those believed to be autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. Ultimately, I consider such distinctions mostly arbitrary, and view the texts as belonging to the same narrative universe. Then, although the primary focus of my analysis are the texts classified as Plath’s short fiction, I do employ Plath’s different, possibly nonfictive texts, as their contexts.

17“Ocean 1212-W” depicts the point at which the Plathian protagonist’s dyad with her mother deteriorates to an extent generating the girl’s search for an alternative point of reference, inspiring her identification with the ocean, here personified as a woman—beautiful, unfathomable and luring with a possibly deadly outcome. The ocean in fact appears to be another incarnation of the powerful yet threatening female force of Plath’s oeuvre which in Plath’s poetry often takes the form of the moon, or—according to Judith Kroll—of Robert Graves’ vision of the Moon Goddess, the only real muse of the poets (63). In the story, the previously blissful mother-daughter symbiosis comes to an end with the birth of the protagonist’s brother. She deeply resents his presence and, as Ingrid Melander rightly observes, not untypically for a young child, views him as a threat and a rival (14). Nevertheless, when she names the day he was born “this awful birthday of otherness,” the phrasing implies distress more profound than typical sibling rivalry. The narrator indeed describes a deep sense of abandonment and loneliness which haunts her when the initial mother-child bond is broken, forcing her to acknowledge herself as a separate entity, and separate not only from the mother, but also from the whole universe. As she puts it: “as from a star I saw, coldly and soberly, the separateness of everything. I felt the wall of my skin: I am I. That stone is a stone. My beautiful fusion with the things of this world was over” (Plath 104). Melander further argues that “this feeling of ‘separateness of everything’” is present throughout Plath’s poetry, only “deepening fatally” and thus becoming the core of her work (14, 15).

18Traditionally, critics have accentuated the importance of the loss of the father as the crucial traumatic experience befalling the Plathian persona. For example, in her essay titled “The Doxies of Daughter: Plath, Cixous, and the Father” Marilyn Manners claims that in Plath’s writings “the father’s early death [is treated] as a kind of primary trauma which is re-written into the painful coming-of-age of the daughter as writer” (151). Similarly, Kroll notices that “if [the Plathian persona’s] relation to her father was of central importance in her life, then life without him had the character of absence, of unreality and stagnation, was impossible of fulfillment” (9). Although I do not attempt to undermine the importance of the father-daughter relations in Plath’s writing nor do I posit that the loss of the father is not depicted as intensely traumatic, I suggest that this in fact is not the primary trauma afflicting the Plathian persona. Instead, I argue that the deterioration of the loving mother-daughter bond and the resulting “feeling of ‘separateness of everything’” constitute the original loss animating the Plathian universe. What is more, I conclude that almost all subsequent female-on-female relations constitute some form of reliving of the traumatic scenario, and yet, they ultimately only reinforce it instead of providing opportunities for reintegration and healing.

19Importantly, this traumatic scenario and its reenactments are to be found in Plath’s fiction as well as poetry. Their presence becomes conspicuous when the texts are read through the prism of one another in search of recurring plots, characters and themes, but sometimes even single pieces can be analyzed independently. “Electra on Azalea Path”—an early poem focusing on toxic dynamics within a father-daughter-mother triad—is here a good example. The I-speaker’s father is presented as a fallen giant whose death is implied to be her mother’s fault. The I-speaker feels conflicted, though, as she realizes that her mother’s actions constituted a revenge for a crime the father had committed earlier. In her analysis, Bassnett aptly captures the resulting sense of betrayal and exclusion that the I-speaker in fact projects on all females:

Above all, Electra is… torn between loyalties. Her desire for revenge against her mother, despite her knowledge of her source of her mother’s hatred, isolates her from any kind of female solidarity…. The Electra figure is an unhappy, marginalized outsider, doomed neither to share the confidence of her mother, nor to enjoy the fruits of her loyalties to her father. (85, emphasis added)

20Admittedly, though, unlike in its reenactments, in the original scenario it is another female that constitutes the lost love object while the male is the threatening rival. What I posit here is that the sense of betrayal and exclusion is intense enough to provoke the Plathian persona renouncing her mother and simultaneously negate the possibility of loving female relations in general. In consequence, as noted by Nephie Christodoulides, in Plath’s writings “motherhood is closely associated with daughterhood and daughterhood is manifested mostly as abjection, the struggle to liberate the self from ‘maternal hold’” (9). This in turns provokes the Plathian protagonist’s identification with the father, the male love object. Still, the female-on-male relations cannot fulfill the void left by the separation from the female love object. Subsequently, the first traumatic loss gets entangled with the loss of the male love object, the father, and the Plathian protagonist keeps maneuvering between various reenactments, often failing at her attempts at healing. In the end, the other female becomes the unreachable otherno longer a love object but a rival. What is being reenacted is the sense of separateness, the sense of threat and the eventual betrayal and/or exclusion.

21When studying Plath’s work through the prism of trauma theory, it is important to again consider the sociocultural context mentioned before. Indeed, are critics such as Susan Bassnett or Susan Van Dyne right in suggesting that the Plathian persona’s experience is largely mirrored by other female artists who had to come of age in the male-dominated society of the 1950s America? In other words, can her trauma be viewed as a common plight affecting contemporary women of ambition? Here, it may be tempting to gravitate towards two extreme positions. One treats trauma as a purely personal experience, thus “[excluding] other problems, notably when [trauma] is simply… understood in terms of individual psychology” (LaCapra ix). The other views it as a widespread phenomenon affecting entire demographics if not societies. While the former approach “depoliticises social inequalities” (Gibbs 22), the latter may lead one to entertain “the dubious ideas that everyone… is a victim, that all history is trauma, or that we all share a pathological public sphere or a ‘wound culture’” (LaCapra 64). The recurrence of the latter perspective is perhaps to an extent inevitable since, as argued by Kirby Farrell: “In contemporary culture… trauma is both a clinical syndrome and a trope something like the Renaissance figure of the world as a stage: a strategic fiction that a complex, stressful society is using to account for a world that seems threateningly out of control” (2). In consequence, “people feel, or are prepared to feel, whether they are aware of it or not, as if they have been traumatized” (Farrell x). Indeed, among others, the trauma discourse has arguably come to function as a self-perpetuating cultural narrative containing tales of loss, abuse, and mourning within rigid frameworks. As argued by Anne Rothe, the author of Popular Trauma Culture: Selling the Pain of Others in the Mass Media,

the trauma concept functions as a discursive knot in contemporary culture due to its vast associative powers of generating interactions between disparate ideas… it… provides the dominant mode of emplotment—the basic narrative structure and core set of characters—for representing such diverse experiences as child abuse, Holocaust survival, war combat, terminal illness, and addiction in contemporary Western culture. (4)

22Interestingly, Rothe sees Plath’s ahistorical adoption of Holocaust imagery as one of the early signs of the then emerging popular trauma culture. The discourse of trauma is then claimed to be Plath’s tool for organizing and narrating individual loss and pain (8,15,16). My analysis does not concern Plath’s Holocaust imagery, and yet I approach the trauma discourse underlining Plath’s texts with a similar perspective. In other words, I do not present a strictly psychoanalytical reading as I am more concerned with the structure and functioning of the selected elements of the trauma discourse themselves. Similar to critics such as Rothe, Farell or Young, I am primarily interested in the trauma discourse as a narrative construct that has penetrated the Western culture in the twentieth century to become virtually indispensable in discussions on loss and pain—be them personal or political. In the context of this article, my aim is to retrace the implicit presence of the concept of traumatic reenactment in the selected prose pieces written by Plath.

1. Childhood Female Peer Relations

23In Plath’s writing, the rare theme of childhood peer relations is always interwoven into a larger, more complex conflict. The theme is most conspicuous in two of Plath’s lesser known short stories—“Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit” (1954) and “The Shadow” (1959). Ferretter notes that the former was written for a class Plath took at Smith College to be later published by Smith Review while the latter was written in the hope of having it published in New Yorker (112). Both stories follow nearly the same formula, suggesting that “The Shadow” is in fact a rewriting of the previous story, focusing on subplots which were less prominent in “Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit.”

24The action of both stories takes place in the winter of 1941/1942, the time when the US joined World War II or, as the narrator puts it: in “the winter the war began” (Plath 330). The protagonist of the earlier story is a nameless fifth grader who lives with her mother and her young uncle. In the absence of her late father, the uncle takes up the role of an adventurous male role model whom the little protagonist admires. She idolizes him to the point that he reminds her of Superman, then an emerging pop culture’s icon:

These nightly adventures in space began when Superman started invading my dreams and teaching me how to fly. He used to come roaring by in his shining blue suit with his cape whistling in the wind, looking remarkably like my Uncle Frank who was living with Mother and me…. I was sure that he bore an extraordinary resemblance to Superman incognito. (160-161)

25The protagonist and her neighbor friend—David Sterling—view Superman as an emblematic hero standing for the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Both children often engage in Superman-themed games, distancing themselves from the rest of their peers, boys and girls alike. The protagonist herself appears to enjoy the sense of emotional intimacy resulting from this self-imposed exclusion: „During recess, David and I came into our own. We ignored the boys playing baseball on the gravel court and the girls giggling at dodge-ball in the dell. Our Superman games made us outlaws, yet gave us a sense of windy superiority” (161). Yet, the state of affairs is bound to change when the protagonist’s carefree life is disturbed by a series of unpleasant incidents beginning with her acquaintance’s birthday party. The celebrant, Paula Brown, is a conceited and unlikeable girl who invites all children from the neighborhood only to intimidate them by boasting about her numerous presents. The party’s atmosphere turns from awkward to stifling when it is revealed that Disney’s Snow White, a movie that the children are about to watch, is preceded by a disturbing anti-Japanese war propaganda piece. The images of tortures keep haunting the protagonist henceforth, and the idea of Superman no longer suffices to help her restore the previously held, naive vision of reality:

After I went to bed that night, as soon as I closed my eyes, the prison camp sprang to life in my mind, and again the groaning men broke through the walls, and again they were shot down as they reached the trickling fountain. No matter how hard I thought of Superman before I went to sleep, no crusading blue figure came roaring down in heavenly anger to smash the yellow men who invaded my dreams. (163)

26Due to this experience, the protagonist not only begins to realize that the world is filled with cruelty too immense for her to comprehend, but she also feels that there is no remedy to help her manage the resulting anxiety. Yet, the true breakthrough occurs only when the protagonist is victimized herself.

27Not long after the memorable birthday party, the neighborhood children play together while Paula Brown wears her favorite present, the eponymous snowsuit. Unfortunately, Paula falls down during one of the games, destroying the garment. Angry, she wants to place the blame on somebody else but herself, and the protagonist is randomly chosen. The rest of the children—“the well of faces moving toward” the protagonist” (164)—gleefully join in Paula’s false accusations, and the girl becomes a tormented scapegoat, which in no time leads to the entire neighborhood believing her to be guilty. In a way, David also betrays his friend as—following his mother’s request—he informs the protagonist’s family that they should buy Paula a new snowsuit. The family—including the idolized Uncle Frank—surrender, thus accepting the protagonist’s false status of a malevolent aggressor. Sitting alone in her room, the girl feels an overpowering sense of hopelessness and abandonment: “I lay there alone in bed, feeling the black shadow creeping up the underside of the world like a flood tide. Nothing held, nothing was left. The silver airplanes and the blue capes all dissolved and vanished, wiped away like the crude drawings of a child in colored chalk from the colossal blackboard of the dark” (166).

28Although in no way comparable to war atrocities, this incident irrevocably alters the protagonist’s world perception, leading her to the realization that—unlike in her fantasies—there is no ultimate justice, and an innocent person can be victimized by a mistaken judgment.

29As Ferreter concludes, “[w]ith the war, [the protagonist] grows up coming to disbelieve in the imaginary heroes and the justice they embody” (113). The story indeed ends with a sentence which seals the sense of disillusionment: “That was the year the war began, and the real world, and the difference” (Plath 166). Similarly, Nancy D. Hardgrove characterizes “Superman…” as a story of “a young girl… disillusioned by her sudden recognition of the suffering and injustice of life both on a general and on a personal level” (85). These observations are definitely on point, but it is noteworthy to also consider “Superman…” as an installment in a greater narrative structure that the Plathian universe is. Indeed, although it is performed on a uniquely designed stage, “Superman…” tells the familiar Plathian tale of peer relations marked by the sense of betrayal and exclusion.

30As previously mentioned, the story incorporates the recurring Plathian dynamic of the parent-child relations, although this time the young uncle replaces the late father. Here, it is the uncle with whom the protagonist forms a meaningful and cordial relationship (even if, in the end, his perceived limitations contribute to the girl’s sense of disappointment). In contrast, the mother is a one-dimensional figure at best, and the protagonist never interacts with her in a way implying genuine emotional intimacy. Although Ernest Shulman’s claim that “Superman…” provides additional proof that Plath herself “received relatively little emotional support from her mother” (602) does not sit well with the contemporary approaches to Plath and her works, which avoid such unapologetically biographical and widely speculative interpretations, applying this reading to the story’s protagonist alone seems on the other hand justifiable. Admittedly, very little information is revealed about the relationship between the protagonist and her mother, and yet one can argue that this silence is in itself telling of a void replacing authentic emotional intimacy. Such an interpretation can be further substantiated by the fact that the story’s protagonist indeed always speaks only of her “Mother,” which seems especially formal and stigmatizing when contrasted with the diminutive “Daddy” (Plath 162) the girl uses when reminiscing about her late father. This distancing language again brings to mind Christodoulides’s observation that the Plathian persona continuously “struggle[s] to liberate the self from ‘maternal hold’” (9).

31The claim that the protagonist identifies exclusively with male characters is further confirmed by her choice of the real-life idol Uncle Frank, and the playmate David Sterling. In the end, the protagonist feels especially hurt by what she perceives to be their lack of loyalty, and, interestingly, these “betrayals” are provoked by at least two female characters. The major antagonist appears to be Paula Brown—the detested female peer who victimizes the protagonist for purely egoistic, if not sadistic reasons. Yet, the protagonist’s fate would not be sealed had it not been for the indirect or “reluctant” antagonists—the mother figures. It is indeed David’s mother who sends the boy to the protagonist’s family to let them know that they should buy Paula a new snowsuit, thus accepting the false narrative. Still, the final decision lies with the protagonist’s mother who, as opposed to Uncle Frank, does not even appear interested in talking with her daughter in private to better understand her perspective and help her manage her emotions. In the end, then, what “Superman and Paula Brown’s New Snowsuit” offers is the familiar Plathian plot of a female who steps in and disrupts or even destroys a male-female relationship.

32The subtle manner in which the theme of childhood peer relations is employed in “Superman…” makes it appear superficial, but its twin story—“The Shadow”—focuses on it in greater detail. The story’s opening sentence reads: “The winter the war began I happened to fall in the bad graces of the neighborhood for biting Leroy Kelly on the leg” (Plath 330). The very beginning of the story signals a reemployment of the narrative scheme interweaving a grand scale conflict—World War II—with a minor, local incident—a neighborhood disagreement over the protagonist’s behavior and, as Ferretter observes, inevitable contextualization of the latter by the former (112). Once again, the story’s protagonist is an elementary school student, here named Sadie Shafer. Unlike the narrator of “Superman…,” she lives with both her mother and her German-American father. Quite like her counter-protagonist though, she chooses a boy as her favorite playmate, namely, the above-mentioned Leroy Kelly. The Kellys live next door to the Shafers and as Sadie reveals: “For convenience, my mother classed Maureen [Leroy’s sister] as my best friend, although she was over a year younger than I and a grade behind me in school. Leroy, just my age, was a lot more interesting” (Plath 331).

33The age factor is actually just a minor contribution to the overall failure of the forced friendship. These are Leroy’s adventurous streak and ingenuity which attract the tomboyish Sadie and which consequently cast Maureen—the stereotypically feminine girl—as a much less desirable playmate. Interestingly, even though Maureen is described as petite and “cute as a button” (331), she also exhibits malevolent behavior characteristic of the darker side of the stereotypical femininity: “Maureen also had a trick of making her eyes go suddenly teary and guileless, a studied imitation, no doubt, of the picture of St Theresa of the Child Jesus pinned up over her bed. When she didn’t get her way, she simply raised those brown eyes to heaven and yowled” (331). Maureen indeed does not shy away from taking advantage of her innocent appearance, and if she is displeased with Sadie’s actions, she slyly turns to manipulation to trick their caretakers into perceiving the bigger and stronger Sadie as an oppressor. As the narrator bitterly remarks, “Just because I was big for my age, I came in for all the scoldings going. I didn’t think I deserved it” (332). When on one occasion she cannot use adults as tools helping her achieve her goal, Maureen starts tickling Sadie to force her into compliance. Soon, Maureen persuades Leroy to join in and—as she is particularly sensitive to tickling—Sadie becomes nearly hysterical. Hemmed in by the siblings, she sees her way out only in biting Leroy, which indeed abruptly ends the teasing. Later Mrs Kelly spreads an exaggerated retelling of the incident, and Sadie finds herself scolded by her neighbors for being an unruly and aggressive child: “The Kellys told certain neighbors my bite drew blood, but Leroy confessed to me, after the excitement died down and we were speaking to each other again, that the only sign he had been bitten was a few purplish teeth marks, and these turned yellow and faded in a day or two” (333). Unnerved, the girl perceives this as injustice resulting from a distortion of facts—as opposed to the protagonist of the twin story, she indeed is guilty; however, the account of her behavior has been not only exaggerated but also taken out of context of Maureen’s spiteful teasing. Yet, Sadie’s infamy only grows and soon the entire Shafer family is stigmatized, even though Sadie herself is fully reconciled with her direct victim, Leroy. Still enamored with fictional superheroes who always restore order and make good prevail, Sadie remains optimistic about the final outcome of the situation. In her words: “Though the neighbors’ slights seemed to me wrong, even strangely excessive—since they included my parents as well as myself—I never doubted that justice, sooner or later, would right the balance” (334).

34The reality proves to be much more complex, though, as in the collective reasoning of the Shafers’ neighbors this minor incident weaves into a larger political conflict. One day Maureen teasingly informs Sadie that in her mother’s view the blame for Sadie’s behavior lies in Sadie’s father being German. Soon, Sadie’s father’s nationality becomes the sole reason for taunting, which only deepens the girl’s confusion and anger. The situation reaches its climax when Sadie is informed by her mother that her father will have to leave them and spend the war in a detention camp for German citizens living in the US: “The shadow in my mind lengthened with the night blotting out our half of the world, and beyond it; the whole globe seemed sunk in a darkness. For the first time the facts were not slanted mother’s way, and she was letting me see it” (339). With no consolation or hope on the horizon, Sadie gives up her faith in triumph of goodness and justice.

35In “The Shadow,” the political aspect of the story is highlighted even more than in its counterpart, as the injustice of the world conflict is not only parallel to the events in the protagonist’s life, but it also affects Sadie directly when her father—in no way personally entangled in the war—is forced to abandon his family. The world of politics and its impact on the lives of ordinary citizens is indeed a prominent theme in the story. What is more, the separation from the father—although not caused by his death and implied to be only temporary—appears to be yet another manifestation of the motif of the lost father, the trauma which signals the end of Plathian persona’s childhood, “the golden age” (Kroll 11) of her life.

36Gender relations and identifications are then of a greater importance than a superficial reading of the story may suggest. Most importantly, “The Shadow” retells the familiar, Plathian narrative of a threatening female third party who disrupts a male-female relationship, causing the male character to betray his female companion. In truth, Leroy and Sadie are swiftly reconciled, but the reverberations of the incident haunt the girl in various ways. Importantly, near the end of the story it is once again Maureen who, as if stepping between them, informs Sadie about the threat to her relationship with another male character, her father. This piece of information is later confirmed by another female, Sadie’s mother, and the story ends before Sadie has a chance to confront her father from whom she will soon be separated. Thus, in “The Shadow” the role of the female characters other than the protagonist is to either convey information on threats to the protagonist’s well-being or pose such threats themselves. What is especially interesting in these scenarios is the fact that the reenactments, the returns of “the trauma scene in disguised form” (Herman 29) occur in the protagonists’ early childhood and involve individuals different than the close family, which illustrates how deep-seated and far-reaching the traumatic relational formula is.

2. High School Female Peer Relations

37High school experience is the period of life to which Plath paid least attention in her mature writings—its mentions are sparse and usually interwoven as a context for later developments. A good example of this is The Bell Jar’s subplot of Buddy Willard—the protagonist’s high school sweetheart with whom she becomes disillusioned in later life, and whose rejection is a significant step in her maturation process (Wagner). Still, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams does include two short stories which deal with teen experience. The earlier one, “A Day in June,” is one of the two oldest stories which became a part of the volume, as they both date back to 1949 when Plath was only 17. As such, it falls under the category of “Juvenilia” which covers twenty-five short stories preserved from the years 1946-1950 (Ferretter 2).

38The story begins with two teenage girls—the unnamed narrator/narratee and her friend Linda—enjoying their first canoe ride during the summer. Soon, they are joined by two boys—Don and Buck. The protagonist suggest they race but their new acquaintances refuse, arguing it would be unfair for two boys to race two girls. To even the chances, both sets of friends split creating two mixed-gender pairs. The protagonist takes an almost immediate liking towards her partner, Buck:

Nothing like this has ever happened to you before. None of the boys at school have ever been this nice to you…. Here is a boy… paddling you in a canoe…. [H]e likes you. Immediately Buck is enveloped in a dreamy haze. Minute by minute he grows more appealing. You push aside the nagging thought, ‘What ever would people say?’ You laugh always, being mysterious, and, you think, coquettish. (Plath 249)

39This idyllic atmosphere changes when the girls trick the boys into believing that they have no money to pay for renting the canoes. Irritated, the boys agree to cover their expenses, but the resulting embarrassment leaves the narrator on the verge of tears: “You look at him, churning inside, heat pounding at your temples…. Tears of embarrassed anger blur your eyes, hot and wet, stinging with salt” (250). Moved by this sight, Buck is placated, which comforts the protagonist who feels that a bond is forming between them. She wants to confess the truth but is overcome by fear that it will put an end to Buck’s budding affection.

40Eventually, this is Linda who—acting against her friend’s wishes—reveals the truth after the boys have already paid for the girls. Indignant at being tricked, they take the money and disappear. Linda is relieved, but the protagonist remains exceedingly depressed by the incident. Her description of the lovely summer evening is filtered through her sadness: “The afternoon shatters around you into a million glassy fragments. Malicious, dancing silvers of green and blue and yellow light arise and whirl about you… suffocating, smothering flakes of color” (250). It appears as if a great loss has occurred in her life, even though the protagonist herself implicitly notices that her reaction is exaggerated. On the intellectual level, she seems to agree with Linda (“Linda sighs with satisfaction. She has done that which was necessary, and she dismisses the incident accordingly” [250]), but on the emotional one she is absorbed by mourning the lost moment of emotional intimacy. Interestingly enough, this is again a male-female moment of intimacy which is eventually disrupted by intrusion of another female. Although appearing in a mild reenactment of the familiar Plathian scenario, the protagonist’s friend still becomes the other female who intrudes upon the union she has formed with a male companion.

41The theme of a fellow female as an adversary (although not in a romantic context) is more conspicuous in the second story focused on teenage experiences—“The Initiation”—which was written three years later and subsequently published by Seventeen. The protagonist is a teenage girl named Millicent, and the story’s title refers to her initiation into her school’s prestigious sorority. Becoming its member has been Millicent’s dream for years, yet for a long time she did not meet the sorority’s elusive standards, which implanted in her a sense of inferiority and incompleteness:

Millicent had waited a long time for acceptance, longer than most. It was as if she had been sitting for years in a pavilion outside a dance floor, looking in through the windows at the golden interior, with the lights clear and the air like honey, wistfully watching the gay couples waltzing to the never-ending music, laughing in pairs and groups together, no one alone. (139)

42The sorority is indeed elitist to a point that its members are believed to be the school’s “aristocracy.” Unsurprisingly, Millicent is thrilled at the idea of her dream coming true, and yet, she does not perceive it exclusively as an opportunity to elevate her (superficial) social status, but as a true developmental milestone: “How horrible it would be if one never changed… if she were condemned to be the plain, shy Millicent of a few years back for the rest of her life. Fortunately there was always the changing, the growing, the going on” (138). Millicent’s only regret seems to be her friend, Tracy, being rejected by the sorority as—in spite of Millicent’s assurances—the resulting disparity in the girls’ social standings poses a threat to their friendship. Yet, Millicent remains hopeful that Tracy will also join the sorority sometime in the future.

43The initiation itself is a five-day affair which in practice consists of nothing but a series of humiliating tasks. It is indeed designed as if to break the candidates’ willpower and instill in them unconditional obedience to the sorority. Yet, as Millicent eventually finds out, not only is the sorority’s activity limited to weekly social gatherings, but the mysterious selection of candidates is itself motivated by petty judgments. Clearly, the sorority is a purely superficial organization, and there is no need to for the drastic measures of the initiation process as their sole purpose is to satisfy the members’ sadistic cravings. No sisterly attitude can actually be detected in this sorority’s ethos and actions.

44Nonetheless, the story ends with Millicent discovering her—nomen omen—strength and desire to preserve her individuality. Having her initiation nearly completed, the girl decides that she does not need to be the sorority’s member after all. She aims at completing her initiation but only for her own satisfaction, thus eventually rejecting the membership—a turn of events unheard of in the sorority’s history:

The other victory would be much harder, but she knew that it was what she wanted. It was not that she was being noble or anything. It was just that she had learned there were other ways of getting into the great hall, blazing with lights, of people and of life.... And how she could still be friends with everybody. Sisters with everybody. Tracy, too. (146)

45The story finishes before Millicent announces her final decision, leaving the ending semi-open. The conclusion seems largely optimistic, as it stresses the importance of agency and independence. Still, Millicent’s thinking appears somewhat naïve—by rejecting the membership she wants to be “sisters with everybody” (146), thus not limiting her social circle to fellow sorority girls. However, the members’ various reactions to Millicent’s decision are not taken into account, which seems curious as one can speculate that the subsequent school life of someone who has rejected the prestigious social circle may be marked with numerous challenges. Then, although “Initiation” does end on a hopeful note when it comes to female peer relations, having the story finished before the crucial decision is made and its consequences felt is an argument for a cautious reading, stressing hope rather than its potential realization. In other words, “Initiation” captures only a desire for “assimilating the wound of the mind” (Caruth 4) through cultivation of fruitful and inclusive female-on-female relations.

3. Adult Female Peer Relations

46As mentioned in the introduction, Plath’s fictional writings deal primarily with women characters (Ferretter 19), and still, only a few of her short stories are explicitly concerned with peer relations between adult women. When the theme appears, these relations are often plagued by such communication barriers as mistrust, lack of understanding, prejudice or even pure hostility, providing clear examples of the traumatic reenactment casting the other female as a potential rival or a threat. The following analysis will focus on two of these stories: “Mothers” (1962) and “Day of Success” (1960).

47“Mothers” is especially interesting in its attempt at a critical portrayal of a female community which has been created in order to strengthen the bond between women neighbors. Its main themes are desire for belonging and the consequences of exclusion. The protagonist of the story is Esther, a young American woman who has recently moved into the English countryside with her husband, their little daughter, and the second baby on the way. As it is quickly revealed, Esther’s emotional life is somewhat deficient, leaving her struggling with a desire for a more profound experience of intimacy. One manifestation of this need are her spiritual cravings and thus, even though Esther is a declared atheist, she regularly attends the Evensong service at the local church, mourning the “irrevocable gap between her faithless state and the beatitude of belief” (Plath 111). Still, as she is deeply skeptical of the church community to say the least, her desire is meant to remain unsatisfied, leaving her a victim of her own conflicted feelings. Her further attempts at integrating with the local female community—Mothers’ Union in particular—expose a similar attitude.

48Mothers’ Union is an informal organization created to unite the women of Devon, the village Esther now inhabits. Yet, as it is affiliated with the local church, its value system makes it exclusive and, considering Devon’s small population, potentially stigmatizing. When Esther attends the meeting of the Mothers’ Union for the first time, she is accompanied by her neighbor—Rose—a former Londoner. Not being native to Devon either, Rose seems like a good candidate for an ally, and yet—as suggested—Rose is not intellectually refined enough to be Esther’s equal, making it impossible for the two to form a truly cordial, emotionally meaningful relationship. Nonetheless, the practical aspect of this acquaintance is attractive not only to Esther, as the second woman escorted by Rose turns out to be Mrs Nolan who has been living in Devon for six years.

49The oddity of this situation does not escape Esther who is astonished when Mrs Nolan admits that she “hardly [knows] a soul” (108, emphasis in original) in Devon. Indeed, as Rose puts it, Mrs Nolan “never came to the Mothers’ Union meetings because she had no one to go with” (107, emphasis added). This revelation makes Esther doubt her own ability to integrate into the community: “If Mrs Nolan, an Englishwoman by her looks and accent, and a pub-keeper’s wife as well, felt herself a stranger in Devon after six years, what hope had Esther, an American, of infiltrating that rooted society ever at all?” (108). When the church ceremony preceding the actual meeting makes Mrs Nolan uneasy, it is revealed that she is a divorcee and as such feels unwelcome in the community of Devon which has strong ties to the Church of England, an organization condemning divorces (“‘I shouldn’t have come,’ Mrs Nolan whispered to Esther. ‘Divorced women aren’t supposed to come.’” [115]). In consequence, even after six years of living in Devon, Mrs Nolan still feels like an outsider.

50Esther’s own experience with Mothers’ Union arouses in her conflicting feelings and reactions. On the one hand, the strict religious aura makes her uneasy as well, but on the other hand, her desire for belonging and warm acceptance puts her under pressure to integrate with the local women. Feeling hopeful, Esther initially appears to perceive the atmosphere of the meeting as inviting: “The interior of the church seemed curiously light.... Already the back pews were filling with women, rustling, ducking, kneeling and beaming benevolently in every direction” (109). As the members gather for the ceremony, Esther feels her baby moving, which makes her serene and optimistic: “I am a mother; I belong here” (111). The subsequent dinner—the pinnacle of the meeting—is compared by Esther to “a large family gathering” (114), while the rector’s wife, its hostess, is at one point described as looking “maternally” (114). Nonetheless, unable to accept the religious doctrines behind the organization and empathizing with her new acquaintance’s plight, Esther leaves the meeting early along with Mrs Nolan and Rose.

51In her Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath Jo Gill observes that one of the story’s dominating interpretations focuses on the allegedly discriminatory and oppressive influence of the Church of England. Yet, she also concludes that such readings oversimplify the story, obscuring the real line of conflict. In Gill’s own words, the story is primarily concerned with “dialectic of belonging and exclusion” and thus “explores the uneasy bonds of suspicion and distrust between women,” treating the Church more as a background image, a scenery against which the actual events take place (91). The pattern of behavior on which the story comments becomes even more evident when one focuses on Esther’s actual role in the events. Gill concludes that, “Esther’s story exposes not so much the pettiness of the church or of the Mothers’ Union but her own veiled complicity in the exclusionary practices” as “her initiation into this world comes with her apparent betrayal, or sacrifice of Mrs Nolan at the end of the story” (91).

52Indeed, even though Esther does express her indignation at the community’s treatment of Mrs Nolan, when the woman parts with Esther and Rose the two quickly change the subject, focusing on their own bonding, which implies that Esther’s integration into the community may—in spite of her misgivings—actually proceed, soon placing her above Mrs Nolan in the village hierarchy. The story’s concluding fragment reads: “The two women passed under the churchyard, with its flat, black yew, and as the chill of evening wore through their coats and the afterglow of tea, Rose crooked out one arm, and Esther, without hesitation, took it” (Plath 116). Still, the relationships which Esther can build on this ground are as superficial as is her budding friendship with Rose. Then, even though Esther does in a way contribute to the exclusion of Mrs Nolan, her own desire for acceptance and sense of belonging is not likely to be satisfied either.

53The second short story in this section—“Day of Success”—stands in partial contrast to “Mothers” due to its sentimental character. All in all, it was written with English women’s magazines in mind and tries to imitate their style to the point that Ted Hughes calls it “an attempt at pastiche” (12). Still, even though it offers a different approach, “Day of Success” also deals with stigmatization and exclusion of divorced women, here manifested through the protagonist’s fear of becoming a divorcee herself. In contrast to “Mothers,” though, this story is concerned not with the formation of a stable identity in a new, women-dominated environment but with retaining an existing one in the light of threats from other women—either a full-fledged rival or an ill-equipped “ally.”

54The story’s focalizer is Ellen, a young housewife married to Jacob, a promising writer with whom she has an infant daughter. The propelling event is here the news that a TV station has bought the rights to Jacob’s first play. Yet, instead of feeling proud, Ellen grows overwhelmed by anxiety. Somewhat against her will, she fears that once Jacob immerses himself in the glamour of a successful career, he will abandon her, not finding a housewife appealing anymore. Ellen’s worries center on Denise Kay—the producer of the play’s adaptation and an attractive seductress in comparison with whom she feels plain and dull. Although she does not yet have any evidence of Jacob’s infidelity, Ellen starts to perceive Denise as a serious threat to her marriage—a threat against which she believes to be largely defenseless:

Ellen’s heart sank as she pictured the elegantly-groomed red-headed woman at the other end of the wire…. [She] had secretly hoped Denise would be struck by lightning or spirited to Australia rather than have her thrown together with Jacob in the crowded, intimate days of rehearsal—author and producer collaborating on the birth of something wonderful, uniquely theirs. (Plath 185)

55When Ellen receives the news which simultaneously cements the business relationship between Jacob and Denise, her first thought is: “This is itThe beginning of the end” (186, emphasis in original). Still, she appears ashamed by the extent of her jealousy and anxiety, which, as implied, have been bothering her for some time already. After all, the first paragraph of the story is followed by Ellen’s anxious “prayer”: “Please don’t let it change, she begged of whatever fates might be listening. Let the three of us stay happy as this forever” (185, emphasis in original). Thus, from the very beginning Ellen is presented as a vulnerable character viewing other females as potential threats.

56Ellen’s mood deteriorates even further when she is contacted by one of her female friends, Nancy Regan. Nancy is a former wife of Jacob’s fellow writer who divorced her to pursue a more attractive woman when his career rocketed:

Nancy simply couldn’t compete—in looks, money, talent, oh, in anything that counted—with the charming blonde leading lady who added such lustre to Keith’s play on its debut in the West End. From the wide-eyed adoring wife of Keith’s lean years, she had lapsed gradually into a restless, sharp-tongued, cynical woman-about-town, with all the alimony she could want, but little else. (188-189)

57Indeed, her former husband left Nancy financially well-equipped but disgraced and bitter, living a life of a lavish gossip which appears hollow to Ellen. The fact that the two still keep in touch seems motivated mostly by Ellen’s pity and belief that Nancy lives vicariously through Ellen’s happy marriage. At the same time, Ellen tries to keep an emotional distance from Nancy, as if fearing that Nancy might infect her with her status of a divorcee, i.e. the status of a stigmatized, abandoned woman. Therefore, when Nancy suggests that Jacob is sexually attracted to Denise (“I didn’t know Jacob went in for martinis, darling. Let alone redheads[.]” [193]), Ellen compares her friend to a “professional magpie, a bird of ill-omen” (193). Elaborating on the topic, Nancy paints the picture of Denise as a ruthless femme fatale:

The current one—her third, I think—has a wife and three children. The wife won’t hear of a divorce. Oh, Denise is a real career girl—she always manages to land a man with complications, so she never ends up drying dishes or wiping a baby’s nose[.] (195)

58Having been struck by a tragedy which drained her life out of deeper meaning, Nancy is now reduced to a disquieting caricature, a phantom whose tidings “lucky women” should apprehend. Ellen’s worries—never verbalized out loud before—now start to appear well-motivated: “In the light of Nancy’s suggestive tone, even her worst dread seemed naïve” (193).

59Still, Nancy promises to help Ellen in preventing the impending catastrophe that a broken marriage would be, and she enthusiastically advises the disquieted housewife on how to increase her attractiveness in order to divert Jacob’s attention from Denise and other lurking seductresses (“‘Men won’t admit it, but they do want a woman to look right, really fatale. The right hat, the right hair-colour…. Now’s your chance, Ellen. Don’t miss it!’” [194]). It is clear from the beginning though that instead of providing Ellen with a comforting sense of female alliance, Nancy’s efforts are threatening in themselves, and her help is like a gleeful performance she stages by feeding on Ellen’s worries.

60In truth, Nancy is then nothing but the second other woman intruding on the harmony of Ellen’s marriage. Her role becomes evident when it is later revealed that Jacob had never been attracted to Denise after all, and Ellen’s anxious attempts at improving her appearance not only went unnoticed but were also completely unnecessary. Still enamored with his wife, Jacob now decides to move their family to their dream house in the countryside, far away from all the lurking threats, thus cementing the relationship. Delighted, Ellen breathes a sigh of relief, keeping her faithful husband nearby and all the other women away at a safe distance. The story’s concluding fragment presents a phone conversation between Ellen and Nancy, which ends with Ellen’s triumphant exclamation: “‘Sorry Nan,’… ‘but I think you’d better cancel my [hairdresser’s] appointment. I’ve news for you.’…. ‘Braids are back in style this season, love—the latest thing for the country wife!’” (198).

61In his analysis of “Day of Success” Ferreter reads the story mostly through the prism of gender politics of the late 1950s/early 1960s. From this perspective, it is indeed Ellen—and neither the career-woman Denise, nor the wealthy Nancy—who is the ultimate successful woman. Ellen’s triumph is her husband’s love and faithfulness which make the domestic environment in which she reigns thriving. Ferreter is also right when he points out that Ellen’s success is largely a result of a sheer luck. In the story’s universe, men are whimsical and—when faced with a threat of their infidelity—women do not have much agency. There is indeed no clear reason as to why Nancy’s husband abandoned her but Ellen’s does not, although Ferreter claims that Nancy’s subsequent superficiality implies a fault in her character which is realized in a reversed fashion (157).

62Ferreter’s conclusions regarding the broader meaning of Ellen’s happy ending are, on the other hand, somewhat hazardous. As he points out, Plath’s writings were often shaped by the expectations of her publishers who had agendas of their own (153). Throughout her life, for financial reasons among others, Plath kept writing stories for women’s magazines and “Day of Success” is here a clear example of such a piece, molded to fit the gender standards and expectations of the time. In the late 1950s a happy marriage was indeed viewed as the ultimate happy ending for a woman, and hence Ellen’s unequivocal triumph was meant to resonate with the story’s female readers. Ferreter goes a step further though and calls “Day of Success” “the kind of fantasy [Plath] believed the readers of women’s magazines were looking for” (158, emphasis added). His tone may strike one as scornful in implying that the story’s ending is to be dismissed as nothing but a fantasy of housewives who dream of faithful and loving husbands. Still, in the light of the majority of Plath’s texts depicting a love triangle situation, it does indeed appear that in the Plathian universe this type of a happy ending is a mere fantasy. Ellen—the heroine of a story written for women’s magazine—may be spared, as her relationship remains intact after a double intrusion of other female characters, but in the Plathian universe this constitutes an exception rather than a rule.

63Importantly, it can also be argued that—when read through the prism of the recurring patterns of the Plathian universe—“Day of Success” is a mere installment in a much more poignant story. Interestingly, both Denise and Nancy seem to represent the figure of a barren woman—the Plathian persona’s coldhearted rival who recurs in Plath’s works in various (not exclusively human) forms. As argued by Kroll, in Plath’s writings, “[m]otherhood and fertility are implicitly celebrated when barrenness appears as a despised or frightening quality” (11). Although the motif of barrenness is indeed sometimes discussed by Plath explicitly, on other occasions it is represented indirectly through the introduction of childless female characters who pose a threat to the Plathian persona. Thus, even though “Day of Success” presents a seemingly simple story, it is in fact packed with familiar and recurring Plathian characters and motifs which hint at a tragic and arguably inevitable conclusion, as suggested by Plath’s final works.

4. Conclusion

64As this article attempts to demonstrate, Plath’s fictive depictions of female peer relations are fueled by the themes of rivalry, betrayal and exclusion. The perceived female adversary appears to exist solely to either pose a threat to a relationship the Plathian protagonist has formed with a male companion or to convey information on threats to such a union, endangering the protagonist’s sense of identity and self-satisfaction, as these are often dependent on her relationships with father figures and male peers. The other females often take the form of the protagonist’s doubles against whom the protagonist is forced to re/construct her identity, struggling with a complex rivalry that inevitably leads to a betrayal and/or an exclusion from which the protagonist suffers herself or which she inflicts upon the other female.

65Although an attempt at explaining the prevalence of the negative female-on-female relationship models by the historical and social context is tempting and to an extent productive, I would argue for its cautious execution, especially if it is entangled with an attempt to iconize Plath as a prominent (proto)feminist figure of her times. Importantly, although reading Plath’s oeuvre as an illustration of her biography is on the one hand limiting, reading Plath’s body of work as an illustration of the politics and social climate of the midcentury Anglosphere is, on the other hand, potentially generalizing.

66What I suggest is first to approach the Plath’s oeuvre—including her short stories—as an interconnected narrative system continuously reemploying the same characters, schemes, motifs, and symbols. Second, to read the recurring patterns in the female-on-female relations through the prism of the contemporary literary/cultural trauma theory. Studied from such a perspective, the above-mentioned relations appear to be a series of compulsive reenactments through which the Plathian persona relives a traumatic scenario laying at the heart of all her relationships with other females. Importantly, instead of eventually resolving her trauma and attaining healing, the Plathian persona only solidifies the scenario in which another female is perceived as a threat connoting rivalry, betrayal and exclusion.

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Electronic reference

Sylwia Gryciuk, Rivalry, Betrayal, and Exclusion: Traumatic Reenactments and Female Peer Relations in Sylvia Plath’s Short FictionEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-2 | 2022, Online since 04 July 2022, connection on 12 August 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Sylwia Gryciuk

Sylwia Gryciuk graduated from the University of Wrocław in 2015. Her M.A. thesis was devoted to female relations in Sylvia Plath’s works. In 2017 she began doctoral studies at the University of Wrocław and is currently working on a dissertation concerning fictionalized (re)interpretations of the JonBenét Ramsey murder case present in American literature and media. Her academic interests include American trauma narratives, American childhood discourses, and the American Gothic tradition.

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CC BY-NC 4.0

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International - CC BY-NC 4.0

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