Have no idea where to start when it comes to the Textual Conversations Module? Need to complete a Sylvia Plath analysis?

In Episode #8 Part 1 of our HSC English Lit Program, Rowan and Brooklyn are going to show you how to analyse texts for HSC English Textual Conversation! Throughout, they’ll be using Sylvia Plath’s text ‘A Birthday Present’ as an example.

We’ve also got a sample Band 6 analysis and sample paragraph in this article just for you.

Check it out!

Connections to Textual Conversations
What is A Birthday Present About?
Context
Themes
The Sylvia Plath Analysis

Connections to Textual Conversations

One thing you might want to consider in your Sylvia Plath analysis, is whether Plath and Hughes are having a textual conversation or a textual argument.

Both texts deal with the same subject matter. For example, Plath’s mental health struggles, her death (both prospective and retrospective) and her relationship with her father. Plath’s and Hughes’ poetry also converse about  who is to blame for Plath’s mental illness, as well as notions of agency, oppression and victimhood.

Plath uses vivid and extreme metaphors, to the point of comparing herself to Jews in the Holocaust (which she has been highly criticised for). Hughes responds to her extreme language critically. In Red, he suggests that she saw the world in dramatic binaries and in Fever he accuses her of exaggeration. Hughes uses far more realistic language in his own poetry, solidifying his critique of Plath’s exaggerated verse. 

One thing to consider in the textual conversation between Plath and Hughes, is whether Hughes expands on Plath’s poetry, or whether he entirely rejects it. In your essay responses, you should have a unique perspective on how their poems are dissonant and resonant, based on their respective contexts. 

What is A Birthday Present About?

Quite simply, A Birthday Present is a poem in which Plath is questioning what is inside a wrapped birthday gift sitting by her window. However, this questioning reveals Plath’s inner mind, her deepest insecurities, her desires and her perception of life and death. 

At the beginning of the poem, she describes the wrapping of the present as a ‘veil’ before questioning what might be inside it. In lines 5-10 she imagines the present mocking her for being a boring housewife, revealing Plath’s fear of being anything short of exceptional. She imagines the present to be exceptional – either tragic or glorious, but never banal.

Throughout the poem, we get the impression that Plath believes this present is death. She confirms this when she states, “if it were death / I would admire the deep gravity of it.” In these final lines she also reveals her perception of death as a means of transcendence and rebirth. The poem comes full circle when she suggests that if the present is death, then “there would be a birthday.” This illuminates her belief that death and rebirth are intrinsically linked, further reinforced by her simile, “Pure and clean as the cry of a baby.”

Context

Two elements of Plath’s context are central to this poem; both Plath’s personal context and second wave feminism. 

Personal Life

During Plath’s undergraduate years at Smith College, she began to develop the severe mental illness that would eventually take her life. She attempted to commit suicide in August of 1953, taking her mother’s sleeping pills and crawling under the house. She survived, and was subsequently hospitalised, receiving electro-shock therapy for her depression. Plath’s obsession with death and suicide would go on to permeate her poetry of the next ten years.

Second-Wave Feminism

Feminism is an idea you may want to include within your Sylvia Plath analysis. Although Plath did not actively call herself a feminist, the ideas of feminism permeated her work. She recoiled at the idea of being forced into a prescribed gender role, as is clear in the following excerpt from her journals:

“The  future? God – will it get  worse & worse? Will I never travel, never integrate my life, never have purpose, meaning? Never have time – long stretches, to investigate ideas, philosophy – to articulate the vague seething desires in me? Will I be a secretary – a self-rationalizing, uninspired housewife, secretly jealous of my husband’s ability to grow intellectually & professionally while I am impeded – will I submerge my embarrassing desires & aspirations, refuse to face myself, and go either mad or become neurotic?” 

– The Unabridged Journals, Sylvia Plath

This disdain for gender roles is clearly seen in A Birthday Present when she imagines the present saying “Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus, / Adhering to rules, to rules, to rules. / Is this the one for the annunciation? / My god, what a laugh!’” The present mocks her for being a typical and rule-abiding housewife, revealing some of Plath’s deepest insecurities. 

Feminist Philosophy

Her poetry is also influenced by feminist philosophers of her time such as Simone de Beauvoir, who argued that throughout history, women have been objects, whereas men have been subjects. In other words, women are stripped of their agency and ‘Othered’ – a process which makes women less human than men. 

He is the subject; he is the absolute. She is the Other

– Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex)

These ideas of being the ‘Object’ and the ‘Other’ are clearly represented in poems such as Daddy and Lady Lazarus which clearly depict her as an object of male oppression and the male gaze. Plath uses these poems, however, to regain personal agency and make herself the subject of her story. One might argue that in Birthday Letters, Hughes robs Plath of this agency – an idea you might like to discuss in your essay. 

Themes

Themes in A Birthday Present include:

  • Gender roles
  • Mental Illness
  • Death
  • Rebirth
  • Transcendence
  • Transformation

Now we know what we’re looking for, how do we conduct an analysis?

The Analysis

There are two key rules of analysis which we have focused in for all of our #HELP episodes. These are:

Rule #1: Make sure that we’re linking our technique to our idea. Don’t just present an irrelevant technique because it’s in your example. Make sure it’s relevant to the overall idea you’re talking about

Rule #2: The second rule is, make sure you’re actually saying something meaningful about your idea. Students have a tendency to just label what their idea is at the end of their point.  So, we want to make sure that when we’re analysing, each point is saying something new and something meaningful about the idea.

Step 1: Have an argument

You can’t write analysis without having an argument which you are trying to prove. Having an argument is important, because it means that your discussion of a technique in your analysis will be meaningful, because it has an aim.

It is also important that your analysis is trying to prove an argument, rather than just a theme. For example, rather than just basing our analysis around the theme of ‘emotions’ in the following analysis, we will be trying to prove that Plath has a heightened sense of emotion that allows her to see the world through dramatic binaries’

Step 2: Choose your examples

When you are choosing an example, the most important thing is to choose a quote which has a technique which you will be able to analyse. If there are a couple of quotes which are expressing the same idea, you might like to analyse both of them at the same. For our first piece of analysis, we have chosen the quotes:

“bones, or a pearl button,”

“is it ugly, is it beautiful?”

Step 3: Identify your Technique(s)

When we are choosing a technique, the most important thing is using a technique which we can analyse to prove our argument. We want to be able to talk in depth about the effect of the technique, and how this effect proves our overall argument. Since techniques such as alliteration and repetition are often (not always!) hard to say something meaningful about, we should instead choose to use techniques that will allow us to analyse effectively. 

For this reason, we have identified the technique, juxtaposition, in both of the above quotes. This will allow us to talk about the dramatic binaries through which Plath sees the world. 

Struggling to find a technique? Check out our English technique cheat sheet here!

Step 4: Carry out your Analysis

When you are writing your analysis, it is important that you show the effect of the technique, and then link this effect to your overall argument, as we have done below:

She imagines her unknown birthday present to be simultaneously wonderful and tragic. For example, when Plath states that she does not mind if it were “bones, or a pearl button,” she contrasts a symbol of death with something exquisite. Moreover, Plath’s question, “is it ugly, is it beautiful?” demonstrates Plath’s lack of nuance: she views the world through extremes.

Put Your Analysis into a TEE table

What’s a TEE table?

The TEE in TEE table stands for Technique, Example and Effect. They’re a great tool you can use to analyse your text.

All you have to do is include your pieces of evidence under ‘example’ then identify the technique in the ‘technique’ column and carry out your analysis.

Below is an example of how we have put this piece of analysis into a TEE table.

If you need some extra help with your TEE table, make sure you check out our step by step guide here!

And this is the final step towards acing your Sylvia Plath analysis!

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Brooklyn Arnot has a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature with Honours at the University of Sydney. She scored an HD average and has even received the Dean’s award for excellence! Brooklyn teaches our English classes at Art of Smart and has over 5 years of experience supporting Year 11 and 12 students throughout their HSC. She’s also a new Syllabus expert and studied 4U English in high school.