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Sylvia Plath


More questions to challenge you!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 3 March 2014
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A young woman (the poet herself?) looks constantly into two mirrors: a rectangular mirror in the house and the glimmering surface of a nearby lake.

Each mirror claims to present the woman with perfect images of herself, and yet each indicates a degree of growing unhappiness within the woman who is viewing herself.


Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1932.

She was an intelligent child -- she had her first poem published when she was only eight -- but she also displayed a marked degree of sensitivity. She sought perfection in all that she did.

Her father -- a college professor and a bee expert -- died of an illness when the poet was still young. He apparently thought it was cancer but in reality it was a curable form of diabetes.

His untimely death appears to have scarred the young child's sensitive mind.

She entered Smith College on a scholarship in 1950 and, while there, wrote some 400 poems. During her first year, however, she attempted suicide through an overdose of sleeping pills.

She graduated from Smith College summa cum laude in 1955 and thereupon won a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England.

While there, she met and married the English poet, Ted Hughes. Their marriage, however, would last a mere ten years before Sylvia found herself divorced.

She was alone once more, but now a stranger in a small London flat. She was also poor and with two children to look after. This was a foreign existence for one who had always been accustomed to the comforts of middle-class life.

The winter of 1962 to 1963 was one of the coldest, during which time the poet was continually ill with flu. She learnt first hand much about the harshness of life.

She nevertheless worked furiously in the very early mornings while the children slept, producing a poem virtually every day.

Towards the end of that winter -- in February 1963 -- she committed suicide by gassing herself in her kitchen. She was then only 30 years of age.

She had not yet won the recognition she so richly deserved as a poet. Like so many great artists, fame would follow only after her death.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

"Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me.
Searching my reaches for what she really is."
  • Who is the "woman"? (4)

[Need help?]

  • What is this search "for what she really is"? (2)

[Need help?]

  • Did the poet find it? Would she ever find it? (4)

[Need help?]

"Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon."
  • What do the candles and the moon represent? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the woman find the candles and the moon to be "liars"? (4)

[Need help?]

"I see her back, and reflect it faithfully
She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.
I am important to her. She comes and goes."
  • The lake, like the mirror in the house, gives the impression of being an accurate and emotionless presenter of the world. Would you like to comment? (4)

[Need help?]

"Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish."
  • What is it that the mirror is revealing that appears to have upset the woman? (6)

[Need help?]

  • Why would the lake use the image of "the terrible fish"? (2)

[Need help?]

Explain how this poem is a reflection of a woman who is unable to face up to the realities of life. (4)

[Need help?]

Does the knowledge that the poet attempted suicide at least twice -- the second time successfully -- give any further meaning to this poem? (4)

[Need help?]

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