Poetry Analysis: Sylvia Plath’s “The Applicant”

 

Sylvia Plath Typewriter

THE APPLICANT

By Sylvia Plath

First, are you our sort of a person?

Do you wear

A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,

A brace or a hook,

Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then

How can we give you a thing?

Stop crying.

Open your hand.

Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing

To bring teacups and roll away headaches

And do whatever you tell it.

Will you marry it?

It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end

And dissolve of sorrow.

We make new stock from the salt.

I notice you are stark naked.

How about this suit——

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.

Will you marry it?

It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof

Against fire and bombs through the roof.

Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.

I have the ticket for that.

Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.

Well, what do you think of that?

Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,

In fifty, gold.

A living doll, everywhere you look.

It can sew, it can cook,

It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.

You have a hole, it’s a poultice.

You have an eye, it’s an image.

My boy, it’s your last resort.

Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

In her remorselessly satirical poem “The Applicant,” Sylvia Plath explores the restrictive nature of 1950s gender roles.  The poem’s very title rings impersonal and business-like as it shrouds the potential candidate in anonymity. This namelessness begs the question: who is the applicant and what is he applying for?

The first stanza doesn’t answer much of our question:

First are you our sort of a person?

Do you wear

A glass eye, false teeth, or a crutch,

A brace or a hook,

Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch” (Plath 1-5).

From the very first line, the interviewer seems antagonistic and accusatory; rather than kindly introduce himself or offer the applicant a cup of coffee as is common courtesy in an interview, he opens with a tough, hardball question, one that’s almost impossible to answer: “First, are you our sort of a person?” (Plath 1). Here, the presence of the 1st person plural “our”-as opposed to the 1st person singular “my”-suggests the interviewer is not judging the applicant by his own standards but by the standards of a greater entity, perhaps society at large.

What “sort” of person society desires is a question Plath contemplates over the course of the poem. The next several lines catalog symbols of disability: a “glass eye,” “false teeth,” a “crutch,” a “brace,” a “hook,” a “rubber breast,” and a “rubber crotch.” Though one would think such handicaps would pose an obstacle to employment, the interviewer seems angry when the applicant responds that he has no disabilities:

No, no?  Then

How can we give you a thing?” (Plath 6-7).

The fact that the speaker wants him to be impaired indicates the position requires some level of disablement and demands the candidate adopt something artificial.

In the second stanza, we finally learn what position the applicant is interviewing for: the role of husband; however, as the poem progresses, the interaction between the speaker and applicant becomes less of an interview and more of a commercial:

Open your hand.

Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing

To bring teacups and roll away headaches

And do whatever you tell it.

Will you marry it?” (Plath 9-14).  

Interestingly, here Plath portrays modern marriage as a commercial transaction in which women are objects to be sold. The woman’s objectification is made clear from her first introduction as a “hand.” Rather than name the potential wife or even introduce her as a complete, functioning body, Plath presents her only as a “hand,” a fragment of a complete person, thus objectifying her. The word “hand” immediately evokes marriage (as in, to take “one’s hand”). By identifying the woman only as a “hand”-a potent symbol of matrimony-Plath reveals the devastating extent to which the role of wife comprises a woman’s selfhood.

More important is what the hand does in the poem. The hand does not sit stagnant but rather “brings” teacups and “rolls” away headaches for her husband-to-be, an indisputable symbol of women’s submission to men. The unmistakably domestic character of the verbs reinforce this image of a woman’s role in the home. By employing images that connote ill health and depicting the wife as healer of such ailments, Plath again suggests society imagines the modern woman’s proper role is as a caregiver.

4186-3187

Though “The Applicant” is no doubt a condemnation of women’s traditional gender roles, that’s not to say Plath didn’t believe men were victims of gender policing as well. In the next stanza, the speaker turns his attention from the wife for sale back to our main character:

I notice you are stark naked.

How about this suit-

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit

Will you marry it?” (Plath 19-22).  

Here, the “stiff,” “black” suit embodies masculinity in 1950s America. Just as repressive post-war America demanded women be perfect portraits of domesticity, strict, normative gender roles required men to be the heads of households and breadwinners. The fact that Plath describes the applicant’s role as something put-on like a suit reveals the artificiality of all gender roles, ultimately proving prevailing ideas of femininity and masculinity false.

For Plath, what constitutes womanhood (or manhood, for that matter) is merely a construction, not intrinsic to our actual biological gender. This reading is further supported by the fact that the applicant is “stark naked” before the speaker offers him a suit. If nudity connotes purity and innocence, the applicant’s nakedness indicates at this moment he is free of restrictive ideas about gender. It is only when he puts on the suit that he adopts his prescribed gender role and allows himself to be confined by its rigid expectations for his behavior.  

“The Applicant” finally culminates in tragedy when the poem’s signature refrain (will you marry it?) moves from question to statement a few stanzas later:

“My boy, it’s your last resort.

Will you marry it, marry it, marry it” (Plath 39-40).  

This syntactical change from interrogative to declarative may seem insignificant enough; however, it represents a major shift in the poem.  Though the prospect of marriage and a traditional, nuclear family once figured as a desirable option for the applicant, by the poem’s end, such a lifestyle is no longer a choice-it’s a requirement.  This shift from possibility to inevitability leads to an unsettling conclusion: no matter how much one rallies against ideas of masculinity and femininity, such limiting gender roles, Plath seems to contend, are inescapable. 

 

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