Poetry Analysis: Sylvia Plath’s “The Rival”

sylvia & ted
Sylvia Plath & her husband, Ted Hughes

 

THE RIVAL

By Sylvia Plath

If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.

You leave the same impression

Of something beautiful, but annihilating.

Both of you are great light borrowers.

Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected,

And your first gift is making stone out of everything.

I wake to a mausoleum; you are here,

Ticking your fingers on the marble table, looking for cigarettes,

Spiteful as a woman, but not so nervous,

And dying to say something unanswerable.

The moon, too, abuses her subjects,

But in the daytime she is ridiculous.

Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,

Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,

White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide.

No day is safe from news of you,

Walking about in Africa maybe, but thinking of me.

In her near flawless poem “The Rival,” Sylvia Plath maps the geography of her own resentment toward her husband’s mistress, Assia Weevil. The poem’s title suggests one who is engaged in competition against another for the same objective or for superiority in the same field. Though many have attributed the status of the rival in this poem to Plath’s mother, Aurelia Plath, and even her husband, Ted Hughes, the poem’s title clearly refers to Assia Weevil. Considering the denotations of the word “rival,” it’s logical to say these women were competitors vying for the same thing: the handsome, charming Ted Hughes.

The first line introduces a metaphor for her husband’s mistress that Plath will sustain over the course of the poem:

If the moon smiled, she would resemble you.

You leave the same impression

Of something beautiful but annihilating

Both of you are great light borrowers.

Her O-mouth grieves at the world; yours is unaffected” (Plath 1-5).

By comparing Assia to the moon-a traditional symbol for cold detachment and primitive femininity-Plath depicts her antagonist as cruel and stony-hearted.  Ironically, Assia’s “beauty” is described as “annihilating,” which suggests a woman’s allure can pose danger. Like the moon which shines beautiful and white in the sky but unleashes the evil and depravity associated with night, Assia’s beauty wins her the adoration of Hughes but destroys his wife. Plath only makes one significant distinction between her enemy and the moon: while the moon “grieves at the world,” Assia appears “unaffected” (Plath 5). The fact that the moon-an inanimate object-demonstrates a warm sympathy for humanity underscores Assia’s heartlessness. In the same way that she feels indifferent toward the suffering of the world, she cares little, Plath would argue, about the devastation and heartache her affair with Ted has caused.

Assia-Wevill
Assia Wevill

Plath elaborates on this depiction in the next line when she makes an implicit comparison between Assia and Medusa:

And your first gift is making stone out of everything” (Plath 6).

Like Assia, Medusa’s beauty wins her the affections of many but eventually leads to her downfall. Originally a fair, golden-haired maiden, as a priestess of Athena, Medusa was sworn to a life of celibacy. When she broke her oath and fell in love with Poseidon, Athena punished her by transforming her into a terrifying, snake-headed monster. From then on, anyone who had the misfortune of staring into her eyes would be reduced to stone.

The parallels between Assia and Medusa are endless: both are fair and attractive, both violate a sacred oath (for Medusa, the promise to remain celibate; for Assia, the bonds of another couple’s marriage) and both see their beauty transform them into a kind of monster. By comparing her rival to something as hideous and appalling as Medusa, Plath implies her husband’s infidelity is despicable. What’s even more heart-breaking than the discovery of his betrayal is the fact that his mistress has no remorse. Like Medusa, like the moon, she is merciless, unfeeling as stone.

Many say the most hurtful thing about infidelity is not the cheating itself, but the lies and deceit that accompany such a violation of trust. This is certainly true in the case of Hughes and Plath. In the third stanza, Plath explains how she realizes Assia and her husband are having an affair when she intercepts their letters:

Your dissatisfactions, on the other hand,

Arrive through the mailslot with loving regularity,

White and blank, expansive as carbon monoxide” (Plath 13-15).

Here, the phrase “loving regularity” stings with bitter irony. For Plath, their correspondence-a symbol of their budding romance -is not “loving” but rather a kind of poison, as deadly as carbon monoxide. The fact that their affair is described as “white” and “blank” suggests that-like the colorless, odorless gas-their relationship is present but difficult to spot. After all, a husband never cheats at home. He stays at work late. He checks into a hotel. Cheating involves a large dose of deception.

What’s agonizing for the betrayed is not so much the cheating itself (which, yes, is horribly, unimaginably painful) but the constant lying such cheating entails. This subtle sense that her husband is cheating torments Plath, who accurately suspects he is having an affair but has no concrete evidence save a few of their letters. A sultry woman caller who rings during dinner. A few lingering, too flirtatious looks.  An unrelenting stream of letters. This is all Plath can see of their affair. By comparing these hints of infidelity to carbon monoxide, Plath indicates her suspicions are like a gas-they diffuse and spread but are insubstantial; she can’t see them or smell them but they consume her.

 

 

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