Illustration of the Impact of Tulips in Sylvia Plath’s Tulips

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Explore the Ways Plath Presents the Impact of the Tulips in This Poem

In the poem ‘Tulips’ Sylvia Plath writes about her experience of having surgery in a hospital and the way she feels about a bouquet of Tulips in the room. It is quite clear that Plath focuses on two very contrasting colours throughout the poem which are white (the colours within the hospital room) and red (the colour of the tulips). She uses this to really express how disturbing the tulips are in comparison to the tranquil, calm feeling given by the nurses and the hospital.

Plath begins by saying that the tulips are “too excitable” which straight away shows the reader that they are going to be seen as a negative, distracting symbol within the poem. She also states how “it is winter here” which further shows how the tulips don’t belong in the hospital as flowers are supposed to die during this season. The writer then uses contrast between the colour of the tulips and the colour of the hospital which is white; representing tranquillity, peace and calmness. Plath used the comparison of colours intentionally to give the reader a visual image of how sharp and obnoxious the flowers appear to her.

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I also noticed that throughout the poem Plath describes the tulips as an object that brings her back to reality after she becomes mentally free. She describes herself as “nobody” and describes “this” bed and “these” hands, rather than my bed and my hands. This shows how the hospital has detached her from her personal life and dehumanized her by ridding her of her own identity, however the tulips are a constant reminder of her loved ones who she describes as “hooks”, as if she cannot escape them. In the third stanza the reader imagines the atmosphere within the hospital as very spa like, it seems calming and quiet by the way Plath describes her body as a “pebble” as the nurses “tend it as water”. I believe Plath intentionally used these words to place an image in the readers mind of a river mildly smoothing the surface of the stones it runs over which is a very peaceful, comforting and calming image to think about, much like the experience Plath is trying to portray that she had in the hospital room. However, by describing her own body as a pebble that also emphasises on the idea of identity loss as she is comparing herself to an inanimate object rather than a living, breathing human.

She also describes herself as a nun during her time in the hospital room and says that she has “never been so pure” now that she is on her own in a place detached from her personal life. She seems to enjoy the fact she has been able to get away and forget her own identity completely, however the tulips are a constant reminder of her reality. She states how she “didn’t want any flowers” which generally contradicts the typical stereotypes of a patient within a hospital as it can be a daunting experience and flowers are an assuring symbol of your loved ones. However, Plath is trying to strongly portray how desperate she is to escape her family and even herself which can be seen as very disturbing to the reader as it isn’t a common view of a mother. The fact she says she wants to lie with her “hands turned up” is a sign of defeat, as if she is giving in and accepting death or her endless mental suffering.

In the last four stanzas the tulips become apparently important as she seems to face them more by describing their effect on her. She describes them as “too red”, similar to when she first mentioned them however, the idea of them being red is a symbol of vitality and the irritation this causes her. She says how they “hurt her” as if they have been placed in the room as a torture mechanism, for her to look at and be constantly reminded of everything she wants to escape. She describes them as if they were a living creature, like a monster lurking in the room as she can “hear them breathe” which shows just how much attention she was paying to them. Plath used personification here intentionally to display how alive the flowers felt, as if they were a beating heart in front of her when all she wanted was death.

Plath describes the flowers as subtle and floating yet they seem to weigh her down, as if they lurk and follow her effortlessly but at the same time they apply such pressure to her body and mind. She says their “sudden tongues and their colour” upset her, yet again emphasising how obvious and pushy these flowers are in her mind when in reality, they are a still lifeless object. She used a very powerful line to describe them saying “a dozen red lead sinkers round my neck” which has a huge impact on the reader, as the fact this sentence rhymes means it flows very quickly allowing it to sound slightly aggressive and it has such a morbid theme. It gives the reader a clear image of how Plath felt like she was drowning and being mentally manipulated by this object she seems to associate with herself and her family members. She continues to personify the flowers by describing them as turning to her, eating her oxygen and describing herself as faceless, as if the flowers have more life within them than she does and she seems to resent them for reminding her of this.

Plath also mentions how before the tulips were placed in the room “the air was calm enough” implying that she was able to lie peacefully and ignore her issues in the background before the tulips were able to remind her of it. Another important line which emphasises this idea is “coming and going, breath by breath” which seems to be very rhythmic and allows the reader to further imagine the calming atmosphere before the flowers appeared. She contrasts this by comparing the tulips to a “loud noise” as if they are screaming and distracting her, like a voice in her mind. In the last stanza Plath really describes how she feels about the tulips when she says how they “should be behind bars like dangerous animals” and a “giant African cat” as it yet again gives us the impression that the flowers are alive and predator like with sinister intentions. The idea of the tulips having “red blooms” imitates a beating heart and really symbolises vitality and life.

To conclude, in this poem Plath uses multiple techniques including use of color, contrast and personification to describe her view and the impact of the tulips in detail. She gives a very powerful, lifelike impression of the flowers and even makes the reader feel slight fear towards them as they seem to have a sly, manipulative character.

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