‘The Applicant’ is a poem from the collection Ariel written by Sylvia Plath that primarily focuses on marriage. Its cynical and satirical tone illuminates the expectations of this institution, interestingly exploring how marriage is unsatisfying for both men and women through the presentation of gender roles in this poem. The use of commercial language and the tone of the narrative voice mocks the concept of marriage and the objectification of ‘the applicant’ and their prospective partner shows Plath’s impression of the strict gender roles imposed on society during the 1960s.The poem is structured somewhat chronologically, beginning with ‘first’, reflecting the formality of the interview process that this poem mirrors. The speaker begins by quizzing ‘the applicant’ on their physical appearance, asking if they sport ‘a glass eye, false teeth or a crutch’ but appears frustrated at the absence of these things and seems to mock what is required of a marriage, in Plath’s opinion, the ability to adopt artificial qualities. We can infer that these examples of synthetic features like ‘rubber breasts or a rubber crotch’ are symbolic of the unnatural features of marriage that are expected to become part of the marriage partners, notably these features are not gender specific and point to Plath’s feeling that marriage requires adaptability from both sexes. This idea of substituted features is also seen in ‘The Munich Mannequins’ where Plath describes women as ‘naked and bald in their furs’ to suggest that women that are unmarried and childless are seen as ultimately incomplete, despite adorning themselves in expensive clothing; they have not yet adopted the features of their marriage roles. Plath goes on to satirically mock these roles, suggesting that a wife’s job is ‘to bring teacups and roll away headaches’; the speaker uses this domestic imagery ironically to enforce the anti-feminist nature of gender roles and cynically mock the idealistic portrayal of a wife. Similarly, women are mocked in this poem through the description of their behaviour as Plath claims ‘it can sew, it can cook, it can talk, talk, talk’ and employing patronising imagery of female behaviour and utilising the repetition of ‘talk’’ which is again seen in ‘The Munich Mannequins’ where Plath describes women as ‘intolerable, without mind’ to suggest senselessness about women. Furthermore, the use of ‘it’ in this instance and consistently throughout the poem to address the female figure demonstrates Plath’s objectification of women. Plath offers a wife to the ‘applicant’, asking ‘will you marry it?’ sporadically throughout the poem; the use of this pronoun not only robs the woman of gender, but of any humanity at all. The use of enjambment also performs this function, the final line of one stanza stating that ‘it is guaranteed’ which, as an isolated phrase, could be used to describe a piece of machinery but the next stanza begins with ‘to thumb shut your eyes at the end’ making it clear that the speaker is describing a wife. This structural element is used to demonstrate the way society treats the wife as so dehumanised they could be mistaken for a product under warranty.
This idea is furthered through the ‘valuation’ of the wife figure, estimating that ‘in twenty-five she’ll be silver/ In fifty, gold’. This references the traditional wedding anniversary gifts of silver and gold equating the worth of the woman to the length of her marriage and it is clear that Plath is suggesting that society defines a woman by her marriage. This idea is confirmed by Plath describing the wife as ‘naked as paper to start’, the use of nakedness as imagery a reference to paper fashion dolls that were popular in the 1960s to imply a wife is a blank page that can be marked by their husband and also used to suggest vulnerability and weakness before she is married. Plath abstains from commenting on the worth of the husband in this union, which reaffirms that it is the husband that provides this ‘living doll’ with its value. However, Plath shows a contrasting view in ‘Daddy’ where she remarks that the speaker’s husband ‘drank my blood for a year’ which suggests that it is not the husband that gives life and purpose, but takes it away. Interestingly, it seems that the role of women in this poem is predetermined as they are simply objects prescribed like medicine to men for certain purposes; however, the male ‘applicant’ is also expected to adopt and change himself to what is expected of him. The gender expectations of the husband are symbolised by a suit that is ‘black and stiff, but not a bad fit’ that men are required to wear. The suit imagery connotes an expectation for men to be professionals, and the breadwinners of the family. The fact that the suit isn’t a ‘bad’ fit suggests that these expectations will be uncomfortable for the ‘applicant’; this role was not made for him but he must adopt it anyway and must adapt to fulfil his purpose.
Plath uses promotional language when describing the concept of marriage by depicting the metaphorical ‘suit’ as ‘waterproof, shatterproof, proof/ Against fire and bombs through the roof’. This is structured as the only formal rhyming couplet within the poem, highlighting its function as a commercial jingle to ‘sell’ the idea of these roles within marriage. The repetition of ‘proof’ in the lines also provides an aggressive tone to mimic the perceived strength of the suit, and institution of marriage. The strength of this suit is also suggested by Plath by emphasising the permanency of the role as Plath says herself: ‘they’ll bury you in it’ which ominously foreshadows the lifelong contract ‘the applicant’ is going to enter.
Imperative language gives commands and orders throughout the poem. The line ‘stop crying’ is particularly forceful as it sits alone as a command within the stanza and the absence of any emotion or comfort from the narrative voice suggests that ‘the applicant’ is expected not to cry, furthering the expectation for men to be masculine and emotionless. The threatening voice behind ‘it’s your last resort’ also gives the impression that marriage is the applicant’s only prospect. The absence of choice from the final line ‘will you marry it, marry it, marry it’, shows the question that has been posed throughout the poem is now a tricolon of orders which enforces the expectation that marriage is required and is an inevitable and inescapable construct.
The break from the satirical tone of the poem to a more demanding one in the final stanza demonstrates its purpose: a commentary on the derogatory and damaging nature of societal emphasis on gender roles. Plath undeniably achieves the aim of this poem through her use of commercialising language to mock the traditional roles of husband and wife but also uses a threatening tone at times to suggest an inability to escape these roles and expectations.
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