The Applicant Sylvia Plath Essay

“The Applicant,” by the American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), is obviously a satire of some of the conventions of modern life, especially conventions concerning marriage. Yet the poem contains some details that will strike many readers as initially puzzling or at least thought-provoking.

The work opens with direct address from an unidentified speaker to an unidentified “you” (1). Apparently the “you” is applying for something (a job? membership in an organization?). We continue reading the poem partly to determine what, precisely, is going on—what the exact situation is, and who the specific personalities may be. The speaker seems to favor applicants who are, in various ways, handicapped or artificial. The ideal applicant seems to be the kind of person who needs

A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch . . . (3-5)

Line 5 is especially intriguing, since it seems at first to suggest that the speaker is concerned both with women (“breasts”) and with men (“crotch”). Since the gender of the person addressed becomes important later in the poem, this line seems especially significant. Line 8, however, seems to refer to stereotypically “feminine” behavior (“Stop crying”), although by the time we reach line 12, the speaker seems to be addressing a male.

When we reach the third stanza, the speaker seems to be promising the applicant a compliant, complacent wife who will do anything the applicant tells her to do (11-15). Throughout these early stanzas, human beings are treated not as fully human—with independent thoughts, souls, and personalities—but merely as dehumanized things. Indeed, at one point, the prospective wife is even referred to (twice) as an “it” (14-15). In this sense, she is no more independently alive than the stiff black suit (a tuxedo for a marriage?) the applicant is later offered (20-25). It is as...

(The entire section is 669 words.)

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.

This is a poem that I felt a great connection to when I was still at school, and I thought about it today as I was preparing some job applications and decided to blog about it on here.

I love how this poem puts the reader in the position of the applicant in an interview; we are being forcefully interrogated by the speaker and the tone is extremely arresting. There seems to me to be a strong commentary on the role of women in society here. Plath’s context was England (and the US) in the late 50s and early 60s, but I think that this commentary is just as relevant for our Western society today.

First, the speaker asks whether we have various disabilities, such as “a glass eye”, “false teeth”, “rubber breasts” or a “rubber crotch”. The speaker wants to know if our physical body functions properly. This, to me, evokes the idea that women need to be aesthetically pleasing if they are to be ‘marketable’ or ‘desirable’. Women also need their reproductive faculties (hence the questions about the rubber breasts and crotch) to be considered valuable in the modern society/ a good wife etc.

When the speaker discovers that our (the applicant’s) hand is “Empty”, they offer us a hand to fill it, “to bring teacups and roll away headaches” — to “do whatever you tell it.” We are asked if we will marry it. This is a very bleak view of marriage, to say the least. But I think that Plath is satirising a commercially-orientated society here, and particularly adverts; for example, the speaker is really ‘selling’ this idea of marriage as they say “it is guaranteed/ To thumb your eyes shut at the end and dissolve of sorrow” . And of course, when it says “we make new stock from the salt” it becomes certain that this is a commercial transaction.

It is not just women who are trapped in this bleak, materialistic society with its approach to marriage, though I think the main commentary here is about women. The speaker notices that we, the applicant, are “stark naked” and tries to sell us a suit. We are asked if we will “marry it.” Here it is clear that marriage means nothing but an investment in the society being satirised here. I love the use of advertising language here, saying ” It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof/ Against fire and bombs through the roof”.

Continuing with the idea of marriage, we are guaranteed that the “living doll” being sold here will be “silver” in twenty five years, and “gold” in fifty. “It can sew, it can cook/ it can talk, talk, talk.” Of course, this is incredibly demeaning to women, but this is how Plath chooses to portray her society, and how she perceived the reality to be. I think that it is a really effective poem, and I love the way it is addressed to the reader.

Here is a link to a recording of Sylvia Plath reading the poem herself. I really love her voice and the way she reads this. Also, I think her accent is amazing!

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

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