The Dualistic Self an How Identity is Constructed

January 9, 2022 by Essay Writer

Regardless of what role Sylvia Plath was playing at any given time–student, poet, teacher, wife–her feverish perfectionism was a constant factor. During her tumultuous years at Smith College, her concern over the defects she perceived in her character led her to commence a process that would fascinate future readers and biographers alike–the journey to create her own identity and curate a perfect self. However, despite having a clear idea of her intended destination, she found herself unable to do more than mask the reality of her personality with a veneer of perfection. An honest assimilation of her constructed identity still eluded her. Nowhere is this theme more clearly represented in her poetry than in “In Plaster,” in which she assumes the role of the “old yellow” self desperately trying to reconcile her dependence on the “new absolutely white person” with her fear of being usurped by a stronger and more perfect personality.

When the poem begins, the yellow self is certain that her newer counterpart is superior, and rebels against her. However, both halves begin to warm up to the other, realizing that the latter cannot exist without the former, and the former can grow stronger with the latter’s help. However, as the new self takes over a caregiver role, a newfound confidence and vitality causes her to become more self-reliant and less willing to devote herself to the well-being of the speaker. Finally, the two selves, resenting their codependent relationship, become disconnected and resign themselves to wishing for the other’s death.

“In Plaster” originally characterizes the two conflicting selves through color metaphor. The older self is yellow, signifying her imperfection, and the newer self is white, meaning she is stainless and good. In fact, this second self is so perfect that she doesn’t need food, is unbreakable, and is cold to the touch–in short, the perfect self isn’t even a living person. As such, she lacks all of the human failings that the original self suffers from. Her physical state is much better, and she takes over the role of attentive nurse to the first self’s role as invalid, “holding [her] bones in place so they would mend properly.” When she becomes less conscientious in her care, the first self begins to realise how much she depends upon the second self for safety when her skin begins to flake away–without someone to take care of her, the first self is literally deteriorating. The second self also avoids the same mental instability that the first self exhibits, particularly in the early stanzas of the poem. Whereas the latter is instantly terrified and resentful of the new self, hitting her and eventually taking advantage of her “slave mentality,” the former is a serene pacifist, “one of the real saints.”

Originally, the old self believes the new one to be clearly superior. However, once she had placed her trust in the other person and been neglected by her, she no longer thinks that her counterpart’s inhuman perfection is an advantage. Scornfully she tells us, “Then I saw what the trouble was: she thought she was immortal.” Here, another stark contrast is drawn between the two selves–the second self is dying, the white self is becoming more alive. This theme of death is continued through the poem, particularly when the two selves begin to conflict more frequently. The yellow self begins to feel as if she is “living with [her] own coffin,” now that the white self, formerly a life-giving force, now means assured destruction for her weaker counterpart. This conflict between the idealized and real selves makes it impossible for the woman they comprise to be whole–although the two selves stay together out of necessity, their state of simultaneous co-dependence and war make it impossible for them to be reconciled healthily. However, in the last stanza, the old self reflects upon her plan to eventually gather her strength and break free of the new self’s influence, letting her “perish with emptiness.” This is an important reversal because it implies that although the old self needs protection and is weakened by the second self’s precedes, the latter is a mere empty mask without a stable core, unable to ever triumph completely. If the old self can succeed in regaining her strength, she would once again be a complete and stable person.

In order to describe the relationship between the dual selves, Plath uses the metaphor of a mask. During the brief period where the two attempt to support each other, the yellow self was able to mask her imperfections with the white self, while still flourishing and allowing her true character to show. However, as she becomes more weak, she realizes what a terrible choice it was. Now, she says she is terrified that the new self will let her die and “wear [her] painted face the way a mummy-case wears the face of a pharaoh.” If this happens, she will have lost her identity to someone who will corrupt it and make it false.

Ultimately, the poems leads to the reader to conclude that contrasting inner and outer selves cannot coexist in a stable manner, especially not if one is prioritized. This is made clear by the self-hatred exhibited by the old self throughout the poem–her first reaction to the new self was to be “scared because [the new self] was shaped just the way [she] was.” Furthermore, when she says that her impression that “it was a kind of marriage, being so close” was incorrect, she reveals that there is no love between the two selves, only resentment. Although she was originally able to depend on a falsely perfect self for strength, as soon as that self began to resent the original’s imperfect nature, the woman herself was split between two warring halves and weakened. In order to save herself, she must allow the true imperfect self to become strong from within, instead of drawing strength from a falsified shell. In order to build a better identity, one must avoid attempting to obscure the old self with a constructed new one, which can warp the truth and weaken a person’s core. A gradual shift occurring as a result of genuine growth is the only chance for a stable improvement in personality.

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