Denouement // Sylvia Plath

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While it is rooted deeply in Plath’s personal life, her poem ‘Denouement’ becomes universal in exploring the disillusionment from relationships breaking away and of a family life torn apart. Using an extended metaphor of a circus to present the sceptical view of a marriage for show only by bringing about the themes of loss and departure. Beginning with the discovery of such loss, Plath cumulates a poignant illustration of a household shattering down under poverty and the withdrawal of its people identifying each member with a circus animal.

The title is drawn from the stages of Greek tragic plays, the moment of discovery of the reality. The denouement follows the climax in which the aftermath of the climactic episodes is realised. Plath uses it in such a way that we understand the climax to be her failed marriage, after which the denouement is realised in her husband leaving her. This discovery is made through a telegram message, as Plath perfectly follows the format of the Italian villanelle to construct a strict rhyming scheme of ABA in the first five stanzas with a final quatrain ending on a note of ABAA. This compact form of writing enables the central theme to flow through in an arrangement of a song or an incantation, with the constant emphasis by repetition of the first and last lines of the first stanza throughout the poem. The desolation is echoed with the word ‘away’ being repeated as well, again concentrating on the theme of grief and separation. The first stanza introduces the metamorphosis of the married life to a ‘circus’ which is played out in a form of an extended metaphor in the poem. Plath highlights this circus as ‘bankrupt’, which loosely illustrates the idea of poverty as well as isolation as Plath states that she is left with nothing and is ‘on (her) own’.

The second stanza establishes the symbolism of the circus imagery as Plath morphs her family members to the creatures shown off in a circus. The ‘singing birds’ is a beautiful allegory to her children, who’ve also left her when they were given ‘their pay’. This allegory monetises the relationship factor, as Plath shows that love and family life becomes nothing but a buying and selling of goods and services – an entertainment show where people come and performers play their part and earn their money, and when it is all over, the circus disbands and everyone leaves. The third stanza mirrors the same idea of staying until there is no more opportunities to indulge in, where the woolly dogs bring their dice for one last treat because there is nothing more to give to them as the poet falls under the hand of poverty and depression.

The fourth stanza draws a stoic caricature of ‘lion and tigers’ turning to clay, which would refer to the toys that the children had left which were now old and decaying, much like the Plath’s own life at the point of her writing this poem. ‘Jumbo’ is an allusion to the Disney cartoon of a circus elephant, who likewise has turned to ‘stone’ which represents the death of innocence in this corroding household. Plath induces a comic effect when she allegorises her ‘landlord’ to a ‘cobra’ which ‘rents his poison out by telephone’, further portraying her poverty struck life and the ways in which people continue to take advantage and is inconsiderate of the those who’ve lost everything.

The final stanza resounds on the poet’s helpless acceptance of her own destitution and desertion, through the remarkable imagery of the the ‘colourful tents’ which topple in the ‘bay’ of life. The colourful tents represent the temporary but colourful structure of her previous married life, which she has now come to realise was just for show to amuse others, and now as the circus is over through the betrayal of her loved one, her life has toppled away in the bay. This beautiful image of the tents falling down and the married life being nothing but a sham – a circus show for a few viewers to enjoy – holds so much pathos and poignancy. It creates a tone of mourning for a life that used to be enjoyable, but also the realisation that the feeling of enjoyment and happiness was forced and scripted. The poem encumbers the meaning of family life, while portraying the mistrust of bonding and love. It resonates on Plath’s own tragic life where her husband, Ted Hughes, had left her for another woman and we understand that this poem hints at the onset of depression from poverty and heartbreak in Plath which forces her to take her own life at the end. Therefore, this poem is psychologically motivated and thus materialises on Plath’s home life, as the last lines echo on the reality of departure and finality of Plath’s hardship.

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