A Birthday Present

Previous Page Next Page

Sylvia Plath’s “A Birthday Present”

If ever there was a poet within whose works one could count on finding examples of the poet’s self it certainly would be Sylvia Plath.  Because almost all of her poetry is an unashamedly open window on her life and feelings, almost all who have critiqued her work have labeled her a confessional poet.  Because her life is so integral to her poetry, knowledge of her life is important toward the understanding of her use of words and images.  “Few poets demand that we know as much about their lives as Sylvia Plath does.  Her intensely personal poetry was often rooted in everyday experiences, the knowledge of which can often open obscure references on cryptic images to fuller meaning for the reader.” (Magill, 2593)

A Birthday Present was the first of about thirty poems written in September of 1962; about six months before she committed suicide.  I believe it is important to realize that this was a very prolific month in her life, and that the poetry written during this time may have been a result of her definite decision to take her life.  “With her perfectionism and her ruthless zeal to excel in every activity, Sylvia had always put herself under the greatest possible pressure.  When she was lashing herself forward, the idea of suicide could work as an extra goad.” (Hayman, 132)

This seems a very plausible explanation for such a effusion of poetry in one month’s time.  Thus, the first of this flow of poems may have been both the result and the cause of her suicide.  The result of her suicide in that she had mastered her will, so to speak, and made the decision to kill herself.  Though she had not yet committed suicide, the fact that she was able to make up her mind must have given her the “pressure” she needed to “goad” her into writing so abundantly.  When the pressure was gone, when she could say no more, this frenzy of poetry could be construed as that which ultimately caused her suicide.

By writing A Birthday Present first during this month it is as though Plath was attempting to convince herself that this was the best thing she could do for herself.  By putting it down in writing she was able to release the gush of poetry that followed.  Up to now the veil that hides what is beyond death has caused some turmoil.   Even though she had attempted suicide about ten years previous, she had in many ways found aspects of life that seemed to try to keep her on this side of the veil.  But now the decision has been made.  There is no more struggle.  It doesn’t matter if what is behind the veil is “ugly” or “beautiful,” It doesn’t matter whether it is rough or  smooth.  She somehow knows that, “...it is unique, I am sure it is just what I want.”

She mocks herself a little bit in the following lines, as though she is deriding herself for looking for pleasure and completeness in trying to be the perfect wife, mother, and daughter.  She sees that death has been there all along just waiting for her to make this decision.  While death waits it watches her and thinks what a joke she has made of her life by pursuing this perfection.

“When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking, I feel it thinking
            ‘Is this the one I am to appear for,
            Is this the elect one, the one with black eye-pits and a scar?

 Measuring the flour, cutting off the surplus,
            Adhering to rules, rules, rules.

 I this the one for the annunciation?
            My god, what a laugh!’”


Plath is the one who has worn herself out trying to be perfect, thus the black eye-pits.  She is the one who has been scarred because her life was literally spent out in doing what was expected of women.  “A woman who went to college between 1945 and 1960, [Betty] Friedan concludes, ‘could hardly avoid learning ‘...not to get interested, seriously interested in anything besides getting married and having children, if she wanted to be normal, happy, adjusted, feminine.” (Bennett, 102)

This is what Sylvia Plath tried to do, but somehow knew she could not, and would never be able to do.  “Like most women in the 1950s,...Sylvia Plath appears to have accepted the basic assumptions of this doctrine or ideology even though she knew that in many respects they ran counter to the springs of her own nature.”  (Bennett, 103)    By dedicating herself to committing suicide she freed herself from this principle; this need to adhere “...to rules, to rules, to rules.”

Now she is free to look at the veil and not really be concerned about what it conceals.  She does “...not mind if it was bones, or a pearl button.”  All that she sees now is the fact that what ever is behind that veil “wants” her.  If the birthday present is the freedom to express herself so prolifically in poetry, she does not care if it is a great number of poems, or just a few.  In her mind she is living on borrowed time anyway.  She now sees that any inspiration given her since her last attempt at suicide is a gift far greater than she wanted anyway.

“I do not want much of a present, anyway, this year.
            After all I am alive only by accident.

 I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way.”

If this poem can be seen as the gateway to Plath’s determination to kill herself, we can also see in it her struggles to let go of those things that keep her from suicide.  “As the poem develops, the ‘mirrory variety’ of the speaker’s existence becomes a tortuous self-consciousness, a self-watching that makes every act compulsive.” (Bundtzen, 230) If suicide is an act of killing one’s self then it is the self that needs to be convinced to give that act.  In Plath’s mind this act is a gift to herself, and she must assure herself that giving it is the right thing to do.

“Can you not give it to me?
            Do not be ashamed – I do not mind if it is small.
            Do not be mean, I am ready for enormity.
            Let us sit down to it, one on either side, admiring the gleam.”


“It is as if she has two selves – a disembodied consciousness that thinks and observes and a two-dimensional figure, a woman who performs her kitchen duties like a robot.”  (Bundtzen, 230) One needs to convince the other that what is on the other side of the veil is not something of which she needs to be afraid.  She does not want to make a big show of this suicide.  She does not want the act to hurt; either herself or others.  She just wants to open the gift and go quietly.

“I will only take it and go aside quietly.
            You will not even hear me opening it, no paper crackle.”


It is hear that the poem seems to take a sudden turn.  It is as though the veils do not hide what is beyond death, but hide what life has to offer; it seems to have hidden her potential. Veils that in her mind keep her from realizing all that she could be.  “Not content with the stereotype of the victim, the poet energetically celebrates her dissolution in these poems.  She begins in stark terror, realizing how much of her identity has been jeopardized.”  (Broe, 136)  To others it may have seemed transparent.   But to her they are like “clouds...[of] carbon monoxide,” and she was slowly killing herself anyway by breathing in these clouds and “[f]illing [her] veins” with the poison.  “Sylvia Plath’s sense of entrapment, her sense that her choices are profoundly limited, is directly connected to her particular time and place in which she wrote her poetry.  Betty Friedan describes the late fifties and early sixties for American women as a ‘comfortable concentration camp’ -- physically luxurious, mentally oppressive and impoverished.’”  (Davison, 131)  As part of convincing herself that suicide is good, she has proven to herself that she was killing herself anyway, so why not do it all at once.

“Is it impossible for you to let something go and have it whole?
            Must you stamp each piece in purple,

 Must you kill what you can?
            There is this one thing I want today, and only you can give it to me.”

By allowing all these veils to take her life from her a piece at a time she was allowing herself to be bruised by each act.  Only she can give herself the gift of death in one whole piece.  Only then would each veil be lowered and death most likely revealed.  But that would be the present.  All the cares forced onto her by society and her own experiences would “slide” away giving her a kind of rebirth, thus making the gift of suicide a kind of birth day present.

“The passage of time has made it more apparent that Sylvia’s suicide was no irrelevant accident.  Though she repeatedly used the imagery of death and rebirth, we can’t infer that she had some crazy belief that she could survive suicide.  The right question is whether the literary flirtation with death could – by serving as a safety valve – have saved her life.” (Hayman, 130)

When these poems were written I do not think they were serving as a safety valve.  I rather think they were the direct result of her decision to take her own life.  It was no longer a question of do or do not; rather, it was now a question of when, where, and how.  A Birthday Present was her way of saying to herself that she alone would have to make the decision to kill herself.   And she used the poem to convince herself that she was allowing herself to be killed little by little anyway.  Why not do it all at once, making it “pure and clean as the cry of a baby,” because to allow herself to be killed by pieces would mean that once the present of death did come she would be, “to numb to use it.”

Works Cited

Bennett, Paula.  My Life A Loaded Gun, Female Creativity and Feminist Poetics.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

 Broe, Mary Lynn.  Protean Poetic, The Poetry of Sylvia Plath.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980.

 Bundtzen, Lynda K.  Plath’s Incarnations, Women and the Creative Process.  Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1983.

 Davison, Peter.  “The Self in the World: The Social Contact of Sylvia Plath’s Late Poems.”  Critical Essays on Sylvia Plath.  Ed. Linda W. Wagner. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984. 130-139.

Hayman, Ronald.  The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath.  New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1991.

 MaGill, Frank N., ed. Critical Survey of Poetry English Language Series. Revised Edition. Vol. 5. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1992.  2592-2603.