Plath steeps the poem "Tulips" in a whiteness depicted as powerful, peaceful, and obliterating: . . .
The wintry whiteness of the white walls presses in on the speaker, both teaching her about tranquility and enforcing it on her. The pressure results in eradication of herself and obliteration of the volatility of life. Van Dyne links this annihilation to "the speaker's fears of carnal and contaminating flesh" (Revising Life 92). As well, Van Dyne suggests that the speaker enjoys the process of noting the body's drift into "anonymity and irresponsibility" (Revising Life 92). Hayman, too, claims that Plath luxuriates in the abdication of responsibility in this poem (155). Significantly, the body that drifts into erasure in "Tulips" is a white body in a white world, a body confronted with entrapment in or escape from its own powerful signifiers. The speaker in the poem claims to understand the tulips as signifiers of a complicated sexual world intruding on the hallowed and clean white world of the hospital. She suggests that she might elude the seductiveness of the tulips should she become a nun and regain purity.
This reading of the poem works well enough; however, when we read the poem with an eye toward racial signifiers, the poem situates the plight of many white women who ardently desire an escape from culpability in white dominance over others. Dyer argues that white women are partially responsible for white dominance, but that because of their marginal status in relationship to white men, the only way they can maintain their own honor as white women is to do nothing about their role in domination (206). Thereby, the exquisite and languorous passivity that Plath demonstrates in "Tulips" marks white women as the culpable incapables that they are in the face of white dominance. The tulips remind the woman in the poem of other worlds, of other lives, of a colorfulness outside herself, but the woman cannot acknowledge these worlds and maintain her white passivity simultaneously. She would have to sacrifice the peacefulness of whiteness.
The tulips signify, by their glorious and bold colors, glaring Otherness. The frustrated speaker of the poem prescribes an enslavement for them uncannily linked to Africa: "The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals; / They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat. " Annas rightly notes that the speaker experiences an obligation to choose between the two worlds—the white world and the colorful world (A Disturbance 98)—however, I find that the speaker clearly wishes she did not have the choice. She prefers to imprison the dangerous and colorful world, so that she may remain passively white.
Perloff reads the white world of the hospital into which the colorful tulips intrude as a "dead, " "dazed, " and "empty" one. She reads the tulips as the entity that will force the speaker out of her whiteness (119). But I contend that in the final stanza only the image of the imprisoned tulips permits the speaker to associate the red of the flowers with the red of her heart. Figuratively speaking, Otherness may only serve as a catalyst for white inspection once it is safely ensconced behind bars.
From White Women Writing White: H. D., Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Whiteness. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by Renèe R. Curry