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Central to Plath's developing consciousness, and visually central in the sequence, is "Stings." It seems that in the queen bee's double-bind situation, Plath identifies with the complexities of her institutional position as queen versus her experiences as mother. The young girl makes this stark discovery of kinship as early as the first poem, "Beekeeper's Daughter":

Here is a queenship no mother can contest--

A fruit that's death to taste: dark flesh, dark parings.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

set my eye to a hole-mouth and meet an eye 

Round, green, disconsolate as a tear.

(We must remember that the apiary is a world of curiously inverted sexual principles. The queen, parthenogenic, can only produce idle male drones--"the blunt clumsy stumblers, the boors"--who will ruin the hive. Only the drone mate can contribute the female principle to the union.) One law, however, is central to the apiary. The queen, old and plushless, neither directs nor participates in any of her subjects' riches of cross-pollination, never sees daylight, has no bodily provisions for work. To her the virgin worker's world of activity is "death to the taste." She remains ill-fated, hidden, and otherwise useless in her singular mission of motherhood.

The paradoxical nature of the queen extends to other levels as well. The queen lives for one moment--a brief nuptial flight, blend of ecstasy and tragedy, life and death. Apiarists tell us that the mate of the queen--chosen from thousands of suitors who pursue her high-spiraling nuptial flight--lives for a single moment of delight. But in this instant of "dark pa(i)ring" as he impregnates the queen, his abdomen slits open, loosing the entrails which the queen then totes behind her as a kind of triumphal banner. Dispensable (his death required for propagation of the hive), the mate falls to earth as a carcass. The queen sports her murderous trophy, proof she has guaranteed the future of the hive.

Yet when required, the queen can be mistress of evasion, proving her cleverness by refusing to show herself in the smoking-out ritual (when the virgins are moved so they do not kill the old queen bee). "She is very clever./ She is old, old, old, she must live another year, and she knows it." Her power is in absence:refusing to show herself in duel with younger virgins or to escape some random fate from villagers. To her--and this is what Plath learns about power in a sequence where physical power is at least undermined, if not continually mocked--power is an attitude, a matter of perceiving life and death, the familiar and the terrible comprehensively, wholly. She manipulates the visible from the vantage point of isolation. Though physically her fate is in others' hands, imaginatively she remains untouched, "sealed in wax." Likewise the young girl speaker at the bee induction--exhausted from the tedium of ignorance, fear, and hosts of unanswered questions--chooses immobility. Despite outward conformity, she remains a "gullible head untouched by their [the bees'] animosity."

In "Stings" the speaker successively dons the roles of beekeeper, honey-drudge, and queen in a dramatic exploration of their various functions. "It is almost over./I am in control," she announces midway through the process of adopting and rejecting various forms of power. And indeed Plath is in control. She conducts us from the literal level of "sweet bargaining" for honey, through the mechanical collection of it by drudges, finally to the queen bee's controlling inactivity which is her last triumph.

In the final stanza, despite the imagined ritual deaths throughout the sequence, the elusive queen, at last visible, is a triumph of contradictions. She comprises images of illness, vulnerability (red scar, wings of glass) as well as those of vital resilience. Here--in fact, in the whole sequence--the authoritative mode is abandoned.


From Ariel Ascending: Writings About Sylvia Plath. Ed. Paul Alexander. Copyright © 1985 by Paul Alexander.