Skip to main content

. . . In seeking to liberate the female body, Plath subjected it to a representational order which dictated its annihilation.

These dueling impulses clearly war in Plath's bee sequence - the poems with which Plath had intended to end Ariel (Van Dyne 156).  Plath's sense of female vulnerability, specifically, female vulnerability to physical nakedness, is clear in these poems, but her desire to unclothe and discover the disguised female self is powerfully manifest as well. The five poems ("The Bee Meeting," "The Arrival of the Bee Box," "Stings," "The Swarm." and "Wintering".), which Plath wrote in October 1962, deal with issues of power, and many sympathetic readers find these works triumphant and even feminist. However, a closer look at the metaphors of nakedness and disclosure makes clear that Plath cannot transcend or rewrite the figurative language which imperils her female subject. In the poem which opens the series, "The Bee Meeting," the speaker finds herself at risk because she is unclothed or inadequately clothed: "In my sleeveless summery dress I have no protection, ... I am nude as a chicken neck, does nobody love me?" (211). Not only is the speaker in danger because of her nakedness, but she is also somewhat ridiculous ("nude as a chicken neck"), and she associates her vulnerable nakedness not with the potential for closeness or intimacy, nor with the possibility of self-expression, but with the danger of violation (the bees, the gorse with its "spiky armory" [211]), with her alienation (apparently no one loves her), and with her potential sacrifice: "I am led through a beanfield.... Whose is that long white box in the grove, what have they accomplished, why am I cold" (211-12). Throughout the sequence, the queen, with whom the speaker compares herself ("I / Have a self to recover, a queen" ["Stings" 215]), is safe because she is hidden; she will not make herself open or vulnerable to the younger "virgins" or to the peering "villagers." Clearly, to be seen is to be in danger; to remain passive and unnoticed is much safer: "If I stand very still, they will think I am cow-parsley" ("The Bee Meeting" 212).

The bees continue to present a threat to the body of the speaker, and she incessantly - almost in an incantation or ritual - insists upon her unimportance, on her hiddenness as her protection: "They might ignore me immediately / In my moon suit and funeral veil" ("The Arrival of the Bee Box" 213). The queen is released finally from her isolation; she is permitted to unclothe herself from the honeycomb which has hidden and protected her, to fly naked and triumphant:

Now she is flying 

More terrible than she ever was, red 

Scar in the sky, red comet 

Over the engine that killed her -- 

The mausoleum, the wax house.

But the queen's triumph is qualified (as the triumph at the end of "Lady Lazarus," which this passage foreshadows, is qualified). The queen may now be her free, naked self, but she is a red scar, the result of a wound or some unidentified pain, and she flies only because she must die; she flies over the world that decrees that she must die. Her nakedness promises to undo her. It is too easy to say that Plath - as an artist - has found transcendence or triumph in death. The queen, who has lost her "plush," is, despite her flight, despite her majestic death, "Poor and bare and unqueenly and even shameful" (214). Even if we wish to read the poem as very positive, it is clear that the unclothed body of the female subject here - the queen/speaker  does not experience the exuberance or triumph that Whitman or Ginsberg could express. In fact, she cannot even speak that triumph from the uncovered female body.

It is significant, too, that the sequence ends not with an affirmation but rather with a series of questions. The queen, who was quite easily replaced, is dead, but the bees remain with a new queen: "The bees are all women, / Maids and the long royal lady. / They have got rid of the men" ("Wintering" 218). While the final lines of "Wintering" are poignant and lovely, and while they do imply a certain power in the female community of bees, the tone is so uncertain, so tentative, that the sense of ascendancy toward which Plath moves is hopelessly compromised. Ultimately, the sequence ends with an almost inarticulable sadness:

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas 

Succeed in banking their fires 

To enter another year? 

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? 

The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

Female nakedness, thus, is a liability in terms of Plath's poetry, and no matter how strongly she might long for the freedom and power of nakedness or confession, such freedom will not be hers.


From "The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." Contemporary Literature 34.4 (Winter 1993)