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Postmodern Retellings 101: Sylvia Plath’s "The Princess and the Goblins"


By the second half of the 20th century, modern retellings of fairy tales had spread over the globe for various reasons such as the development of literary criticism or postmodernist ideas. The former had received critical acclaim in the academic field to such an extent that it promoted a reaction against the established social conventions. Therefore, many cultural products and perspectives were revised. All postmodern authors presented in this series take classic (fairy) tales as the foundation for their works and rewrite them. Each transforms the classic tale into a modern creation by presenting them from a postmodern perspective.

The poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida claims that it is necessary to revise all the misconceptions derived from modernity since they do not represent the substance of reality. This process of discovery is named "deconstruction". Therefore, the authors appropriate classical forms and assimilate them in terms of 1970s postmodernism, which addresses different themes, from feminism and sexuality to psychoanalysis. The purpose of this series is to show how modern retellings differ from the original fairy tales, that is, what elements the authors have changed in their stories to "make them postmodern".

This series will be divided as follows:

  1. Postmodern Retellings 101: Postmodernist Perspectives and Subversion

  2. Postmodern Retellings 101: Robert Coover’s The Dead Queen

  3. Postmodern Retellings 101: Angela Carter’s The Tiger's Bride

  4. Postmodern Retellings 101: Sylvia Plath’s The Princess and the Goblins

  5. Postmodern Retellings 101: Anne Sexton’s Rapunzel

  6. Postmodern Retellings 101: Olga Broumas’s Cinderella

Postmodern Retellings 101: Sylvia Plath's "The Princess and the Goblins"

Sylvia Plath drew great inspiration from the Grimm’s fairy tales in her early work. Her youth poems reimagine fairy tale narratives and are set in post-war American culture. She used the genre’s motifs to explore important themes for post-war culture, such as motherhood and girlhood. However, there are two central topics derived from these retellings: punishment and desire. These motifs will be further explored in Plath’s work which focuses on sexual awakening and marriage as two fears that women face throughout their lives. In The Princess and the Goblins, Plath examines the princess’s sexual desires and inner tension to analyse female early sexual experiences (Connors, 2007).

Figure 1: "The Sleeping Beauty" (Burne-Jones, 1890).

Plath usually utilises the same narrative strategies as the Grimms, since the storytellers typically follow the point of view of the female protagonist. Therefore, the author uses these perspectives to establish a parallel with the American young girl. In these early stages of her work, female characters are pretty much controlled or driven by their male love interests. For that reason, they are punished for their passion and desires or experience internal guilt. Plath acknowledges that tales were originally written to express moral values or ethical principles which often ended up trying to repress female sexuality (Ferretter, 2010). In The Princess and the Goblins, Plath revises the traditional tale Briar Rose, commonly known as Sleeping Beauty, to explore topics such as punishment and desire (Tamás, 2022).

Studies of Plath’s work have largely examined its connections to her psychological problems. Therefore, her retellings have not been paid much attention by scholarly critics, unlike those of others of her colleagues such as Anne Sexton or Angela Carter. Plath has widely been regarded as a poet of suicide and her body of work has been reduced to a long note of her suicidal impulses (Stringham, 2014). Plath’s childhood readings have been ignored, although they have played a fundamental role in shaping the writer’s narrative strategies and poetics (McCort, 2009). However, there have been comparisons between Sexton and Plath regarding the fairy tale realm, but most of the studies failed to credit Plath’s retellings and analysed of fairy tales because this body of work was part of her early poems. Therefore, it was not the traditional nucleus of her collection of poems, famous for her encoded artwork, where she hid female secrets in genres dominated by male conventions (Gillbert & Gubar, 2000).

Figure 2: "The Princess and the Goblin" (Willcox Smith, 1920).

The poem consists of three parts and the stanzas are tercets. In fact, the number three which is a traditional figure linked to the fairy tale genre is a recurring element in the poem (Tamás, 2022). The Princess and the Goblins is part of the twentieth-century poem convention where writers turned to traditional tales in order to explore themselves and the world that surrounds them, that is, to make sense of their identity and their environment (McCort, 2009). The story presents a strong female character, a princess, who embarks on an adventure during the night, but her brave nature will be soon punished by a witch (Tamás, 2022).

Sleeping Beauty symbolises the failed intention to repress the awakening of female sexuality, which ultimately fails as she is saved by the prince’s kiss. In her retelling, Plath foregrounds the princess’s bleeding and sexual desire. She links the main female character to the moon and blood in order to symbolise her ongoing menstruation and inner sexual tension. When Plath entered young womanhood, she began to focus on fairy tales’ motifs of sexual aggression and violence against women—elements that she would develop later in her career. In traditional tales, women are described as objects for trading and are often neglected by their parents and mistreated by their lovers or husband, which established a framework to contextualise early female sexual experience and marriage (McCort, 2009).

Figure 3: "The Sleeping Beauty" (Meyerheim, 1870).

In the poem, Plath utilises the narrative strategies embedded within the fairy tale genre. For that reason, the girl gets pricked by a needle as a result of the evil witch’s plan to punish the princess. The female handicraft is the symbol of the dichotomy that runs through the whole genre—i.e., the punishment and desire dichotomy. During the poem, Plath focuses on the active and rebellious nature of the princess who is fully aware of her agency, unlike other traditional female characters in the fairy tale that must remain passive until the prince saves them. Plath’s story is deeply embedded in the retelling tradition from the 20th century and, therefore, she uses metaliterary techniques derived from the fairy tale conventions such as narrative strategies (Tamás, 2022).

Plath represents the spindle as a harmful object that symbolises danger, but it also presents the focus on women since this tool is part of the female handicraft. In this way, the story unfolds like a canvas or a web surrounding the main character. Moreover, the needlework is one of the main characteristics of the witch and the godmother. For Plath, the powerful female figure can be either bad or good, dangerous or rewarding (Tamás, 2022).

Figure 4: Sleeping Beauty is shown a spindle by the old woman (Zick, n.d.).

In conclusion, Grimm’s tales were part of the general culture in American society and were also sources of inspiration for contemporary writers. Plath’s work was involved with the fairy tale tradition since her early poems, where she showed some significant psychoanalytic appreciations of tales. Plath discussed motifs of punishment and desire in her poems and drew a parallel between traditional conventions and the post-war American culture. The tale’s deployment of sexual repression and marriage will be later analysed in her work to become one of its central topics. This pattern will progress throughout her work until her last poems written just before her suicide. Therefore, multiple interpretations can be drawn from Plath’s poetics which has been essentially understood as a long suicidal confession, overlooking other central themes of her work and narrative strategies (Tamás, 2022).

Bibliographical References

Connors, K. (2007). Living Colors: The Interactive Arts of Sylvia Plath. In K. Connors & S. Bayley (Eds.). Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath’s Art of the Visual. Oxford University Press. Ferretter, L. (2010). Sylvia Plath’s Fiction: A Critical Study. Edinburgh University Press. Gilbert, S. M., & Gubar, S. (2000). The madwoman in the attic: The woman writer and the nineteenth-century literary imagination. Yale University Press. McCort, J. (2009). Getting out of Wonderland: Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Stringham, M.J. (2014). From red hoods to blue beards: Fairy-tale intertexts in Alejandra Pizarnik and Sylvia Plath. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Tamás, D. (2022). Sylvia Plath’s reimagination of the Grimms’ fairy tales in postwar American culture. Feminist Modernist Studies, 5(1), 36–53.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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