Wailing on Wanting: The Traumatizing Influence of Parental Figures in Sylvia Plath’s “I Want, I Want” and “The Colossus”

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Nicole Salama


Both Sylvia Plath’s poems “I Want, I Want” and “The Colossus” examine the traumatic impact of parental figures on youthful subjects. The poems appear in Plath’s first collection of poetry also titled The Colossus, which was originally published in 1960 by Heinemann. Plath wrote “I Want, I Want” two years earlier in 1958, and “The Colossus” in 1959. In the overlooked “I Want, I Want,” Plath transforms the Christian narrative of salvation into a quintessential example of extreme childhood trauma. She describes hallmark scenes of the narrative, specifically Christ’s nativity, the creation of the world, and Christ’s crucifixion to expose the traumatic existence of the Christ Child. Plath interweaves the baby, his mother, and his father, connecting them primarily through explicitly naming the parents in relation to the infant and through the limited wailing action of the child. While the mother’s failure to create as an earth goddess deity figure traumatizes her child, the father’s apathetic creation of predatory creatures displays his brutal intentions for his son. In contrast, “The Colossus” examines the attempt of an apparently adult daughter to reassemble a statue of her father despite the continuous futility of her labor. Plath describes both the perpetual work of the speaker and her evident desire for communication with her father, whose absence traumatizes the speaker. However, by the conclusion of the poem, the speaker ultimately accomplishes neither of these goals, and Plath provides no evidence of any progress. Instead, Plath employs miniature imagery to portray the speaker as childlike. Additionally, the speaker’s failure to adequately communicate with her father traumatically suspends her development. Plath ultimately creates an ever-youthful speaker frozen in the recurring experience of her failed relationship with her father. Through an analysis of these two poems, this essay complicates confessional discussions of trauma in Plath’s poetry and contributes to larger discussions on portrayals of the child in modernist poetry.


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