The following essay was written by Project Academy English Tutor, Marko Beocanin, who achieved 98/100 and 8th in NSW for English Advanced. Marko also attained a 99.95 ATAR and was the School Captain of Normanhurst Boys High School, ranking 1st in English Adv, Ext. 1 and Ext 2.
Marko has kindly agreed to share his essay and thorough annotations to help demystify for HSC students what comprises an upper Band 6 response.
Module A: Poetry of Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes Question
The following essay was written by Marko in response to the question:
“How has your comparative study enhanced your understanding of how a change in context leads to a shift in the values presented?
Answer this question in relation to the poetry of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.”
State-Ranking Module A Exemplar Response
A comparative study of Ted Hughes’ and Sylvia Plath’s poetry reveals how the widespread contextual outrage upon Plath’s death caused Hughes to actively collide with the values presented by Plath to regain social standing and dignity. (Cause and effect topic sentence that introduces Hughes’ motivations for reimagining Plath’s work – to regain social standing and dignity! Also note the inclusion of rubric terms, ‘collide’, and question terms, ‘values’) Plath’s confessional poems ‘Daddy’ and ‘A Birthday Present’ (Ariel, 2001) establish the value of liberty from both abusive men and stifling patriarchal expectations. She ultimately asserts the value of martyrdom, in the form suicide, arguing that it is the only way to reclaim her fractured identity. (Explicit naming of values: liberty and martyrdom. Make sure in questions like these to mention specific values rather than abstractly talking about values in general)
However, Hughes, her husband of seven years, uses the poems ‘The Shot’ and ‘Red’ (Birthday Letters, 1999) to assuage public blame and personal guilt placed upon him by a rising feminist movement that favoured social inclusion and women’s empowerment. (Explicit references to the types of contextual changes that were going on, and the impact it had both on him and their world) Hughes argues that Plath’s obsessive character was the true internal oppressor that drove her to devalue her own life and her family. (Cause and effect argument – Plath’s obsessive character was (in Hughes’ view) the cause, not him!) While the dissonances between these two poets reflect how changing contexts indeed cause a shift in values, both still resonate with values of dignity and self-expression. (Jam in as many rubric terms you can in this last sentence of the intro. It’s also useful to talk about where the two poets resonate as well, especially if your whole essay is about the dissonances between them)
In ‘Daddy’, Plath presents the value of liberty by exploring her desire to free herself from the traumatic male influence that dominated her personal context. (A cause and effect argument that engages specifically with the question: the value of liberty is name-dropped, and Plath’s desire for liberty as a result of traumatic male influence is established) The death of Plath’s father Otto in 1940, because of his unwillingness to seek treatment for diabetes, positioned Plath as a victim to neglectful men at only eight years old. (Specific context and its effect on Plath) Plath alludes to this context by opening ‘Daddy’ with inverted marriage vows, “you do not do, you do not do”, which she juxtaposes to her marriage with Hughes later in the poem, “I said I do, I do.” This call-back establishes both men’s failure in their roles as husband and father, and Plath’s inability to free herself from the neglectful, authoritarian characteristics that manifested in both of them. (Your first example should ideally link to your context.) Plath’s persona identifies with a spiritualistic caricature of Judaism, “gipsy ancestress…weird luck…I may be a bit of a Jew,” to frame Otto as her oppressive Nazi persecutor, “Luftwaffe…Aryan eye…panzer-man.” This embeds their relationship with the postwar anxiety of her context, and emphasises Otto’s brutality in degrading her liberty. (Further links to context – this is especially useful in Plath, who continually links to/uses global context to further her argument) Plath’s characterisation of Hughes as a “model of [Otto]” with the same vitriolic Nazi imagery, “a man in black with a Meinkampf look”, reflects how being a victim to men was a recurrent and significant aspect of her personal context. (The quotes are actively integrated within the sentence here. You don’t always have to do this, but when done right it really emphasises your flair as a writer) She thus resolves to transformatively liberate herself from the controlling male voice, “the voices just can’t worm through”, which she achieves only by metaphorically murdering her two oppressors, “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two.” Therefore, ‘Daddy’ reflects how the controlling patriarchal influence of Plath’s personal context shaped the value of liberty she presented. (Linking sentence that ties Plath’s personal context with the value of liberty)
While Plath presents the value of vengefully liberating herself from male oppression, (Especially with comparative Mod A essays, it’s really useful to start your topic sentences with the structure “While A does…, B does…” This reinforces the resonances/dissonances between the texts being compared) Hughes uses ‘The Shot’ to introduce a shift of values by arguing that it was Plath’s innately obsessive character, rather than the men around her, that drove her to suicide. Hughes’ changing context, and its embrace of the Western second-wave feminist metarranative, attacked him as an abusive husband responsible for Plath’s suicide in 1963. ‘The Shot’ “can be read as a corrective to those who had blamed [Hughes] for [Plath’s] death” (Claire Nally) (A sneaky one here: crit quotes can be a great way to buff up your context) because of Hughes’ focus on Plath’s damaging, idealised worship of men: “ordinary jocks became gods – deified by your infatuation”, rather than his own failure as a husband. Hughes argues that Plath’s unreconciled relationship with her “Daddy” Otto placed her on an inevitable, bullet-like trajectory to suicide, “your Daddy had been aiming you at God.” He reinforces this with chremamorphic bullet metaphors that establish Plath’s transformation into a volatile femme-fatale, “high velocity bullet…gold jacketed, solid-silver, nickel tipped.” This shifts away from Plath’s portrayal of herself in ‘Daddy’ as stripped of liberty and quieted by men: “I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw.” (This bit is really important! If you’re going to do the 4 paragraph structure, make sure you explicitly quote Plath in your Hughes paragraph. This ensures that you are emphasising the comparative elements of your work, and can really bring out points about interextuality on a quote-by-quote basis)
Ultimately, Hughes responds to the vitriolic accusations against him within his context by suggesting that his own attempts at intimacy, implied by a sequence of metonyms for depression, “sob-sodden Kleenex…Saturday night panics”, could not save her from suicide, “you were undeflected.” (Make sure to continuously engage with the question. Often, this will mean linking explicitly to the context – as is the case in this question) ‘The Shot’ therefore reveals how the public blame emplaced upon Hughes by his changing context lead him to shift Plath’s values and represent her own inner turmoil as the true oppressor. (Make sure to rephrase your cause and effect arguments at the end of every paragraph)
In ‘A Birthday Present’, Plath presents how she was driven to value suicidal martyrdom not only because of the men in her personal life, but also because of the broader domestic expectations of her patriarchal context. (This division of arguments is particularly useful in Plath/Hughes. Plath’s work often explores both her personal context (death of Otto, Hughes) and her social/global context (domestic/submissive roles imposed on women, postwar trauma). So, if you’re looking for a way to get two paragraphs on Plath, that could be a good way to split it!) Even though Plath relished motherhood, she still felt stifled by the “pressures that male-dominated society put on women to get married, have children, be homemakers” (Lauren Zane). (More contextual critic quotes!) She reflects her sense of entrapment by positioning the anthropomorphised presence of Death in the domestic space of the kitchen: “When I am quiet at my cooking I feel it looking.” Plath’s cooking serves as a metonym for submission, “measuring the flower…adhering to rules, to rules, to rules”, in which the repetition of “rules” emphasises her gradual internalisation of the domestic roles placed upon her by her context. She argues that these expectations were so rigid that they degenerated her will to live, “I would have killed myself gladly”, and with great irony, reflects on how even in death she will euphemistically submit to her context, “take it and go aside quietly”. (Building a progressive argument here with the quotes) She therefore resolves to commit suicide swiftly, “let it not come by word of mouth”, which she values as a “timeless…serious” act of martyrdom, its “deep gravity” contrasted to her superficial domestic lifestyle. (With poetry, sometimes only small sections of quotes are relevant. It’s okay to integrate them really briefly into sentences, but make sure to have some diversity – you can’t exclusively (or even primarily) have those two-word quotes alone) Therefore, ‘A Birthday Present’ reflects how the patriarchal roles imposed upon Plath by her context drove her to value martyrdom as an alternative to the domestic life. (Linkage!)
While Plath’s portrayal of martyrdom frees her from stifling domesticity, Hughes’ context leads him to shift his presentation towards the value of family, and how Plath’s suicide destroyed their relationship and peaceful family life. (It’s important to recognise that Hughes doesn’t JUST respond to the values explored by Plath – he also introduces ideas/values of his own) Hughes benefited greatly from Plath’s domestic and professional talents, as she published both of their poetry and maintained the household. He attaches a violent red colour motif to Plath to symbolise how this talent came at the expense of an angry, obsessive character: “Red was your colour…blood red.” He argues that this obsessiveness damaged her capacity for intimacy, and intrudes upon the symbolically intimate space of the bedroom: “When you had your way finally our room was red.” This reflects the shift of values within his new context, because it subverts Plath’s characterisation of herself as a docile victim to male abusers in ‘A Birthday Present’: “must you kill what you can?”, by suggesting that she had an active role in disintegrating their family. Hughes represents Plath’s beauty, however, in positions of domesticity, by introducing her motherhood with a blue motif, “Blue was better for you…folded your pregnancy…was your kindly spirit.” Hughes’ juxtaposition between blue and red represents how, from his shifted perspective, her obsession with martyrdom caused her to devalue her own family – captured in the metaphor, “the jewel you threw away was blue.” (This paragraph shows a progression in the ideas of the poem captured by a progression of the colour symbolism. Both Hughes and Plath do this in their work: symbols develop and express the development of their perspective. Make sure to reinforce that progressive element in your work.) Therefore, Hughes’ depiction of Plath’s desire for martyrdom as a destructive force reflects how his changing context lead him to shift towards embracing family values.
A comparative study of the collisions between the poetry of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath reflects how Hughes’ changing context caused him to shift away from the values presented by Plath. (This conclusive sentence is effectively a restatement of your topic sentence. If you’re desperate and running out of time in the exam, you can leave your conclusion at one such sentence – but ideally, finish a whole 3-4 sentence conclusion whenever you can!) Plath depicts herself as a victim deprived of liberty and driven to martyrdom, while Hughes comments on her destructive character and its adverse impact on family life. Ultimately, the textual conversation between these poets expresses both Plath’s tragic decline to suicide, and Hughes’ complex struggle to regain dignity after her death. (This last sentence of the conclusion plays a similar role to the last sentence of your introduction: it’s a great chance to integrate some words from the rubric, and demonstrate your flair as a writer. In particular, you can talk about the broader nature of the ‘textual conversation’ between composers revealed by the texts, rather than just the specific texts of study themselves)
Looking for more?
If reading this essay has helped you, you may also enjoy reading Marko’s ultimate guide to writing 20/20 HSC English essays.