112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

The “Defective and Disqualified Consumer”: Sylvia Plath, Existentialism, and the Proto-Neoliberal Regime

Ryan Leack, University of California, Riverside

The paper examines several of Sylvia Plath’s poems within a neoliberalist and existentialist framework that locates her depression in both the oppression of a patriarchal, “post-ideological” capitalism, and in the objective meaninglessness of the cosmos itself, thus waging a war on Plath from both political and personal fronts.


This project seeks to contextualize Sylvia Plath’s struggles with anxiety and depression in the growing existentialist angst of her time and within the rise of neoliberalist politics, both of which function as hegemonic ideologies that contribute to Plath’s expressed sense of powerlessness or hopelessness in several poems in particular, including “The Applicant,” “Winter Trees,” and “The Night Dances,” each of which communicates a struggle with the oppressive, imposed roles of her patriarchal, capitalist society, either overtly or subtlety.  Viewed from this context with the aid of political and philosophical figures such as Fromm, Zizek, and Ranciere, Plath’s struggle stems in part from a kind of placelessness, an inability to be seen or heard, or to occupy spaces of power, all of which relate to a larger inability to be, thus shedding light on some of the root causes of her most emotionally and politically charged poetry, and on her escape from both freedom and hegemony in death.

This paper analyzes “The Applicant” in particular in light of Pamela Annas’ work, which illustrates, with the aid of Zizek, Plath’s objectification in a patriarchal/proto-neoliberalist age.  The paper then analyzes several aforementioned nature poems, which makes obvious her existentialist anguish and inability to find objective meaning even in the natural world, thus suggesting that Plath’s plight was both political and personal, both because of a cruel patriarchy and because of the indifference of nature itself, the unaffectedness of an infinite cosmos that reduces her to an insignificant flash of existence.

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