The influence of African folktales on Sylvia Path's 'Ariel voice'

Master Thesis


Permanent link to this Item
Journal Title
Link to Journal
Journal ISSN
Volume Title

University of Cape Town

In this study I trace the influence of Paul Radin’s collection of African folktales on Sylvia Plath’s Ariel poems. Elements from these tales have been identified by various critics in Plath’s “Poem for a Birthday” sequence which, according to Hughes, she wrote around the same time as she was reading the African tales. However, the importance of the tales to her later poetry has not yet been fully explored in Plath criticism. “Poem for a Birthday” marks an important stage in the emergence of what has become known as Plath’s “Ariel voice” and it is my contention that the influence of the African tales is significantly present even in this later work. The Ariel poems manifest a preoccupation with motherhood which merges thematically with creative fruitfulness. I examine how Plath adopts and uses the concept of “the African” in Ariel to represent repressed aspects of the human psyche which must emerge into consciousness in order for creative expression to attain a level of deep resonance. This engagement is repeatedly presented as a vital “primitive” force emerging from beneath a stony silent reality. The Africanfolktales provided Plath with a novel set of imagery and resources with which to portray this explorative process. I therefore explore Plath’s interest in “primitivism”. I also argue that the orality of the African tales inspired Plath to focus on the oral nature of her later writing. I hope in this study to free Plath’s Ariel voice from the shadow of her suicide. More importantly, I hope to show that her own collection of Ariel poems represented an important moment in her creative development that envisaged a vital spirit of possibility, activated dramatically by an engagement with Radin’s African tales.

Includes bibliographical references.