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Feminism in Works of Sylvia Plath, Lorrain Hansberry, and Anne Sexton


The rise of feminism in the twentieth century has brought a slew of literature from women who felt empowered by the ongoing changes in society. The struggles of the poets of that time are apparent in the works of many women whose works focus on both personal experiences and societal changes. The multitude of their voices allows modern readers to grasp the essence of the struggles that had to be overcome by feminists of that time. In this essay, the works of Sylvia Plath, Lorrain Hansberry, and Anne Sexton will be analyzed to determine how feminism was affecting society in the middle of the twentieth century.

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Anne Sexton

The first author to be analyzed is Anne Sexton and her poems “Her Kind” and “Wanting to Die.” They reveal the author’s melancholic and depressive side that stems from her dissatisfaction with the reality that was set upon her. The works of Anne Sexton are clearly present a confession and are filled with the author’s deepest desires, fears, and anguish. Sexton also expressed her desire to live another life in the poem “Her Kind,” which focuses on the image of a woman that the author adores. There are hidden ambitions within the author’s words that reveal how she strives for freedom from society (Wann). However, the author is left to yearn for these experiences, which presents the tragic side of feminist struggles in the twentieth century.

From these two works, it becomes apparent that the author had thought deeply about ending her life. Sexton reveals that her struggles are continuous, and she waits “to empty [her] breath from its bad prison.” Although these suicidal thoughts may be too alluring at some periods, her works present a strong character that continues to live on despite the outside pressure. Starting from its very title, the poem “Wanting to Die” pressures a reader into feelings of despair. However, it also acknowledges that the author’s will to live has been snuffed out prematurely, and death is not the goal she truly wants. It is possible to conclude that Sexton sees it as the only exit from the wrongful world she was brought into. This work is highly personal, yet the overall worldview is apparently feministic, as the Death who promises the release from the suffering of existence is a female.

Sylvia Plath

The poems by Sylvia Plath present a more open challenge to the patriarchal regime. The topics that Plath covers in her works regularly depict violence, retaliation, and shocking comparisons. The poem “Daddy” is one of the brightest examples of the fighting spirit of feminism in the literary works of that time. The poem strongly opposes gender norms, putting drastic comparisons that evoke images of brutality stemming from inequality between genders. Moreover, this inequality is shown to be highly common to the point where the speaker herself marries a man who is not unlike her father (Plath). The inescapability of this vicious cycle is one of the defining features of the feminist struggles that writers of that time were unable to break, and Plath was only one of many. Through her poems, though, she was able to express such feelings and give voice to others who had fewer freedoms in expression.

In “Lady Lazarus,” the writer creates a dire image of a patriarchal society that derives any semblance of control over one’s body. The speaker in this poem is being resurrected while seeking death as the only chance to escape the state of agony she lives in. Although the poem begins with clearly depicted anguish over the speaker’s cruel fate, Plath channels this feeling into a rage, stating that the speaker will “eat men like air” if she is ever resurrected again. The author’s violent and abrupt ending indicates that the hatred towards this overreaching control has passed a turning point, causing the need for action.

Lorraine Hansberry

The third author to be reviewed in this essay is Lorraine Hansberry, whose play “A Raisin in the Sun” also touches on the writer’s personal story. The dramatic story is interlinked with the racial and gender struggles of characters, as they are forced into choosing to abide by societal norms or delve into an unknown future with prospects of genuine freedom (Timko). The theme of feminism is apparent in this work via the choices that characters make to avoid getting trapped into a seemingly inescapable position. The audience is invited to agree with the choices that the characters make, thus normalizing strong female characters.

In this play, the role of women in the household is especially notable, as their decisions could be deemed as highly controversial by the society of that time. Specifically, the role of the leader of the household lies on the strong woman instead of a patriarch. Moreover, the decisions remain open for both Mama and Beneatha, despite the outside pressure from male characters in the play. Bennie is shown as a true feminist who is willing to select her fate herself and strives to become a doctor, which is something that women of that time were unable to achieve without great sacrifice. Moreover, Hansberry’s choice to portray a woman willing to perform an abortion is a genuinely astounding depiction that was most likely highly shocking for that era. Through this open contradiction to the past norms of society, Hansberry creates a source of inspiration for women across the globe who struggle to find their confidence and oppose traditional roles in households.

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In conclusion, the three authors whose works are reviewed in this paper represent the struggles of women in the middle of the twentieth century, as well as highlight the individual problems in authors’ lives. The harsh reality posed a severe challenge to all three authors, and the writing became their outlet for the grief and pain. The writers reveal their innermost beliefs and fears that permeate these readings, as the poems are written in the form of a confession, while Hansberry’s play is loosely based on her life story. These readings are set to define the inevitability of necessary changes in society, as the suffering of these women is too tangible and morally wrong.

However, there is also a hint of a challenge in the authors’ works that shows their willingness to push forward and continue to struggle against the overwhelming odds that do not favor women. Oppression becomes almost impersonated by the male figures in these works, which puts readers out of their comfort zone. This push is necessary to make a point regarding the feminist struggles in a strictly patriarchal society. The apparent depression and suicidal tendencies of Plath and Sexton are written through surrealistic depictions that put the authors’ experiences into an enhanced form that is both horrifying and entrancing.

Works Cited

Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus.” Academy of American Poets, Web.

“Daddy.” Academy of American Poets, Web.

Sexton, Anne. “Wanting to Die.” Academy of American Poets, 1981, Web.

Timko, Maria. A Raisin in the Sun as Feminist Text: Racialised Gender Roles, Female Agency and Representation Across Mediums. 2021. University of Helsinki, MA thesis. HELDA. Web.

Wann, Ryleigh. Women’s Voices of the 1960’s Through Metapoetry: Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton. 2018. The University of Toledo, PhD dissertation. OhioLink. Web.

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