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Dragon goes to bed with princess: F. Scott Fitzgerald's influence on Sylvia Plath.

No doubt Sylvia Plath is the last person who'd wish her restrained, thesaurus-driven early poetry placed under scrutiny by today's critics. After all, these juvenilia can't hold a candle to Plath's legendary poems from her posthumous collection Ariel. What, then, may be gained by the study of such works? Certainly it is of scholarly interest to place the works of great writers in their historical and literary contexts. Plath's sonnet "Ennui (I)" (published for the first time in November 2006 in Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts) provides a direct link to her collegiate studies of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

In an essay Plath wrote in 1955 while an undergraduate in English at Smith College, she hails Fitzgerald as "a word painter with a vivid palette," and suggests his writing has a "jewel-cut precision" (1). In addition to discussing Fitzgerald's use of color in Tender Is the Night as "emblematic as the shield of a courtly knight" (2), Plath surmises in the same essay that the color-enhanced characters in The Great Gatsby are evocative of fairy-tale:
 [The] luminous quality of gold and silver, which enhances
 Fitzgerald's characters with the gilt-and-tinsel of fairy-tale,
 recalls the spectacle of Gatsby as a knight-in-shining-armor at
 his meeting with Daisy where he is symbolically clad in a
 white flannel suit, a silver shirt, and a gold colored tie. The
 incandescence of the silver moon and golden sun lends an
 enchanted atmosphere to Fitzgerald's legends ... (6).

According to Park Bucker's essay "Princess Daisy: A Description of Sylvia Plath's Copy of The Great Gatsby," Plath's personal copy of Gatsby bears her handwritten annotations in two different colors of ink on thirteen pages of the novel (1). Near the end of chapter seven, Nick Carraway observes the lovelorn Jay Gatsby pining outside the Buchanans' mansion as Daisy and her husband Tom sit in their kitchen, absorbed in conversation after the murder of Myrtle, Tom's mistress. Plath underlined the last sentence in the chapter, "So I walked away and left him standing there in the moonlight--watching over nothing" (153). Underneath this sentence, Plath writes the following: "knight waiting outside--dragon goes to bed with princess" (2). Plath's unique interpretation regarding unusual fairy-tale-like qualities of the characters in Gatsby shows her imaginative use of metaphor in direct response to Fitzgerald's prose.

Plath's collegiate sonnet, "Ennui (I)," proves her creative reaction to Gatsby as she utilizes the tepid knight and idle princess metaphor:
 Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe
 designing futures where nothing will occur:
 cross the gypsy's palm and, yawning, she
 will still predict no perils left to conquer.
 Jeopardy is jejune now: naive knight
 finds ogres out-of-date and dragons unheard
 of, while blase princesses indict
 tilts at terror as downright absurd.

 The beast in Jamesian grove will never jump,
 compelling hero's dull career to crisis;
 and when insouciant angels play God's trump,
 while bored arena crowds for once look eager,
 hoping toward havoc, neither pleas nor prizes
 shall coax from doom's blank door lady or tiger.

Plath wrote "Ennui (I)" while attending Smith, where she ostensibly read and annotated her copy of The Great Gatsby. Next to the paragraph in which Daisy claims "I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything," Plath penned the phrase "L'Ennui," (Bucker 2). "Ennui (I)" evokes a quality of post-romanticism in which fantasy is futile and idealism is dead. The "yawning," gypsy foretells nothing with her defective tea leaves, and designs "futures where nothing will occur." Fitzgerald's golden girl, Daisy Buchanan, is the probable inspiration for the "blase princesses" in Plath's poem.

Plath's "naive knight" parallels Gatsby, the hopeless idealist, who tries to reconcile his romanticized past with an unattainable future. Like Gatsby's failure to fulfill his fairy-tale role as Daisy's knight-in-shining-armor, Plath's anachronistic knight "finds ogres out-of-date and dragons unheard/ of." Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby is unable to coax his lady Daisy from the dragon Tom, finding only death beyond the Stocktonian "doom's blank door" as Wilson murders him in a fit of misdirected rage.

The annotations Plath made in her copy of The Great Gatsby indicate that she perceives Daisy's relationship with her daughter Pammy as superficial. Near the beginning of chapter seven, Pammy interrupts her mother, Gatsby, Nick, and Jordan to tell her that she got dressed early. Daisy responds, saying "That's because your mother wanted to show you off" (123). According to Bucker, Plath "drew a line beside Daisy's response and wrote 'stage property' in the margin" (2). As Pammy asks "Where's Daddy?" Daisy ignores the child, insisting to Gastby that "She doesn't look like her father." Plath underlined Daisy's next sentence, "She looks like me" and made the following observation in the margin: "No real relation to the child" (Bucker 2). Plath's perception of Daisy's objectification of Pammy anticipates this theme in Plath's poem "Morning Song" in which a newborn is a "New statue/ In a drafty museum" (Ariel 5). The poem "Medusa" echoes Plath's perception of Daisy's strained maternal relations as a daughter chants to her mother "Off, off, eely tentacle!// There is nothing between us" (Ariel 61).

Plath's debt to Fitzgerald is quite direct in "Ennui," emerging quite subtly in the last line of her infamous poem "Daddy,": "Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through," which echoes Dick Diver's farewell to his dead father in Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night: "Goodbye my father. Goodbye all my fathers." According to Steven Gould Axelrod, Plath underscored this line in her copy of Tender Is the Night (62). "Ennui (I)" is valuable not for its practiced formal grace, but for its unique link to Plath's schoolgirl notes in Gatsby that were anything but.

Anna Journey, Richmond, Virginia
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Author:Journey, Anna
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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