Literature Annotations


Plath, Sylvia
Three Women


Genre Poem (12 pp.)
KeywordsBody Self-Image, Childbirth, Grief, Hospitalization, Infertility, Love, Pain, Parenthood, Patient Experience, Pregnancy, Time, Women's Health
Summary

This is a long poem, subtitled "A Poem for Three Voices," and originally written for radio broadcast. It consists of three intertwining interior monologues, contextualized by a dramatic setting: "A Maternity Ward and round about." The three women of the title are patients, and each describes a different experience.

The First Voice is a (presumably) married woman who gives birth and takes her baby home during the course of the poem. The Second, a secretary, has a miscarriage, not her first, and the Third, a college student, gives birth after an unwanted pregnancy, and gives the baby up for adoption.

Commentary

Plath movingly captures the different experiences of the three women, all patients, all pregnant at the beginning of the poem, but in very different situations by the end. The first woman experiences the ambivalence of going into labor, calling herself "A seed about to break," and saying of the process itself that "there is no miracle more cruel." Her feelings about the new child are similarly complex, at first questioning: "Who is he, this blue, furious boy . . . ?" but soon she is feeling like "a river of milk, . . . a warm hill" and wondering "What did my fingers do before they held him?" She takes her new son home to his nursery, hoping for normality, that he’ll be "unexceptional."

The second woman’s horror and sense of guilt are made even more palpable by their juxtaposition with the fulfillment of the first. After losing the child, she says "It is a world of snow now" and, haunted by her other unborn babies, she believes she is only able to "create corpses." She leaves the hospital to go back to her job and her husband and a terrible sense of isolation: she calls herself "a heroine of the peripheral."

The third woman reflects the helplessness of unwanted pregnancy. Inside her, she feels "the face . . . shaping itself with love, as if I was ready." After the birth, she sees her child, "my red, terrible girl," only through glass, briefly, before she must say goodbye and leave her behind to return to college feeling like "a wound walking out of hospital."

The three voices together capture an enormous amount about women’s experiences of reproduction. Instead of describing the clinical practicalities of the "maternity ward," Plath provides a glimpse into the minds of three of its patients, using powerful and psychologically convincing images to convey the complicated ways birth, infertility, and unwanted pregnancy are felt.

SourceWinter Trees
PublisherHarper & Row
Edition1981
EditorsTed Hughes
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousThree Women was written for radio, and was first broadcast on the BBC on August 19, 1962. A limited edition of the text was published by Turret Books, London, in 1968.
Annotated by Belling, Catherine
Date of Entry 09/15/97
Last Revised 05/31/99