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2. The ‘Edge’ of Sylvia Plath’s Critical History: A Reappraisal of Plath’s Work, 60 years after

Behind the Iron Curtain: Sylvia Plath and Hungary during the Cold War



Cet article examine un sujet peu étudié, défini au sens large comme la relation de Sylvia Plath avec l’Europe et la culture européenne. Plath a souvent souligné que son héritage européen était tout aussi important pour elle que sa nationalité américaine. En me concentrant sur l’Europe, mon objectif est de détourner l’attention de l’ancrage de Plath dans la culture américaine et de démontrer que Plath était une écrivaine et une citoyenne multiculturelle et aux multiples facettes. Mes recherches portent sur la relation de Plath avec un pays spécifique, à savoir la Hongrie. Bien que cela puisse sembler un choix étrange à première vue, Sylvia Plath est liée à bien des égards à la Hongrie: elle fréquentait un hongrois, et a écrit sur la Révolution de la liberté de 1956 contre la Russie. Du côté maternel, elle était également proche géographiquement de la Hongrie, puisque sa grand-mère était autrichienne. Mon essai reflète les nombreuses façons dont Plath s’est engagée dans la culture et la politique hongroises dans le cadre de son intérêt plus large pour la culture et la littérature européenne D’un autre côté, alors que Plath connaissait le contexte de guerre froide à l’Ouest, la Hongrie faisait partie du rideau de fer à l’Est. Il existe des parallèles et des oppositions entre la perception de Plath des premiers stades de la guerre froide et l’histoire de la Hongrie. Le roman de Plath, The Bell Jar (1963), commence par l’électrocution des Rosenberg ; en Hongrie, les lieux publics portent le nom des victimes de la guerre froide. Je contextualise les connaissances et l’engagement de Plath avec la Hongrie, ce qui contribue à une lecture inclusive de ses écrits, de sa biographie et de ses expériences du début de la guerre froide.

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1Sylvia Plath’s experiences of World War II and the Cold War greatly influenced her prose and poetry. Since the 2000s, the focus of Plath’s critics turned towards examining her political engagements, such as Robin Peel in Writing Back: Sylvia Plath and Cold War Politics (2002), Christina Britzolakis in “Dreamwork: Sylvia Plath's Cold War Modernism” (2013), Cornelia Pearsall in “Plath and War” in the edited collection by Tracy Brain Sylvia Plath in Context (2019), and Langdon Hammer’s chapter “Plath at War” in the Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual (2007) edited by Kathleen Connors and Sally Bayley. The studies focus on Plath’s thoughts, experiences, writings, and visual art about Word War II and the Cold War from a Western point of view, centring on America and Plath as an American who was affected by the wars yet experienced them from a relatively safe and comfortable white middle-class position without any serious personal losses. However, as Justin Quinn highlights, “anglophone poems of the second half of the twentieth century cannot be understood without reference to faraway places of which we know little – like the countries of the Warsaw Pact” (143). Thus, Sylvia Plath’s writings and experiences of the Cold War cannot be fully understood without looking at the historical events and cultural influences of the Soviet Union.

2My article approaches the study of Plath and the Cold War by focusing on the historical, political, and cultural impact of the Eastern Bloc, specifically Hungary. I look at the many ways Plath’s biography, experiences, and writings are embedded in the history of Hungary, which I contextualise in the early Cold War. I also draw attention to Plath's unique position as an American with German and Austrian heritage who often highlighted her dual national identity, which was a central aspect of her link to European history and culture. My research argues the importance of incorporating what is behind the Iron Curtain in the study of Sylvia Plath. This article likewise functions as an invitation to Western scholars to examine not only the local but also global history and culture as influences in Anglophone literature.

3From time to time, Plath’s writings demonstrate her interest in non-Western countries, arguing that there is more to explore about Plath’s knowledge of the Cold War and its influences in her poetry from a non-Anglophone perspective. My essay enquires: what epistemologies can be revealed by shifting the focus from Sylvia Plath’s experiences of the Cold War to the Eastern Bloc; how Plath’s pacifism and sense of justice contributed to her interest in the 1956 Hungarian Freedom Revolution; what kind of literary influences Plath draws from Hungarian folklore and literature; how her personal relationships contributed to her knowledge of the Cold War and history of Hungary. First, I contextualise Plath’s biography and look at the genealogy of her maternal line who emigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century. I also consider the poetic influences of her maternal heritage and the way in which she links family and public history in her poetry.

Maternal lines from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Hungarian relations

  • 1 Jaqueline Rose discussed Plath’s ambiguous relationship with the German language in The Haunting of (...)

4Critical works often highlight the significance of the German language and identity that influenced Plath’s poetry.1 Plath’s maternal grandmother was Aurelia Grünwald, who anglicised her surname to Greenwood, along with her siblings. The Grünwald/Greenwood surname is significant since Plath named Esther Greenwood the main character in The Bell Jar (1963). According to Clark, the Gründwalds anglicised their name to Greenwood to distinguish themselves from Jewish Grünwalds who were coming to the United States from Austria and Hungary (Red Comet 22). The catalogue of Jewish surnames from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy also shows that several rabbis shared this surname (Ujvári). Aurelia Romana Grünwald was born in 1882 and died in 1956 when Plath was living in England. Her parents were Mathias Grünwald (1849–1926) and Barbara Heimer (1854-1945) (“Aurelia Romana Grunwald”). Catherine Rankovic, who uniquely researches Aurelia Plath’s family history and influence on Sylvia Plath’s life and education, identified the graves of the couple who are buried together in North Platte, Lincoln County, Nebraska (Goltry). Plath’s mother, Aurelia Schober Plath claimed that her grandmother Barbara was an orphan and possibly a Jew (A. Plath 2). It is possible that the orphan Barbara was from the Hungarian side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The 1920 US Census also shows that Mathias Grünwald’s father was from Hungary and his mother from Austria (Matthias Greenwold, 1920.). The statistical evidence suggests that it is worth looking at the complex history and Austria and Hungary in more detail to explore the history of Sylvia Plath’s maternal ancestors.

5A journal entry from 1951 demonstrates that Plath did not know her maternal grandparents well; however, desired a closer relationship:

Take the grandparents, now. What do you know about them? Sure, they were born in Austria, they say “cholly” for “jolly” and “ven” for “when”. Grampy” [sic.] is white-haired, terribly even-tempered, terribly old, terribly endearing in his mute and blind admiration of everything you do. (J 64)

6The citation expresses Plath’s lack of knowledge of her Austro-Hungarian heritage, as well as the life of her grandparents before they emigrated to the United States. Aurelia Grünwald and Franz/Frank Schobert grew up in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was established in 1867, first governed by Franz Josef, and was dissolved at the end of World War I. The dualism was often ambiguous as the “constitutional Hungary had faced an absolutist Austria” (Evans 263). The breakdown of the monarchy began at the turn of the century when agricultural production declined due to “conflicts arising from the system of capitalism and the surviving remainders of feudalism became intertwined with the conflicts provoked by the oppression of the nationalities” (Rapport Sur Les Recherches 351). Like Plath’s grandparents, many emigrated to the United States for better opportunities. This new life brought new opportunities, a new name, and a new language to the family.

7Plath’s poem “Candles” is one of the very few elements of evidence demonstrating her knowledge of her grandmother’s ancestry and life before coming to the United States:

And I remember my maternal grandmother from Vienna.
As a schoolgirl she gave roses to Franz Josef.
The burghers sweated and wept. The children wore white.
And my grandfather moped in the Tyrol, (CP 149 lines 17–20).

8Plath recalls the anecdote of her maternal grandmother in the historical and political framework of Austria and the Monarchy. Her maternal line is portrayed as a gentle child in front of the male emperor. Here, Plath contextualises her family history in the larger historical events of the world. In her late poetry, Plath often turns to historical events. In an interview from 1961 with Peter Orr, Plath highlighted her interest in history: “I find myself reading more and more about history. […] I’m very interested in battles, in wars, in Gallipoli, the First World War” (Orr 169). Though critics often attribute Plath’s interest in history as an important context of her Ariel poems, she shows awareness of history and politics in “Candles”. The poem also contrasts the children’s gentleness and vulnerability with the patriarchal authority of Franz Josef.

9In her October 1962 poem about the authoritarian father figure, “Daddy”, Plath also references to grandmother’s past framed in the broader context of World War II, contrasting her maternal heritages to the Nazi father figure: “With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck / And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack” (CP 223 line 38-39). Here, Plath does not reference Tarot cards, but a game played with variations across Europe. In Letters Home, Aurelia Plath notes that it is “the Viennese version of the Italian game” (LH 360). Plath’s pack of cards were a family gift or inheritance from her mother that she referenced in her letters at Christmas 1959: “Your Tarock pack is in good use” (L2 378). By evoking the Tarock from her maternal heritage, she uses the deck as a protective object against the domineering and oppressive father. In the book The Austrian Mind, William M. Johnston notes that Tarock was also Freud’s favourite Saturday evening activity; and the only leisure activity that transcended to all classes in Austria (241). The iconography of the cards depicting rural life suggests her evocation of the peaceful past against the spirit of the domineering authoritarian patriarch. Plath’s poems show some awareness of the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in which her maternal ancestors came to the United States. Her poetry reveals that despite the fact that she did not know much about the life of her grandparents, in her poetry, she tries to understand her past through broader historical events, including the dual monarchy and World War II.

10As a young adult, Plath’s knowledge of the history of Hungary and, in general, Eastern Europe broadened due to personal relations and increased political tensions of the Cold War. In 1952, Plath met the young Hungarian man Attila Kassay (1928–1973), for whom she had strong feelings. Kassay studied business administration and graduated from Northeastern University and met Plath during the summer of 1952 when he stayed with the Cantor family, whose children Plath was babysitting on Cape Cod (Wilson 211). In her journals, Plath addressed Attila in the second person singular:

You rode on the back of the beachwagon [sic] to Nauset with Joan and me, us asking about Hungary, your life, of how you got kicked out of the University by the Communists and got the five-year scholarship to Northeastern. At Nauset, you in tight blue trunks, eating hot pork chops, frankfurts [sic], potato salad, playing with the children, your foreign accent pleasant and lyrical to the ear. […]

You are a Calvinist. And a Hungarian. You laugh and say Hungarian officers have a much better reputation for love-making than even the French. Other countries win the wars; the Hungarian officers win the women” (J 138–139).

11Here, we see Plath’s romanticising of the “foreign” young man whose life was changed by the Soviet regime. Plath does not acknowledge the harsh reality of life beyond the Iron Curtain that led Attila to move to America. Instead, she treats it as a romantic fantasy. While we do not know how much information Kassay provided to Plath and her friend Joan about his life and family in Hungary, she likely gained valuable knowledge of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, which foreshadows her interest in the 1956 Revolution. Nevertheless, it does not eliminate the problematic elements of Plath’s approach to her Hungarian lover.

12In her letter to her mother from August 1952, talking about Attila Kassay, Plath acknowledged her romanticisation of him:

You know how I am about foreign names – well Attila, during the course of the weekend, captivated me completely. He is just a bit taller than I, lean, dark, with delightful black eyes, a crest of black hair, and very strong and neatly built […] the rest of his family being behind the Iron Curtain in Hungary. He told me some really fascinating tales of his escape to America two years ago. (L1 499)

13Similar to her journal entry, Plath portrays the emigration of Attila Kassay to America as a fascinating “tale”, that is to say, something fictional, not the difficult history that has torn families apart on the two sides of the Iron Curtain. Plath and Kassay shared a short romantic encounter; however, she was so captivated by him, partially due to the Western objectification of a foreign lover. She even thought about marrying him: “he had that fatal Hungarian charm. And his name is Attila. (Wouldst [sic.] you accept a Sylvia Kassay in the family?)” (L1 500). Some months later, in November 1952, Plath expressed her desire for Kassay to return from Florida in a letter to her brother Warren. The letter portrays some of the problematic elements of the relationship, specifically that Kassay left her because Plath did not want to engage in sexual encounters with him, Plath caricatures Attila Kassay’s accent similar to the above-quoted journal entry about her maternal grandparents: “[he] decides that I am not immature after all, just because I won’t be his mistress or something the way they are in Hungary (Vere he vas kink of the Huns, remember!)” (L1 524). Here, Plath alludes to Attila the Hun, the king who attacked the Roman Empire in the fifth century.

14The private notes of the young Sylvia Plath are challenging to read, which also expands the critical discussions on racism in her writings. She approaches Attila Kassay’s otherness with a similar erotic view to the Russian Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff. She brings them into parallel in her journals: “remember how you screamed ecstatically over Constantine and shivered over Attila” (J 162). Plath’s romantic encounters shaped how she understood the Cold War and gained information on the life of Eastern Europeans who had to leave their country due to the Russian occupation. Fascinatingly, Plath never makes a connection between the experience of her grandparents leaving Austria and Germany and Kassay and Sidamon-Eristoff who also left Eastern Europe.

Political turmoil on both sides of the Iron Curtain

15The period between the early Cold War was characterised by escalating tensions, particularly on the fear of nuclear warfare. In newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor, reports on the USSR emphasised the conflict between East and West. Reports on Hungary were exclusively on the country’s role in the Cold War (“Soviets Report 'Lost' C-47”; “Rakosi, Hungary's Red Boss”). Stalin’s death brought a turn in the relationship between the Soviet Union and Western democracies; the short era between 1953 and 1956 was characterised by forced cooperation and interdependence between the two sides (Békés 4). Plath’s engagement with the Cold War during the early Cold War was dominated by McCarthyism, the Communist witch-hunt, and the intensified trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were electrocuted on 19 June 1953.

16Plath was in New York undertaking her internship at the Mademoiselle magazine when the execution took place, which she commemorated in her journals:

The execution will take place tonight; it is too bad that it could not be televised […] so much more realistic and beneficial than the run-of-the mill crime program. Two real people being executed. No matter. The largest emotional reaction over the United States will be a rather large, democratic, infinitely bored and casual and complacent yawn. (J 541)

17Plath’s emotionally charged journal, written on the day the Rosenbergs were electrocuted, likens their prosecution to public executions. The publicised electrocution of the victims of the McCarthy witch-hunt is also evocative of the Salem witch trials of the early modern period, where accused witches were publicly hanged. Plath’s journal entry also demonstrates an understanding of the voyeurism of post-war television culture, with which she had an ambivalent relationship (Presley 148). Her emphasis on the private versus public in the electrocution of the Rosenbergs signifies the Cold War privacy debates. In her poetry, such as “Eavesdropper” and “Lady Lazarus”, voyeurism and surveillance are recurring themes, particularly of women’s bodies that functioned as a site of surveillance in the Cold War (Nelson 116). Plath’s personal writing on the publicised electrocution of the Rosenbergs expresses a strong sense against political injustices, which became a prominent subject of writing in her later years.

18Plath’s novel The Bell Jar (1963) opens with the electrocution of the Rosenbergs, setting the tone and theme of the novel in Cold War America: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York” (TBJ 1). In the novel, Esther Greenwood’s mental illness parallels the political nonconformism of the Rosenbergs. Plath portrays Esther’s challenging of McCarthyite conformism by emphasising her lack of maternal instinct, interest in pursuing a writing career, rebellion against the oppression of female sexuality, and adventurous personality. At the beginning of the novel when Esther and Doreen decide to go to a bar with a group of men, Esther orders pure vodka, despite not being experienced in drinking. The drink makes her feel pure, “powerful”, and “god-like” (TBJ 12). Whereas Esther’s choice of drink foreshadows her fixation on pureness and rebirth, which signals the culture of racial and political purity and hygiene of the Cold War (Perry 194); it also implies her rebellion against McCarthyism. By drinking pure vodka, a drink associated with Russia, and therefore, the Soviet Union at the time, Plath implies that Esther’s feeling of power comes from her actively choosing to rebel against the oppressive post-war American status quo. In Seamus Heaney’s poem “Elegy”, vodka is also associated with the Cold War conflict: “You drank America / like the heart’s / iron vodka” (Heaney 93). The poem was written in 1979, in memory of Robert Lowell, Plath’s contemporary. Quinn argues that the poem “internalize[s] the ideological differences between the US and USSR in Lowell’s heart” (Quinn 190). Similarly, Plath’s novel parallels the conflicting superpowers by the nonconformism of the Rosenbergs and Esther Greenwood. Plath’s engagement with the electrocution of the Rosenbergs in The Bell Jar is not only significant from the perspective of post-war America, but she alludes to the history of the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain.

19Among the Western countries, the trial of the Rosenbergs attracted interest, and protests were organised from Indonesia to Australia, urging the US government not to execute the couple (Clune 104). On Behind the Iron Curtain, Ethel and Julius became publicly memorialised figures, demonstrating America’s attack on the Soviet Union. On 16 June 1953, just three days before the electrocution, Ethel Rosenberg’s open letter to President Eisenhower, subsequently published in The New York Times, asked to pardon them and reconsider the death penalty. She referred to her Jewishness concerning the Holocaust whose horrors were still lingering:

Today, while these ghastly mass butchers, these obscene fascists are graciously receiving the benefits of mercy in many instances being re-instated in public office, the great democratic United States is proposing the savage destruction of a small unoffending Jewish family, whose guilt is seriously doubted throughout the lengths and breadth of the civilized world. (“Letter” 7)

20Similar to the rhetoric of Ethel Rosenberg’s letter, for the Soviet Union, the electrocution of the couple was evidence of the United States’ antisemitism and anticommunism (T. M. Tamás). Ethel and Julius became martyrs of the USSR and their name was honoured in public spaces. For example, in Hungary, there were two streets named after Ethel and Julius translated as Rosenberg házaspár utca (“Rosenberg Couple Street”). In the prestigious fifth district of Budapest, a small street now re-named Hold utca (“Moon Street”), the second Rosenbergs street can be found in the small town called Jászárokszállás in East Hungary and is still visible on Google Maps. In Hungarian newspapers, the Rosenberg couple was described as “innocent”, “brave”, and “honest workers” (“Szabadságot”; “A Rosenberg-ügy”). Modern historians note that there would not be enough evidence against the Rosenbergs on the espionage charges if the trial would take place today. Plath’s literary and personal writings about the electrocution of the Rosenbergs demonstrate her self-positioning in the larger historical events of the Cold War. Her writing goes beyond her engagement with McCarthyism and expresses that The Bell Jar is a political novel that shows interest in the historical and material presence of the Cold War in Eastern Europe.

21Plath’s interest in the European context of the Cold War increased during 1955–1957 when she studied at Cambridge, England In April 1956, she partook in a diplomatic event at the Soviet Embassy to write an article about the encounter. Despite meeting with Soviet politicians, such as Nikita Khrushchev and shaking hands with Nikolai Bulganin, her letter to her mother shows that she looked at it as an intellectual gathering in which she “even mentioned Dostoevsky” (L1 1167; 1176–1177). Peel argues that “Plath’s pre-1956 encounters with political ideas took place in privileged and career-conscious context”, which also applies to that diplomatic event (63). Her letter exemplifies her privileged position and her lack of political consciousness at the time. Even though Plath was far from the poetics/politics she developed six years later, there was a shift in her increased political awareness in 1956.

22For the United Kingdom and France, the Suez Crisis created a political disaster, which Plath strongly condemned (“Britain is dead; the literary and critical sterility and amorality which I long to take Ted away from is permeating everything” (L2 7)), behind the Iron Curtain, Hungarians and Polish were fighting for their freedom from the Soviet Union. Plath’s letters in early November 1956 give evidence of her strong disapproval of the immobility and lack of help from Western allies:

I am so emotionally exhausted after this week, and the Hungarian and Suez affairs have depressed me terribly; after reading the typed last from Hungary yesterday before the Russians took over I was almost physically sick […] it makes the west [sic] have no appeal against Russia in the hungarian [sic] case; Eden is, in effect, helping murder the Hungarians. (L2 9)

23Plath’s letter reflects the passion of her late poems, such as “Lady Lazarus” and “Fever 103°” in which she condemns authoritarian regimes, and even, political “sterility.”

24The Hungarian Revolution for Freedom started on 23 October and lasted until 4 November 1956. It was a collective uprising initiated by university students and the working class. While the hub of the revolt and the subsequent violent Soviet intervention happened in Budapest, other cities shortly followed the uprising. During this short-lived revolution, hundreds were killed, and thousands of civilians were wounded. For the Westerners who wanted to keep up the “peaceful coexistence” on the two sides of the Iron Curtain, the revolution was more of a liability, particularly for Britain and France, who were dealing with the Suez Crisis. Kim Christiaens argues that Western European countries only showed real solidarity when the Soviet troops beat down the Freedom Revolution; therefore, the Hungarians were no longer revolutionists but victims (113). Plath’s letter from 6 November 1956 reveals a similar narrative: “There have been riots in London; even though a lot of commercially-interested Tories uphold Eden, Oxford and Cambridge are sending delegations & petitions against him; […] America will no doubt support Eden too” (L2 9). Although Plath’s political activism did not flourish during the 1956 Revolution – there is no evidence she attended the protests –, in 1960, she marched with other mothers at the “Ban the Bomb” protest (L2 462). Her writings and engagement with the injustices of the Cold War demonstrate her pacifism and interest in peacekeeping.

25British newspapers, such as The Manchester Guardian focused on the Suez Crisis and emphasised the disaster of this military conflict, which Plath echoed in her early November letters (“A Disaster”). However, they were also the outlets from which Plath gained knowledge of the revolution. An article from 22 October 1956, published the demands of protesting university students in Hungary:

Among the points were:
1. Considerable improvements in conditions at universities;
2. Permission for students to travel abroad;
3. Restoration of the pre-war autonomy of university administration;
4. Public trial of Mihaly Farkas. Former Defence Minister, who was arrested with his son, Vladimir, recently on charges of having taken part in preparations for, the trial of Laszlo Rajk, former Hungarian Foreign Minister, who was executed;
5. Abolition of the death sentence;
6. Increase in low wage scales and a ceiling on salaries of high officials;
7. Freedom of the press; and,
8. A thorough “democratisation” student bodies. (“Students Rebel”)

26The reporting suggests solidarity with the student body in Hungary, which shows similarity to Plath’s publication during her Smith years, expressing a likeness between students on both sides of the Iron Curtain who demanded democratic peace in the age of atomic warfare and state-sponsored surveillance. During her senior year in high school in 1950, she co-wrote the article published in The Christian Science Monitor, which expressed a similar political appeal for democratic peacekeeping:

These movements, even if they do not and cannot fulfill [sic.] their ends, exemplify the strong hope for world peace. Let us devote our money and our energy to the education and support of a positive force which comes from our youth groups, rather than spending our Strength in developing weapons which we never plan to use. For those of us who deplore the systematic slaughter legalize by war, the hydrogen bomb alone is not the answer. (Plath and Norton, “Youth’s Plea”)

27Plath felt solidarity toward the youth and was frustrated with the inaction of the Western countries. She expressed interest in the Freedom Revolution and Russian oppression in Hungary of which she had prior knowledge from her Hungarian lover Attila Kassay whose family fled the country due to the Russian invasion in the previous decade. Plath’s strong sense against the Russian oppression of the failed revolution and the lack of support of Eastern Europe from the West was also likely influenced that earlier in 1956, she discovered Hungarian folk tales, which brought her closer to the culture and history of Hungary.

Literary Influences: From the folkloric imagination to literary encounters

28In the past, some critics identified the influence of fairy tales in Plath’s writings, such as Jessica McCort (121–123); Heather Clark (Red Comet 56); and my own research on the influence of the Grimms’ fairy tales in Plath’s poetic imagination that established her dual cultural encounter with the tales (German and American) and their status in post-war America (D. Tamás 43). However, nothing has been written about the influence of other European literature, particularly folk and fairy tales in Plath’s poetry and her familiarity with the literary culture of Eastern European countries during the Cold War.

29In the spring of 1956, Plath got immersed in Eastern European folk and fairy tales. Writing to her mother on 10 May 1956, Plath explains that she and Hughes:

got two enormous books of Siberian fairy-tales & Magyar folk-tales [sic.] out of the University library and are reading them aloud every evening. His imagination has brought to life all the goblin and fairy and witch lore I ever loved as a child, and I shall slowly return to that magic state. (L1 1195)

30While Plath’s letter acknowledges that the reading experience was initiated and influenced by Hughes, she also highlights her desire to return to the magical themes of folk and fairy tales that her juvenilia often expressed. The collections she is referring to are most likely the books that are still at the University of Cambridge’s library: Siberian and Other Folk-tales: Primitive Literature of the Empire of the Tsars (1925) and The Folk Tales of the Magyars (1889). The early collection of Hungarian folktales includes stories about peasants’ lives, talking animals, and shapeshifting supernatural figures, like witches, the devil, dragons, and fairies. It also features recurring numbers, such as three, seven, and twelve. It is likely that for Plath, who grew up reading the Grimms’ fairy tales, Hungarian folk tales had a particular appeal and expressed another kind of European folklore. As opposed to the Grimms’ tales, which often lost their German folklore when adopted by American and international audiences, Hungarian tales contain many culture-specific references, including location names, such as the Danube and the Black Sea. They include Hungarian, Slovakian, and Roman gipsy people as characters of the tales; the latter being frequently a variant of the hag or fairy (Szilagyi 52–54). Some of Plath’s poems from 1956, such as “Vanity Fair”, “Recantation”, “Tinker Jack and the Tidy Wives”, and “Rhyme” allude to folkloric themes of tales and portray supernatural figures, such as witches that might have been influenced by the collection of The Folk Tales of the Magyars.

31The poem “Vanity Fair”, written in October 1956, borrows its title from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel and is centred around a witch figure who uses her magical power to tempt young women’s vanity. In the poem, Plath mirrors the narration style of fairy tales by using a third-person narrator who acts like a storyteller, yet she does not give a moralistic judgement (Hargrove 88). The poem consists of seven five-line stanzas and follows a mostly irregular rhyme scheme. In the first stanza, we are introduced to the witch who “sidles, fingers crooked”. In fairy and folktales, witches are often portrayed as having unusual physical characteristics, which Plath alludes to by highlighting the crooked fingers of the witch. In Hungarian tales, witches almost always have an iron nose, which is not only a deformed physical appearance but alludes to the imagery of spirits in some cultures close to Hungarian (“vasorrú bába”). In the Hungarian language, the iron-nosed witch – or sometimes the old woman with iron teeth – is a bába (“midwife”), alluding to beliefs about the witch-hunt period that many of the persecuted witches were midwives and healers. However, it can also refer to the Russian and Slavic Baba Yaga, an ambiguous witch figure than the Western portrayal of the wicked witch.

32In “Vanity Fair”, the witch can “Backtalk[s] at the raven” (CP 32 line 10), signalling her magical power.

33In “Recantation” which was initially titled “The Dying Witch Addresses Her Young Apprentice”, the titular witch figure is also associated with ravens: “My darling ravens are flown” (CP 42 line 10), alluding to her coming death. Tracy Brain highlights Plath’s exchange of American and British expressions in her poems, such as raven and rook; however, they are both parts of the crow family (54). In Hungarian folklore, the raven or crow is a commonly portrayed speaking animal that sometimes is a helper of the protagonist, and other times it is a shapeshifting figure of young women and witches, which links Plath’s poem to Hungarian folklore. In “Vanity Fair”, the witch is also named a “sorceress” who “sets mirrors enough / To distract beauty’s thought” until “Each vain girl’s driven // To believe beyond heart’s flare / No fire is” (CP 33 lines 22–23; 25–26). The lines portray the witch’s figure as ambiguous: while she persuades the girls to be lustful and promiscuous, she gives them what they want, and therefore, cannot be blamed for tempting them.

34Plath opposes the witch and the virgin girls to demonstrate the lack of choice women have regarding their bodies and sexuality in society. The witch represents dangerous female sexuality and tempts the “church-going” girls looking for lustful love and fight who will be “satan’s wife”. In the end, “Some burn short, some long, / Staked in pride’s coven” (CP 33 lines 34–35). The poem ends with the imagery of burning (alluding to both hell and burning sexuality) that opposes the “frost-thick weather” (CP 32 line 1) in the first stanza. Plath also calls Satan the “black king” (CP 33 line 29), anticipating some of the diabolic imagery in her poems about “the man in black” figure, such as in “Daddy”. Yet, there is only one poem, a juvenile work titled “Sonnet to Satan” written in April 1955, in which she uses the word ‘Satan’ referring to a lover. In “Vanity Fair”, Satan is likewise a sexualised figure. In Hungarian folktales, the Devil/Satan is a recurring supernatural character – as opposed to the Grimms’ fairy tales in which he is not frequently portrayed –; we see him making a pact with women or men, tempting or tricking them; and even sometimes he has a wife, a mother, or a son, such as in “The King and the Devil”. The Introduction to The Folk Tales of the Magyars (1889) likewise mentions that in Hungarian folklore, “the devil’s grandmother is 777 years old” (lix), highlighting the importance of the magical number seven; the number of stanzas of this Plath’s poem. In her letters, Plath also calls seven “a nice magical number” (L2 578). “Vanity Fair” likely borrows inspiration from the Hungarian tales that give an additional layer to the supernatural imagery in Plath’s poems, showing the complex ways in which she uses magical and folkloric themes to discuss contemporary issues.

35“Rhyme” was written in the autumn of 1956, and has the form of an altered sonnet with two six-line stanzas and the third stanza broken into a quatrain and a volta. The poem uses simple language, evoking nurse rhymes, which oppose the serious topic of killing a goose. The first stanza introduces the two characters, a peasant-like girl and a goose that does not want to lay golden eggs, and therefore, is killed for its well-fed meat. The title of “Rhyme” highlights the significance of sonic association: by linking “eggs”, “hags”, “bags”, “begs”, and “dregs” (CP 50 lines 2, 5, 8, 11, 18), the poem suggests that the goose’s death is inevitable. Plath invokes the imagery of folktales, notably the “golden eggs” and comparing the goose to “taloned hags”, which alludes to magical objects and animals, and even shapeshifting. The story of the goose that lays golden eggs is a fable of the Ancient Greek storyteller Aesop. Plath likely was familiar with variations of the story from European folktales: the Grimms’ tales, “The Golden Egg” and “Simpleton” (also known as “The Golden Goose”). In her Webster’s dictionary, Plath underlined the entry of “golden goose” which refers to the fable (“golden goose”). Among the collection of Hungarian tales, “The Widower and his Daughter” is a Cinderella-like tale in which the poor orphan girl transforms into a duck and the wicked gipsy stepmother and his daughters get punished. There are many versions of the duck/hen/goose that lays golden eggs in Eastern European folklore: this version typically includes a peasant man and his wife who, similar to the girl in Plath’s poem, use the animal to get wealthy.

36Plath’s “Rhyme” demonstrates the many ways in which she engages with folklore: the goose not only lays golden eggs but is like a “taloned hags / Who ogle men” (CP 50 lines 5–6). The comparison alludes to shapeshifting women. Further, the reference to staring at men evokes a sexually promiscuous and dangerous witch, similar to “Vanity Fair”. In “Rhyme”, Plath’s poem subverts the expectations: we associate rhymes with similarity; however, the speaker and the goose are quite unalike. “Rhyme” also can be read as the triumph over the stubborn hag-like goose; therefore, by killing it, she gets rid of the magical spell of the captivating bird. My close reading of two poems demonstrated one of the under-appreciated influences in Sylvia Plath’s poetry, such as Hungarian folktales. Reading Plath’s writings in the context of the 1956 Hungarian Freedom Revolution, the poems show her unique engagement with Hungarian culture and history.

37In her later years, Plath’s poetry did not show direct engagement with Eastern European literature. In the early 1960s, Plath developed a close friendship with the poetry editor Al Alvarez, who also published her poetry in The Observer. Quinn notes that Alvarez had a “passionate and prolonged engagement with Eastern European poetry, immediately after his establishment of Lowell, Plath, Berryman, and Hughes as the leading lights of his time, suggests that he felt something was lacking” (141). Although Plath could not see the introduction of Eastern European poetry to the British audience, Ted Hughes also participated in popularising poets behind the Iron Curtain. In August 1960, Plath met the Hungarian poet and playwright János Csokits with whom she and Hughes went to a Hungarian restaurant in London (L2 502). This encounter also demonstrates Plath’s introduction to the cuisine of Hungary. After Plath’s death, Hughes developed a close friendship with Csokits whose poetry he translated into English, along with János Pilinkszky famous for his religious iconography.

38Among Hughes’s correspondences, there are several references to Hungary – including his celebration of the end of Communism: in a letter from June 1962, he mentions his fascination with Donal Davie’s poem “Sculptures in Hungary” published in Poetry (THL 201; 565). Plath and Hughes lived together and often engaged in shared poetic practices, therefore, Plath likely encountered Davie’s poem that shows a direct resemblance to her poem “Edge”, written in February 1963. “Sculptures in Hungary” was dedicated to the Hungarian sculptor Miklós Borsos who also sculpted the Liberty Statue in the Citadel in Budapest, which was dedicated to the Soviet liberators after the Nazi occupation. Davie’s poem was written in broken couplets and portrays a sculpture garden where fragments of classical art of female bodies create the beauty of Pannonia, a province of the Roman Empire whose remains can be found in Budapest. Like Plath’s “Edge”, “Sculptures in Hungary” also describes the brokenness of the female body: “Fragments entire. / Not womanhood but, through // Each woman’s nub of breast and belly, stone” (73). Here, Davie parallels the beauty of the female body with the beauty of classical art. Though, the speaker notes that these are only remains of womanhood, carved into stone; the statues do not possess life but only beauty. Plath’s poem is more cynical in its portrayal of the idolised femininity as art: “The woman is perfected. / Her dead // Body wears the smile of accomplishment / The illusion of a Greek necessity” (CP 273). She critiques the statuesque beauty does confines women into muses. The woman in the poem is not perfect but made into perfection without agency (Clark, “P(l)athography” 366). The comparative reading of “Sculptures in Hungary” and “Edge” offers an interrogation of gender, politics, and history. Davie’s poem suggests an allusion to the Cold War, expressing that the remains of a once-dominant age when Hungary thrived are only now fragments, while Plath’s poem focuses on the gender politics of historical artefacts and the spectre of (female) bodies. Her interest in narrating personal histories in the public realm of the Cold War invites us to read “Edge” as a political poem where oppressive powers make the woman “perfected” and sculpturesque. The moon “is used to this sort of thing” (CP 273), implying that history repeats itself.


39Sylvia Plath’s engagement with Hungary, and in general, Eastern Europe in the early Cold War demonstrates the entangled and parallel history of the two sides of the Iron Curtain. Thus, the one-sided study of the Cold War is not an authentic examination of its influences on Plath’s writings. My article does not provide a full picture but a glimpse into the many ways Plath can be read within the history and culture of the often-neglected Eastern Europe. Plath’s references to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the family artefact of “Tarock pack” demonstrate her linking of family heritage and memory; her doubling of Esther Greenwood and the Rosenbergs expresses an interest in personal and political nonconformism in the Cold War; and her engagement with literature and folklore of Eastern Europe gives evidence of her curiosity and sense of belongingness in European history and culture. My essay also argues for the importance of the systematic study of Plath’s engagement and afterlife across many cultures within and beyond Europe. There is a need to look at Eastern European epistemologies, politics, and culture, and its influence on the Anglophone literary canon, including Sylvia Plath and re-evaluate her work through the history, politics, and culture behind the Iron Curtain.

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1 Jaqueline Rose discussed Plath’s ambiguous relationship with the German language in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991); Anita Helle centred Plath’s German heritage on her father in “Plath, photography and the post-confessional muse” in Representing Sylvia Plath (2001), edited by Sally Bayley and Tracy Brain; and Heather Clark’s Red Comet (2020) traced Plath’s maternal and paternal grandparents in Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

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Dorka TAMÁS, « Behind the Iron Curtain: Sylvia Plath and Hungary during the Cold War »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 19 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Independent Scholar
Dr Dorka Tamás is an early career academic with research interests in magic and witchcraft in twentieth-century literature and poetry, particularly in the works of Sylvia Plath, post-war culture, the relationship between the natural environment and the supernatural across literature and culture. Dorka is a co-founder of the Sylvia Plath Society and a committee member of the Haunted Shores Network on the littoral gothic. She is currently working on her first monograph on Plath and the supernatural and has an upcoming chapter on “Barbie’s Domesticity” in the edited collection Barbie in Popular Culture (Routledge, 2024).

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