The Absent Author: Sylvia Plath’s “A Birthday Present”

     One of the most ignored, but fundamental, issues when reading a text is the question of who is speaking. The problem seems simple and intuitive, but it becomes much more complicated when you realize the multiplicity of options. Is it the name on the spine of book? The character speaking the current bit of dialogue? The printer who produced the physical ink and paper book? One necessary stage of interpretation is to sort through the number of distinct voices that make up a text. In the simplest cases, the reader merely needs to sort out which voice belongs to which character’s mouth. He can do this by paying attention to quotation marks and other speech signifiers. In other texts, unstated voices, like that of the first person narrator or the biases of a disembodied third person narrator, call for more involved interpretation. The purpose of distinguishing these voices is to impose some sort of order upon the polyphony; otherwise, a text swiftly becomes incomprehensible. For such reasons, grasping the basic plot of Renaissance play with clear signifiers of speech is a lot simpler process than trying to understand Finnegan’s Wake when it is not even clear where some characters end and others begin. By breaking a work down into separate voices, a text becomes a more coherent whole.
Different voices do not make a text inconsistent, but instead allow a narrative to function cohesively. It makes a lot more sense to separate the narrators of the various parts of The Sound and the Fury into separate characters than to try to figure out how Benjie suddenly ended up at Harvard in the second section. Likewise, with texts that have more intertwined voices, it is just as necessary to sort out the voices to account for inconsistencies. The process of sorting through the voices of characters and narrators is fairly straightforward with the aid of speech signifiers and the context of the narrative. The most critically important voice within a text, however, proves also to be the most elusive voice to capture. This voice is that of the author.
The literary critic Wayne Booth writes in “All Authors Should Be Objective” of the necessity for an author to create an implied self. He argues that it is impossible for an author to ever attain objectivity or freedom from ideological bias. Even if only bare language is used, the choice of subject and attention paid to certain parts of a narrative are types of value judgments. Booth asserts that the author must purposefully sculpt an implied voice out of intentional biases and values, instead of fruitlessly attempting to present a narrative that is free from authorial voice. The implied voice itself is just as critical a component of a text as the explicit words. Along similar lines, Alexander Nehamas posits that an author postulated by the reader can serve as almost another sort of character within the work (“The Postulated Author”, p 147).
From the reader’s perspective, it is necessary to construct this voice in order to understand the text, and it becomes impossible to meaningfully interpret a text otherwise. Knowledge of the authorial voice allows the reader to understand how to treat the language of a text. The implied voice of the author informs vital interpretive decisions, such as what set of connotations may be attached to words beyond their literal lexical denotations. Consider Jonathan’s Swift’s “A Modest Proposal”, in which the reader must make decisions as how to filter insincere from literal speech, and where to infer political allusions.
The implied author becomes an index for determining the interpretive processes necessary for understanding the text. The type of figurative mouth that we imagine as producing the words tells us how to understand them. This function of the implied author goes beyond that of the writer, who may be seen as the figure that produces the words without necessarily defining them for the reader. The implied author also plays a different role from the narrative’s speaker, who serves to give the words context within the narrative. The reader thus imposes a particular form of comprehensibility upon a text by positing a certain implied author who tells the reader how to handle the language. Canterbury Tales would yield a vastly different meaning if it were interpreted as if it had been written by Marx instead of Chaucer; the set of connotations imported with this implied authorship would be vastly alien to those evoked by typical methods of interpreting this text. Likewise, if we were to suppose that a finger painting by a chimpanzee at a zoo were instead produced by an established artist (as some critics have been fooled into doing), then the work would invite a more sophisticated, and perhaps artificial, type of interpretation than otherwise.
It is important to note that acting as an index is what defines the implied author. This means that neither a first person speaker nor the physical author must necessarily be identified with this figure. Since a work may have multiple first person speakers or one that changes because of the events of a narrative, we cannot assume that he or she is the implied author. In Huckleberry Finn, it is fairly obvious that the implied author knows more that the oftentimes naïve title character who serves as the narrator. In addition, the writer is capable of producing a work from a voice separate from her own. In other cases, the writer’s voice might change, and thus act independently of the text. Thus, the physical human being that wrote the words is not the source of the implied voice that determines the meaning of the words of a text. For these reasons, it is the reader’s task to construct at least a working model of authorial voice when reading a text. Without constructing such a model of an authorial voice, it is impossible for the reader to form a coherent interpretation of a text; there would be no intuitive way for the reader to encounter the words. As another exaggerated example, a reader must choose to consistently read a text as if the implied author intended the words to be read in, say, English rather than Farsi, without having to reevaluate each sentence as a separate unit with a potentially different language.
Sylvia Plath’s “A Birthday Present” proves to be a text in which the issue of voice becomes especially critical in the process of interpretation. Plath, simultaneously one of the most controversial and respected poets of the 20th century, wrote this poem shortly before her suicide in 1963. The poem forces the reader to pay special attention to the construction of an implied author; this is because it may be argued that the implied author actually serves as both the voice and subject of the work.
“A Birthday Present” is a text cast in the first person about a woman referring to an unknown gift that haunts her. The gift becomes a transparent prop for the woman to reveal the real subject of the poetry, namely her suicidal urges. Although at the beginning, the ostensible object of the poem seems to be a mysterious gift, the speaker herself soon becomes the real object. While having the speaker as the subject is an ordinary technique in self-reflective poetry, this text deals with a largely absent speaker who ultimately undermines her own voice. The unique configuration of the poem leads the reader to identity the narrator with the implied author.
If the narrative voice is taken to be the implied author, who forms a part of the text itself, then the poem necessarily becomes self-undermining, for one dominant portion of the text will resist the rest. Questions with seemingly obvious answers become problematic when the reader delves more deeply into the work. Why, for instance, does the speaker produce a poem about herself as an act of self-destruction? Should we trust the certainty of the speaker when she claims, “I am sure it is unique, I am sure it is what I want” (ll. 3), but doubt her fantasies about carbon monoxide (ll 39-40)? If the implied author fills each phrase with irony and double meaning, where can the reader find a stable starting point for interpretation? The implied author, although necessary, proves problematic enough to cause “A Birthday Present” to become an unstable and incoherent text. By studying this poem as a case example, perhaps it is possible to come upon some model for forming a construct of implied authorship.
“A Birthday Present” seems to circle around an unknown center, tangentially referring to an unsettling presence without alluding explicitly to its identity until the end of the poem. The poem establishes this mystery from the beginning with an inquiry of this sort of hidden manifestation:

“What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful? / It is shimmering, has it breasts, has it edges?” (ll. 1-2).

A consistent tone of ambiguity concerning an unidentified specter haunts the rest of the poem. To establish tension with the audience, the speaker alludes to a deep personal familiarity with the unfamiliar and unstated object, fleshing out an implied author with secrets beyond the text. The gift is known not by its content, but by the speaker’s speculations informed by her personal experience. The speaker thus constructs a self outside of both the poem and of the interpretive vision of the reader by hinting at some essential fact about her relationship with the object, while simultaneously denying the reader access.
The subject of “A Birthday Present” is not a literal gift, for the object becomes a mere object of speculation for the speaker. The gift serves as a prop for the speaker’s thoughts, which form the main subject of the poem. The problematic issue with this poem, however, is that the speaker’s personality proves to be just as elusive as the veiled gift. While the speaker is overtly present, with “I” or “me” found in most of the stanzas, the essential identity is nevertheless hidden from view. Consider the lines, “If you only knew how the veils were killing my days” (l. 37), where the speaker directly tells the reader that there is some unknown activity happening beneath the surface of the words. The reader was not supposed to know that there was anything being veiled until the speaker complained about their effect in lines 16 and 37. The speaker also refers to a self beyond the text through less direct means, with enigmatic lines like, “Is this the one for the annunciation? My god, what a laugh!” (ll. 9-10). The reader’s need for coherency in forming her interpretation of the text compels her to posit some sort of context that would make such lines meaningful. The reader must form an interpretation of the knowledge that some sort of annunciation is expected in a very particular form, and that the unknown form of the annunciation is presented to the speaker defies her expectations in a darkly humorous manner. The indeterminacy, clumsiness, and vagueness of this paraphrased reading of the text shows how many necessary and vital details exist outside the poem, and, most importantly, beyond the possible knowledge of the reader. Thus, although the subject of the poem seems to be the speaker, its cryptic language renders the speaker absent in a form that can be understood by the reader.
The clandestine activity outside the poem does not merely add contextual weight for fleshing out the poem, but also forms the critical center of the text. Taken at face value with no inferences, the poem would lose most of its vital meaning; the richness and complexity of the speaker’s hidden personality becomes only more intriguing when it is left to speculation. More specifically, the implied author is not just a construct of the words within the poem, but of the words that the reader is told are not in the poem. The reader knows that the speaker wishes for death, but not any reason why (ll 39-42). Even more crucially, the reader does not even know who has the death wish, or any other contextual information besides hints at domesticity (“When I am quiet at my cooking (l. 4)”), relative youth (“I should be sixty” l. 64), familiarity with the “you” of the poem, and prior desires for death (l. 15).
The absence of important aspects of the speaker’s self is created by the narrative voice itself, which posits a persona that not only links these scanty details, but supersedes them entirely. Some theorists argue that much speech can be classified as performative, meaning that the language serves to assert the existence of its own source. The voice could almost be seen as anti-performative, as the statements of the speaker can be reduced to a quite loud and paradoxical “I am not here”. In this case, however, the reader must decide where else the speaker, as the critical center of the text, may be found. The reader’s search for her comes to be one and the same with the interpretive process itself. Since attempting to construct this enigmatic speaker out of so few textual details is nearly impossible, the reader must also take into account the tone of the work. Although in some cases tone may be seen as a force that distorts language, tone in this case provides crucial information beyond the explicit words. Tone can be thought of as the most accessible location of the voice of this text. In “A Birthday Present”, the voice comes to play a practical role not so much with what is said, but how it is communicated. The literal details that “A Birthday Present” provides the reader about the desire for death are reinforced by the suicidal and destructive tone. This makes it quite clear the speaker is sincerely opposed to herself. In this sense, she is quite overt and almost overbearing, with the frank talk of personal secrets. She is just as casual when describing her cooking in the kitchen as when mentioning off-handedly her desires for death. When first confronted with the terrifying gift, her reaction is not to engage the subject directly, but to laugh at its arrival.
The emotional content of the words do not distort the subject, but rather become the object of the art itself. The critics Wimsatt and Beardsley claim that the emotional content of the work can be its own artistic object (“The Affective Fallacy” pp. 1401-1402). The tone helps to create a portrait of the speaker’s personality; thus, the voice of the text itself is its own subject. At first, this might seem contradictory to the supposed absence of the subject of the text, even more so than the aforementioned presence of so many “I”s, since the voice permeates the entire text. However, this voice may be seen as emanating from a self that is largely removed from the poem, so that the voice is still that of an absent presence. The process of interpretation is akin to trying to find the location of a speaker in a separate room, with tone as an analogue to the direction from whence you hear the voice. When trying to construct an absent presence, the issue of this figurative location becomes wrapped up with the question of identity.
As the poem meditates upon the physical object of the gift, more and more is revealed about the mysterious speaker. The reader learns through lines like, “It stands at my window, big as the sky. / It breathes from my sheets, the cold dead centre” (ll. 49-50), that the speaker is haunted by some sort of force that both permeates her inner world and blocks out her ability to see beyond. This gradual revealing of the speaker’s self, which forms the center of the poem, slackens the tension between the words internal to the poem and the external context. As the self-destructive tone of the speaker becomes more and more explicit, such as with revelations of her fantasies about “carbon monoxide” (l. 40), we come to more fully understand the true nature of the poet as suicidal. Once this is firmly and explicitly established, however, there is little weight left to the implied character. The revelation thus undermines the power of the context that the reader constructed. The relation between the hidden nature of the speaker and her presence within the poem is revealed with the verses, “Only let down the veil, the veil, the veil / If it were death / I would admire the deep gravity of it, its timeless eyes” (ll. 57-59). Thus, the reader gaining direct knowledge of the speaker would amount to a form of death, for the implied self is a construct of the veil. The speaker may be seen as more of a silhouette than real presence; with the dropping of the veil, her nature as a shadow inevitably vanishes.
This unveiling of the speaker by the poem also works to undermine the implied self outside the text; the speaker becomes less mysterious and unsettling once her intentions are made explicit. The text’s implied horror and emotional weight congeal into just another aesthetic object of the poem, instead of a powerful projection of the reader’s mind. The charged language of death that dominates the poem, yet which never quite states the speaker’s intent, loses some of its power on line 59 when the present it unwrapped. The course of the poem, then, serves as an instrument of the implied speaker’s death, for it eliminates the presence that is posited outside the verses. This is a violent poem, and the objects within it suffer a brutal and destructive treatment. By slowly letting the protective veil down and stepping into the action of the text, the speaker subjects herself to the violence of the poem in order to let herself be destroyed.
If we treat the speaker as if she is just another character within or, in our case, outside the poem, then this self-destruction seems innocuous when the stability of the text is considered. The poem would safely contain the suicidal speaker as if she were a mere object of the art, a pitiful, yet comfortably remote, imitation of an unstable person. As previously mentioned, the poem would still lose its own power by explicitly stating the implied, yet this only is an issue of the poem’s force, rather than its stability. However, the difficulty with “A Birthday Present” is that the speaker seems to be one and the same as the author of the poem.
Why is this first-person character to be considered more than just another aspect of the text, but also its textual voice? One reason is that the speaker in “A Birthday Present” is the self-allusions to her life outside of the poem. The speaker does not seem to be just another character that gains the privilege of the first person, but instead is something larger than the text itself. The speaker cannot be compared to other first-person characters like Faulkner’s Benjie or Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, because these texts allow the reader to know more than their speakers. In the case of this poem the speaker has mastery over both the diegetic (narrative) and mimetic (representational) worlds.
The total subjectivity gives her control over every nuance of the poem, and she is fully aware of its every aspect. This would destroy the typical relationship between author and character that exists in other first person narratives. Even in works where the first person speaker has some sort of omniscience, such as when she is recounting past events, the reader may still make judgments about the stability and veracity of the voice. For instance, a case in which the first person narrator and the implied author may be separate could be when the narrator obviously lapses, such as when glaring contradictions appear in the text. In “A Birthday Present”, the subjectivity permeates the poem so deeply that it is impossible for the reader to discern an authorial voice beyond that of the speaker. The tone of the speaker also grants all the words a separate layer of meaning, thus fulfilling the function of the implied author as the guide for how to treat language. The reader thus must take the implied author to be one and the same with the speaker.
When reading Plath’s poetry, the question of the biographical context of the text inevitably arises. “A Birthday Present” was among the last batch of poems Plath wrote before her suicide. Thus, it is tempting to read the poem as a work of autobiography, as the themes of the text seem so salient to the historical writer’s life. For this reason, the reader might identify the speaker, the implied author, and the writer all as the same person. The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it might lead the reader to see Plath’s biographical information as the missing center of the poem. When imposing Plath’s life onto the poem to solve the riddle of “A Birthday Present”, the poem ceases to be about the world created by the words, and instead the words become a product of the world that created them.
In one light, this interpretive strategy might seem most useful, for all art can be said to have at least some sort of connection to the context of its production. Context is essential to understanding texts ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the Bible. However, this strategy proves to be problematic in “artistic” texts, as argued in the past theories of the New Critics. The biographical information of the writer becomes an extension of all her work. The writer’s life is seen as part of the text itself, as the knowledge of her life. The reader may interpret a text through information gleaned from journal entries, personal interviews with friends, literary influences (reading habits), diet, etc. These all become the true source of definitive meaning, on equal or even superior grounds to evidence from the written text itself. Such an ill-defined pool of information complicates interpretation to the point where the words of the text no longer matter, and reading a text turns into an exercise in history and archaeology. In addition, the biographical information of Plath simply does not agree with the content of her poems; it would be fallacious to plot a correlation between her verses and the events in her life. The implied author of “A Birthday Present”, then, must be understood as a separate character of the text who is both at once its center and its source of meaning. If we reject the idea that Plath herself is the implied author, it becomes the reader’s task to recreate this construct out of the text alone.
If the reader accepts that the speaker is the same as the implied author, then the text loses much of its own stability for the aforementioned reasons. A text might remain stable despite only having an implied object; the difficulty with having this particular speaker as an invisible center of “A Birthday Present” is that she is inherently self-undermining. The self destruction that the speaker desires is an attack not just on the invisible subject of the poem, but also the voice through which we might hope to discover it. The words of the poem form an assault against the voice that produces them, casting doubt upon their own stability. When the poem may be reduced to a voice that wishes for its own silence, it becomes a problematic issue as to how to interpret the text. One such difficulty, for instance, is the question as to why the voice of the poem perpetuates itself in the medium of poetry if it wishes to cease to exist. Also, if the speaker inherently opposes the subject, the issue arises as to whether the reader should trust the presentation of this artistic center. If we allow the implied speaker to tell us how to manage the language of the poem, each word must be treated as having a self-nullifying double meaning.
According to this interpretation, the implied speaker of the work, which forms its center, is built upon words that inherently oppose it. This interpretation becomes so knotty that perhaps the reader’s construction, not the text, is flawed. While the reader is trying to recreate the implied personality of the author, the speaker is attempting to destroy it with the very same verses. The arc of the reader’s interpretation runs counter to that of the voice of the text. The aforementioned anti-performative interpretation becomes even more problematic, shifting from, “I am not here” to “I am silencing myself with these words”. An equally devastating alternative to this problem of the self-silencing author is the possibility that it is merely a case of insincerity. If the implied author does not really believe in the self-destruction she dwells upon, then the entire text falls apart into a case of either dark irony or incoherent duplicity. In the case of this poem, the text loses the stability of both its presentation and subject matter if it is insincere. This instability is unacceptable, because the entire purpose of the reader positing an implied author was to generate coherency. Our interpretation of the text fails according to its own criteria.
Perhaps by examining the theories of implied authorship, this problem of instability may be resolved. Wayne Booth describes the implied author as a creation who embodies a set of biases, which work towards the content of the text: “The emotions and judgments of the implied author are…the very stuff out of which great fiction is made” (“Authors Should Be Objective”, p. 86). The problem with my interpretation of the poem is that I allowed our understanding of “emotions and judgments” of the speaker qua character in the poem to be imposed upon the speaker qua author. I projected the character within the poem onto the speaker, and then forced this understanding of the speaker back upon the content of the poem. This circularity undermined itself. The speaker’s opposition to herself as a character within the text became the same as the implied author’s opposition to herself within the poem. This interpretation made the text unstable. The problem with my previous interpretation of the poem is that the text does make sense and achieve some level of coherency. The reader will most likely come to a general understanding about the particular character through her own voice, but not use her own words against her ability to speak.
The speaker as a character in the poem, then, is not the same person as the implied author. Obviously it would be problematic for an author who stabbed herself (ln. 60-63) to write this poem after her death. Previously, I argued that because the position of the speaker was outside of the poem and because she had mastery over the mimetic and diegetic worlds, she could be treated as the implied author. As has been shown, this undermines the text. This poem, then, requires the reader to form a different understanding of the author. Returning to the original premises for our interpretative strategy, it is still necessary for the reader to infer some sort of context for the speaker’s life outside of the words of the poem. After all, the goal of interpretation would most likely be to generate coherency out of the text. Perhaps, then, the reader needs to interpret the poem according to an alternate strategy.
Returning to the content of the poem, the speaker of “A Birthday Present” ultimately destroys herself by projecting her death upon the void of an unknown gift. The speaker becomes an author by writing her own story of her death upon the object:

“Let it not come by word of mouth, I should be sixty / by the time the whole of it was delivered, and too numb to use it” (ll. 53-54).

The character in the poem tells stories about her own future and fantasizes about her own death. Perhaps this is the model of authorship that Plath means to assert in the poem. The speaker should be allowed to create herself, without the reader projecting an entire personality upon her, and then destroying the meaning of the poem when the projections do not coincide with the text. Despite my rejection of the previous interpretation, the poem is nevertheless about a person who undermines herself who also happens to tell her own story. This does not mean that we should take this one aspect of the poem and then apply it to the whole text. If that were the case, the reader, rather than the speaker would be the author. Previously it was mentioned how the self-destruction of the author ran in contrary motion to reader’s interpretation. The problem may be seen not to arise from the destruction of the poem, but from the reader attempting to become an author of the author. When the creative voices of both the reader and the implied author enter the text, there is bound to be some sort of instability. Thus, the vision of authorship offered by “A Birthday Present”, simply enough, is one in which the author tells her own story; the reader only needs to make inference that fill in the gaps of coherency; it is not necessary to postulate an entire center absent from the poem. The poet tells the reader what she needs to know in order to understand the content of the text, without needing her to become a co-author.
This brings us back to the issue of the multiplicity of voices within a text. The problems with my unstable interpretation of the work reveal a voice even more elusive than that of the implied author: the reader’s voice. The reader’s voice may be the most difficult to detect of all, for it invisibly permeates every interpretation. Just as it is impossible to write without some sort of bias, no one can interpret in a “pure” manner. In texts that require more complex interpretations, the reader’s voice may even play a more dominant role than the implied author. This becomes problematic in the process of reading, as has been shown in my analysis of “A Birthday Present”, when this undetected voice comes to covertly overshadow the voices within the text. The reader’s influence can undermine the process of interpretation; nevertheless, is just as impossible to silence this voice than that of the implied author. The reader must always make at least some decisions as to how to interpret the work, and introduce some personal creativity to compensate for missing, yet vital, information within a text. Likewise, the model of implied authorship itself requires the input of the reader, for it is just another interpretation. The challenge to the reader, then, is to properly separate her own voice from that of the construct of the implied author that she helped to create.
Perhaps the reader must self-consciously posit some sort of model of reader-authorship in order to properly balance the textual voices. In this way, the reader may construct an interpretation that forms, rather than undermines, stability. The reader needs to be aware as to when she turns a text into a prop for projecting a certain voice. The speaker of “A Birthday Present” may be accused of treating her poor, neglected gift in such a manner. By the end of the poem, we still have no idea what the present really is, or if there really was a present outside of her imagination. Still, the poem proves all the richer because of the departure from the ostensible topic at hand.
For a more intimate case example, this essay itself treats “A Birthday Present” as a sort of prop for discussing other topics without actually delving into real analysis. Such methods of interpretation may be useful, but they should not claim to substitute for textual analysis. The United States Constitution, for example, has been a prop for the projection of many individual interests, such as when corporations took advantage of the 14th amendment to protect their interests as ‘persons’. In such cases, a text becomes a tool for a specific purpose, rather than an opportunity for interpretive discovery or reflection. When these two roles of the text become confused, incoherency arises; the reader will be left to account for the inconsistencies that arose from the meaning that she imposed upon the text.
With too little intervention, a text cannot be interpreted coherently; with too much influence, the reader, like the speaker in “A Birthday Present”, will end up talking to herself about herself. Thus, the reader must be just as aware of her own presence within a work as that of the implied author. Otherwise, the reader’s voice will begin to displace that of the implied author while still attributing the skewed version of the text to the author, whether he or she is identified as Shakespeare, the Founding Fathers, God, etc. This is problematic not just because of the misidentification of voice, but because the competing voices will displace one another, leading to incoherency. It is not until these voices have been sorted out that the text will have a stable and coherent enough foundation for truly productive interpretation.

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