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“Inscrutable Intelligence”: The Case against Plastic Surgery in the Works of Jean Stafford and Sylvia Plath

Author(s): Mercè Cuenca

Journal: Coolabah
ISSN 1988-5946

Volume: 3;
Start page: 182;
Date: 2009;
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Keywords: Postwar American Confessional Literature | (Re)Construction of Female Bodies | Protofeminism

Jean Stafford’s short story “The Interior Castle” (1946) and Sylvia Plath’s“Face Lift” and “The Plaster”, written in the early 1960s but published posthumously inCrossing the Water (1971), dwell on a theme which is rarely tackled in PostwarAmerican literature: plastic surgery. Using a markedly mnemonic tone, both authorstrace in detail the passive submission of female bodies to male (re)construction. Whilethe history of women in early Cold War America is usually associated with thepatriarchal mystifying of housewifery, the myth of ideal, domestic femininity was alsointimately related to bodily beauty. The demand for physical “perfection” whichresulted from constructing women as, primarily, objects of male desire was mirrored inpopular magazines, such as Ladies’ Home Journal, which endorsed women’s seekingmedical aid to model themselves into “ideal” sexual mates (Meyerowitz in Meyerowitzed., 244). Women’s submission to the notion that they should use any means necessaryto become aesthetic objects to be appraised by men was thus represented as desirable. Inthis paper, I shall trace how both Stafford and Plath adopted a confessional style ofwriting in the abovementioned pieces in order to denounce the cultural construction ofwomen as passive bodies to be moulded at will, instead of as active, thinking subjects. Ishall argue that by reproducing the recollections and thoughts of the women beingstitched, sewn and bandaged in their pieces, both authors articulated an alternativeprotofeminist aesthetics based on the beauty of what Stafford described as “inscrutableintelligence”.
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