Sylvia Plath, in the poem “Tulips”, describes through the voice of a female, first-person speaker how life in a hospital evolves into a state of being distinct from the outside world so much so that any “baggage” taken along to the hospital interferes with the healing process cultivated in the hospital. Using an abundance of metaphors to illustrate how such keepsakes sadden patients with nostalgia and longing, Plath centers the poem around the symbol of tulips, describing how various features of the tulip contrast with the patient’s simple desire to lay down and lose herself in the dazzling “peacefulness” of her surroundings. The symbolic tulips in the poem function as a sharp contrast to the hospital lifestyle; metaphoric portrayals of the tulips illustrate the depth and roots to this contrast. Sylvia Plath uses tulips as a symbol for personal belongings and the nostalgia associated with them, developing this through the imagery and motif of color and the metaphor and connotations of water in order to develop fully the nature of the nostalgia experienced by a patient in a hospital, and illustrate what it is exactly about “the real world” that can be painful to a patient.
Throughout the poem, the speaker attaches importance to color by describing both the color of her surroundings and of tulips; the speaker even goes so far as to include such descriptions of color in the metaphor and simile she establishes. Initially, the speaker describes her wintry surroundings as white: “Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in; I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly as the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands” (2-4). The speaker explicitly links the color white with silence, peacefulness and solitude. Continuing in this vein, the speaker vividly illustrates ho the nature of her surroundings has crept into both her own nature and that of her caregivers; she is propped “between the pillow and the sheet-cuff like an eye between two white lids that will not shut” (8-9), while her caregivers “pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps” (12). Thus, from the very beginning of the poem Plath establishes the motif of color; the contrasts between the descriptions of color will illustrate the difference between her belongings and her surroundings. Before the speaker completely blended in completely with her surroundings, she viewed her surroundings as green: “Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley, I watched my tea set, my bureaus of linen, my books sink out of sight, and the water over my head ” (25-27). The reader now has a clear perception of hat her surroundings signify: once her caretakers purged her of her association with the outside world, she became white and pale as her surroundings were and continue to be, peaceful, silent and alone. For though the nurses pass too and fro, they too are part of the white surroundings, and thus don’t interrupt her solitude. “My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox, my husband and child smiling out of the family photo; their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks” (19-21). Though her few belongings do contrast with the white surroundings, and are “black” in white surroundings, they still don’t bear any jarring color to remind her of her past, and instead become small nuisances. They are still in sync with her “black and white” surroundings. However, the tulips that arrive are red, and interrupt this black-and-white continuum. When the speaker describes the tulips for the first time, she immediately notes their color: “The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me… Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds… they weigh me down… a dozen red lead sinkers round my neck” (26-42). Though, admittedly, they “breathe lightly, through their white swaddlings” (38-39)., i.e. they exist in the context of their white surroundings, nevertheless they still administer the pain effectively. The speaker finally explains what makes the tulips so painful: “They are opening… And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes/Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me” (60-61). The speaker enlightens us and explains that the reason why she minds the break from her surroundings is because the love espoused is too foreign to her; the tulips conjure up the image of love, which “comes from a country as far away as health” (62). Thus, the tulips’ color of red symbolizes the concepts of love and health, completely foreign to her “black and white” surroundings that consist of solitude and that lack interpersonal relationships. As the speaker has finished disposing of her personal belongings and finally adjusted to her surroundings, such a jolt from the outside world is far from welcome.
Plath similarly uses the motif of water, both when describing the care she receives and when illustrating the detrimental effects of the tulips, in order to show how the tulips interrupt the “flow” of her surroundings. When describing the disposal of her personal belongings, the speaker articulates “…and the water went over my head. I am a nun ow, I have never been so pure” (27-28). She has now blended in with her surroundings; the purity achieved (also symbolized by the color white) is a result of her immersion in her surroundings. For the nurses compare to moving water, and the speaker’s body to a pebble (15-16); she is totally immersed, yet such a state of being is beneficial and necessary for her to be gently tended to and cared for The tulips, however, weigh the speaker down in her surroundings, threatening to drown her. “They” [i.e. the tulips] are subtle; they seem to float, though they weigh me down… a dozen red, lead sinkers round my neck” (40-42). Indeed, the sender of the tulips could never have imagined that the speaker forgot about him/her; the sender believes that the memory of the outside world is what keeps the patient sane and “afloat”; in reality, however, the speaker indeed wishes to create a new identity, and the tulips/reminder of the past actually are harmful to the new life she wants to live. “A rust red engine” (54) best describes what the tulips are: formerly and superficially, they serve as a source of strength and power much like an engine; however, in reality they are an obstacle and a source of harm and pollution to the new life the speaker wishes to lead. The speaker, in the second to last line, describes how “water” is the gateway to the “country far away as health”; only through water can health be achieved, and similarly, only through water will tulips survive. The speaker thus presents a dilemma in the exact nature of water; on the one hand, it symbolizes the gateway to health as available through her surroundings, while on the other hand, it also raises the tulips that cause her to sink in her surroundings. Thus, the implied conclusion must be that perhaps health is necessarily achieved through the tulips, perhaps an interruption and dichotomy to her surroundings is necessary for her to function well and return to health.
The poem thus describes how ti is the patient’s choice whether to heal or not, for healing means necessarily a return to the outside world. The particular speaker, though convinced in the beginning of the poem that she must adapt to her surroundings to survive, perhaps begins to reevaluate her initial opinion. Though she can “flow” with her surroundings, like an unmoving pebble, she will never be able to heal. Only through the tulips will she be able to return to the outside world and to full health; though the tulips offend her surroundings, she must choose one or the other.