by Sylvia Plath
Lines 15-21 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Hauls me through air—
Flakes from my heels.
Godiva, I unpeel—
Dead hands, dead stringencies.
- In these lines, the speaker turns her attention away from her surroundings and back to her horse Ariel. But again, instead of a clear narrative or description, we get only flashes of jerky images—Ariel's "thighs, hair" which "haul" our speaker "through air."
- We feel a sense of resistance in these lines. The speaker is being "haul[ed]" by Ariel. The speaker hasn't exactly chosen this wild ride, and it looks like she's dug in her heels so tightly to hang on that either the horse's hair, the skin of her feet, or both is flaking off. Ew.
- But, in the next stanza, something changes. The speaker compares herself to Lady Godiva. Who's that, you ask? Could she be the queen of the delicious, decadent chocolates that we all know and love?
- Actually, Lady Godiva is an historical figure; she lived over 1000 years ago, and her story is legendary. The myth of Lady Godiva goes something like this: the town of Coventry, which Lady Godiva's husband ruled, was suffering under burdensome taxes. Lady G.'s husband said he'd lift the taxes if his wife proved her devotion by doing something nuts—by riding through the whole town naked! Lady Godiva accepted the challenge, saved her peeps from excessive taxation, and people have been telling the story of her nude ride ever since.
- When the speaker compares herself to Lady Godiva, she's both making herself a kind of folk hero (power to the people, y'all) and alluding to the sexuality of the myth. A beautiful nude lady riding a horse through town? It's a titillating tale.
- The speaker also describes herself as being "white"—or fair, good, and pure, like Godiva. Her whiteness contrasts with the earlier image of the "Nigger-eye / Berries." They, with their "blood mouthfuls," seem to represent death, or at least set up a visual, stark contrast with this whiteness.
- Now comes one of the strangest phrases in the poem; the speaker tells us that she "unpeel[s]." But what does she unpeel? Her clothes? Is our speaker taking a naked ride, too? Or is she talking about something more metaphorical?
- The speaker tells us that she unpeels "dead hands, dead stringencies." Stringencies, b.t.w., are rigorous rules or standards.
- So, as she's on this wild ride, our speaker peels away the constrictions of life. She peels her "dead hands" off from the horse.
- She sheds, like Lady Godiva, the restrictions of a severe culture.
- These lines are all about letting go, about losing your grip—and sort of liking it. This unpeeling is a figurative way to describe how the speaker is feeling free. It's not meant to be literal.
- But don't think that freedom for our speaker means a change in her language. If anything, Plath's language in these lines becomes even more densely packed with repeated sounds, with the rhyme of "air" and "hair," of "heels" and "unpeel." These lines are as tightly packed as any others. (Check out "Form and Meter" for more on that rhyme in this poem.)
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