Study Guide

Ariel Themes

  • Transformation

    On its surface, "Ariel" is about a wild horseback ride. But when we read just a little bit more closely, we see that the poem is interested less in the actual horseback ride and more in the transformation that happens within the speaker as she's on that horse. The speaker transforms from a woman who tries to hold onto Ariel for dear life, to a woman who summons the power of the horse and who is no longer afraid to lose her grip. She finds freedom in this transformative experience, and learns to channel the wild energy of Ariel. We're not gonna lie: we're a little jealous of the speaker's crazy and transformative ride. We'd kill to be "at one" with a horse, our surroundings, and everything.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What is the root of the speaker's transformation? Is it Ariel herself? Is it the galloping ride? Did the ride change the speaker, or did it just let loose something that was always inside her? What parts of the poem give you your ideas?
    2. Do you see the speaker's transformation as a good or bad thing? What's your rationale? 
    3. Why is the speaker's transformation couched in such morbid terms? What's deathly about her transformation?

    Chew on This

    The speaker's experience is transformational in a good way (as opposed to kind of transforming that happens in those really bad Transformer movies). She lets go of her "dead stringencies" and embraces her life.

    Actually, it's not all high-fives and lollipops. The speaker's experience is transformational in a negative way, which is why the language of the poem is so morbid; her true self has died at the end of the poem. Bummer.

  • Power

    When "Ariel" begins, the speaker is powerless. Ariel takes off at a wild gallop, and the speaker can't control her horse at all. The cool thing about the poem, though, is that instead of gaining power by taking control of the horse, the speaker gains her power by submitting to the horse, by becoming "at one" with the horse's will. By giving up her desire and need for control, and learning to let loose, the speaker is able to channel the power of the natural world. Not a bad lesson for an early morning horseback ride, if you ask us.

    Questions About Power

    1. What is the relationship between power and control in the poem? 
    2. How does Plath represent power in "Ariel"? What kinds of words and images does she use?
    3. What is the relationship between power and death in the poem? Do you find it disturbing that the speaker's power is so closely linked to death in "Ariel"?

    Chew on This

    Give up, give in, get happy. The poem argues that you can only attain power by admitting that you have no control over the world.

    This poem is more about recognizing limits than embracing them. Ariel will always have power over the speaker; she's a massive horse and the speaker is just downright silly to think anything otherwise.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Man and the natural world? It's more like "woman" and the natural world in this case. "Ariel" tells the story of the speaker's transformative experience when she gets up close and personal with nature, and she learns to give up her desire for control and accept the craziness of ol' Mother Nature. While at first the speaker is fearful of Ariel (and who could blame her?), by the end of the poem the speaker becomes "at one" with her horse. She learns that the way to gain power is not to attempt to change Ariel, but to accept her wild nature. Nature's gonna do what it's gonna do; we're all just along for the wild ride.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Do you think that Ariel is a stand-in for the wider natural world? Or is a horse sometimes just a horse? Why do you think so?
    2. Does the poem offer up any method of controlling nature? Or is nature always uncontrollable? 
    3. Other than Ariel, what other aspects of nature does the speaker experience in the poem? Are they like or unlike the uncontrollable Ariel?

    Chew on This

    Nature in "Ariel" is only dangerous when you try to tame it. Anybody who watches the Discovery Chanel could tell you that.

    All nature is dangerous in this poem. Just think of Ariel and those bloody berries—yipes.

  • Death

    Sylvia Plath: her name's almost synonymous with suicide in popular culture, so it's really no surprise that "Ariel" deals with death. But don't get too down when reading this poem; death here is actually a pretty positive thing. It's more of a metaphorical death than a real death—it's about the transformation of a fearful woman into a powerful woman. The death in the poem is the death of the speaker's former, fearful self. Good riddance, if you ask us. As far as Plath's poetry goes, death in "Ariel" is pretty darn optimistic.

    Questions About Death

    1. Is it possible to talk about death in "Ariel" without talking about Plath's real-life suicide? Why do you think so?
    2. Is it even accurate to talk about the poem in terms of death? Or should we really be talking about rebirth in "Ariel"? 
    3. What's your interpretation of the "suicidal" arrow? Do you see it as a morbid image? Or as a hopeful one?

    Chew on This

    It's impossible to talk about "Ariel" without mentioning Plath's suicide. The word "suicidal" is even in the poem, for crimminey's sake.

    We need to accept the fact that a poem is just a poem, and leave Plath's life, and death, out of our interpretation. If we want to read about Plath's life, we should read her diaries. Poems are a whole different kettle of fish (or in this case, horses).