A birth myth or birth tale is a story about the often miraculous birth and infancy of a hero or, in some cases, an entire race of people or a nation. In the case of a hero, the baby is deprived of his true parents and heritage and is cast by fate into a different environment, many times a lowly one, in which he must struggle to survive. The hero is frequently of royal or aristocratic birth but is raised by humble people. This can be seen as giving him a more complete view of the world than he would have had if he had never left his privileged birthright, as well as exposing him to unusual trials that help form his character and prove his worth. In time, the hero comes of age and reclaims his true heritage and high position in society.
The Biblical stories of Jesus Christ and of Moses are examples of such birth tales, as is the story of the Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, and of Krishna, the god-child of Hinduism. In the case of Jesus Christ, the Bible tells that he was miraculously born of a virgin, though his true father was God. He was born in the humble surroundings of a stable at an inn, which belied his divine origins. Brought up as the ordinary son of a carpenter, he finally became a teacher and leader of men and was acclaimed by his followers as a spiritual savior and the Son of God.
A life-death-rebirth myth or tale is a variation on the birth myth that tells the story of a hero or deity’s life, death, and subsequent resurrection. Examples include, once again, Jesus Christ, who, the Bible says, was crucified but rose again from the dead. Another example, from Greek mythology, is Persephone, the daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and Demeter, goddess of the harvest. Persephone was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld, who kept her prisoner there. Demeter was so angry that while her daughter was imprisoned in the underworld, the earth ceased to be fertile and winter reigned. Hades was brought to agree to release Persephone back to the earth’s surface for a part of the year. When Persephone returned to the earth’s surface, fertility returned and plants grew. Thus she was seen as the goddess of fertility and spring.
Sylvia Plath’s poem ‘‘Mushrooms’’ is a birth and rebirth myth for the modern age. It is both a personal birth and rebirth myth for the poem’s female speaker and, as it taps into widespread female neuroses and concerns, a generic birth and rebirth myth for everywoman.
What is the death that makes rebirth necessary for the modern woman? Joyce Carol Oates writes in her essay, ‘‘The Death Throes of Romanticism: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath,’’ that Plath’s poetry shows ‘‘the pathological aspects of our era that make a death of the spirit inevitable.’’ For Plath, womanhood itself—not simply the way that women were treated by society—was a burden and a prison: the disease was within as well as without. According to Kathleen Margaret Lant, Plath wrote in her journals, ‘‘Being born a woman is my awful tragedy. From the moment I was conceived I was doomed . . . to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity.’’ Lant adds that Plath so completely identified power and hope with masculinity that she told a college friend that her ideal family would consist only of herself, her husband, and their magnificently male children. Lant writes that according to Plath’s biographer, Nancy Hunter Steiner, ‘‘She had decided that her husband would be a very tall man and she spoke, half-jokingly, of producing a race of superchildren, as superlatively large as they were intelligent. The children, she predicted, would all be boys.’’ ‘
“Mushrooms’’ contains implicitly this death of the female spirit, while describing the rebirth explicitly. The condition of womanhood is portrayed symbolically by the mushrooms. Their birth is shown as sudden and unexpected. Anyone who has observed mushrooms growing knows that they can miraculously appear overnight, seemingly out of nothing. The poet is suggesting in this comparison that women’s annihilation has been total and that they have become invisible. Their re-emergence to a position of power will happen without warning, like an ambush. However, even in the rebirth celebrated in the poem, they are still without ears, eyes, and voices, images that connote a being who, like the three wise monkeys of legend, sees no evil, hears no evil, and speaks no evil. These images also bring to mind the cliche´d nineteenth-century view of women and children that was preserved, to some extent, until the last decades of the twentieth century: that they should be seen (in a purely decorative role) and not heard. Even the idea that women are visible is qualified, as the mushrooms are white, a non-color that will not, as the old saying has it, frighten the horses.
These ideas are reinforced by the description of the mushrooms’ growth as quiet, discreet, and meek. These are all qualities that have been traditionally required of well-brought up women who know and accept an inferior position in society.
The sparse diet of the mushrooms, water and crumbs of shadows, may connote a passage in a seminal work of feminism, Virginia Woolf’s nonfiction narrative A Room of One’s Own (1929). Woolf, in a critique of the denial of a full education to women (most colleges were at that time only open to men), shows her female narrator being denied access to the facilities of a fictional university called Oxbridge, a fusion of the real Oxford and Cambridge Universities. She contrasts this with the freedom of a fictional women’s college called Fernham, which, reflecting the real history of women’s education, has great difficulties in raising finances to continue operations. Woolf compares the sumptuous dinners served to the male students at the well-financed Oxbridge to the frugal diet of prunes and custard served to the women at Fernham. Both Woolf and Plath are portraying women as second-class citizens who are expected to survive off of substandard fare.
The second stanza of the poem introduces the idea of the mushrooms, and therefore of women, gaining possession of the elements of earth and air. There is a contrast between the smallness and humbleness of the mushroomwomen and their grand ambition. This contrast recurs in stanzas 4 and 5, in the opposition of the softness of the mushroom-women’s fists and the immense feat of strength that they accomplish in lifting earth and even paving stones. The word fists, used instead of hands, implies a fight.
The idea of combat is carried through the poem in its military metaphors. The second line of the third stanza implies that women’s growth to eminence is a secret military siege vulnerable to being betrayed and defeated, presumably by men, the ruling power. The military siege metaphor is taken up again in the fifth stanza, where the mushroom-women are described as having weapons like those wielded by medieval soldiers laying siege to a castle. The implied castle here is male power. Similarly, the mushroom-women’s pushing through small holes brings to mind an image of soldiers tunneling into an enemy stronghold, only to pop up unexpectedly within its walls and capture the fort.
In the context of these military metaphors, it is in the mushroom-women’s favor to be voiceless, as they are able to accomplish their aims covertly. Thus they are able to turn an apparent weakness into strength. It is perhaps illuminating to bear in mind certain prominent women of history who have carefully constructed a persona of feminine weakness behind which they conceal their formidable strength (Queen Elizabeth I of England, for example). The mushroom-women hide their aspirations to world domination under a bland manner and an avoidance of making demands—again, in line with traditional societal expectations of a decorous woman.
Those readers who like to draw autobiographical parallels with Plath’s work may feel that these references are bitter comments on what she saw as an expectation to turn a blind eye to the infidelities of which she accused her husband. But whatever personal relevance these elements of her verse had to Plath, they also have universal application to all women who have felt oppressed by expectations to tolerate behavior that they feel is unacceptable.
The eighth stanza contains an important turning point in the poem marked by the repetition (anaphora) of the exclamations in lines 23 and 24. These lines emphasize the sheer number of the mushroom-women. Suddenly, the mushrooms, which hitherto appear to be determined but vulnerable, appear to possess the strength of numbers. An argument still made today by those seeking equal rights for women is that over fifty percent of the world’s population are women, yet in many societies they do not enjoy equity.
The metaphor in stanza 9 that likens the mushroom-women to tables or shelves suggests that women are a vital but overlooked system of support for society. The reference to their being edible has many symbolic resonances. It can suggest that the mushroom-women are consumed by society or by men. Equally, it can suggest that they nourish and sustain society and men, in the same way that tables or shelves support objects that are more valued than they.
The penultimate stanza acknowledges the inherent contradiction at the basis of many women’s consciousness: they desire to assert themselves yet feel shame at doing so, leading to the sense that they have to apologize for being as they are and acting as they do. The third line expands on the idea, previously introduced, of strength in numbers. Not only are there many women in the world, but they have a unique power that men lack: the ability to give birth. Thus, by force of sheer numbers and by their ability to multiply, women, like the meek of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, shall inherit the earth.
This grandiloquent prophecy is, however, brought down to earth by Plath’s choice of the unheroic image of the humble mushroom to represent women. To portray women as mushrooms shows her ambivalent attitude to her sex and comments wryly on the life-death-rebirth myths of heroes and deities. The mushroom-women, far from appearing as glorious heroes and deities as they reclaim their birthright, remain mere mushrooms, though they are more in number. They are still colorless, earless, eyeless, voiceless, and bland: strange, unformed, and vaguely sinister beings, even to the poem’s end. It can be argued that this is how the mushroom-women have been shaped by an oppressive society, so their unprepossessing form and nature is not entirely their fault. But there is to be no final transformation of the mushrooms as they come into their power, no revelation of a beauty that has lain hidden.
The poem also subverts the traditional birth and life-death-rebirth myths in terms of society’s response to the reborn hero. The reappearance of the hero is supposed to be greeted by a joyful public. But in the context of Plath’s poem, women’s reclamation of their birthright will not be welcomed by society. Instead, the last line of the poem likens the victorious mushroom-women to the universally hated figure of the salesman who invades someone’s home by planting his foot in the door. Far from being a triumphant resolution, women’s victory, it is suggested, is only the start of the real war.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Sylvia Plath, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on ‘‘Mushrooms,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.