The main theme of ‘‘Mushrooms’’ can be seen as the feminist struggle and growth to greater selfawareness. This is treated through the symbolism of the mushrooms, which can be assumed to stand for women.
This interpretation, it might be argued, is the one that is most consistent within the context of the poem. However, symbols frequently have many aspects of meaning and different people interpret the symbol of Plath’s mushrooms in different ways. Some essayists have identified the mushrooms with the victims of the Holocaust, jostling for space in cramped conditions; those who suffer mental illness; and even the atomic bomb. The feminist interpretation does not necessarily negate these other interpretations, and the contrary is also true: the other interpretations do not necessarily negate the feminist interpretation.
‘‘Mushrooms’’ can be interpreted as a birth myth (a story about the miraculous birth of a hero), or a depiction of death and rebirth. The mushrooms spring into being, apparently out of nothing. This nothingness is the annihilation of being and the death of the spirit, signified externally by their lack of color, voice, eyes, and ears. Inwardly, their blandness, meekness, and discretion contribute to their lack of self-expression and individuality. In terms of the feminist interpretation, these qualities can be seen as having been imposed on women by the expectations of men and society. The poem shows the mushrooms growing and forcing their way into being.
The poem’s symbolism can also be widened beyond the concept of the feminist uprising to suggest the struggle toward empowerment of all downtrodden and dispossessed people, whatever their gender. There is nothing in the poem that limits its meaning to the female sex. This broader interpretation universalizes the message of the poem and makes a possible thematic link to the civil rights movement, which paralleled the feminist movement after World War II. In this context, the poem is a threat to those in power that the uprising of any previously powerless group of people will come suddenly and without warning.
‘‘Mushrooms’’ can be interpreted as detailing women’s emergence from invisibility as creatures in their own right. This is not shown as a completed and perfected process but as a work in progress, fraught with challenge and difficulty. Thus the mushrooms are growing but not fully formed. Lacking eyes, ears, and a voice, they resemble embryonic human beings. If it is assumed that the mushrooms represent all dispossessed peoples, then the poem is about the general human struggle for self-identity and self-fulfillment.
Whichever of these interpretations is favored, there is a tension between the desire for growth and individuation and the factors that oppose and oppress these processes. Chief among the opposing factors is the weight of the status quo (a Latin phrase meaning the way things are). The poet makes clear, through references to heaving great weight and vulnerability to discovery and betrayal, that the growth process is onerous and fraught with difficulty. Nevertheless, it ends in triumph, when these small and seemingly insignificant fungi come into possession of the earth.
However, in keeping with Plath’s discomfiting voice, this triumph is not expressed in terms of a joyful event. The mushrooms that inherit the earth seem as invasive as salespersons who force a way into someone’s home by sticking their foot in the door. The poet does not make clear what happens next, but the symbolism and ominous language suggest that the mushrooms will meet with a hostile confrontation rather than a welcome. The poet suggests that women’s self-realization will not be celebrated by all, but instead could be seen as a threat and an alien invasion.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Sylvia Plath, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010