“The Jailor” by Sylvia Plath

In her poem “The Jailor,” Sylvia Plath discloses the intimacy of domestic rape through the lens of a horror story; thus, she exposes rape for what it is: a terrifying truth.

Plath writes each example of the ways in which the husband torments the wife in a declarative manner, horror the wife faces as irrefutable fact. “I have been drugged and raped” ( line 6) is past tense and passive voice with a hidden agent that gives the voice a tired, dragging tone. The exhausted tone in which the narrator presents the shocking words “drugged and raped” kills the possibility the narrator is exaggerating. They appear factual. Another statement about the narrator’s torture enters in the next line: “seven hours knocked out of my right mind” (line 7). “Right mind” can either refer to the idiom describing a person who is “calm, reasonable, and sane.” Or “right mind” could literally refer to damage being done to the right hemisphere of the brain as the word “knocked out” possibly entails. The right-side of the brain controls attention, memory and reasoning, and damage to this region can lead to severe problems in these three skills. While this statement’s implications seem almost too horrendous to be true, the line’s tone assures otherwise. By presenting the number “seven” at the beginning of the sentence, the narrator presents the statement as a fact.
Next, in line sixteen, the narrator calls out “O little gimlets!” ( line 16). “Gimlets” are screw-tipped tools made for piercing and boring holes. Direct address shrouds her words in a tone of exasperated melancholy, and makes her cry seem exaggerated. But with the proceeding line, “he has been burning me with cigarettes, (line 18) written yet again as a declarative statement, the narrator clarifies the painful lack of hyperbole behind her speech. Her husband is in fact boring holes into her flesh with cigarette buds. In this line, “he” functions as the subject noun. “Me,” the narrator, functions as a lowly object. Syntactically, “he” holds tremendous power over the narrator; thus, the narrator is trapped as the object that the “he” gets to torment at will. Even the syntax presents further evidence to speak truth about the narrator’s situation. In the end, the narrator claims “I die with variety – / Hung, starved, burned, hooked!” (lines 34-5). She lives in a cage. That is a fact she may grieve but cannot refute. She lives in a cage, but at least her death is complex and rich with allusion. She is “hung” like laundry. She is “starved” because she is his chef. She is “burned” because she slaves away in the kitchen. She is “hooked” because “hooked” is another name for marriage. She is suffering and dying, but she does not contest these facts. For such is the way of an abusive marriage. 


Plath takes common images of married life and distorts them though unnerving diction to portray the disturbing truth about an abusive marriage. Jarring imagery assaults the first line “my night sweats grease his breakfast plate” (line 1). “Night sweats” has several likely references. “Night sweats” are often linked to stress and anxiety correlated with feelings of worry, fear, and dread as “night sweats” can also be a symptom of certain drugs or diseases. Drugs are mentioned again in line six, “I have been drugged and raped” (line 6). “Night sweats” could also be a vague reference to “sex sweat,” for sex is also mentioned in line six. “Grease” suggests sexual lubricant, as well as bacon grease on a breakfast plate. These equivocal definitions tweak the normal picture of a housewife serving her husband breakfast to an image of a sickly, terrified sex slave serving breakfast and her body to her master.  A sickly distortion of a common image occurs in the fifth stanza as well. “The fever trickles and stiffens in my hair” (line 21) points to sickness and to sweat, once again, yet the “stiff” product in her hair suggests a link to a common trend at the time for housewives to fill their hair with expensive hairspray, and style it in a way that would please their husband. A second reference to a common trend emerges in the next line: “my ribs show. What have I eaten?” (line 22). Skinniness was considered beautiful at the time. But as opposed to her stiffened hair and slender frame alluding to glamor and beauty, Plath’s diction portrays the woman as skeletal and diseased. Plath portrays the wife as one who feeds off of the “lies and smiles” ( line 23) that she presents to the world. She is a woman who ingests the insubstantial façade of marriage as her only source of nourishment. And because of this, her ailments fester and grow worse. But it is not just she who interacts with the facade, for as the metaphorical “armory of fakery” (lines 30) suggests, “fakery” is her husband’s  weapon of choice, one of these weapons being “his high, cold mask of amnesia” (line 31). Height equates with power. When it is her word against his, society will always believe him. So, when he dawns a “mask of amnesia,” whatever he claims he “doesn’t remember” the rest of the world will believe never existed. Thus, the wife is forced to continue playing a role in this lie that is her marriage, until death does, she part.

Plath employs elements of horror and descriptive metaphor to depict the prison cell that is an abusive marriage and to explain the wife’s hopelessness and surrender.

He is “the rattler of keys” (line 5) ends line five. “Rattler” in this case is used in the literal sense as “one who rattles keys” as the title “The Jailor” indicates. “The rattler of keys” contains an eerie auditory component. Even the sound of those keys trills out the power that the jailor lords over his captive, revealing the woman’s caged state and her captor’s authority over her. The poem continues.  The speaker says, “something is gone” (line 11). It is a simple declarative sentence. Vagueness and a sense of absence comes from the nature of the indefinite pronoun “something.” A period ends the line, a period that indicates the quiet before the storm, the moment of suspense. The next line offers sudden clarity. The narrator’s “sleeping capsule” (line 12) is gone. A “capsule,” a pill that is the woman’s key to a kind of escape. Her only means of freedom is gone. The appositive “my red and blue zeppelin” describes the capsule’s color and literal shape, likening it to a zeppelin, which makes the following line, “drops me from a terrible altitude” (line 13) serve a dual purpose. Because that line proceeds the word “zeppelin,”  being dropped “from a terrible altitude” serves as an allusion to the Hindenburg accident. And because the subject of the sentence is a sleeping capsule, the line also plays on a common idiom, as in “to drop off to sleep,” like being dropped “from a terrible altitude.” This combination of references makes the argument that while the pill forces her into a sleep that would have been filled with nightmarish dread, anything is better than remaining stuck where she is at “a terrible altitude.” Sleep was her protection, and unconsciousness her armor. Now, her “carapace smashed, / [she] spread[s] to the beaks of birds” (lines 14-5). “Carapace” means a shell-like coat of protection not unlike a bug would have. She is now at the mercy of anyone who wishes to harm her, so she surrenders. In the words “I spread,” “I” functions as the noun and indicates that the woman “spreads” herself out in a vulnerable position as an act of surrender. She has given up. Her hopelessness continues into the final stanza. It begins with a mere fragment: “that being free” (line 41). Even her conception of freedom is fragmented. In the end, this is a poem about a woman who is chained to a man that abuses her so much that her soul has been picked clean of hope and her only salvation is death.

The auditory elements, grotesque imagery, the hopelessness all play a part in this
horror story. But the one element that makes “The Jailor” a truly terrifying tale is the fact that there was a time when this story was not uncommon.



Finkelhor, David, and Kersti Yllo. License to Rape: Sexual Abuse of Wives. Library of Congress,


Plath, Sylvia. “The Jailor.” RAT, June 15-19, 1970, p. 1 

Plath, Sylvia. “The Jailor.” RAT, June 15-19, 1970, p. 11