While conducting research for a current essay project on identity and self-definition in the works of Virginia Woolf, I keep stumbling over the roots of Sylvia Plath’s trees – the shriveling figs and ancient yews, black pine and seeding winter trees, the diseased elm, and Polly’s dream tree, a “thicket of sticks” with a larkspur star. With their multifurcating branches of options and opportunities, decisions and offshoots, Plath uses tree imagery to portray stages of self-consciousness, inner chaos, confusion, isolation, and desolation.
Obviously, these are not the sort of cheerful trees under which you would spread a blanket and picnic. However, they aptly convey the paradoxical desires and inner conflict Woolf’s characters (and many of us, I would venture) encounter on the journey to consciousness and self-definition.
My favorite Woolf tree is the one Lily continually moves in her painting in To the Lighthouse. Each time she is beset with self-doubt, bowing “like corn under a wind” (usually at the hand of Charles Tansley, who insists that women can neither write nor paint), she rights herself by shifting the tree in her painting: “She must make it once more. There’s the sprig on the table-cloth; there’s my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters – nothing else.”
Lily’s spontaneous urge to make a shift in her drawing conveys her need to put order to the swirl of emotions and conflicting desires in her mind. She begins to realize that her vision requires balance and fusion. Plath’s trees, conversely, are tragic and dark, representative of the deepest recesses of our thoughts before reconciliation occurs. And I keep tripping over them.
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.
~ from “The Moon and the Yew Tree” by Sylvia Plath