“Inscrutable Intelligence”: The Case against Plastic Surgery in the Works of Jean Stafford and Sylvia Plath


  • Mercè Cuenca




postwar american cofessional literature, reconstruction of female bodies, protofeminism


Jean Stafford’s short story “The Interior Castle” (1946) and Sylvia Plath’s “Face Lift” and “The Plaster”, written in the early 1960s but published posthumously in Crossing the Water (1971), dwell on a theme which is rarely tackled in Postwar American literature: plastic surgery. Using a markedly mnemonic tone, both authors trace in detail the passive submission of female bodies to male (re)construction. While the history of women in early Cold War America is usually associated with the patriarchal mystifying of housewifery, the myth of ideal, domestic femininity was also intimately related to bodily beauty. The demand for physical “perfection” which resulted from constructing women as, primarily, objects of male desire was mirrored in popular magazines, such as Ladies’ Home Journal, which endorsed women’s seeking medical aid to model themselves into “ideal” sexual mates (Meyerowitz in Meyerowitz ed., 244). Women’s submission to the notion that they should use any means necessary to become aesthetic objects to be appraised by men was thus represented as desirable. In this paper, I shall trace how both Stafford and Plath adopted a confessional style of writing in the abovementioned pieces in order to denounce the cultural construction of women as passive bodies to be moulded at will, instead of as active, thinking subjects. I shall argue that by reproducing the recollections and thoughts of the women being stitched, sewn and bandaged in their pieces, both authors articulated an alternative protofeminist aesthetics based on the beauty of what Stafford described as “inscrutable intelligence”.