Lesson on 'The Applicant' by Sylvia Plath

Julie Blake


This poem can be regarded as quite humorous, but it also has a very dark emotional intensity to it and a biting satire on conventional gender roles. In those respects, it makes excellent reading for brooding adolescents, but not every class will be able to cope simultaneously with intelligent study of poetry and the words 'breasts', 'crutch' and 'rubber crotch', so choose carefully who gets this treat. Plath's reading really opens up both the humour and the spitting contempt of the poem. This lesson plan focuses on exploration of tone.


For students to:

  • explore the poem through their own creative writing
  • experience poetry aurally in the high-octane form of Plath's original recording and student performance of their own Plath-ish poems
  • understand how words and images work in patterns to create mood.
Resources needed
  • The Poetry Archive recording of Sylvia Plath reading 'The Applicant'
  • Copies of the poem for each student
  • A handout for the students with the key words 'crunched' alphabetically (see below)

Teaching sequence of activities


Select 7-9 key words from the poem and display them on the board (or flash up on the big screen using Powerpoint). Choose your own selection or try this list: bombs, crying, empty, eyes, false, headaches, hole, missing, teacups. Invite students to jot down whatever comes to mind in response to each word. Then invite reflections on what connections they find between these words, and what kind of poem might include them. What kind of speaker? What kind of situation? What kind of tone?


Give a handout with a bigger selection of words from the poem in alphabetical order. The 'crunched' version shown below was created using Teachit's Cruncher tool (in the Whizzy section at www.teachit.co.uk). You could copy and paste this list into a Word document, or you could create your own list. These are only the key lexical words, some teachers might prefer to use all of the words, some might prefer to use a smaller selection, some might prefer to sort them into word classes. Do a bit of a whole class writing warm-up with the words, then ask students to write a poem using as many of these words as they can.

bad believe black bombs boy brace breasts bring bury closet come cook crotch crutch crying dissolve doll empty end everywhere excuse eye eyes false fifty fill fire first fit give glass gold guaranteed hand head headaches here hole hook image last living look make marry missing naked new nothing notice now open out paper person poultice proof resort roll roof rubber salt sew shatterproof show shut silver sorrow sort stark start stiff stitches stock stop suit sweetie talk teacups teeth tell think thumb ticket twenty-five waterproof wear well willing works wrong years

If you have enough time, you could get students to read their poems to each other in pairs or threes and give controlled feedback: one detail they like, one detail they weren't sure about, one idea for taking it further. Redraft and then prepare for a performance of the poems. Performance refuseniks could be charged with the task instead of producing a visually dynamic display of the class work. If your class is too big for this kind of activity to be manageable, or as an alternative anyway, you could select from volunteers, or pull names out of a hat. You could have students recording their poems, and then play a selection in class, or put them on your intranet and have students voting for the ones they like the best.

Pull this work together in whole class discussion of the patterns and connections between their poems: the most common themes and issues that were explored, recurrent images, dominant moods or tones. There is likely to be quite a lot of similarity in these matters because the starting word list was the same.

After listening to each other's work, play the Poetry Archive recording of Plath reading her own poem. After the first listen, invite initial impressions. Give out copies of the poem and play it a second time, this time exploring what Plath's poem has in common with their own versions. The third time, ask them to focus their listening on the tone: is it the same all the way through or does it change, and how would they describe the different tones? If this needs more scaffolding, invite them to think about where the tone is humorous, where it is most contemptuous.

Now explore this further in graphical form. Model a graph form on the board, with the horizontal axis showing the line numbers of the poem, and the vertical axis a scale of emotional intensity from 1 to 10. Take the first key mood, eg humour and demonstrate plotting the intensity of the first few lines of the poem as a line graph. Get students to plot the rest of the poem, then discuss their interpretations. Agree which parts they find the most humorous, go back to the text and recording of the poem, and identify which key words create these effects. Explore issues of poetic technique arising. Then let them loose on their own with the contemptuous tone, perhaps plotted in a different color. And/or any other tones they have identified.


Draw this work together by comparing some of the graphs produced. Follow up with discussion of what Plath's tone suggests about her attitude/emotion towards marriage and other ideas explored in the poem. You could conclude with some points about tone, such as:

  • that tone is an important part of poetry and its meaning, and when we only have the written text available to us, we still need to 'read' it in a way that is alive to this sense of voice - students need to read as if they have RealPlayer installed in their heads;
  • that tone is a matter of interpretation and there will be some differences between readers, perhaps particularly where humour is concerned, but it can be described accurately by thinking about emotion/attitude;
  • that the way tone is conveyed can be described accurately, by referring to the writer's choice of images, juxtaposition of words, and aural texture of words (also across bigger discourse structures and sound patterns, but that’s a lesson for another day...).

Extension Activities

  • Students could write a poem or short story or other piece about something they find contemptible in contemporary society
  • or something called 'The Applicant' about a situation in which they feel judged by society's expectations
  • Watch the 2003 film, Sylvia (15)

Further Reading

  • 'You're' by Sylvia Plath: a poem addressed to an unborn child, for a little more levity than one might expect of Plath (though not without its undercurrents)
  • Some students will enjoy reading Plath's novel The Bell Jar

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