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Fever 103

Sylvia Plath

Key ideas 

The key ideas of this poem are vulnerability and victimhood as well as liberation through death.


Plath’s Fever 103° offers an insight into the way she viewed herself arguably more than any other poem. In it, she describes a moment of vulnerability, and the self-reflection it prompts. 


The rhetorical questions that make up the first line, ‘Pure? What does it mean?’ introduces Plath’s self-doubt and her questioning of her own self-worth. The infernal imagery, ‘The tongues of hell,’ is used by Plath to describe the intensity of her fever as like being in hell – that she intentionally uses hellish imagery to describe her anguish signals how she views herself. Through ‘Cerberus…. / Incapable / Of licking clean.’ Plath conveys how not even the guardian of Hell can aid her (Cerberus is a three-headed dog from Greek mythology who stands watch at the gates of Hell). The grotesque imagery, ‘The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.’ Furthers the contempt she views herself with. In ‘From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright / One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel.’ Plath references the death of the famous dancer Isadora, who was killed during a performance gone wrong; Plath is expressing her fear that her art will similarly result in her demise.

She employs apocalyptic and eschatological (relating to the end of the world) imagery in her allusions to the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima ‘Radiation turned it white / And killed it in an hour. / Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like Hiroshima ash and eating in. / The sin. The sin.’ In order to further highlight the total destruction of self the illness is causing, and how her death might erase, or at least liberate, her from the guilt she feels. The fragility of her existence is captured in her metaphor of the candle, ‘I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.’ Her decaying form is described in the imagery ‘The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.’ There is a shift to a tone of defiance however, demonstrated in ‘I am too pure for you or anyone.’ And ‘Does not my heat astound you.’ That newfound confidence is furthered in ‘I think I am going up, / I think I may rise.’ Which has Christian overtones. With the single-word line ‘Virgin’ Plath contrasts the imagery of sin and punishment that has dominated her poem so far, capturing her constantly shifting sense of self.


The final two lines, ‘(My selves dissolving, / old whore petticoats) - / To paradise.’ Complete Plath’s journey from self-loathing to adoration, which embodies her feverish physical and mental state (and can be understood to offer an insight into her mental state more broadly – specifically, her battle with bipolar disorder). 


Throughout Fever 103° Plath clearly articulates her shifting sense of self, and how a moment of vulnerability brings into focus her personal moral failings and the pessimism with which she views her destiny. 

quote table

‘Not him, nor him, / (My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats) - / To Paradise.’
Biblical allusion
Resolution of self
‘All by myself I am a huge camellia / Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.’
Allusion, Metaphor
Understanding of self
‘I am a lantern - / My head a moon / Of Japanese paper’
Enjambment, Metaphor
Fragility of self
‘Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like Hiroshima ash and eating in. / The sin. The sin.’
Simile, Allusion, Repetition
Impact of illness on the self
‘Choking the aged and the meek, / The weak’
Imagery, Rhyme
Impact of illness on the self
‘The tinder cries. / The indelible smell / Of a snuffed candle!’
Aural and olfactory imagery
Impact of illness on the self
‘Are dull, dull as the triple / Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus / Who wheezes at the gate.’
Simile, Allusion
Impact of illness on the self

Plath Poetry


Nick and the Candlestick

A Birthday Present


Lady Lazarus

The Arrival of the Beebox

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