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Sylvia Plath

The Applicant

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1963

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Summary and Study Guide


“The Applicant” (1963) is a free-verse poem by American writer Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). It embodies Confessional poetry, which is a personal style of writing that uses self-exploration and intimate experiences as means of expression. “The Applicant” is also an example of feminist literature: Written right after Plath discovered that her husband, Ted Hughes, was having an affair, the poem criticizes the institution of marriage and the treatment of women in it through the use of an extended metaphor, one in which a man shops for a wife who is then sold to him as an object that can serve any function he needs or desires. Specifically, Plath compares the experience of women to that of a sold object, and she discusses the way women can lose their identity within a traditional, patriarchal marriage, as was typical during the early 1960s. The poem is a prototypical Confessional poem from this era, exploring themes of personal trauma and identity while situating itself within the broader context of 1950s and 1960s patriarchy and consumerism. The poem is one of Plath’s more well-known poems, and it has been the subject of many interpretations and critical analyses since its publication.

Poet Biography

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. Plath was a writer and an artist from an early age, publishing her first poem when she was eight. She had a typical childhood until she was eight and her father died of complications from surgery. Her father’s death had a monumental effect on her for the rest of her life, and she made this event the subject of many of her poems.

Plath was exceptionally smart and excelled in school. She attended Smith College in 1950, where she edited The Smith Review and graduated summa cum laude. Her writing also earned her a position as a guest editor at Mademoiselle, where she spent a month in New York City. This experience makes up a large portion of the opening of her novel The Bell Jar (1963), arguably Plath’s most well-known work.

It was during this time that Plath made her first documented suicide attempt, though she experienced depression and suicidal ideation when she was younger as well. Her experiences with depression would last for the rest of her life, and she would undergo a number of medical treatments, including therapy, medication, and electroshock therapy.

After college, Plath moved to England, where she continued to study, write, and publish. She met the poet Ted Hughes, whom she married in 1956. The couple would eventually have two children.

Plath and Hughes traveled extensively and both continued to write during their marriage. Plath also spent some time teaching during the late 1950s, though she found it difficult to continue writing while teaching. In 1961, Plath had a miscarriage, an event that had a lasting effect on her. She accused Hughes of beating her two days before the miscarriage.

Later in 1961, Plath discovered that Hughes had been cheating on her, and the couple separated. It was during this time that Plath wrote most of her best poetry and published her novel The Bell Jar under a pseudonym. It was also during this time that Plath experienced an increase in depressive episodes, and on February 11, 1963, Plath died by suicide. She was 30 years old.

Plath became famous after her death as her poetry and novel became powerful testaments of trauma, psychological experience, and the experiences of women during the 1950s and 1960s. She became a feminist icon, and many critics consider her one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century.

Poem Text

Plath, Sylvia. “The Applicant.The London Magazine, 17 Jan. 1963. Poetry Foundation.


The poem opens with an unnamed speaker asking the applicant whether he is “our sort of person” (Line 1). The speaker asks if the applicant wears any prosthetics or has any missing body parts. Without waiting for a reply, the speaker asks, “Then / How can we give you a thing?” (Lines 6-7). However, the speaker then instructs the applicant to open his hand. He says that the man’s hand is empty, but the speaker offers a hand that can fill it.

The speaker says that he has a hand that will be willing to “bring teacups and roll away headaches / And do whatever you tell it” (Lines 12-13). He then asks the man whether he will marry what is offered while continuing to make promises about “it” (Line 13) saying he guarantees “it” (Line 13) will close the man’s eyes when he dies and then dissolve away in tears as “it” (Line 13) cries over the man’s dead body. The speaker then claims that they make new products from the salt of these tears.

The speaker then shifts gears, pointing out that the applicant is naked and in need of a suit. He tries to sell the man a suit that he claims may be “[b]lack and stiff” (Line 21) but is indestructible and will fit the man even in his grave.

Once more, the speaker shifts gears, telling the man that his head is empty but that there is a product for this emptiness. The speaker calls for the “it” (Line 13) that he spoke of at the beginning of the poem to come out of the closet, and he tells the man that she too is naked. However, he explains that over time, she will become as valuable as silver and gold. She will be a living doll for the man, one who will do anything for him, including sewing, cooking, and talking. The speaker says that the wife will cover any of the speaker’s wounds and act as something pretty to look at whenever he wishes. He concludes the sales pitch by telling the applicant that the wife is his “last resort” (Line 39) and repeats the question/demand, “Will you marry it, marry it, marry it” (Line 40).