Metaphors of mental states in the journals of Sylvia Plath

Demjen, Zsofia (2010). Metaphors of mental states in the journals of Sylvia Plath. In: 8th International Conference on Researching and Applying Metaphor (RaAM8), 30 Jun - 3 Jul 2010, Amsterdam, Netherlands.



The overarching aim of this study is to investigate how mental states can be conveyed linguistically in texts of a personal nature. Figurative language, in particular metaphor and metonymy, are generally understood to play an important role in the expression of such complex phenomena (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999; Kövecses, 2000). This paper therefore looks at the metaphors used to represent mental states in the Smith Journal of ‘The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath’. ‘Mental state’ here refers to various aspects of cognitive functioning, but the focus, in particular, is on mental states of affect i.e. those mental states that are intrinsically valenced (Ortony and Turner, 1990). The more general term was chosen to avoid issues of prototypicality. Sylvia Plath’s journal provides particularly rich data due to the writer’s linguistic creativity and documented mental health issues, the experience of which she continually explores. Specifically then, this paper aims to answer the following questions: Which metaphors are used to represent various mental states in the Smith Journal ? What is the potential significance of such a use of metaphors for the way mental states are represented in general?

Both qualitative and quantitative methodologies are employed in the investigation: the Wmatrix corpus tool (Rayson, 2008) is used to identify semantic fields that are potential source and target domains in order to obtain a comprehensive picture of metaphor use. In depth analysis is then conducted qualitatively on a sample of journal entries. The MIP procedure (Pragglejaz, 2007) is used for metaphor identification, and interpretations draw on research in other fields, especially psychology, on representations of affect. Metaphors of mental state are analyzed in terms of their implications for conveying a sense of intensity, personal control, and embodied location (where in the body are particular mental states located conceptually). In addition, the importance of metaphorical manifestations of a ‘split self’ are discussed.

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