Sylvia Plath Forum

Poetry Analysis/ Discussion

The Thin People
They are always with us, the thin people
Meager of dimension as the gray people

On a movie-screen. They
Are unreal, we say:

It was only in a movie, it was only
In a war making evil headlines when we

Were small that they famished and
Grew so lean and would not round

Out their stalky limbs again though peace
Plumped the bellies of the mice

Under the meanest table.
It was during the long hunger-battle

They found their talent to persevere
In thinness, to come, later,

Into our bad dreams, their menace
Not guns, not abuses,

But a thin silence.
Wrapped in flea ridden donkey skins,

Empty of complaint, forever
Drinking vinegar from tin cups: they wore

The insufferable nimbus of the lot-drawn
Scapegoat. But so thin,

So weedy a race could not remain in dreams,
Could not remain outlandish victims

In the contracted country of the head
Any more than the old woman in her mud hut could

Keep from cutting fat meat
Out of the side of the generous moon when it

Set foot nightly in her yard
Until her knife had pared

The moon to a rind of little light.
Now the thin people do not obliterate

Themselves as the dawn
Grayness blues, reddens, and the outline

Of the world comes clear and fills with color.
They persist in the sunlit room: the wall paper

Frieze of cabbage-roses and cornflowers pales
Under their thin-lipped smiles,

Their withering kingship.
How they prop each other up!

We own no wildernesses rich and deep enough
For stronghold against their stiff

Battalions. See, how the tree boles flatten
And lose their good browns

If the thin people simply stand in the forest,
Making the world go thin as a wasp's nest

And grayer; not even moving their bones.

I agree with most of you. The Thin People by Sylvia Plath was originally written about the World War II generation that observed, or carried, out the Holocaust. (Jack Folsom and Melissa Dobson had good points to bring up.)

This poem was composed in 1957, and it can be seen as Plath's commentary on anti-Semitism and Roosevelt's cabbage-roses-and-cornflower wallpapered America. Yes, The Thin People also detests the self-victimization of the Jewish talent to preserve in thinness. Plath sees everyone in violation of each other.

I agree that this poem sees the Jews as greedy in their withering kingship and the rest of the world at fault for saying they are unreal. The war is over here, so no one is abusing one another with guns. No, they just carry the weight of what has happened with them always as it slowly becomes as still as the gray people in an old photograph.

However, Sylivia Plath was right to assume that the memory of The Thin People, or Holocaust victims, would become grayer and more still over time. The last line of the poem reads, And grayer, not even moving their bones.

Which brings up a second unintentional, yet equally fascinating, implication to this poem. Plath begins in her first line by saying; They are always with us, the thin people. The use of the word us engages the reader to believe that the speaker is involving her (or him) in the text. What than becomes questionable to the modern viewer is who are the thin people? In todays Western society most people no longer face the trials of the holocaust. We are a post holocaust generation that sees films like Life is Beautiful or Schindler's List, but do not go to sleep at night in the same reality as portrayed in those films.

In 2003 the thin people are on every major television network, every part of the American music industry, most magazines and all of the modeling industry (like Jenny Kay pointed out). What's happening is that a new propaganda has spread telling women and men that there is an ideal body to live up too. As a result society manufactures addictions to thinness, and praises the result in a greedy withering kingship (the same kingship that Melissa Dobson brought up).

Devices to make one self-thinner are used, like drinking vinegar as diets to flush out the system like a laxative are encouraged. Even when thinness is achieved, it is perfected on computers so that one might say that it is unreal. Loads of people die everyday from eating disorders without the use of guns or physical abuse, but silence is to blame.

Silence is what both of these two generations have in common. They're both quiet in their thinness. The speaker takes us to both realities where the thin would not round; where the small and famished are empty of complaint. It begins with a hunger battle over an already weedy race. No matter if these people were going into the trains to the death camps or the Chicago El during rush hour, both are alike in their willingness to suffer. Like Melissa Dobson said, they wear, the insufferable nimbus of the lot drawn Scapegoat.

The Thin People are described in terms of their own volition, because starvation is seen here as genocide against the self. They are silent because they welcome, as Melissa Dobson pointed out again, the attention as sure as the old woman in her mud hut is compelled to, cut fat meat out of the side of the generous moon.

This is where Sylivia Plath's The Thin People have gotten us. There are no victims here, not entirely, because in this world victims eventually victimize themselves. See how wrong it was of the Nazis to build camps for people. Though see how the people in the camps, once released, kept on living as if they never left. Look at our modern society and how it pushes that the natural body isn't up to the highest standard, but see also how wrong it is to believe it. Whenever there are two sides, there are two wrongs. This is the speaker's point at the time the poem was written, and it stands true today.

Kat Seno
Chicago, USA
Monday, April 21, 2003

Thin people is a poem which speaks about a problem which haunts us today, as it did for Sylvia when she wrote it.

I believe Thin People is a reflection of the superficial nature of people, too afraid to be real, starving themselves of any real feeling, emotion or life. This idea beautifully encompasses the superficial woman that society has created - the thin, half starved models in our advertising and movies and which we are forced to aspire to if we wish to be perceived as "beautiful". It is a sad reflection of how we suffer to be accepted, how we half live, to live and how pathetic this situation really is.

The sad thing is, the problem existed when Sylvia was a young woman. She wanted to experience life, and voice her opinions to be truly alive, to do so she needed to by being truly creative which was not completely acceptable for a woman of her time, and today forty odd years later, the problem still exists. Society is still screaming her demands at us, restricting our creative voice, and humane character with her petty little demands of our minds and bodies.

I can truly empathise with Sylvia in many ways. A mother of three, I fear more than anything that my creative mind will die, and that domestic life will drown and suffocate the real life out of me. I try to fight the impersonal, superficial life around me, and be truly happy within myself, but am fighting a daily battle as I believe Sylvia did. Thank God, it is now acceptable to be a mother and work full time or I believe my mind would drown in the " foul, caustic air" of domestic prison.

Jenny Kay
Adelaide, Australia
Wednesday, October 3, 2001

In response to the anorexia comment... whether Plath knew it or not, 'The Thin People' is an *amazingly* anorexic poem, if you look at it the right way. Seeing skeletal women on TV, that impression in your head. "Their talent to perservere in thinness" -- the power of anorexia. It can't stay a faraway oddity, it comes and it stays, so confusing, no answers, just a thin silence. The silence, persistence, muted fury, visible pain of the anorexic.I don't think I'm stretching it. As an anorexic myself, the first time I read this poem I knew it was obviously about Holocaust victims, famished races, starvation of war... but the subtext, to me, was screaming. The kind of curious, brutal mystery attatched to their thinness. the half-glorification of starvation.

If anyone wants to discuss, e-mail me.

Thursday, May 17, 2001

I base the following observation based entirely on reading the analysis on this page, especially the steps/mica part, that Thin People is about a broken affair with a Jewish boy @ college and therefore angry but not nasty? Pure speculation I know! I don't have an e-mail as yet but will have soon. Sylvia mentions me in one of her poems (Gabriel), I'm so proud of that! I have only just discovered your site but I want to come back

London, England
18th March 2000

I lean toward the view of Jack Folsom, that the Thin People were the Silent Generation of Americans, and not necessarily the Holocaust victims. Strangely, and consistent with brilliant poetry, the Thin People could be many types: Holocaust victims, even Nazis ramrod straight and cruel, as well as the "bureaucrats" who carried out the Holocaust, consistent with the views of Hannah Arendt, ie the "banality of evil."

James Rice
Arlington, TX, USA
Tuesday, January 25, 2000

I would go further than Stewart Clarke in describing the attitude of the speaker toward her subject as annoyance -- I would call it contempt. "The Thin People," the title of which is a euphemism for the victims of the Nazi death camps, is a poem about racism, specifically anti-Semitism; the thin people and the Jews can, I think, be seen as synonymous therein.

The poem can be seen as Plath's commentary on the anti-Semitic context out of which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in the early 1950s, the starting point for the events of The Bell Jar. The poet adopts the detached, disdainful voice of the poem as easily as Esther Greenberg slips into Elly Higginbottom in Plath's novel; she's taking on a stance that was pervasive at the time. The cabbage-roses-and-cornflowers wallpaper of the poem's sunlit room can be seen as the sham optimism of Eisenhower's America -- here is a country that emerged from World War II as a liberating power, a beacon of righteousness, only to descend into race riots and McCarthyism.

The people who make up Plath's social drama in The Bell Jar ooze hypocrisy, and Plath achieves her superior, cynical stance by seeing them for what they are. The speaker of "The Thin People" detests what she considers to be the self-victimization of the Jews, "their talent to persevere/In thinness"; no oppressor besides themselves is named here. This view, the extreme of which seeks to deny that the Holocaust ever occurred, sees this "weedy race" as culpable in their own horrific fate; this people, the attitude goes, got on those trains quietly, "empty of complaint," willing to wear "the insufferable nimbus of the lot-drawn/Scapegoat." How different they are from us! Notice how the speaker describes the thin people in terms of their own will, their own volition -- "they famished and/Grew so lean and would not round/Out their stalky limbs again" -- as if they had perpetrated genocide against themselves. The thin people are greedy in their "withering kingship" -- they want to "contract . . . the head" with their "stiff battalions," sure as the old woman in her mud hut is compelled to "cut fat meat/Out of the side of the generous moon."

It is this perceived greed, perhaps, that is the real source of the speaker's complaint against the thin people. They "do not obliterate/Themselves," she says with a subtlety that is indeed curious, though the statement is not at all far removed from Mr. Kurtz's "Exterminate the brutes!" in Konrad's Heart of Darkness. Is The Thin People an effective poem? I think as far as it showcases Plath's ironic stance and illuminates the social context of the time, it is.

As Stewart mentioned, Nazi-era imagery will reappear in the Ariel poems to quite different effect; the language here shows hints of what's to come. And yet the poem seems flat, "thin" itself, and rather enervated. I see these early works as raw materials laid out on a table, fully and adeptly formed though as yet untouched by the terrible bolt of electricity that will strike with Ariel.

Melissa Dobson
Newport RI, USA
13th May 1998

The Thin People" is an example of what both Hughes and Alvarez term the "apprentice" Plath, whose chaotic depths are never allowed to disturb the glass-like surface composure of her poems, yet give tantalizing hints of the daemon lurking beneath. This quality, spiced with the luxury of hindsight, makes for an extremely curious poem.

I concur with Anja Beckmann; it is clear that the origin of "the thin people" lies in Plath's childhood memories of the horrific newsreels documenting the Nazi concentration camps that so shocked the world and from which her contemporaries were still attempting to recover: the emaciated survivors, the dead stacked like matchsticks.

Meager of dimension as the grey people// On a movie screen. They/ are unreal, we say:/ It was only in a movie, it was only/In a war making evil headlines when we// were small . . We can see in this poem a foreshadowing, a stirring, of the Nazi imagery that will reach full flower five years later in "Ariel," which, significantly, was written on the heels of the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem and his execution on May 31, 1962, a prolonged media event that riveted the attention of the entire world as the full, detailed horror of the Nazi extermination machine and what Hanna Arendt would call "the banality of evil" seared itself into the collective imagination.

However, whereas in "Ariel," Plath will wholeheartedly identify herself with the Holocaust victims, in "The Thin People," a curious thing occurs. Plath adopts a tone of annoyance! The poet resents "the thin people," the mere existence of whom undermines her carefully constructed facade of plump prosperity and pastel perfection, her wallpapered "(f)rieze of cabbage roses and cornflowers." Her diction is delicately hostile, daintily mocking: "stalky limbs . .. Wrapped in flea ridden donkey skins,// Empty of complaint, forever/ Drinking vinegar from tin cups . . . so weedy a race . . . How they prop each other up!" Typically Plathian, what sets out to be an elegiac lyric becomes a weirdly comic poem in which the poet bemoans such sordid inconveniences as hunger, genocide, poverty --- these things have no place within the poet's tongue-in-cheek Wordsworthian bower of "tree boles" and pink sunrises. Plath's self-conscious Romantic persona is of course doomed at every turn by! the constant assault of harsh reality's "stiff battalions" storming her "stronghold" (no doubt decorated with hearts and blue birds: cf. Hughes' "Totem") with a mute, eloquent stare. The sadistic, Coleridgean Plath is once again busily subverting her own best attempts to make all right with the world.

The poem, like all of Plath's poems, is about Plath herself, as much as she would like to hide behind a masking "we." One can see in the piece's central conflict a clear parallel to the dire struggle between the vivacious, All-American Alpha girl (sheaf of poems and new husband both packed neatly inside matching Samsonite suitcases) and the frightened, suicidal, Plutonic persona lurking underneath. Use of irony in Plath is always an apotropaion, or "evil eye," to keep darkness at bay, a mode of psychic self-defense lying at the root of the carefully masked hostility and chilling horror just rippling the surface of these strange, arch verses. The "thin people," who "could not remain in dreams,/ Could not remain outlandish victims// In the contracted country of the head," are the very same specters who haunt Plath's own nightmares --- the "dreams of deformed and tortured people" which Plath identifies as "guilty visions" connected with her father's death (Journals, p. 301). The poem's Wordsworth/Coleridge dichotomy is telling here, too, in that Plath has been setting up house with her new poet-husband in the English countryside (prior to their move to America) --- she wishes, perhaps, to be living a pastoral "Tintern Abbey" and her daemonic "thin people," a blight against Wordsworthian nature, effectively thrust her into "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Thus, the "thin people" are, in a deep sense, Plath herself, in a multiplicity of image reminiscent of the surrealistic climax of Orson Welles' 1948 film classic "The Lady from Shanghai" --- Plath as the luminous Rita Hayworth, trapped in the Crazy House/Hall of Mirrors, desperately blasting a pistol to defend herself but merely shattering her own grotesque, fractured reflection.

Stewart Clarke
New York, USA
12th May 1998

Yes, Charlotte Crofts shows very convincingly how the Holocaust victims haunt our dreams and spill over into real life. What I was trying to say with my own comments is that the rising tide of dehumanization that first came with the horrors of the Nazi era and then with the pressures for lockstep conformity of the masses after WWII was deeply disturbing to Sylvia, who feared being sucked in to the dehumanizing process and becoming a thin person in the spiritual and imaginative sense. One might say that the trend towards mind control in the post WWII era through images in the media and corporation-pleasing assembly lines for men (not yet women then) in grey flannel suits was for Aldous Huxley among others (including me) in his Brave New World Revisited a chilling parallel to the mind control of the Nazi era. The horror of the Holocaust is even worse when one then sees the pattern of mind control continuing into our own times, complete with more genocides and so-called "human rights violations," a code-phrase for hiding any visual image of the actual brutality.

But it's the mental brutality, generating "thinness" of spirit, that's almost as bad as the physical brutality. Too many of us are being taught not to care about the welfare of others. Alongside the spectacle of corporate downsizing we also have community downsizing -- a pathway leading to the psychic concentration camps of the bright new millenium. Cheerio!

Jack Folsom
Sharon, Vermont, US
8th May 1998

Though it is possible to see the 'thin people' as a reference to the grey masses of people that colourful imaginative people like Sylvia have to fight against, I always used to interpret this poem more in terms of the holocaust and concentration camp horrors.

Those photos of terribly thin people walking out of Buchenwald after the camp inhabitants had freed themselves, or some even too weak to walk, those images had haunted me in my dreams after I had first seen them in a history lesson. I think that Sylvia could be referring to the Holocaust victims here, haunting her, she tries to tell herself that

Sylvia was a child during the war, she must have seen pictures of the war when she was young. I believe she is trying to come to terms with life after the Holocaust in this poem.

I found a paper by Charlotte Crofts that argues in this way, only much more eloquent than myself, you can read it online at

Jack, what do you think?

Anja Beckmann
Leipzig, Germany
7th May 1998

"The Thin People," composed in 1957 and recorded at Harvard in the spring of 1958, was also known as "The Moon Was a Fat Woman Once." To me, Sylvia's thin people are reminiscent of T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" -- what we often refer to today as "suits" rather than real people. The thin people are a joyless menace to those who embrace life -- "their menace/ Not guns, not abuses,// But a thin silence./ Wrapped in flea-ridden donkey skins,..." And in the original draft that I saw at Smith College, Sylvia had these lines following: "and bits of burlap, squatting together on granite steps where the mica glinted at noonday like broken glass -- famous for their scantness." They are the dehumanizers just by being themselves dehumanized, like living anti-life. "Their withering kingship./ How they prop each other up!" Then Sylvia had added in the draft: "They outnumber us in the towns and cities."

At the same time that Sylvia wrote this poem, we who were the Gen-X'ers of the 1950s were referred to as "The Silent Generation," too apathetic and/or complaisant to make waves as the young people did later, in the 1960s. Sylvia offers her own sharp contrast to the thin people in her delightful myth about the old woman cutting fat meat from the side of the moon.

Always remember too that one of Sylvia's most dreadful fantasies was the loss of her own imagination as she sank into domestic drudgery.

Jack Folsom
Sharon, Vermont, US
29th April 1998

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