Sylvia Plath

Fever 103° by Sylvia Plath

‘Fever 103°’ by Sylvia Plath speaks on complex themes common to her work. The speaker contemplates her guilt and innocence and where she belongs after death.

This poem was published after Plath’s death in Ariel, in 1965 but ‘Fever 103°’ was written three years earlier in 1962. This was only the second book that Plath had published of her poetry. The first, The Colossus and Other Poems appeared three years before her death by suicide in 1960. She had by the time of her death become fairly well-known in literary circles. Her marriage to Ted Hughes and subsequent separation was one element that contributed to this fact. 

Like the majority of Plath’s poems, the speaker is considered to be a woman. As a confessional poet, Plath often used her experiences within her own verse. Her personal life serves, for many scholars as a source of context for her poetry. But, readers should be careful in over asserting the personal details of Plath’s life and trying to connect them with themes and images presented in this poem or any other that she wrote. 

Fever 103° by Sylvia Plath


Summary of Fever 103°

Fever 103°’ by Sylvia Plath is a very complex and powerful poem that speaks on themes of desire, purity, freedom, and women’s rights/independence.

The poem is composed of a series of images that take the reader into the speaker’s state of mind. She is at first filled with guilt about her own sexual desires. She expresses the belief that even the flames of hell would not be able to clean her. But, as the poem progresses these changes. She comes to realize that she is in fact too pure for the world. She enters into a new mindset that allows her to ascend to her self-created paradise in the last lines. 

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of Fever 103°

Fever 103°’ by Sylvia Plath is an eighteen stanza confessional poem that is separated into sets of three lines, known as tercets. Aside from the standardized nature of the stanzas and number of lines, the poem is written in free verse. This means that there is no specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern that lasts from the first line to the last. There are only two examples of perfect end rhymes in the entire poem. 

Confessional poetry is incredibly personal. It contains information about the poet’s own life and often explores themes that quite hard to address. These include suicide, sex, any deep emotional response to one’s life, and mental illness. Plath is today the best-known of the confessional poets but others include Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. 


Literary Devices in Fever 103° 

Plath makes use of several literary devices in ‘Fever 103°’. These include but are not limited to simile and metaphor as well as an allusion. An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to the mind without directly stating it. There is a wonderful example in stanza four when the poet makes an allusion to Isadora Duncan, an American dancer. See the body of the analysis for more information on how this allusion works. 

A simile is a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”. A poet uses this kind of figurative language to say that one thing is similar to another, not like metaphor, that it “is” another. On the other hand, a metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. 

When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. The latter can be seen in the thirteenth stanza when the poet compares her “head” to the “moon,” allowing the reader to envision her in an entirely new light. The former, a simile, is even more prevalent. In the ninth stanza, she says that sin is “Greasing the bodies of adulterers / Like Hiroshima ash and eating in”. 


Analysis of Fever 103° 

Stanzas One and Two 

Pure? What does it mean?


Are dull, dull as the triple


Of licking clean

In the first two stanzas of ‘Fever 103°,’ the speaker asks rhetorical questions. She considers her own purity and if she even knows what it means to be “pure”. These two questions are what is known as a hook. They are meant to draw the reader in and encourage them to keep reading to find out what happens next. T=Plath does not disappoint as in the net lines she describes “The tongues of hell” as “dull”. This is an interesting way to depict the flames that blaze in hell. They are “dull” like the multi-headed god “Cereberus”. He is “incapable, the next line states, of “licking clean” the “sin”. 

These stanzas take the reader into the speaker’s mind. She is experiencing all-consuming guilt about her state of being. For some reason, she has been inspired to call not to question her purity. She feels as though in hell the flames wouldn’t even be capable of cleaning her of it. 


Stanzas Three and Four 

The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.


From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright

The next stanzas of ‘Fever 103°’ bring in various images related to hell. The wood burns, crying out as the fire moves through it. This is a great example of personification which makes the entire scene feel even more alive. There is an “indelible smell” of a “snuffed candle” as this all progresses. It is unforgettable, as if permanent. She is still describing her own body and mind and the fact that hell and its flames are unable to clean her. 

She repeats the word “love” in the fourth stanza. She is addressing someone important to her, imploring them to hear what she has to says. She uses a simile to compare the smoke rolling off her body to Isadora Duncan’s scarves. This is a complex use of figurative language that relates to an American dancer and her untimely death. One of her scarves was caught in the spokes of a car and strangled her to death. She was considered an impure woman and had prior to her death fled America due to press harassment. 


Stanzas Five and Six 

One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel,



But trundle round the globe

Choking the aged and the meek,

The weak

Plath’s speaker fears that some similar fate is going to befall her. A scarf might get caught in a car and break her neck as it broke Isadora’s. She also describes how in the process of her death by strangulations smoke is going to move around the world strangling others. This serious of violent images is an interesting and disturbing response to the speaker’s own sexuality. It might lead one to question the circumstances that brought her to this mental place.


Stanzas Seven and Eight 

Hothouse baby in its crib,


Radiation turned it white

And killed it in an hour.

In the next two stanzas of ‘Fever 103°,’ the speaker brings in colorful imagery—the leopard and the orchid. Neither of these is pleasant to her. The former is “devilish” and the latter is “ghastly”. They are impacted by the mysterious moving yellow smoke that results from the speaker’s own sins. 

She compares the smoke to an evil leopard that moves quickly and stealthily through the world. It dies, as does everything else in this poem (except for the speaker’s sins). This time, rather than by smoke, it is killed due to “Radiation”. This is expanded on, somewhat in the next stanzas. 


Stanzas Nine and Ten 

Greasing the bodies of adulterers

Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.


The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.

Now, tradition is the main killer of the poem. She references Hiroshima and the atomic bomb and its destruction. It is related directly to her own “sin”. By using repetition in the ninth stanza she is able to emphasize, as if distressed, the power of that sin. The sin is present on the ”bodies of the adulterers” is if ash from Hiroshima. It is all-consuming. 

She refers to her lover again in the tenth stanza. She describes for this person the way her body has been moving from hot to cold, off and on, all night. This is likely a depiction of the desire she feels that’s at the source of her sin. 


Stanzas Eleven and Twelve 

Three days. Three nights.


I am too pure for you or anyone.

Your body

Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern——

She tries to fix herself, subsisting only on “Lemon water, chicken” and “water”. The purity of the water does nothing for her but make her “retch,” another example of how incurable her sin is. It is here that the speaker moves from talking about impurity to talking about purity. 

She says that her body is “too pure for you or anyone”. She compares the way that she’s hurt to the way that the world “hurts God”. 


Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen 


Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.


Does not my heat astound you! And my light!


Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.

Now, floating away from the world, the speaker is a “moon” and a “paper” lantern. She is far above the physical pleasures of earth and made of a material that is “delicate and infinitely expensive”. She is “gold beaten”. But, this state of mind is soon to change again, reminiscent of the “off on” images of the previous stanzas. Now, she is sexually confident. Describing herself as a huge flower that is flushing with sexual arousal. The words “Going and coming” are also part of the sexual innuendo that fills this stanza of ‘Fever 103°’. 


Stanzas Fifteen and Sixteen 

I think I am going up,

I think I may rise——



Attended by roses,

Her purity and separation from mankind is taking her into a new space where she’s able to embrace her sexuality in a new way. She is rising up “going up” away from the earth in these stanzas of ‘Fever 103°’. 

She is, she says, an “acetylene  / Virgin”. Acetylene is an inflammable gas that is only explosive when it comes into contact with fire. The heat in these lines is part of the theme of lust that urns throughout. This woman is pure in her lack of dependence on men for pleasure. She is in charge of herself. 


Stanzas Seventeen and Eighteen 

By kisses, by cherubim,


Nor him, nor him

(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)——

To Paradise.

The speaker has fully embraced her lust and desire in the last stanzas of ‘Fever 103°’. She rises above the world to a “Paradise” that she created. There, the rules are different. She is able to escape from the religious structure of Plath’s society which deems sex and non-heterosexual married relationships as impure. She has shed a version of herself that was repressed and has now entered into a new life that sets her apart from the rest of the world. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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