This short adaptation of the Cinderella fairy tale focuses on the moment when Cinderella dances with Prince Charming at the ball.
In Plath's telling, the prince leans into the girl with her scarlet heels, green eyes, and "fan / Of silver" hair as they dance together and the violins play. Guests glide about while candles flicker on the walls, reflecting in the wine glasses of the happy partygoers.
The couples dance together "in whirling trance." At twelve, the girl suddenly becomes "guilt-stricken," and clings to her prince as she hears the "caustic" clock tick amid the music and the chatter.
"Cinderella" is a short poem from what has been deemed Plath's "Juvenilia" period. These poems were written in the three or four years before 1956, most of them while she was at Smith College, and many of them for class assignments. Most of these poems were not initially published, and as Plath's husband Ted Hughes wrote in his introduction to the Pulitzer Prize-winning volume The Collected Poems, she had put them "firmly behind her and would have certainly never published them herself." Hughes noted that these early poems were, at their best, distinctive and complete even though they ring slightly artificial. However, he believed they "are always lit with her unique excitement" and have a sense of "deep mathematical inevitability in the sound and texture of her lines." They featured "an enclosed cosmic circus," and were rife with powerful symbols and images.
One of the most eloquent scholars on Plath, Stephen Gould Axelrod, wrote that her Juvenilia stage revealed her preoccupations even at the early stage of her career. His thoughts on the early poems certainly resonate with "Cinderella." He notes that the early poems confront the "contradictory notions of femininity that circulated through American culture in the 1950s: sexual decorum in conflict with desire; vocational achievement at odds with heteronormative romance." An early poem like "To Eve Descending the Stair" delineates Plath's discomfort with the type of woman who remained frozen and perfect, denying sexuality, time, and change. This poem, like "Cinderella," is a poem about "the dilemmas of female subjectivity," reflecting the classical problems of war and peace. They were also indicative of Plath's growing awareness of the limits of figuration - even in these early poems, she began to use metaphor and imaginative constructs, thus foreshadowing her more sophisticated use of such elements in her mature work.
So what of the sweet "Cinderella"? It appears to be a mere retelling of the moment in which Cinderella dances with her prince and hears the clock chime midnight, thus signaling the end of her magical evening. Even were this all the poem offered, Plath offers an effectively atmospheric adaptation in it. She is masterful at creating the sense of movement that Cinderella feels, through the use of words like "reels," "revolving," "slide," "gliding," and "whirling." She also sets the glamorous and romantic mood through images of candles flickering, "gilded couples," a glass hall, and sparkling wineglasses. If nothing else, she captures the glorious fairytale atmosphere that has captivated little girls for centuries.
However, despite the beauty and putative lightness of the scene, the specter of the chiming clock hangs over the poem, much like the clock in Edgar Allen Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" portends doom for his revelers. Cinderella, who is immersed in dancing, hears the clock chiming in its "caustic" manner, thus signaling that her time is up. She "clings to the prince" and becomes pale and "guilt-stricken." Most readers know what comes next: she tears herself away from him and retreats quickly, leaving only a slipper.
There are two elements, though, that confound the generally simplistic telling. The first is the adjective "guilt-stricken," which makes Cinderella into a criminal in her own mind. She has not captured the glory that she is owed, but rather considers herself an usurper, a cheat. It is definitely possible to use a feminist interpretation, in that the woman feels guilty for attempting to capture the man she loves. Secondly, Plath changes the slipper's quality, from gold to scarlet. This shift makes the slipper seem more contemporary, which also makes it possible to read the poem as more of a comment on contemporary woman than as simply an atmospheric adaptation.
Some critics have even posited that the poem attempts much more than the basic story. They comment that the clock, which is a symbol for the passing of time, is hearkening not only the end of Cinderella's evening, but the imminent arrival of old age. Indeed, one of Plath's most frequent concerns in her poetry is the fear over the loss of youth and beauty (see "Mirror"), and this poem may very well be alluding to that same theme. Axelrod reads more autonomy into the titular character, commenting that "the outsider protagonist liberates herself from feminine stereotype, gaining more in autonomy than she loses in social standing and sensual gratification." He is perhaps referring to her assumption of a new self that, while interested in attaining the favor of a prince, was also a very public and independent figure, and one that did not shy away from engaging in the activities that were most pleasurable and absorbing. Of course, even if one takes this direction in interpreting the poem, it is undeniable that Plath has not yet mastered her ability to capture such contradictions and complications with ease and subtlety.