Friday, May 20, 2011

Puella Aeterna: Little Girl Lost

The puella can be described as a fascinating woman with a free and childlike vitality.  Her presence lights up a room as she performs for the adulation and praise of others.  She does not like being restrained, enslaved to rules or convention, or inhibited in any way, particularly by reality.  Her freshness, indomitable energy, and zest for the unusual embody perpetual youth and creativity.  Naive fantasies of youth and beauty and power lift her out of daily life, which she considers dreary and common.  In this self-constructed world, she flees from her shadows, which represent the descent to earth necessary for actualizing the creativity and life that can make her whole.  A shadow side of puella manifests in narcissism and difficulty in taking herself seriously because she identifies as a girl, not as a woman.  Out of touch with her own femininity, even though she may look the part, she does not find satisfaction in being a woman and does not feel solid within herself.

The paradox is that the puella is driven by desires to be seen, to excel, and to be loved but not to be known intimately.  Her fantasy is that one day she will become this ideal self that she cannot achieve now because she flees from reality.  There is always a "but" preventing development or commitment because each situation is for the short term, and relationships are with others of similar bent.  She becomes bored easily and feels trapped, unaware of her own lack of self-knowledge.  Thus, her potential withers before it can ripen, because she has preferred the fantasy of perpetual youth to the reality of painful development.

The sense of fraudulence as an adult creates tension and dissatisfaction.  She exudes brittle, crystalline quality and an aura of aloofness behind which she exists in her own untouchable domain.  She is vulnerable, a terrified child for whom physical existence is a trial because bodily sensations are denied or ignored in order to avoid feeling and to protect from anything that is not part of her carefully constructed world.  Because the puella feels undeserving of love, which can be painful, she avoids the possibility of that pain.  This avoidance results in a lack of engagement, a restlessness, depersonalization, and inability to inhabit the present.  It is no surprise that the puella type experiences an inner emptiness that adds to the craving for acceptance and adoration in order to fill that void.

Emotional arrest keeps her behind glass, removed from her existence and the world.  She sidesteps the dark aspects of the self, which are threatening to her fragile sense of identity.  But the shadow exerts itself in the puella woman; she looks a part and functions well according to others, but she feels nothing is meaningful, and without meaning the experiences are nothing.  To make sure that neither she nor anyone else discovers this, she feigns confidence and composure that might come across as exhibitionist and grandiose, self-centered, even mean-spirited, narrowly ambitious, and envious.  This facade can seem harsh for it conceals the lack of capacity for intimacy and reciprocity in relationships.  Without a favorable image of herself, she has little basis for understanding others.  She has trouble giving because she feels she has nothing worthwhile to give, and she is unable to take a step back and respond with flexibility to other people's behavior.

The puella needs love and attention, yet she engages in deception of herself and others by putting on a performance and acting "as if".  She feels unlovable and experiences shame , vulnerability , and fear-- all based on a conviction of not being good enough.  The lack of basic trust and security leaves her chasing an ideal, through cosmetics, body shaping and other compulsive and negative thoughts and behaviors.  This self-absorption, however is actually a defense against self-intimacy and self-reflection.  Preserved in a state of suspended animation, the puella is not present for the moments or the hours of her life. 

The puella character is not easy to pin down because the elusiveness becomes reinforced as part of her charm.  Because she lacks a capacity or desire for realistic self-reflection, her image is distorted by the inability to connect with her core.  A dark shadow envelopes her creativity and expressiveness so that they can go nowhere; thus while the shadow is seen as frightening and not herself, it also contains the parts she needs to gain self-fruition.The problem is that when the potentiality of the psyche is not used it becomes perverted.  Wrapped in self-denial, she cannot access her own natural gifts.  Needing approval from others drives her competitive nature, but she must not threaten or surpass them as she fears being hated or excluded.  Therefore, she diminishes herself by holding back in one way or another that perversely supports the cultural bias against women who are healthily competitive and strong.

The hallmark of the puella is that she provisionally by hiding  in the shadows of disconnection, self-loathing, and disavowal of self-expression.  Although she is self-absorbed, she needs others to reflect back to her and to witness her life.  She wastes time and never does the thing that is always in the future, when time is ripe.

Little Girl Lost: Sylvia Plath and the Puella Aeterna
Susan E. Schwartz


  1. Very interesting article. Thanks for posting.

  2. this is all i have ever been, you described me better than my boyfriend, friends or parents...i do not know if you know this by experience or observed it a certain somebody, is touching, it touched me like no other text ever did. Thank you so, so much...

  3. I just had a visit from one of my college roommates from 45 years ago. She is the embodiment of the Puella. I was confused as to why she wanted to visit me, but I see now that she is witnessing her life and checking on former friends to find something - I'm not sure what - but this description was very helpful.