The Old “Bray” VS. “Brag” Thing

Oh, Sylvia.

Part of me likes to think she herself purposely created the controversy, so after her death she could send us all into a literary downward spiral, our fingers growing tired from online debates in forums, snatching up every copy of The Bell Jar each of us could find only to turn to that last page and know, once and for all, which word it is.

Well played, Ms. Plath, well played.

So yesterday I got some new ink, of that popular quote that constantly has everyone up in arms. And, like for so many others, it means something very special to me. But I didn’t just open up my copy of The Bell Jar and point; I did do some research online, exploring both sides of the controversy before I had the words branded on me for all eternity.

And this is what I took away from my browsing:

No one knows for sure, except Plath herself.

– If you search “brag”, Google tries to tell you you’re dumb:

Showing results for i listened to the old bray of my heart (Surely that’s what you actually meant to say.)

Good Reads agrees with “brag”:

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.”
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

– Some people here aren’t sure either way:

– And Peter Steinberg seems pretty damn sure it’s “brag”:

Of course this post is stemming from my annoyance by someone who told me to “do my research” because I am so obviously wrong, but instead of responding with “no moron, I’m right”, I’ll say to each, his own.

I like to think the correct quote is brag; but what if it is bray? Both words make sense.


1    [brey]



the loud, harsh cry of a donkey.

any similar loud, harsh sound.
Her heart very well could be making a loud, harsh sound; a bray. It’s making its presence known; it’s crying out.




to use boastful language; boast: He bragged endlessly about his high score.
verb (used with object)

to boast of: He bragged that he had won.
This makes sense, too; her heart is boastful, which it has every right to be. After all, it’s what’s keeping her alive. That “I am, I am, I am” is the chanting of her heart’s bragging rights.
In my opinion, “brag” also seems to make more sense in the context of the book; reaching the end of things, an epiphany maybe, after Joan’s funeral, that maybe not all is lost for Esther? It seems that the death of one of her best friends reminded her of how very alive she still is.
“There would be a black, six-foot deep gap hacked in the hard ground. That shadow would marry this shadow, and the peculiar, yellowish soil of our locality seal the wound in the whiteness, and yet another snowfall erase the traces of newness in Joan’s grave.
I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.
I am, I am, I am.”
And so, for me, the “brag” of my heart means something very special. It’s a constant reminder of how precious life is, even when there is no light. All I have to do it lay a hand across my chest and give a silent “thank you” to that ever boastful part of myself.
(And while hundreds of others are branded by the same words, it means just as much to them as it does to me, “brag” or “bray”.)
So there it is. Which version do you prefer?
Happy Thursday!


Filed under Uncategorized, Writing

32 responses to “The Old “Bray” VS. “Brag” Thing

  1. Bray is a more interesting word, evoking a visceral response. Here’s my take on it, borrowed from the great Scott Adams:

  2. Hahahahaha. How ironic! I do enjoy bray as well (it’s definitely interesting, and does sound very “Sylvia”), but brag means something more for me, personally. Thanks for reading, Morgan. 🙂

  3. Since it’s your ink, you get to pick what it means and it’s significance.
    Love you’re reasoning here, and the heart should definitely brag!

  4. I’m a bray man myself, as you say – personally I think it fits.

    Who’s right, who’s real, depends which way you are facing.


  5. As I said in some post possibly recently, this is one reason why I don’t get tattoos. My daughter has some entire Carl Sagan quote around her bellybutton, and it’s all… I …. ????

  6. I have no preference in this case, possibly because I have a tug of war with the book. I do believe that the subjects in it should be talked about over and over until people stop dismissing them, but being a woman of color, it upset me to read it almost from the beginning, and I have trouble letting that go even though there are other books with offensive bits in them that don’t irritate me quite so much.

    Trying to forget the book for a second, I feel a bit of a fist in the word brag, a good righteous fist. Bray sounds poetic in a different, genteel sort of way, but no less evocative. I’m glad you used the one that spoke to you. I think it’s a good line, too.

  7. Honestly, ‘bray’ just seems more her style.

  8. Cassidy

    In the book, it is written as “brag,” so you are correct!

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  12. Hark

    If you read Colossus and other poems by Plath you see that she likes to use animals and the noises they make in her poetry. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it was ‘bray’.

  13. I prefer brag, sylvia was prone to depression, I imagine the heart was ‘bragging’ at keeping her in her alive state

  14. I’ve only ever read it as “brag”… but since seeing it quoted as “bray” I’ve been wondering if the up-and-down, in-out-in-out-edness of “I am I am I am” hasn’t got a clear braying essence to it; a beating, breathing, instinctive quality that’s more closely aligned to nature than human effort; the inescapable, unthinking ”livingness” of being alive that is less about choice and more about, well, just living. I’m voting for “bray”. Feels more Sylvia-esque to me.

  15. Michael Dawson

    Plath wrote it as brag, there is no copy of Bell Jar with bray. When you “research” on a search engine it will give you a response based upon the number of responses. This very discussion reinforces the chance that someone else will find bray as the top response when they “research” the issue. I personally think bray is a better line, pity she didn’t write it. Plath acolytes are like all fanatics and will proclaim authentic lines based upon their special understanding of their idol regardless of a complete refutation in the gospel. If you like a line as written, cool, if you like it better as rewritten, also cool. The only thing we can be certain of is that Sylvia Plath is done with the matter…

  16. it’s the first time I came across Sylvia Plath, I had never heard of her before ( I dont live in the USA though, that’s might be why she never appeared on my radar…), thank you for bringing her to my attention. I clicked on the link in your post and read her biography and now I’m feeling a bit disturbed by the way she chose to end her life… 😦

    • Thank you for reading, Noemie! Her death truly is a tragedy (not to mention disturbing), but she lives on through her amazing writing. If you have a chance to read The Bell Jar, I highly recommend it. I envy her talent.

      • Yes she sounds like a very interesting writer, with a lot of depht and texture. what about her poetry? What would you recommend to start with? 🙂

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  18. Agne

    In Italian they transaled “vanteria” which is “bray”..and is also a sophisticated word. I loved it very much. But reading around about “brag” make me think like “this poor heart struggling”. It’s also nice, more concrete.
    Anyway I don’t hunderstand the reason of this doubt. What did the first edition of the book say? Or maby is a problem of Plath’s calligraphy itself?

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  21. Rob

    But what does your copy of the book say? I never heard brey until I googled the quote and was corrected by Google itself. I don’t own the book, just love the line. Either way.

    • Hi Rob! My copy of the book says brag – for me it was also online that I found out there are supposedly versions that say “bray”. And yes I agree – it’s a beautiful line either way!

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