The Life of Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath’s life, like her manic depression, constantly jumped
between Heaven and Hell. Her seemingly perfect exterior hid a turbulent and
deeply troubled spirit. A closer look at her childhood and personal
experiences removes some element of mystery from her writings.
One central character to Sylvia Plath’s poems is her father, Professor
Otto Emile Plath.Otto Plath was diabetic and refused to stay away from foods
restricted by his doctor. As a result , he developed a sore on his left foot.
Professor Plath ignored the sore, and eventually the foot was overcome with
gangrene. The foot and then the entire left leg were amputated in an effort to
save his life, but he died in November of 1940, when Sylvia was just eight
The fact that her father could have prevented his death left Sylvia
Plath with a feeling of deliberate betrayal. Instead of reaching out to other
people for comfort, she isolated herself with writing as her only expressive
outlet, and remarkably had a poem published when she was only eight.
Plath continued prolific writing through high school and won a
scholarship to Smith College in 1950 where she met her friend Anne Sexton.
Sexton often joined Plath for martinis at the Ritz where they shared poetry and
intellectualized discussions about death. Although they were friends, there was
also an element of competition between Sexton and Plath. Sylvia Plath’s poem “
Daddy” was possibly a response to Anne Sexton’s “My Friend, My Friend.” It was
as if Plath was commenting that her writing skills were just a bit better than
Sexton’s. Sexton frequently would express to Robert Lowell in his poetry class
her dissatisfaction with Plath’s writing. She said that Plath “dodges the point
in her poetry and hadn’t yet found the form that belonged to her.” The
competitive nature of their relationship continued to the very end.
To all appearences, Plath appeared normal, her social life similar to
other middle class coeds.Many were attracted to Plath’s brilliant mind, but few
were aware of the inner torment that drove her to write, alienating her from
the rest of society.
Madamoiselle magazine awarded Plath a position as guest editor the
summer following her junior year at Smith. Friends and family were stunned at
her suicide attempt when she returned to college, most believing she had
suffered a nervous breakdown due to the stress at the magazine. Her treatment
was considered the best the medical world could offer and included electro-shock
and psychotherapies. Plath tells her side of the story in the poem Lady
Lazarus where she likens her experience to a victim of the Holocaust. But her
apparent recovery enabled her to return to graduate summa cum laude the
Ted Hughes met and fell in love with the writer while she continued her
studies at Cambridge on a Fulbright grant. Hughes was also a student at
Cambridge, and a fellow poet. The couple married four years later, and after a
short stay in the States, returned to England. After returning to London, Plath’
s first book of poetry, Colossus, was published in 1960. Plath’s best known
work, The Bell Jar was published following the birth of their second child.( Ted
Hughes, 52-66) The novel is semi-autobiographical, describing a young woman’s
tragic coming of age. The central character, a schoolgirl prodigy, Esther
Greenwood, makes her way to adulthood in spite of periodic mental breakdowns.
The Bell Jar is particularly poignant when Esther desrcibes her madness as ” .
..a bell jar, stifling and airless that descends without warning…”
Not long after the publication of The Bell Jar in1963, Ted Hughes and
Sylvia Plath split up. Plath was left caring for two children in a low-income
area of London during one of the coldest Novembers in centuries. She worked
between four and eight in the morning. Apparently being inspired by hardship,
Plath sometimes finished a poem every day. In her last poems, death is given a
cruel and physical allure and pain becomes tangiible. Leaving some food and
milk at the kitchen table for her children, she gassed herself to death.
Ironically, the woman Ted Hughes left Sylvia Plath for another woman that would
commit suicide by gas.
Posthumous Publications include : Ariel, published in 1965, inspired a
cult following. The poems were less uniform and more emotional than those
published in Colossus. Other volumes are :Crossing the Water ( 1971) , Winter
Trees (1971) , Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977) , and The Collected
Poems (1981) , which was edited by Ted Hughes.
At the funeral of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton said in a eulogy that she
and Plath had ” talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it
like moths to an electric light bulb.”
Ever since the 1700’s, suicide has been thought of, in some circles, a
romantic way to die ( i.e. Romeo and Juliet). Some individuals also think that
to take your own life will add to your artistic reputation.Johann Wolfgang von
Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Weather suggested that suicide is accepted from
those with artistic temperament because artists are supposedly more prone to
drug use, isolation, suicide, etc…
Every trip to the triumphant high points of Sylvia Plath’s life was
followed by a long stay in the bowels of Hell. Hell for Sylvia Plath was her
own fantasy playground that was demolished at a young and tender age. Maybe if
her gift were better known when she was alive, her life would have been more
fulfilling, but at least she is now at peace.
Hughes, Ted, and Fredrick McCullough. The Journals Of Sylvia Plath.
London: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath : Method and Madness. New York: The
Seabury Press, 1976.
” The Bell Jar “. Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Electronic
” Suicide “. Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia. Grolier Electronic
Publishing, 1995. Gilson,
William. Sylvia Plath Bio. http://home.interlynx.net/hecate/pbio.html