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date: 04 March 2021

Plath, Sylviafree

(27 October 1932–11 February 1963)
  • Linda Wagner-Martin

Plath, Sylvia (27 October 1932–11 February 1963), writer, was born in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, the older child of Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober. Her father was a professor of German and entomology (a specialist on bees) at Boston University; her mother, a high school teacher, had been his student. Both parents valued learning, and Sylvia and her brother Warren, born two years later, were encouraged to excel intellectually. In 1940 Otto Plath died of complications from surgery after his leg had to be amputated because of diabetes mellitus. When Aurelia Plath secured a job teaching medical record keeping at Boston University, she moved the family to Wellesley, an upper-middle-class suburb of Boston, with the hope that the children would benefit from the good schools there. Living in a largely adult milieu, Sylvia was not unhappy. Studious and interested in art, she became sensitive, however, to the family’s financial worries.

When Plath was awarded a scholarship to attend Smith College, she was already a published poet, having written verse since childhood. In 1953, during the spring of her junior year, her talent as a writer won her a place on the college board of Mademoiselle magazine, which involved working in New York City for a month. The state of depression that was apparently endemic to her father’s family had troubled her during the previous winter and had been aggravated by her broken leg and a heavy class schedule; by the time of her New York stay, she was dangerously close to a breakdown. Returning home after having not been admitted to a summer creative writing course at Harvard, she became more deeply depressed and was given bipolar electroconvulsive shock treatments. In August Plath attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. Missing for two days, she was eventually found in the crawl space of her Wellesley home.

Following six months of intensive therapy and more shock treatments in McLean Hospital near Boston, Plath returned to Smith. In her senior year, she wrote an honors thesis on Dostoevski’s use of the double (one indication of her own interest in psychoanalysis) and in 1955 graduated summa cum laude in English. In her college years Plath had published widely, usually in magazines that paid well. But she was never free from a sense of financial need. Having won a Fulbright Fellowship to study English at Newnham College, Cambridge, she sailed for England in the fall of 1955.

Plath worked hard at Cambridge. As her fiction from that time shows, however, she was angered and obsessed by the cultural acceptance of a double standard for men and women. One of the freedoms she claimed for herself was the right to have the same range of sexual experience that men had. She thought it should be possible to combine a normal sexual life with the keenest of intellectual pursuits. When she met Ted Hughes, a Cambridge-educated poet, she felt that she could realize her ideals with him. The two were married in London in June 1956. After a honeymoon in Spain and an autumn spent pretending they were not married for fear that Plath would lose her fellowship, the Fulbright committee allowed them to set up housekeeping for the spring term. Plath passed her examinations for her B.A. degree, while Hughes taught in a boys’ school.

During the 1957–1958 academic year, Plath taught freshman English at Smith. When Hughes’s first collection of poems, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), won a major prize, Plath’s promise that she would make him a success by typing, submitting, and editing all his work seemed fulfilled. But giving such single-minded attention to Hughes’s work made developing her own voice difficult, and in 1958–1959 they lived meagerly in Boston, both writing professionally. She looked for ways to increase her own imaginative power and visited Robert Lowell’s Boston University class in poetry writing, where she met George Starbuck and Anne Sexton. Sexton’s work was an inspiration to Plath, much of whose later poetry and fiction benefited from the example of Sexton’s candor and ways of rendering female themes. Plath also worked part time as a secretary at the psychiatric division of Massachusetts General Hospital, transcribing patients’ histories, which often included dreams. Some of her strongest fiction—“Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” and “The Daughters of Blossom Street”—resulted from this experience.

Plath also continued therapy with the woman psychiatrist who had helped her after her breakdown in 1953. The year in Boston was helpful for a number of what Plath saw as her problems, but it also convinced Hughes that he would never be content living in the United States. After spending the autumn of 1959 at Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, the couple returned to England.

For a time, Plath was happy. She was writing good poems (“The Colossus” had just been completed at Yaddo, where she had also discovered Theodore Roethke’s work), and she was pregnant. In addition, she completed most of what she considered her “pot-boiler,” The Bell Jar, the story of a woman’s life from adolescence on, ending with a positive resolution, a rebirth, rather than in the stasis of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, which inspired it.

A year after the birth of their first child, Frieda, in April 1960, the couple moved out of their cramped, expensive flat in London and settled in a manor house in North Tawton in Devon. Both Plath and Hughes thought their writing was progressing well. Hughes had more public acclaim; he wrote programs for the BBC, had his work published by Faber & Faber, and was in contact with T. S. Eliot and other important British poets. But Plath was writing new kinds of poems, personal and immediate in nature, and was content with the fact that William Heinemann Company had contracted to publish her first collection of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems. Its publication in England in October 1960 was well received, and Alfred A. Knopf planned to bring out an American edition.

Nevertheless, personal jealousies, differences in American and British views of infidelity, and a return of Plath’s depression complicated the marriage. Despite their happiness when Plath became pregnant once more, the two aspiring writers were not content living in an ancient house with an infant and too little money. After the birth of their second child, Nicholas, in January 1962, Plath faced the fact of Hughes’s unfaithfulness through increasingly angry—though powerful—poems, such as “The Rabbit Catcher” and “The Detective.” By contrast, another work from that point in her career, “Three Women,” a verse play written for the BBC, is a beautifully wrought poem about motherhood. Plath had learned to find joy in her world as a woman, which was centered on the care of her children and friendship with other women. Unable to accept Hughes’s irresponsibility, she could not tolerate his behavior, and the marriage was eventually dissolved. Living with the children in the comparative isolation of Devon, Plath wrote many of the poems that later appeared in Ariel. Her so-called October poems, written in the month after Hughes had left the house, are among her most famous: “Lady Lazarus,” “Daddy,” “Fever 103°,” “Purdah,” “Poppies in July,” “Ariel,” and others. The magazines to which she sent these poems, however, did not accept them, a fact that discouraged her. Even the New Yorker, with which she had a “first reading” contract, refused all but a part of one of these magnificent late poems.

Moving with the children to London in December 1962, Plath tried to make a new life for herself, but the worst winter in a century added to her depression. Without a telephone, ill, and troubled with the care of the two young children, she committed suicide by sleeping pill ingestion and gas inhalation just two weeks after the publication of The Bell Jar (published under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas).

That novel and the various collections of her poems that appeared during the next twenty years made Plath one of America’s most important women writers. The mixture of comedic self-deprecation and forthright anger in her work foreshadowed the feminist writing of the 1960s and 1970s. Like Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), The Bell Jar and the posthumously published Ariel (1965) were harbingers of the women’s movement and gave voice to its developing concerns. But as the awarding of the 1982 Pulitzer Prize for poetry to Plath’s Collected Poems showed, her audience was not limited to women, and her writing was much more than an expression of feminist sentiments.

Plath’s work is valuable for its stylistic accomplishments: its melding of comic and serious elements, its fashioning of near and slant rhymes in a free-form structure, its terse voicing of themes that have too often been treated only with understated piety. It is perhaps more valuable for its ability to reach the noninitiated reader, because of its concern with the real problems of our culture. In this age of gender conflicts, broken families, and economic inequities, Plath’s forthright language and clear sentiment cut through any tendency toward platitude. She has achieved posthumously the life she hoped for as she studied and practiced to make herself a writer.

Bibliography

The Sylvia Plath Papers are housed at the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, and at the Rare Book Room, Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Several parts of the Smith collection are sealed until the deaths of Plath’s mother and brother, or until 2013. According to Ted Hughes, Plath’s literary executor, one of her journal volumes has been destroyed, and another has been lost; so too has the segment of her last novel that remained at the time of her death. Hughes has published selections from her journals (Frances McCullough, ed., The Journals of Sylvia Plath [1982]) and some of the short fiction (Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose and Diary Excerpts [1979]). Aurelia Plath published her daughter’s letters to her and the family as Letters Home by Sylvia Plath: Correspondence, 1950–1963 (1975). The best critical studies are Lynda K. Bundtzen, Plath’s Incarnations: Women and the Creative Process (1983), and Steven Axelrod, Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (1990). Recent biographies are Linda Wagner-Martin, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987), and Anne Stevenson, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989). Linda Wagner-Martin compiled and edited Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage (1988); see also Sheryl Meyering, ed., Sylvia Plath: A Reference Guide, 1973–1988 (1990), and Stephen Tabor, Sylvia Plath: An Analytical Bibliography (1987).