55 years after the poet Sylvia Plath’s death, she continues to inspire books, songs, films and verse
At a recent auction, a copy of The Joy of Cooking—the most ubiquitous and longest consecutively published cookbook in America—sold for more than $6,000. It was not a first edition, nor was it owned by anyone famous in the culinary world. Rather, it belonged to the poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), and contained a handwritten note next to a recipe for breaded veal slices that reads “Ted likes this.”
That a commonplace item like a commercial cookbook fetched such a high price is telling of the kind of legacy Plath left behind. Though she only published one book of poems, (The Colossus) and one novel (The Bell Jar) before taking her own life at age 30, Plath has been iconized, deified, and commercialized ever since. An extraordinary number of biographies have already been written about her, with more on the way.
But why? What is it about Sylvia Plath that has caused so many to latch on to her brief life, to write about her, study her small body of work, and even pay top price for her belongings?
There’s the inevitable curiosity accompanying a suicide, prompting a hunt for “clues” or motivations—and Plath’s published work and private life are full of smoking guns to analyze. There’s also the “what ifs” that follow a tragedy: What if her husband, poet Ted Hughes, hadn’t engaged in an affair that caused their marriage to collapse? What if Sylvia hadn’t received electroshock therapy (the first round without any anesthesia as is now par for the course) during her college years? What if she weren’t trapped by expectations put upon women of the 1950s? What masterpieces would she have written if she’d lived longer? Her short life prompts speculation, and these loose strands have, over the ensuing years, been picked up by different interest groups who look to justify Plath’s struggle by combining it with their own, championing her as a feminist icon, a survivor of spousal abuse, or painting her as a portrait of postwar feminine hysteria.
The Bell Jar was first published in January 1963 in the UK (US publishers rejected it as “unfocused” and “undramatic”) under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, in part to protect those who were clearly fictionalized versions of Plath’s familiars and in part to keep the work separate from the more serious stuff Plath wanted to be known for––her poetry. The novel follows Esther Greenwood (Plath’s stand-in), a bright, literary-minded college student from the suburbs of New England as she recounts the events that lead from a guest editorship in New York City at Mademoiselle to her recovery after a suicide attempt in a mental institution outside of Boston. It’s a fictionalized retelling of Plath’s life in 1953, and was one of the first novels to touch upon the difficulties faced by women pursuing unconventional, artistic careers in a postwar America that advocated domesticity and femininity. Musing on the various paths lain before her, Esther narrates:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.
One fig was a husband and a happy home and children and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
It was also one of the first times readers were made privy to a woman’s experience with mental illness and the way it was treated mid-century. Reading the novel, one is struck with the eerie mixture of Plath’s wry humor as she captures the absurdities at play in the making of a “modern woman” and her acute documentation of an intelligent mind as it slips into self-doubt and paranoia and subduedness. Esther Greenwood “recovers” from her mental breakdown, as Plath seemingly did, after several rounds of electroshock-therapy while staying at McLean psychiatric hospital.
The Bangles did their take on Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar, with this song:
Plath’s life began to take on a more stable, if not fairytale-like arc, studying at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship, meeting and marrying fellow poet Ted Hughes, publishing a well-received collection of poems, and giving birth to two children. But a month after The Bell Jar’s appearance, Plath again attempted suicide, this time successfully. She rose early, left breakfast next to the beds of her sleeping children, and after carefully stuffing rags under their bedroom doors, turned on the gas oven and laid her head inside.
In the final months of her life, Plath worked like a poet possessed. Rising each morning before her children awoke, the words seemed to pour from her, unable to be held back any longer. When the levee did break, the voice that emerged on the page was reconciled to be both mother and a poet, both a well-rounded, polite and pleasing American girl and an artist preyed upon by the “disquieting muses.”
It’s as if, as Alicia Ostriker puts it in her book Writing Like a Woman, “having learned to see the skull beneath the skin, she threw away the skin.”
She left the poems in a portfolio at her desk to be found, and Ted Hughes, having gained control of her literary estate after her death, oversaw their publication later that year in a collection entitled Ariel. The consensus? These poems were the work of a truly gifted writer, an artist who had finally found her voice. But when we look back at the painful events preceding these poems, it’s clear that Plath’s creative burst came at a cost.
Two years prior to her suicide, Plath had suffered a miscarriage. She had also, as later revealed in letters to her therapist, become aware of her husband’s infidelity during this period, claiming he had physically abused her before the miscarriage (these letters surfaced after Hughes’ death, but his estate denies the allegations). Yet in this troubled period, she continued to write, completing The Bell Jar in 70 days and writing poems that directly addressed the failed pregnancy. Plath soon became pregnant again and the family moved to the countryside of Devon in Southwest England at the end of 1961. Following the birth of their son Nicholas in January, Hughes began an affair with Assia Wevill who along with her husband, rented Hughes and Plath’s flat in Regent’s Park in London while the family lived in Devon.
Even after Plath became aware of the affair, Hughes refused to stop seeing Wevill. The affair with Wevill proved to be most crushing to Plath, not least of all because the other woman was an aspiring poet. Hughes had always been more than just a husband to Plath. He mentored her as a poet, and she saw him as a stand-in father figure, having lost her own father at the age of 8—an event that caused Plath distress for the rest of her life. Plath and Hughes separated in the summer of 1962, and Plath moved to London with the children that December.
Here is Plath reading her poem, “Daddy”:
Because Plath falls under the category of “confessional poet,” it’s tempting to read the autobiographical in everything she wrote, especially in poems like Lady Lazarus that directly address death or The Rival that touches upon infidelity. The Ariel poems have been deservedly celebrated for showcasing Plath’s ability to elevate painful realities, mundane tasks, and biting truths with poetic language, particularly among feminists who applaud Plath for doing so at a time when abrasive femininity was frowned upon. Plath was known to have a jealous and sometimes volatile temperament and, as Janet Malcolm explains in her book The Silent Woman, “Women honor her for her courage to be unpleasant.”
Plath was not a bohemian nor was she part of the avant-garde as the female artists we so often celebrate are. She had the passion and talent to be a poet, but also the desire to be a mother and a wife, to exist in a domestic space. “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time,” says Esther in The Bell Jar, “then I’m neurotic as hell.”
Take for example, the poem “Cut,” written in October of 1962, that begins with cutting onions:
What a thrill ––
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of a hinge
A flap like a hat,
Then that red plush.
The Indian’s axed your scalp.
Your turkey wattle
Straight from the heart.
I step on it,
Clutching my bottle
Of pink fizz.
A celebration, this is.
Out of a gap
A million soldiers run,
Redcoats, every one.
Whose side are they on?
Homunculus, I am ill.
I have taken a pill to kill
The stain on your
Gauze Ku Klux Klan
Darkens and tarnishes and when
Pulp of your heart
Confronts its small
Mill of silence
How you jump ––
The deadpan “thrill” of a kitchen accident goes from a celebration to shame to disgust, all while taking on the weight of historical acts of violence and the tension between courage and madness. The subject matter that Plath wrote about is not foreign. But Plath’s gift lay in exposing the truths lurking behind relationships, between feelings, and just below suffering with lush language that is both colloquial and refined.
Perhaps this extraordinary quality that appears when the ordinary is scratched is what keeps us coming back, to studying Plath’s life and devouring any shred of letter or diary entry suddenly made public. In a forward to Plath’s published Journals, Hughes wrote “I never saw her show her real self to anybody—except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.” When we acknowledge the power this “real self” contained, objects like a wristwatch, an armchair, even a mass market cookbook become items of inexhaustible value.
A surprisingly witty, upbeat, confident and revealing interview with Sylvia Plath conducted by Peter Orr in October 1962, just months before her suicide:
Paul Westerberg’s “Crackle and Drag” was inspired by the life and death of Sylvia Plath. Here’s the original raw version: