Sylvia Plath is
a woman of great talent. Her suicide in February 1963 transformed her into a
literary celebrity. The posthumous publication of her poems made readers and
critics to sit up with shock and to consider the bad circumstances that led
to her desperate death. Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, who is both a poet
and a painter, is neither pleased with the cruel criticism against her
father, nor is she in favor of the arguments about her mother’s death. She
does not want people to see her mother as a heroine who suffered and wrote a
great number of poems whose themes are seen as a declaration of her suicide.
Instead, Frieda Hughes wants people to look for the artistic value of Plath’s
Plath considered writing a way of life. For her, writing was an expression of
her personality. Thus, creativity was related to her inner life and it
nourished her intellectual being. Her life and work were symbiotic, and her
poems marked the various signposts of her life. Her poetry synthesized life
and art. Since she was credited with advancing confessional poetry, critics
turned into code-breakers after her death. However, the confessional
interpretation of her works led some critics and readers to dismiss certain
aspects of her works. In Plath’s poetry, the destructive forces of life were
counteracted by the creative forces of art. Her poetry was an implicit act of
self-revelation. Plath herself was the theme of her poetry. Yet, her works
were not merely an autobiography: she perfected her technique of expression
with verbal manipulation of her life experience. She gained control over her
emotions through writing and the mastery of words. Hence, I argue against a
strict autobiographical interpretation of Plath’s works because she spent her
time looking up words in the thesaurus. She sought words not only for their
subtle shades of meaning but also for their effect. She chose her words carefully.
She always had an intimate relation with words. She treated words like living
and breathing objects.
Having published her first poem at
the age of eight, Sylvia Plath was a great professional writer whose personal
torment and anxieties accompanied her until the last moment. According to Jesús Pardo, “those who knew her, she
was a vigorous, cheerful and attractive little girl”. Plath realized she
wanted to be a professional writer from the very beginning and her
determination helped her to achieve it. In Pardo’s words “she always showed great efficiency and she did things
almost effortlessly” since her talent was innate. After her brother was born,
the family moved to Massachusetts and it was there when her father became
increasingly ill. Indeed, “Otto Plath suffered from what appeared to be lung
cancer. By the time he received the proper medical attention, he was forced to
have a leg amputated” .
It seems he never came back home
and died from an embolism. Her father’s death “changed Plath’s existence
As Nancy Hunter Steiner puts it, “she leaves New York to
return to her home and her mother, but that whole life now seems ‘vacuous'”.
Furthermore, one cannot understand Plath without taking suicide into
consideration. Sylvia Plath “understood the suicide attempt as an effort to
re-join her father, to appear before him free from the tight, but
life-preserving, social self she had wrapped herself in”. His death left a
mark on her childhood and influenced her future. She became so deeply
obsessed with the paternal figure that it became a traumatic event in her
It is said that Plath was strict
with herself regarding poetry and when a poem did not fit her standards she
just rejected it (Pardo 28). It was in Cambridge when she met her husband,
Ted Hughes, “of whom she was so deeply enamored that even 2 years later she
boasted in her diary that she had ‘the magic and hourly company of a husband
so magnificent'” (Shulman and Plath in Shulman 602). However, as shall be
seen, her husband would be the trigger that would lead her to commit suicide.
Sylvia Plath is commonly known not
only for her great poetry but also because of her suicide. As Gerisch puts
it, “her suicide was interpreted as a tragic consequence of an unsuccessful
emancipation attempt within the context of a patriarchal society”. It is true
that her narcissistic attitude played a significant role, along with her
depression, in her suicide but one must consider, at the same time, that in
Plath one can find the three factors that are said to trigger suicide. As
Shulman claims, “predisposing, precipitating, and triggering” (599). As a
predisposing factor one understands the “aspects of the personality making
future suicide a clear possibility” (Shulman 599). It was clear that Plath
counted on the possibility of suicide since a very early age when she decided
to take an overdose of pills at age twenty. Precipitating factors “can be
viewed as those life events that actualize an existing suicide potential, the
person turning actively suicidal” (Shulman 599).
Unluckily, Plath experienced really negative
situations throughout her whole life such as being married to a man who
flirted with other women, and her inner conflict to become both a wife and
mother and a professional writer as well. Triggering factors stand for those
which “transform thoughts into actions that lead to death” (Shulman 599), and
they could be exemplified through her husband’s affair with the writer Assia
Wevill. These could help the reader understand her potentiality to commit
suicide but, in fact, taking one’s life is tied to “one set of circumstances
that paved the way for the next set” (Shulman 599).
“Sylvia received relatively little
emotional support from her mother” (602). Then, a young Plath who sought for
care after the loss of her father saw herself rejected by her own mother.
Sylvia needed her mother “to feel secure” because she felt undervalued, and
“ssoon after her father’s death Sylvia became obsessed with accomplishments”.
Therefore, Plath failed to achieve both paternal and maternal identifications
in her own personality. Her establishment of a secure and female identity “is
closely connected with the mother-daughter relationship”. Her mother did not
let her daughter identify with her as a woman, leaving Plath with a fragile
identity. It is said that her mother was concerned with her “role as a
housewife” (Gerisch 739) and with devoting herself to her husband. In
addition to this, when Plath’s brother was born, he received more attention
than Plath did. This experience led Plath to harbor lots of anger and
jealousy which were inadequately expressed at that moment, although she would
expose them in her writing later on.
As Gerisch mentions, “Plath’s emotionally
charged poetry can be seen as a reworking of this unsuccessful transformation
process, recoding the speechless, emotionally lifeless sensation into an
experienced and self-denied symbolic world” (739). She attempted to get rid
of her feelings of inferiority by trying to “satisfy the mother’s real and
imagined achievement expectations” (Gerisch 740). That could explain, then,
her narcissistic personality. Her mature identity was, therefore, not fully
developed since her mother was not providing the necessary factors to build
Plath’s female personality and her father was not present to fill the gap.
However, her father “was rarely emotionally accessible, because he was concerned
with his own interests” (Gerisch 740) and this contributed to the fantasized
idea of the father. In other words, Plath tried to manipulate reality in
order to put herself in the centre and force the circumstances to suit her
and, by doing so, she imagined herself “to be her father’s favorite child”.
This relates to the problem of an
“unresolved childhood grief”, as Plath was unable to accept her father’s
death. In order to substitute the need for the absent father, Plath sought
for compensation elsewhere, which could be translated into her suicide
attempt, since “suicide is a pathological form of mourning” (Pollock in
Shulman 600). She found herself unable to accept her father’s death because
she did not attend his funeral. Under her mother’s command, Plath could not
even say goodbye to him since the day her father died, her mother told her to
go to school instead of attending the funeral.
Therefore, “Sylvia, who for years
had been singing, dancing, and reciting verses to her sick father, was
apparently not allowed to mourn” (Shulman 601). However, she captured her
mourning process in poetry, which culminated in “the painful and unhappy poem
Due to her “disappointing mother
and an unattainable father” (Gerisch 740) Plath developed feelings of
isolation and loneliness which “resulted in a deficit in her ability to
develop intimate relationships” (Gerisch 740). She then, developed a
personality adaptable to other’s needs. To exemplify this fact, Plath’s
creativity was an attempt to “satisfy her mother and to compensate her for
the deprivations of her life by being a successful daughter” (Gerisch 744).
Plath’s attempt at perfection became an obsessive behavior to which some
dangers are associated, such as her suicidal attempt. “In moments of despair,
Sylvia would abandon the image of success she normally projected, but as soon
as possible she would resume her facade” (Shulman 607).
For instance, her marriage collapsed because
of her husband’s affair with another woman and, “unwilling to mourn her great
loss, she was heading for disaster” (Shulman 607). Plath’s personality was
also shaped by her “temporary infertility” (Gerisch 751) which Gerisch reads
as not only a biological problem but also a psychical one, “her mind also became
infertile and refused to produce” (751). This conflict might have arisen from
the difficulty Plath found in combining her professional and successful
career as a writer, as well as her life as a mother (Gerisch 750). She wanted
to be a mother but was afraid of not being able to write as a
Plath chose suicide as an option
to escape life. As Shulman puts it, “her suicide may have been a fantasy of
joining her father” (607). He justifies it by mentioning Alvarez, “her
fantasies of death were involved with him” (Alvarez in Shulman 607). Although
one might think at this point that Plath seemed to believe in a kind of
afterlife – due to these declarations – Steiner mentions that Plath did not
believe in God or in an afterlife because, when she woke up in hospital after
her first suicide attempt, she denied the existence of something else after
death, since she wished death could finish her torture in this world (63). In
1961, she had a near-suicide attempt when she had a car accident produced mainly
by “the anticipation of general life failure” (Shulman 608). After that, in
1962 Plath and Hughes separated after her husband’s affair was real.
According to Shulman, “this was the first factor precipitating her suicide”.
However, other factors could also
be involved since Plath was “struggling to care for two young children, and
affected by the medication she was taking” (Bloom 13). Overwhelmed by the
divorce, the children, living in a different country and being far from home
where no friends were close, Plath felt the loneliest she had ever been.
Finally, “Plath took many sleeping pills and allowed herself to be consumed
by the fumes from the gas oven” (Bloom 13). It has been assumed that Plath
did not want to die since she left a note with her doctor’s name and number
and, therefore, it seems “she was expecting to be found and revived again, as
she had been at 20” (Bloom 13). However, only Plath knows its veracity.
According to Andrew
Motion, Plath’s work and her weakness have been buried under the spoils
of biographical conjectures. Her work have been analyzed within her
sociological and psychological context and her feministic aspiration gives us
a much more comprehensive and professional portrayal of her poetry.
According to critics, Plath’s is influenced by ted
Hughes as also by Robert Lowell, Auden, and Dylan Thomas. Her style is
intense, bitter and intimately subjective but there are several other
dimensions to her work too; it reveals depression, disillusionment and the
decadence of hope, joy and family values. This is one reason why in her poems
Plath’s father becomes a “Basterd” and her mother a life sucking “Medusa”.
Plath also speaks out about the concentration camps and victimized Jews.
Throughout it all she reveals an approach towards life that is very rarely
reflective of love and compassion (an alien term in her later poems)
especially the poems related to her son and her daughter.
Sylvia Plath seems to have
determined that in order to make her poetry valid she must confront nothing
less serious than her own death, bringing to it a greater wealth of invention
and sardonic energy than most poets administer in a lifetime of so –called
affirmation. As she herself reclaims “Dying is an art” (Lady Lazarus) Her
actual suicide, then was simply “a risk she took in handling such volatile
material,” a “last desperate attempt to exorcise the death she summed up in
In other words her intensity was
both her liberator and her destroyer at the same time. Sylvia Plath, according to Alvarez, is the
archetypal modern artist, the emblem of a century discriminated by its
“sudden, sharp rise in the casualty rate among the artists.” As art turns further inward, it inevitably
becomes more dangerous for its inventor.
Linda Wagner-Martin wrote a biography of Sylvia Plath
in which she has presented those artistic features of Plath which were
ignored by other critics. She has reviewed her work with reference to her
life; using psychoanalysis, with the intentions of sympathy and compassion.
Martin interprets Plath’s 1982 Pulitzer
prize winner ‘the collected poems’ as a proof that ” the power of Plath’s art
finally won out-over all the detractors, the enviers, the death-mongers,
observing that if Plath was nothing more than a minor poet with obsessively
limits scope such acknowledgment of her art could never have been possible.
Martine Wagner openly admired and respected the
works of Sylvia Plath as great pieces of art, art the same time attempting to
justify the mood swings and behavioral inconsistencies which were part of
Plath’s behavior towards her husband. Martin Wagner justifies paths extreme
anger towards her family members with remarks like, “Plath’s depiction of her
mother and other female characters may trouble the reader who knows her biography,
but the Bell jar is fiction, and in fiction real people are transformed.
Critics find it surprising to see Linda
devote hardly any words to unforgettable incident of Plath destroying Ted
Hughes’ work in progress: his poetry books, play, drafts, notebooks, and even
his favorite books of Shakespeare. Whenever Plath imagined Hughes to be
flirting with other women she threw tantrums. What martin Wagner is referring
to is the fact that Sylvia Plath had a very disturbed disposition and Ted
Hughes and plats family had to put up with the sudden outbursts which
characterized her extremely volatile nature.
A poem that deals directly with suicide it
is “Lady Lazarus”. According to Bloom, “it is about attempting suicide; it
speaks of close calls with death at the ages of ten, twenty, and thirty, and
Plath did nearly die from an accident at age ten, tried to kill herself at
twenty, and purposefully ran her car off the road at thirty”. The poem was
written in 1962, when she separated from her husband. The poem portrays a
woman who has come back from death many times.
Since Plath’s own life was chaotic
she sees images that are inverted because of her own distorted vision .To her’
death is not frightful but the accomplishment of an ultimate goal. Her images
comprise of death, life, regeneration of selfhood, hope, anger, animism, jealousy,
passion, perfection, chaos and abandonment. She is renowned for her bitter
cynical scorn of passionate woman betrayed by her husband. Most of her poem
is narrative describing an event or idea from its very inception to its
proper and conclusive end. Her narrative are vicious, cynical ,arrogant and
truthful, usually, by the end of each poem the narrator reaches to a bitter
and harsh conclusion about her tragic reality of life .The narrative quality
of her work is regarded by many critics as a reminiscent influence of her
early attempts to write prose.
Plath is regarded as a poet whose
emotional intensity vocalization of these emotions are a fundamental part of
her appeal as a poet and novelist .she
views everything through her emotions.
Frederick Buell reviews Plath’s novel, not just on
the basis of its topicality but as an impression of the post –romantic era,
where sensationalism was given due importance.He asserts the presence of
traditionalism in her work but also insist that her work is not mere mimicry
of that era since it exhibits de-familiarization in its content, by depicting
the paradox between the external and internal worlds of the heroine.
Sylvia Plath belonged to the post
war era, a politically and historically sensitive period for the American nation.
It was during this era that the decadence of art evolved and literary artist
sought to exhibit depressing images and the theme of death, dejection and depression,
were depicted through destructive imagery and morbid symbolism, signifying
that the decadence of society after the war had seeped into the minds and
The critical reception of path’s
poetry suggests that her style as a writer and a poet is extremist and her
strength comes from this extremist. Her poetry is considered as an extremist
of the romantic tradition: she transforms the traditions of detached
observation into the extremist of anger, dejection deformity, sorrow mourning
scorn and animism. She has herself referred to many poems of this volume as ‘death
wishes.” A review of her ‘Ariel’ collection also reinforces the idea of
transcendence and annihilation especially poems like ‘Ariel’, ‘Daddy’ and
‘Lady Lazarus’. What her poems years for is the incessant desire to attain
purity and style of these poems is therefore, more spontaneous, intense and
natural and unlike her previous poetry.
Robin peel in the critical book ‘writing Back:
Sylvia Plath and the cold war politics has explored three main issues related
to the works of Sylvia Plath. Her focuses on the issue Plath’s late poetry
was affected by cold war politics and the events of the early 1960s. The second issue that he focuses is the
relationship of Sylvia Plath’s work to various places and the third is the
essence of the few incidents and forces which provoked and influenced the writing
of Plath: the forces which control global and national events.