13 Ways of Looking at Sylvia Plath
A note: readers who are sensitive to stories about people like Sylvia Plath who suffered from mental illness and died by suicide should approach this article with caution.
Sylvia Plath is one of the most celebrated voices in 20th century American literature. She published two works in her lifetime. Her debut poetry collection was 1960’s The Colossus and Other Poems. The other, her novel The Bell Jar, has become a staple in English literature curricula. She died by suicide in 1963 at age 30. Plath’s second volume of poetry, Ariel, published posthumously and edited by her estranged husband Ted Hughes, received wide acclaim. It continues to inspire readers for its honesty, fury, and provocative, searing language. Plath’s Collected Poems, published in 1981, won the Pulitzer Prize. Although these published works are few in number, a rich body of her writing has survived, thanks to the fastidious journals she kept throughout her life and her habit of letter writing.
She has achieved some level of literary immortality, partially because of the tragedy of her short life. She suffered from depression, and The Bell Jar fictionalizes her struggles and treatment. I recall one Halloween party with a ghoulish attendee who made a costume of Plath’s suicide — she died with her head in a gas oven. This costume has stuck in my mind for years; it’s decidedly emblematic of what Sylvia Plath means to some people: a beautiful, doomed woman.
“To be a poet is a condition” —Robert Graves
Poetry, by definition, must be interpreted. The poet is putting layers of heightened language and metaphor between themself and their reader. That’s the name of the game. By that token, one can’t take a poem at its word. It’s vital to remember the narrator of a poem is not the poet themself, however close to known biographical details the poem hews.
Human nature urges us to incorporate our own humanity into the literature we consume. We project our own experiences into the spaces left blank. Or we squint our eyes to see a reflection where there is none. Likewise, Sylvia Path is many things to many people. Whether you see her as a mystic or a martyr, a prisoner or a genius, she certainly isn’t only any one of these things. So, with apologies to the Wallace Stevens poem Plath herself no doubt studied, I aim to provide 13 Ways of Looking at Sylvia Plath.
13 Ways of Looking at Sylvia Plath
1. Her Work is Marked by Her Suffering
Sylvia Plath, unfortunately, is known as much for her mental illness — which involved controversial electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), suicide attempts, and eventually her completed suicide — as she is for her writing. Her mental illness clearly informs her work. Namely, the main character of The Bell Jar also undergoes ECT and attempts suicide.
Death and grief generally permeate her work. Plath’s own father died when she was 8 years old. The poem “Daddy” is often interpreted as an exploration of their fraught relationship, as well as the tumultuous, allegedly abusive relationship between Ted Hughes and Plath. Plath and Hughes separated largely because of his affair with poet Assia Wevill. Wevill herself tragically died by suicide in a manner identical to Plath. Many people read Hughes as the vampire figure in “Daddy.”
Struggling with domesticity was another theme of Plath’s work. The poem “Lesbos” captures something especially visceral: “Meanwhile there’s a stink of fat and baby crap. / I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill. / The smog of cooking, the smog of hell.” This image certainly evokes an unhappy housewife, like Mad Men‘s Betty Draper. At the end of her life, when Plath was writing poems like “Lesbos,” she had two young children herself.
All of these themes converge in her Bee Poems, a sequence of poems within Ariel. Plath and Hughes kept bees at their home in Devon, England. Plath’s father was an entomologist who wrote a book about bumblebees. Bees offer a different model and metaphor for the roles genders play within a community. They also carry venom that causes their own death when unleashed. Finally, bees can survive harsh winters and hang on for spring. These ideas and more swirl together in these oft-studied poems.
2. Her Work is Much More Than Her Suffering
Sylvia Plath’s daughter Frieda made a notable comment in the foreword to the 2004 edition of Ariel. The collection began with the word “love” and ended with the word “spring.” Thematically, if the poems in Ariel recounted the dissolution of a marriage, they also foretold the period of rebirth that was hoped for in the aftermath.
Plath did much more than expose her wounds to readers. My first encounter with her work was reading her poem “Metaphors” in high school. The poem is a playful if grim look at pregnancy. Plath often undercut suffering with humor. There’s nothing wrong with finding humor in The Bell Jar or the comically bleak and self-aware lines of “Lady Lazarus:” “Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.”
Plath’s joy and whimsy are perhaps most evident in the fact that she wrote poems for children. Three children’s books of hers have been published posthumously, and were compiled in her Collected Children’s Stories. I found it endlessly charming to find readers’ reviews of The Bed Book. Some make mention of loving the book in childhood only to discover much later the significance of the author. These books are but small stars in the constellation of her life. Still, they stand apart from the blinding brightness of her illness, which is all most people see when they look.
3. She is Lost
A truly remarkable amount of material from Sylvia Plath is available in various archives — school papers, drafts of poems, her childhood paper dolls. Yet two key works of hers seem to be truly lost. One is the journal from her final months of life, allegedly destroyed by Ted Hughes. He claimed he did it to spare their children from its contents. This is quite controversial given that Plath’s surviving letters that surfaced recently detail abuse she suffered at his hands.
The other seemingly lost work is the incomplete manuscript for Plath’s second novel, tentatively titled Double Exposure. In a letter, Plath wrote that the novel was about a philandering husband. Whether that manuscript was lost, stolen, or destroyed is a matter of speculation. That speculation includes a theory that Plath’s alma mater and former employer Smith College has a copy hidden from the public. That seems exceedingly unlikely, but only time will tell if this missing work is still out there.
4. She’s Not Lost
In 2019, The New Yorker wrote about a “lost” Sylvia Plath story. The headline led to a little social media dustup. The Twitter account of Indiana University’s Lilly Library pointed out that a story held in their archives, cataloged with a finding aid and available for anyone to research, is the opposite of lost.
Three universities host major collections related to Sylvia Plath. In addition to Indiana University, Emory University holds a good deal of materials. Emory is also the primary host of the papers of Ted Hughes. Smith College, too, holds a large collection of Plath’s papers. Other institutions have smaller collections, including the British Library, Harvard University, and the Morgan Library.
Researchers and curious readers are fortunate to have these materials available. The volume of available materials means that scholarship on Plath is a very active field. A recent favorite analyzed Plath’s annotated copy of The Great Gatsby, likely the copy she read as an undergraduate. Through her marginalia, we get clues to how her reading might have informed her writing.
5. There’s More of Her to Find
There is yet more to be learned about Sylvia Plath, as materials continue to surface. Some archival materials held in libraries had now-expired restrictions on them at the request of the estate that provided them. Some of the papers of Ted Hughes at Emory University are still restricted, slated to be available in 2022. This restriction is out of consideration for Hughes’s second wife, Carol Orchard. Given the fascination Plath holds for many scholars and researchers, people will be scouring those materials for more details of Plath’s life and work next year.
Because of Plath’s particular aura, materials of hers are highly sought by private collectors. Plath’s daughter Frieda auctioned off a variety of items belonging to her mother in 2018. The article about what sold and for how much shows how hungry people are for pieces of her life. The gorgeous mint green Hermes typewriter on which Plath wrote The Bell Jar sold for $46,071, for instance. Because so many of the items were bought anonymously, it’s unclear when or if they will ever become part of a collection that is publicly accessible. I personally hope I can someday read analyses of Plath’s copy of Joy of Cooking and her annotated thesaurus.
6. She Was Public
Writing is often a very solitary activity. When people think of poets, Emily Dickinson may spring to mind. Someone writing away at a desk, languishing in obscurity, and writing poems that would only be found after death. Sylvia Plath, though most known for her posthumously published poetry, was not shy about sharing her work. An ambitious poet may be an unusual idea to some people. Thankfully we have a new poetic voice among us, Amanda Gorman. She shows a poetry-leery public the value of putting verse on a national stage, of being confident in one’s voice.
Plath published her first poem at 8 years old in the children’s section of the Boston Herald. As a teenager she published a story, “And Summer Will Not Come Again,” in Seventeen magazine. As a working poet, she published with incredible regularity, in such august publications as Poetry and The New Yorker. She entered poems into competitions. If there’s something we can be quite sure of, it’s that Plath wanted us to read her work.
7. She Was Private
One interesting move Plath did to maintain some privacy was publish The Bell Jar under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath described her novel as a “pot-boiler.” That’s the term for a book of dubious literary merit written to cater to public taste. It was perhaps a crisis of confidence for her, this wish to separate the novel from the poetry she was more known for.
At the same time, The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical work. The pen name served to protect people who were portrayed within it and to protect Plath herself against libel. Unfortunately, like many works that have since come to be revered contributions to the literary canon, its reception was mild. (Shoutout to my fellow Moby-Dick fans.) The novel was published only about a month before her death. She never got to see its impact as literature that, among other things, gave a raw and incisive voice to the experience of mental illness.
8. Her Work Stands on its Own
Literally hundreds of texts from and about Plath exist — her published work, biographies and criticism, as well as the compendiums of journals and letters. Despite that, one need only read Plath’s own work to read Plath. The reason these hundreds of works exist is that her work continues to fascinate and inspire people. The Bell Jar powerfully highlights the patriarchy of 20th century America and the inadequacy of mental health care. Ariel is provocative, taboo, filled with rage but also moments of beauty and hope. The Colossus and Other Poems, Plath’s only volume of poetry published during her lifetime, shows the command she had of the foundations of formal poetry. It demonstrated that she learned the rules, so she could break them when she wrote the poems that comprise Ariel.
Plath is associated with confessional poets, and her novel is considered a roman à clef. Both of these terms mean her work draws from her life experiences. Her truth is presented on the page without a lot of obfuscation. Still, a reader of Plath is not required to decode the ways in which the text references this biographical detail or that. Her work wouldn’t be as enduring as it is if it couldn’t be met by any careful reader who had no special knowledge of her life.
9. Her Work Needs Context
Is it possible to separate Plath’s work from her life when the two have so many parallels? Surely her work is made richer by understanding the circumstances that created it. It’s also incredibly useful to have additional context for any writing from the past. If we didn’t live in Sylvia Plath’s time, we can’t expect to pick up on details in her work that are particular to that time. One recent work providing an incredibly comprehensive view is Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. Other biographies highlight periods of her life. Mad Girl’s Love Song tells of Plath’s life before she met Ted Hughes. Giving Up pieces together the very end of her life. These books and others like them can inform how one thinks about her work.
Additionally, those who enjoy her writing in prose and poetry may also enjoy it as she wrote in her journals, and as she corresponded with friends and family. Her letters are collected in The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1 and The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2. Read her journals, published as The Journals of Sylvia Plath.
Beyond journals and letters, people interested in the process of writing can appreciate the deep archival material that includes drafts and edits of her work. No one can be inside someone else’s mind or process. Nevertheless, the wealth of materials available for readers of Plath bring people tantalizingly close.
10. Other People Control Her Story
Plath and Ted Hughes were estranged at the time of her death. She was living in London with their two young children, but she was still legally married. Without a will, her written work passed to Hughes. Ariel, the poetry collection Plath is most known for, debuted two years after her death, in 1965. She had created a complete manuscript of the collection. Ted Hughes, however, changed the order of the poems, dropped poems, and added others.
In addition to Hughes’s hand in Plath’s story, the general mythologizing of Plath as a beautiful, tragic figure recalls other women who’ve received similar treatment, like Marilyn Monroe. The 2003 biopic of Plath, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, upset Plath’s daughter who accused the public of clamoring for “Their Sylvia Suicide Doll.”
11. She Controls Her Own Story
Thanks to the manuscript Plath left behind, a restored version of Ariel became a possibility after Hughes himself died. It was published in 2004. Among the changes was the restoration of the Bee Poems to the end of the manuscript, where the pain evident in the poetry also glimmered with hope.
An interesting effort to let Plath tell her own story was mounted by the National Portrait Gallery. Their exhibition “One Life: Sylvia Plath” marked the first time an art and history museum explored the writer. The exhibition brought together for the first time items from Smith College’s Plath archives and the collection of Indiana University’s Lilly Library. While of course this exhibition also presents a curated narrative that cannot encapsulate the totality of Plath’s life, it used her own artwork, writing, letters, and objects to paint a rich portrait of her life. Her capacity for joy is evident in works chosen for the exhibition, as well as her interest in representing herself in both word and image.
12. She’s an Icon of Feminism
Plath’s work published during her lifetime coincided with the cresting of Second Wave Feminism. Themes in her work echo the concerns of that era of feminism, in particular the innate conflicts between female ambition and domesticity as an ideal. Women who felt stifled by societal norms found the honesty of her dark thoughts and experiences revelatory. Many readers of her work connected with the fury often bubbling at the surface. Of all her poetry, one of the lines quoted most frequently is from “Lady Lazarus”: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.”
13. She’s a Problematic Figure
Second-wave feminism received criticism for leaving people behind. The notion of fighting for freedom to work outside the home did not resonate with many poorer women and women of color who’d never had the option not to. Similarly, Plath’s work has left some readers in the cold. A problem with mythologizing or idolizing any person is the urge to rush to their defense, or gloss over their shortcomings. For Plath, the way she used race in her work was troubling. The Bell Jar includes descriptions of characters that use offensive language and racial stereotypes. Again, resist the urge to defend Plath as a “product of her time”; it’s more useful to sit with the complex idea that she could be forging a new path for women in writing while also holding onto racist notions and putting them on the page.
Equally tough to reckon with are some of the themes and language in her poetry. It shocks me when I read “Ariel” and encounter the n-word. Many of the poems in Ariel use images and language of the Holocaust, drawing parallels with that atrocity and the narrator’s own treatment in life. Plath herself had no close personal relationship to the Holocaust. What does it mean for her to use these themes in her work? She clearly wishes to shock and provoke readers. How can we read these works in a contemporary context? It’s not for me to provide those answers, though there are scholars investigating those questions.
“Let me live, love, and say it well in good sentences.” —Sylvia Plath
I’m stopping at 13 ways because of the poetic constraint I gave myself, though that shouldn’t stop you, dear reader, from continuing to hold the jewel of Sylvia Plath in your own hands, looking for its beauties and its flaws. Learn more about her books, her poems, and our favorite quotes of hers. A favorite quote of mine comes from Plath’s poem “A Birthday Present.” She writes, “What is this, behind this veil, is it ugly, is it beautiful?” When reading Plath, remarkably, the answer is often yes to both.