Sylvia Plath: The Iconic Sad Girl
Sylvia Plath is known equally for her prowess as a writer and for the tragic end to her life. But, as Tori Marchiony reports, she should be remembered as more than a poster girl for despair.
Sylvia Plath (1932–1963) was a revered poet and fiction writer, known for her dark confessional poetry and her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963). She won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982 for The Collected Poems.
Born in Boston, MA, Plath published her first poem aged 8, in the Boston Herald’s children’s section. She attended Smith College and studied at the University of Cambridge on a Fulbright Scholarship. While in England, she met poet Ted Hughes, who she married in 1956. She published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems, in 1960, compiling forty poems previously published in journals and magazines.
Plath confronted her experiences with depression and suicide attempts in her deeply personal second collection Ariel, posthumously published in 1965. She also explored these topics in The Bell Jar, a novel largely based on a summer she spent while at Smith, when she lived in New York City as a guest editor of Mademoiselle magazine. Plath committed suicide a few months after its publication. Her reputation grew after her death and she is admired today for her honest writing about mental illness and womanhood.
(Sylvia Plath reading ‘Lady Lazarus’)
There is a charge for the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
for the hearing of my heart––
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch,
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
Sylvia Plath, that immortally mortal poet once described the human heart as so deep and tremulous that it can either sing or weep. Ruled equally by ambition and emotion, she turned her own life into not only poems, but also, into myth. Plath, of course, is no longer alive. In the early dark hours of a miserably cold February in 1963, she famously sealed the rooms between the kitchen and her sleeping children, turned on the oven and inhaled the deadly gas. She’d had great aspirations, and success as a poet. She’d had enormous responsibilities and heartbreak as the wife of the philandering Ted Hughes and the mother of his two young children. She was only 30 years old when she died.
(The Prettiots performing ‘Suicide Hotline’)
On a scale of one to Plath like a floor
My head’s not in the oven, but I can’t get off the floor
It’s not that bad, I won’t take it too far
I see a good shrink
And hey, dream boy’s no bell jar
For many, like Kay Kasperhauser of the indie band The Prettiots, Plat’s iconic melancholy lies at the core of her enduring power.
Kay Kasperhauser: If you were a sad teen girl, you definitely read Sylvia Plath. Like … There’s just something about that unique sadness, and it’s sort of like you’re reaching out into the abyss for something you can identify with to tell you that you’re not completely alone in these feelings, and then you find that. For me, and I think for most teen girls, it’s The Bell Jar. It’s beautiful and it’s simple and it’s complex and it’s a love story, and it checks all the boxes and at the same time, you leave it with this feeling of like, okay, well what I’m feeling is real. It’s not like there’s some happy-go-lucky resolution necessarily, but I’m also not alone in it.
But for the writer Sandra Beasley, Plath should be remembered as a poet, and not a martyr.
Sandra Beasley: I probably encountered some of her individual poems early on, without learning about that larger narrative of her life and death. And then when I was a college student, someone made passing reference of Ariel. I was embarrassed, I didn’t really know the book, and so I got it from the university bookstore and devoured it. And it just really resonated. The dreams that I would have on a night that I had read Sylvia Plath would be different, because of her. She was a fierce, technical craftsman, with a great sense of humor, and a wild set of images, and she took her depression, and the sadness of her life and did the best she could to make them fuel for the creative fire. And that fire ultimately consumed her, but it wasn’t because she wasn’t trying, and it wasn’t because she wasn’t tough.
Among the many facts that the mythologizing of Plath have helped to obscure, are the deeply human, and in many ways ordinary instincts that impelled the poet over the course of her brief life. Plath was intent, says Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, on knowing herself. This desire can be found in her earliest creative output.
Dorothy Moss: When I took a look at the archives where her mother placed all of her younger years material such as her journals, and her artwork from elementary school and high school, I noticed that she drew a lot of portraits, and a lot of self-portraits, and this continued on into college. In her journals, you see often sketches of herself, where she would take photographs and paste her face into the journal and then write about the mood she was experiencing to kind of write her way out.
Plath was a daughter who had lost her father to complications of diabetes, young. She was the child of a hard-working, financially pressed mother. Early on, she understood that words were more than ideas. Words represented, potentially, income.
Moss: The first piece of writing that she published in the Christian Science Monitor, she knew she would be paid for. It was something that became a professional goal. She wasn’t writing just because she loved to write, she was writing because she knew that she could support herself through writing.
Plath also knew, it seems certain, that she had true talent. In this reading of Lady Lazarus, her voice is strong, her delivery self-confident.
(Sylvia Plath reading ‘Lady Lazarus’)
is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
Other artists have used Plath’s life and work as their own creative touchstones. Feminists have claimed her as their own. But we must be careful not to impose our own era’s experiences, expectations or politics onto the poet.
Beasley: You have to remember, a book like The Bell Jar was written pre-pill, pre-women’s movement. A lot of the things that we think of as catalyst points for feminism were not really on her consciousness. When people read The Bell Jar, or read Ariel and seize on it as a meaningful tract that enervates their own feminism, what they’re seeing is a woman who’s being honest about the struggle of selfhood, and the power dynamics.
Throughout her life, Plath was driven by two opposing forces, to live so that she might create, and to die so that she might stop hurting.
Beasley: So, in that period of time between when she first started publishing, and up through her early age 30, she had been able to do the series of prestigious awards and scholarships, she got the Fulbright, she got the Saxton, and if you imagine, that’s both a great reward and also tremendous pressure. Because you have to win everything. You have to be first in everything. I think that she had a history of suicide attempts, including several car crashes and the famous attempt where, she was 20, took pills, crawled under the house. We’re not talking about someone who made a previously unheard of decision in her timeline.
There’s an irreparable vacuum in the wake of any life ended too soon, but Plath’s quest to find herself through the lines on her page is a more lasting legacy.