Sylvia Plath was one of the most important poets of the 20th century, oft-forgotten, as is the custom with female writers throughout history.
Trigger Warning: Reader is cautioned that the content in this article mentions death, suicide and violence.
Many accuse Sylvia Plath of having the status she does because of the extraordinary spectacle of her death. Those that do forget that Plath was already well-admired by the time she took her own life at the age of 30. Perhaps her suicide granted her greater visibility, which she would probably not have had had she died a quiet death. However, to suggest that this takes away her genius is simply another form of insistence of history that only men can be true artists, worthy of admiration and a place in the history books. Joyce Carol Oates put it as well as anyone, “many of them [her poems], written during the final, turbulent weeks of her life, read as if they’ve been chiseled, with a fine surgical instrument, out of arctic ice.”
Indeed, they were written with a surgical instrument of ice: her own experiences.
Plath’s life was far from easy. At ten, she buried her father, who died of diabetes and gangrene. In her poem Daddy, it is easy to see the trauma Plath felt from this early event, “Daddy, I have had to kill you,” she writes, “I never could talk to you.”
With an IQ of 160, and education in the most prestigious colleges, there was little doubt she was a prodigy. She excelled at studies and was an editor of students’ journals. She also battled depression throughout college, surviving multiple suicide attempts. She was committed to a psychiatric hospital, and given electroconvulsive therapy. It did not help.
Of her first suicide attempt, she wrote that she "blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion."
Plath married and had a son and a daughter. She got pregnant again. Her husband beat her a few days before she was due. She suffered a miscarriage. He cheated on her. She found out. They separated.
It is after separation from her husband that she wrote some of her most incredible poetry. For a while, she seemed happy. Then her depressive moods seemed to have returned. She attempted suicide one more time. This time she succeeded. It was a meticulous attempt, perhaps the only time she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t survive.
“I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.”
Plath’s poetry had a strength to it, but it was not a positive strength: it wasn’t the strength of Tennyson’s The Charge Of The Light Brigade, or the flowery verses of Tolstoy. This was the strength that harnessed the powers of darkness. At par with the writers she wrote her theses on in college, Dostoevsky, Kafka, her comrades who were equally troubled with despair, Plath perhaps exceeded them in her command over anguish. For their experience was the male experience, their hopelessness was a hopelessness with life itself, not with their lived condition. But hers was a twofold hopelessness: one of the philosopher acutely aware of the meaninglessness of life, and the other of the woman, banished to a secondary existence no matter how superior she be to her male counterparts.
Perhaps the most telling lines she ever wrote were in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. 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.”
While feminist authors had traditionally attacked the patriarchy for saddling them with the second-class life of no options, with these lines Sylvia Plath transcended the prevalent discourse of feminism. She evokes feelings that are not only unique to the female experience, but also to everyone living under this post-industrial expectation of society that we must choose our profession and live our whole life practising that one profession.
In her case, choosing a fig essentially means killing the rest of our choices. Anyone paralysed by that choice can only watch as the figs start dropping off, i.e., our choices close themselves on us, and we are no longer able to make those choices.
Although this is a more or less universal experience of the downtrodden proletarian, it isn’t an anti-feminist statement, in the sense that it doesn’t exclude the female experience either. In this way, Plath becomes neither feminist, nor anti-feminist, but a post-feminist. Her work sheds light on the universally paralysing post-industrial experience of choosing which profession to become a wage-slave for forever. Her work also points out that this process is harder for women, as the choices they have are fewer, with lesser time to choose.
“Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.”
Sylvia Plath’s poetry is not about a movement, it is not about society, it is only about herself. It is strange then that her poetry doesn’t make us feel her despair, but only our own.
“The Bell Jar is a novel about the events of Sylvia Plath's twentieth year; about how she tried to die, and how they stuck her together with glue,” says Robert Scholes.
I think Sylvia would disagree. She would say she had died everyday she had lived. Over paper and ink.