Content warning: suicide mention and mention of mental illness
Sylvia Plath remains today one of the most influential and noteworthy women in literature, her fiercely emotional poetry holding a disconcerting mirror up to readers and the society in which they live.
Plath was born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts and went on to study at the University of Cambridge. She excelled academically in college and at university, publishing poetry frequently and editing acclaimed literature magazines. She was destined for greatness from a young age. However, during her college years she developed devastating mental illnesses, attempting suicide for the first time in 1953 by overdosing on sleeping pills and crawling under her house. This sparked an obsession with, and yearning for, death that would continuously find its expression in her poetry.
Plath wrote dozens of incredible poems during her short life, most of which came shortly before her death. Her poems focus on feelings of depression, anxiety, and fear, intertwining femininity with mental illness to create a deep exploration of her own psyche. Plath had that impressive gift common to most great poets of being able to unite fantastically beautiful poetic verse with haunting explorations of human suffering. She constructed elegant passages, mastering the art of poetic flow and stop without compromising sonic beauty, all the while expressing her obsessions with death and suicide. Her poems oscillate between acute clarity and total obscurity, some parts grasping the reader with captivating atmosphere, sharp imagery, and an unavoidable identification of self, whilst others send the reader away to sweat over interpretation. Many of her great works are intensely autobiographical, focusing on her relationships with her father and husband as well as her own experience of mental illness. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell- Jar, dealt with more political motifs than her poetry, most clearly women’s struggle for independence.
After her suicide in 1963, Plath became an icon for second-wave feminism, due in large part to her expositions of her troublesome relationships with men. The acclaimed poems ‘Daddy’ and ‘Colossus’ elucidate the problematic relationship between Plath and her authoritative father; Plath describes herself as a tiny, helpless being and her father as a monolithic, Nazi-figure who towers above her. Her father died when she was 8, and some analysts have argued that the domineering, authoritative father figure was later replaced by the dismissive, distant figure of her husband, the acclaimed poet Ted Hughes.
Hughes and Plath had an intensely tumultuous relationship, with Hughes cheating on Plath and frequently dismissing her thoughts and ideas as trivial and unimportant. Many of Hughes’ poems about their relationship in his collection Birthday Letters describe her as intensely meek, afraid, and helpless, and accounts from peers confirm him as highly dismissive at times. Consequently, the second-wave feminist movement of the 1970s took up Plath as an iconic martyr in the struggle against the patriarchy: she was seen as tormented throughout her life by the oppressive men she kept closest, ultimately driven to suicide by her husband. Furthermore, Hughes’ domestic partner Assia Wevill (with whom Hughes had begun an affair a year before Plath’s suicide) killed herself in exactly the same way as Plath six years later; this unsurprisingly intensified the blaming of Hughes as the cause of Plath’s death.
Others argue that Plath had a history of serious mental illness that would have inevitably resulted in suicidal tendencies regardless of Hughes, and that it was the guilt of Plath’s suicide – seeing herself as the representation of Hughes’ devastating loss – that ultimately drove Wevill to kill herself. Frieda Hughes, the eldest daughter of Ted and Sylvia, later denounced the feminist movement for exploiting these horrific events to suit a cause. Although we can of course never know the true story of Sylvia Plath’s life and death, she remains an icon for women in literature whose hauntingly beautiful poems tap into the fundament of human suffering, leaving a lasting legacy that resonates in all human life. She holds importance as a woman in literature not for the sad tale of her troublesome life, but for the powerful and wondrous literature that she produced, giving expression to the dark recesses of human existence.
Illustration: Sophie Boyle.