“I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
to lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.”
These words from Sylvia Plath’s Tulips have, like everything she wrote, been analysed and dissected through decades and countless minds. The aching for freedom, for peace, which was echoed throughout her work is of particular fascination to her readers. When focusing on Plath there is a tendency to think only of her well-documented depression and eventual suicide which, in turn, allows us only to analyse her words in these terms. Is a woman with such varied and intricate poetry, and life, to be defined forever by her death?
The devaluation of a woman’s work through the obsession with her personal life is a very real and perhaps dangerous thing. Although someone like Jack Kerouac was an alcoholic, it is his writing we think of first when, arguably, he displayed nowhere near the levels of literary complexity that we see in Plath’s writings. Yet with Plath, discussion almost always turns to her mental health often before it turns to her body of work. Our obsession with celebrity and personal experience can cloud our ability to look at a persons achievement and, for reasons put aside for another whole discussion, this seems intensified when evaluating the work of women. Similar frustrations were reflected throughout Plath’s work: the idea of perceived female inferiority and the pressures therein.
The Bell Jar
The blurred lines between fact and fiction have also contributed to the death obsession. Plath’s novel The Bell Jar is often cited as an example of her lifelong depression, however this is far too simplistic an understanding of the work. The idea of The Bell Jar as an autobiography is to take something away from the work of fiction Plath created. There are undoubtedly similarities between the main protagonist, Esther Greenwood, and Sylvia Plath but these should be viewed more as facilitators in the writing, a connection between the author and the life she is creating.
We know that in 1963 Plath first told her GP of a suicide attempt made ten years earlier, again something that Esther attempts in The Bell Jar. It was in this same visit that she complained of her deepening depression. In order to understand a writers works we do need some context of production; where, why, and when the work was created. This understanding can enlighten and enrich our analysis but only with the knowledge that we are not reading straight biographical works. Instead we are reading something that is perhaps inspired by events rather than a retelling of them. Plath’s young death caused any re-reading of her work to be clouded with tragedy when, in fact, much of it is hopeful. These are varied and intricate writings which cover a gamut of emotion, such is the human condition. Plath wrote about life, love, death, and hate, and all that comes in-between; she wrote about the self, which should not be confused with herself.
“I made a model of you,
a man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do”
Daddy, another poem from the collection Ariel, has also helped add to the mythos of her life and death with its depiction of her father as a Nazi, devil-figure, and the comparison to her husband, Ted Hughes. There are often accusations painting Hughes as ultimately responsible for Plath’s suicide; their marriage problems were well documented and he did have an extra-marital affair. But this blame of the individual seems more to do with the obsession with her death than anything else. It certainly has nothing to do with her writing. By creating this demonic man to blame for Plath’s suicide we are not only simplifying mental health issues but the entire trajectory of Plath’s life. The fact that Hughes’ mistress would go on to also commit suicide has only helped to compound the Hughes myth. Not only is it an unfair and unhelpful accusation but it once again reduces Plath to the romanticised victim of a cruel world, whilst adding nothing to the assessment of her work. This victimisation - as a woman at least - may be partly true, but it was from the literary world and certain views of her role as a wife and mother.
“Did I escape, I wonder?
My mind winds to you”
Her own mother is often used as another explanation for Plath’s decline, describing her as Medusa through her poem of the same name. Again we know she described their relationship, and we’ve seen through letters she wrote home, that their relationship was strained, if not showing indifference. But it is a reductive and unhelpful view to try and pin some sort of blame on anyone for such a tragic event. There are many factors, ones which we may never fully understand, that led to Plath’s death, and once again trying to unravel them can do more harm to our understanding than good.
Poetry by its very nature is a complex romanticisation of events, places, things, therefore it can be difficult when trying to separate the art from the artist. Plath will forever remain entangled by this problem due to her death itself and her ability to construct metaphor and imagery often with dark humour and half-truths. But it is this romantic element that adds allure and wonder to the artist. Who is the person that created this thing I love? In Plath’s case this will forever be haunted by her suicide and battle with depression. Trying to view the poetry in a new light, or at least searching for interpretations past those of death, may help to steer us away from this narrow view of her work, and thus her life. Otherwise we risk reducing Sylvia Plath to nothing more than a victim of her own mind. Rather than the great mind she owned.
Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.
Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.
I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.
All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.
One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square
Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.