The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath Summary

Ronald Hayman

The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath

Hayman begins his biography, as the title indicates, by describing the mysterious circumstances surrounding Plath’s suicide at the age of thirty on February 11, She had been living alone in London with her two children, Frieda and Nick, while Hughes was having an affair with the attractive Assia Wevill. Although Hughes maintains that they did not file for divorce and were planning to reunite, Plath felt his infidelity had irrevocably ruined a marriage that she had once considered larger than life.

Hayman addresses their opposing views, raising unresolved and perhaps unresolvable issues: the irony of Plath’s not leaving a will and thus giving Hughes legal control of her literary estate and children; the question of how much money Plath actually had in her final months and who the last person was to see her alive; the apparent absence of a suicide note and its possible content; and the reason for her mother’s never requesting of Hughes the letter Plath had written to her hours before her death but never mailed. Given the controversy centered on the many unknowns in Plath’s death and life, Hayman’s keen analysis reads like a detective story with psychological depth.

Having written well-documented biographies of Proust, Sartre, and Nietzsche, Hayman traces the long history of Plath’s mental disturbance. From her early childhood and first suicide attempt at the age of twenty, through her electroconvulsive therapy, her relations with boys, and her married, literary, and posthumous life, Hayman follows Plath in her tragic quest for self identity. As a confessional writer, Plath revealed her Electra complex in her poem “Daddy” and described her attempted suicide in her novel, THE BELL JAR. Hayman analyzes these—along with many of her other works—in searching out the origins of her deep-seated death wish. Reassessing the mysteries of Plath’s legend, Hayman effectively integrates the private experience of biographical facts with Plath’s poetry, fiction, and diaries—thus challenging the old split in the art of biography between private and public.