Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Discuss Sylvia Plath’s ambiguous attitude toward father figures.
Plath was her own chief subject matter. Does she get outside herself in poems of external nature such as “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” “Stings,” and “Blackberrying”?
In what respects is Esther Greenwood of The Bell Jar decidedly not like Plath herself?
What generalizations can you make about the length and arrangement of Plath’s lines and stanzas?
The poem “Edge” begins with the statement “The woman is perfected.” What does this mean? Is there any definition of “perfected” other than the most usual one that applies?
How does Plath’s confessional poetry differ in tone from that of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton?
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Other Literary Forms (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Sylvia Plath is widely recognized as one of the strongest and most distinctive American poets of the postwar period. Her major collections include The Colossus (1960), a number of posthumous collections including Ariel (1965), Crossing the Water (1971), and the definitive Collected Poems (1981). She also wrote the best-selling novel The Bell Jar, which first appeared in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963.
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Sylvia Plath was a prolific writer of poetry and prose. Her first publication was a short story, “Sunday at the Mintons’,” which appeared in Mademoiselle in 1952. Throughout the remainder of her life, her stories and prose sketches appeared almost yearly in various journals and magazines. Ted Hughes edited a selection of these prose works, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977-1979). Plath’s extensive diaries and journals were also edited by Hughes; they were published as The Journals of Sylvia Plath in 1982. Her mother has edited a collection of letters written by Plath to her between 1950 and 1963, Letters Home (1975). Plath’s work in other forms included a poetic drama, Three Women, that was aired on the BBC on August 19, 1962; an autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas (1963); and a popular children’s book, The Bed Book (1976).
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Sylvia Plath’s poetry, like that of Hart Crane, will be read, studied, and known for two reasons: for its intrinsic merit, and for its bearing on her suicide. In spite of efforts to disentangle her poetry from her life and death, Plath’s reputation and impact have fluctuated with public interest in her suicide. Almost immediately after her death, she was adopted by many members of the feminist movement as an emblem of the female in a male-dominated world; her death was lamented, condemned, criticized, and analyzed as a symbolic gesture as well as an inevitable consequence of her socialization. Explanations for her acute mental anguish were often subsumed in larger arguments about her archetypal sacrifice.
With the publication of The Bell Jar and the posthumous collections of poetry, however, her audience grew in diversity and appreciation. She received the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine in 1957, and The Collected Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1982. Although she never lost her value to the feminist movement, she gained other sympathetic readers who attempted to place her in a social and cultural context that would help to explain—although certainly not definitively—her artistic success and her decision to end her life.
It is not difficult to understand why Plath has won the respect of a wider audience. Her poems transcend ideology. Vivid, immediate re-creations of mental collapse,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking, 1991.
Alvarez, A. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. New York: Random House, 1972. Probes the connections between Plath’s thematic preoccupation with suicide and the inner traumas that led her to take her own life. Uses the life and work of Plath as a focal point for a broadly based discussion of the theme of self-destruction and annihilation present in the work of many artists.
Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Calling his book a “biography of the imagination,” Axelrod makes sophisticated use of psychoanalysis, feminist and other recent critical theory, and biographies of the poet to interpret her life and work, including her major poems, letters, and journals. Includes bibliography.
Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. This second edition of an important work in Plath scholarship makes use of recent scholarship. Provides intriguing and controversial analysis of Plath’s work, breaking from traditional interpretations.
Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. New York: Longman, 2001. A biographical study of Plath and her writings that...
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