The Journals of Sylvia Plath
The Journals of Sylvia Plath, which includes excerpts from the writer’s notebooks during a twelve-year period, gives readers an opportunity to hear Sylvia Plath’s honest and distinct voice speaking out from the welter of critical and psychological analysis that has built up around her work. Here are her observations about herself and others, her goals and obsessions, her particular delights, furies, and demons. The individual who emerges is wise, funny, introspective, and self-aware. Most important, seeds of her poetry and prose can be located and traced to fruition with the aid of these journal entries: especially when read as a companion piece to the recently published volume, The Collected Poems (1981), the journals will provide scholars with a valuable primary source where links can be discovered between Plath’s life and her work in order to piece together a portrait of the artist as a young woman, self-drawn, rather than the mythic fresco she has become. In an entry dated May 20, 1959, Plath asks about her poetry, “Will I ever be liked for anything other than the wrong reasons?” These journals may provide some of the right reasons.
In the first section of the journals, dated 1950 to 1955, it is clear that Plath’s urge to write sprang not only from her driving ambition but also from her need to justify her life, to confirm her identity even as she searched for it. She asks repeatedly who she is and answers with lists of achievements or tentative identifications: “’a passionate, fragmentary girl,’ maybe?” In the midst of adolescent rites of courtship and stirrings of passion, as she perfects herself as “the American virgin, dressed to seduce,” she states that her “happiness streams from having wrenched a piece out of [her] life, a piece of hurt and beauty, and transformed it to typewritten words on paper.”
She worries about future conflicts between her role as writer and wife, wondering if she can preserve her identity as a writer while scrambling eggs for a man. By her sophomore year at Smith College, she sets her goal: a symbiotic relationship between husband and wife in which each can work to realize potential. She expresses the desire to deliver babies, both human and poetic; she wants a husband and family, but firmly rejects the traditional 1950’s concept of a woman’s place. This ambition to achieve personal and career goals is perhaps one reason that she has been labeled a protofeminist.
Plath set high standards for herself academically, professionally, and socially. In May of 1952, she writes: “I will still whip myself onward and upward . . . toward Fulbrights, prizes, Europe, publication, males.” At the same time, however, she doubted her ability to live up to the ideals she erected: “I have the choice of being constantly active and happy or introspectively passive and sad. Or I can go mad by ricocheting in between.” This difficulty would beset her throughout her life, and although the early journals evince a surprising degree of self-awareness, she is often unable to thwart her negative, self-destructive impulses.
Plath’s writing shows promise during this early period. While she is capable of adolescent gush, she is also capable of writing a lyrically erotic entry about feeling sexually aroused by the sun’s heat on a rock, being purified by the sea, and emerging “clean” from “dwelling among primal things.” Her attention to sound is apparent in such phrases as “swatch of winking stars” and “numb dumb snow-daubed lattice of crystal.” Moreover, echoes of much later poems can be discovered in such phrases as “Cats have nine lives . . . You have one,” a variation of which becomes a line in “Lady Lazarus.” In one entry, Plath discusses one use of the moon as an image. She elucidates clearly the progression of the metaphor of moon as plant bulb, demonstrating an ability to analyze her own work, and also a keen eye for imagistic progression, a progression that culminates in such poems as “Fever 103°” and “Cut.”
One primary theme that runs through the early journals and is also an identifiable current in Plath’s poetry and prose is the theme of rebirth. After a bout of depression during the fall of her junior year, she characterizes her rehabilitation as rolling “the stone of inertia away from the tomb.” She sees herself as “The girl who dies. And was resurrected.” Often sounding like Norman Vincent Peale, she credits her rebirth to mental magic, a belief that attitude can change everything. She attributes achievements—poems in Harper’s Magazine, a summer guest editorship at Mademoiselle—to the conscious choice she has made, that of transforming wish to reality through hard work.
The three entries drawn from the summer of 1953, however, prior to her suicide attempt, belie Plath’s ability to choose between dark or light, death or life. The first entry parallels the opening of her novel, The Bell Jar (1963), as she speaks of her physical sickness at the imminent electrocution of the Rosenbergs. She longs to crawl back to the womb, to avoid choice, to abdicate responsibility. She labels one entry “Letter to an Over-grown, Over-protected, Scared, Spoiled Baby,” while trying to exhort herself to think, to take action. The final entry ends with a pathetic plea: “please, think—snap out of this. Believe in some beneficent force beyond your own limited self. God, god, god: where are you? I want you, need you: the belief in you and love and mankind. You must not seek escape like this. You must think.” Perhaps this plea can be seen as a...
(The entire section is 2310 words.)