Two problems crucially shape biographers’ interpretations of Sylvia Plath’s life: the roles played by Sylvia’s father, Otto Plath, who died when she was eight years old, and by Ted Hughes, her husband. Although Alexander details Otto’s austere, self-involved, emotionally blighted relationship with his daughter—indeed, with his wife and his son as well—he tends to leave unresolved the question of whether Sylvia thoroughly despised him, at least to the extent that some verses among her late poetry evidence. Running counter to the conventional picture of Sylvia’s bitter responses to an autocratic, unfeeling, often-absent father, Alexander observes meliorating circumstances in Otto’s final years: characteristics of a sickly, frightened, and depressive personality and, in the Plath family tree, evidence of “melancholy”—in modern language, depression and madness. How much of this tendency Sylvia inherited is open to question, but readers, among them feminists, who have hitherto approved uncritically Sylvia’s invectives against her father have some reason to pause. Without question, Otto was a martinet stereotypical of the German head-of-household, but he may have deserved less of his daughter’s wrath, more of her pity. Never physically abusive to Sylvia, he was aloof, sometimes censorious, rarely affectionate. Yet he was not a monster, and on a few occasions, particularly when Sylvia or her brother showed signs of intellectual gifts, he praised his children. These demonstrations of approval, admittedly rare, nevertheless had a profound impact upon Sylvia.
If Otto’s actual shortcomings as a father appear to have been less baleful than readers may have supposed, Ted Hughes’s cruelty toward the poet is well supported by evidence. Indeed, without making the connection absolute, Alexander shows how Sylvia’s antipathy toward her husband may have revived memories of the psychological trauma she had suffered over the long-dead father’s emotional abandonment of the family during her formative years. Unable to strike back at her hated (yet perversely adored) husband while she was still clinging to the slender hope of a reconciliation with him, she was free to indict her father, to accuse him of the same neglect, the same egoism, the same heartlessness that she clearly saw in Hughes.
Dealing with Sylvia’s true life story, Alexander has to confront the image of a different person, the poet as cult figure. According to legend, Sylvia died a martyr to the neglect of two male protective figures who had betrayed her—her father and her husband. So avidly accepted is this legend, especially among some feminists, that any revision of its basic pattern is likely to challenge a corollary element of its moral force: that Sylvia was blameless in her relationships with her “protectors,” vulnerable, a victim of those whom she had most deeply trusted. Alexander quotes from Robin Morgan’s “Arraignment,” a poem included in her 1972 volume Monster: “How can/ I accuse/ Ted Hughes/ of what the entire British and American/ literary and critical establishment/ has been at great lengths to deny,/ without ever saying it in so many words, of course:/ the murder of Sylvia Plath.” This “vicious” poem, in Alexander’s words, is the only verse quoted in the entire volume. Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister and editor-executor of Plath’s literary canon, denied to Alexander permission to quote from Sylvia’s works. As a result, he has had to discuss the contents of her poetry and prose without citing or even paraphrasing closely particular passages, except those in the public domain. Nevertheless, he is free to quote from other sources, and the evidence he assembles tends to support, in more judicious language, Morgan’s harsh judgment of Ted. In general, this evidence also supports the cult legend that exonerates Sylvia from any responsibility for her desperate actions.
Neither “murderer” nor “monster,” Ted was without doubt insensitive to the needs of his wife, particularly toward the end of their life together. By that time, especially after October, 1962, their marriage had all but ended, except legally. Living under miserable conditions in a dreary, underheated London flat, Sylvia had to struggle by herself to take care of her two children, all of them suffering often from upper-respiratory infections and Sylvia complaining about sinus troubles. With little money, isolated from her dearest friends, she maintained a brave front in letters to her mother and others, concealing from them the rigors of her day-to-day existence. In contrast, Ted was living comfortably at his family estate in Yorkshire or among friends in London, enjoying a measure of literary fame and some financial success. Worse for Sylvia, he had taken as a mistress their once-friend Assia Gutmann Wevill, who, along with her husband David, had earlier seemed part of a “perfect” couple. Distraught after his wife left him, David attempted suicide. As in a Greek tragedy, the consequences of betrayal were not to end there. Assia continued to live with Ted after Sylvia’s suicide in 1963, although she remained married in name only to David. In 1967, Ted and Assia had a daughter, Alexandra, (nicknamed “Shura”). By March, 1969, despondent over the failures of her own literary career and (according...
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