Sylvia Plath Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
Sylvia Plath Sylvia Plath Image via

Article abstract: As both poet and novelist, Plath adopted a self-analytical style that helped to inspire the “confessional” school of literature in the decade following her death.

Early Life

When Sylvia Plath was eight years old, her father died after a long illness. This early loss of a loved one affected Plath’s poetry in a way that would be unparalleled by any other event in her life. Otto Emil Plath had been fifteen years old when he came to the United States from Grabow, a town near the Polish-German border. When Sylvia was an infant, he taught biology at Boston University and came to be nationally recognized as an authority on bees. After her father’s death in 1940, Sylvia moved with her mother, the former Aurelia Shrober, and her younger brother, Warren (born April 27, 1935), to the Boston suburb of Wellesley, Massachusetts. There Sylvia’s mother found work as a teacher, her grandmother took care of their home, and her grandfather helped to support the family by working as a maître d’hôtel at the Brookline Country Club.

At about the time of her father’s death, Plath began writing poetry and short fiction. Her works won several newspaper contests and, in August of 1950, she sold her first story (“And Summer Will Not Come Again”) to Seventeen magazine. A year later, another short story (“Sunday at the Mintons”) won a fiction contest sponsored by Mademoiselle magazine.

In September of 1950, Plath began attending Smith College on a fellowship endowed by Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of Stella Dallas (1922). In 1952, Plath was one of two fiction authors to win a contest sponsored by Mademoiselle magazine. She spent the next summer as the student editor of Mademoiselle’s annual college issue. Harper’s magazine also began to display an interest in Plath’s work, paying $100 for three of her poems.

Despite this appearance of initial success, however, Plath fell into a deep depression. Hiding herself in an isolated part of the cellar, Plath took an overdose of sleeping pills. She was rescued in time and began to receive psychiatric treatment, including electroshock therapy.

Plath’s initial suicide attempt and the incidents surrounding it were to become the basis for her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963). Some of Plath’s medical expenses following her attempted suicide were paid by Olive Higgins Prouty. Prouty had taken an interest in Plath as one of the recipients of the scholarship that she had endowed at Smith College. The older novelist’s generosity toward Plath was to be repaid uncharitably when Plath caricatured Prouty as the novelist Philomena Guinea in The Bell Jar.

Life’s Work

Appearing to be cured, Sylvia Plath returned to Smith College and was graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1955. The following year, she received a Fulbright Fellowship enabling her to go to England, where she attended Newnham College of Cambridge University. There Plath met the poet Ted Hughes; after a brief romance, they married in London on June 16, 1956. To Plath, Hughes—who was self-assured, decisive, and authoritarian—seemed to possess the qualities that she had both admired and feared in her father. In her later poetry, she described her initial attraction to Hughes as an attempt to bring her dead father back into her life.

In 1957, Plath received her master’s degree from Cambridge and, with Hughes, returned to the United States. Later that same year, she took a teaching position at Smith College, her alma mater. Soon, however, Plath began to find that teaching did not satisfy her creative desires, and she decided to devote her full attention to writing. She attempted to find a publisher for the book of poems that would eventually become The Colossus and Other Poems and was disappointed to have it rejected a number of times. She continued to revise these poems and, in December of 1959, returned to England with Hughes. The following April, their daughter, Frieda Rebecca, was born.

In 1960, The Colossus, and Other Poems was finally published by William Heinemann. With one major work already accepted for publication and with ideas for several others, Plath, in May of 1961, applied for a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship with the intention of writing a novel. On November 6, 1961, Plath received a grant of $2,080 that would enable her to work on The Bell Jar. The year 1962 was a period of incredible activity for Plath. On January 17, she gave birth to her son, Nicholas Farrar, and less than a month later reported to the Saxton committee that the first eight chapters of her novel were in their final form. Despite a number of illnesses, Plath continued to work on The Bell Jar steadily throughout the year. She also accepted several assignments for the British Broadcasting Corporation and, in June, began to write the poems that would be published after her death as Ariel.

On August 1, 1962, Plath reported to the Saxton committee that she had begun the final stages of The Bell Jar. Suddenly, however, after a vacation in Ireland, Plath’s world of hard work and domestic harmony began to unravel. In autumn, after learning that Hughes had been having an affair with the Canadian poet Assia Wevill, Plath separated from her husband. She moved to London, submitted the final draft of The Bell Jar for publication, and found an apartment in a house that had once belonged to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

The final months of Plath’s life were marked by a prodigious amount of literary activity. Working each morning from four o’clock until seven (when her children awoke), Plath began writing far more spontaneously than she had ever done before. Abandoning the ornate and polished style of The Colossus, Plath produced several poems a day, in a remarkable burst of creativity that she began to refer to as the “blood jet.” The works of this final period of her life are marked by natural, unpolished rhythms and are often attempts to work out her deep-seated feelings of loss, frustration, and anger.

In January of 1963, The Bell Jar was published, not under Plath’s own name but under the pseudonym of “Victoria Lucas.” Plath considered The Bell Jar to be a mere “potboiler . . . not serious work” and wanted her real name to be associated only with her poetry. In addition, Plath hoped to spare the feelings of friends and members of her family who appear in the novel thinly disguised as fictional characters.

The narrator of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood, is based upon Plath herself, and many incidents in the novel were drawn from the poet’s own life. Esther loses her father at an early age, wins a number of writing contests, and undergoes psychiatric treatment for suicidal tendencies. Initial reviews of The Bell Jar were generally positive, but Plath’s attention seemed drawn only to the criticism that the book received. Although appearing to be under great pressure, Plath gave her friends no indication of the severity of her depression. On February 11, 1963, she entered the kitchen of her apartment, placed towels around the doors to protect her children, and then committed suicide by turning on the gas.

Ever since her first suicide attempt at the age of twenty, death had been a frequent theme in Plath’s writings. She occasionally referred to suicide as an act of purification and viewed death as merely another form of birth. In the late poem “Daddy” (written 1963; first published 1965), she describes her first attempt at suicide as a desire to return to the father who had been taken away from her in her youth. The imagery of rebirth and emergence from the womb also appears in The Bell Jar, where Plath describes the efforts to revive her after she has taken an overdose of sleeping pills.

A consistently high level of symbolism is found throughout all Plath’s works. In The Bell Jar, for example, the electrocution of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the summer of 1953 serves the young protagonist as an image for her own electroshock treatments. In many of her poems (such as the title work in Ariel), the symbols of speed—figures rushing headlong toward an undefined, distant object—appear. Some critics have interpreted these symbols as Plath’s own movement toward her inevitable suicide. Suicide itself appears as a frequent theme in much of Plath’s poetry, as in “The Manor Garden” and “Suicide Off Egg Rock,” both of which were first published in The Colossus. In her late poetry, Plath began to deal with the pain resulting from her father’s death, occasionally depicting her father as a Nazi and herself as a Jew. In each of these cases, the symbolism transforms events occurring in Plath’s own life into something more universal, a general image in which readers can find their own meaning.


The period of Sylvia Plath’s greatest impact came only after her death. In retrospect, even her earliest poems were seen as providing insight into her troubled personality and the reasons for her eventual suicide. The autobiographical nature of The Bell Jar and the introspective glimpses provided by many of her later poems, which were published after her death in Ariel (1965) and Crossing the Water (1972), gave a new impetus to the “confessional” style of poetry. Leading figures of this literary movement included Robert Lowell, who wrote the introduction to Ariel, and May Sarton, the author of A Private Mythology (1966).

Plath’s writing has also been important in feminist circles. Though Plath herself displayed little interest in feminist causes, her struggles to find a role for herself, reflected through the eyes of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, made her works influential to feminists throughout the early 1970’s. Furthermore, Plath’s negative treatment of male figures in much of her later poetry has caused the poet to be adopted by feminists as a tragic symbol of male oppression.


Broe, Mary Lynn. Protean Poetic: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1980. Broe traces the development of Plath’s literary style and concludes that there is a consistent use of imagery and of “female personae” throughout her works. Contrary to the generally accepted view, Broe argues that even the late poems do not indicate that Plath’s suicide was inevitable.

Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. Offering a feminist perspective of Plath’s poetry, this analysis explores the ways in which her works were written from a distinctly female perspective. It also includes a feminist interpretation of the symbols in Plath’s poetry.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Sylvia Plath. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Taking a traditional biographical and literary approach, this work places Plath’s poetry firmly in the context of the “confessional” school of literature.

Holbrook, David. Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1976. This work adopts a psychoanalytical approach to provide a biographical profile of Plath as well as a literary analysis of her novel and poetry. Holbrook is especially interesting in his discussion of how the layer of fiction separating Plath from Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar ultimately breaks down.

Kroll, Judith. Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Kroll argues that the autobiographical elements of Plath’s poetry are always viewed impersonally and are given a larger, symbolic dimension.

Newman, Charles Hamilton, ed. The Art of Sylvia Plath: A Symposium. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970. This collection of biographical and literary essays provides an analysis of all the major aspects of Plath’s life and poetry. It also includes a useful bibliography and an appendix of Plath’s unpublished works.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. “The Bell Jar”: A Novel of the Fifties. New York: Twayne, 1992. Providing a thorough literary analysis of The Bell Jar, this work examines the novel’s imagery and literary form, and interprets it in its historical context.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1988. This excellent collection of essays includes biographical portraits by individuals who knew Plath and literary analyses by several important critics.

Sylvia Plath Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Through her life and her poetry, Sylvia Plath has influenced the shape of American feminism as well as contemporary poetry. Critics and...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Sylvia Plath Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Plath’s art is a desperate dance between order and chaos, control and abandon. In its emphasis on death and rebirth, pollution and purification, it touches strings common to many readers. Her images are memorable for their violence and eerie appropriateness. Her exact, verb-dominated descriptions of the natural world and her use of the formal devices of poetry to communicate personal pain mark her work as unique. None of her many followers in the so-called confessional school of poetry achieved her intensity.

Sylvia Plath Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Sylvia Plath was born October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. Her father Otto, a professor of biology and renowned entomologist, died when she was a young child, leaving Plath in the care of her mother Aurelia (née Schober). A number of instances in her writings acknowledge this event as one of the most traumatic in her life, creating in her a sense of abandonment that fueled the dark, introspective character that is prominent in her work. A distinguished academic, Plath graduated summa cum laude from Smith College in 1955. She attended Newnham College, Cambridge, on a Fulbright scholarship, receiving her M.A. in 1957. She married renowned English poet Ted Hughes in 1956.

After completing her graduate work at Cambridge, Plath returned to the United States, where she taught for a year at Smith. Shortly thereafter, she returned with Hughes to England, where she spent the last years of her life raising two children and writing. She committed suicide in early 1963.

Plath was briefly institutionalized after a breakdown and suicide attempt in 1953 that delayed the completion of her undergraduate work at Smith. She recounts this experience in the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, which appeared shortly before her death in 1963. Plath’s literary reputation is based primarily on the confessional, metaphorically dense poems she wrote during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. However, she also wrote a number of short fiction works during this period that appeared in publications as diverse as Sewanee Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Madamoiselle, and Granta. In the decades following her death, much of this work has been rediscovered, mostly due to the 1977 appearance of Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection of Plath’s more significant short prose writings.

Sylvia Plath Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Sylvia Plath’s father died shortly after she turned eight years old. He was her idol, a Boston professor of entomology, and critics agree that Sylvia’s difficulties with men and obsession with death directly reflect her love for her father, which, in many ways, was unrequited. Sylvia impressed her teachers as a brilliant student with quiet charm, reserved wit, and sophisticated writing skills. At Smith College, she received accolades and awards for her writing and scholastic abilities. Even with this praise, she suffered acute bouts of depression. She was admitted to hospitals repeatedly and attempted suicide upon her return from New York as summer guest editor at Mademoiselle in 1953. Recovering, she returned to school to graduate summa cum laude, marry her flame Ted Hughes, a young English poet, and move to England. Sylvia returned to the United States a year later, published her first book of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems, and began the arduous process of writing The Bell Jar.

Plath’s poetry carries thematic expressions of the ephemeral nature of life and its inevitable destruction. Critics label her a precursor to other feminist writers and their disdainful description of men. The writer of The Bell Jar and some of the most memorable and widely read feminist poems ever written indicated her awareness of the complicated distribution of power between men and women. Brittle, pungent images of shallow men pervade her work. Plath ably exposes superficiality and corruption, particularly in male-dominated environments. Shallow men either amuse or bore her and she pleads for separation from society by withdrawing into depression.

Plath seemingly grew more despondent as her status as mother and estranged wife—she discovered that her husband was having an affair—consumed her time and thoughts. Her suicide in 1963 resulted, for better and for worse, in a cult following of her works. Posthumous collections of her writings garnered praise and support as they explored topics such as feminine identity, individual suffering and oppression, and inevitability of death. Her bold metaphors and stark, violent, unsettling imagery evoke mythical qualities of nature and humanity. As a confessional poet, Sylvia Plath wrote directly about her personal problems.

Sylvia Plath Biography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature, Critical Edition)

Author Profile

Sylvia Plath’s father, who died when she was eight, had a lifelong influence on her: She alternately yearned for and rejected male approval. Plath did well at Smith College but also suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. She married the brilliant English poet Ted Hughes in 1956 and gained praise for her collection The Colossus (1960). Abandoned by Hughes for another woman and in poor health, Plath committed suicide in 1963. Her mystique was accentuated by the posthumous publication of Ariel (1965) and the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (1963).


Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking, 1991. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

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 argues for a distinction between Plath’s real life and her artistic expression. Brain suggests that readers should consider even Plath’s journals as less than strictly autobiographical.

Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. A collection of critical essays exploring various issues in Plath’s poetry and fiction, particularly those related to feminine identity. Contains an exceptionally perceptive analysis of The Bell Jar and Plath’s related, “autobiographical” fiction.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976. The first major critical biography of Plath; a highly accessible account of the forces that shaped her distinctive poetic and fictive voices.

Butscher, Edward, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977. A collection of critical essays on the life and work of Plath compiled by her principal biographer. Opens with a biographical essay by the editor, followed by critical essays on Plath’s work by a number of prominent writers and critics, including Joyce Carol Oates, Irving Howe, and Marjorie Perloff. Devotes two chapters directly to the discussion of Plath’s fiction.

Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Sylvia Plath. New York: Twayne, 1998. A critical introduction to the life and work of Plath. Hall identifies remaining puzzles that face Plath scholarship, particularly those rearrangements and deletions made by Ted Hughes, her husband.

Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Heinemann, 1991. For a review of this work see Magill book review.

Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. A collection of poems written by Hughes on the subject of his heavily mythologized relationship with Plath. At times joyous, at others painfully self-revealing, the book offers valuable insights into both the professional and personal relationship shared by these two literary icons.

Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) A provocative inquiry into the controversial life of the American poet Sylvia Plath and of her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, which also probes the nature of biography and attacks contemporary biographers.

Middlebrook, Diane. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath--a Marriage. New York: Viking, 2003. Middlebrook brings insight and empathy to a probing examination of the literary marriage of the century.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. More personal in nature than Butscher’s biography, this book focuses more closely on the pathology of Plath’s struggle with depression. Draws heavily on insights gained from close friends and acquaintances of Plath’s, making it as much a depiction of Plath the person as Plath the writer.

Wagner, Eric. Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of the Birthday Letters. London: Faber and Faber, 2000. A careful examination of the writings that detail the minds and relationship of poetry’s most harrowing couple.

Sylvia Plath Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Few poets demand that we know as much about their lives as Sylvia Plath does. Her intensely personal poetry was often rooted in everyday experiences, the knowledge of which can often open obscure references or cryptic images to fuller meaning for the reader.

Plath’s father, Otto, was reared in the German town of Grabow and emigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen. He spoke German, Polish, and French, and later majored in classical languages at Northwestern University. In 1928, he received his doctor of science degree in applied biology from Harvard University. He taught at Boston University, where he met Aurelia Schober, whom he married in January, 1932. In 1934, his doctoral thesis was published by Macmillan as Bumblebees and Their Ways, and he became recognized as an authority on this subject. Beginning about 1935, Otto’s health declined; he stubbornly refused any kind of medical treatment, assuming his illness to be lung cancer. When, in August, 1940, he stubbed his toe and suffered immediate complications, he submitted to medical examination. He was diagnosed as suffering from diabetes mellitus, a disease he could possibly have conquered had he sought treatment earlier. The condition of his toe worsened, however, and on October 12, his leg was amputated. He died on November 5 from a pulmonary embolus.

Plath’s mother had also been a teacher—of English and German. At Otto’s request, she gave up her career and devoted her time to housekeeping. Of Austrian ancestry, she too spoke German as a child and took great interest in Otto’s scientific research and writing as well as in her own reading and in the teaching of her children.

Plath’s early years were spent near the sea in her native Massachusetts, where she passed much of her time with her younger brother, Warren, exploring the beaches near their home. A very bright student, she consistently received high grades in virtually all her subjects and won many awards.

In September, 1950, Plath began her freshman year at Smith College in Massachusetts, the recipient of a scholarship. She continued her brilliant academic record, and at the end of her third year, she was named guest managing editor of Mademoiselle and given a month’s “working vacation” in New York. In August, 1953, after returning from New York, she suffered a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. She was hospitalized and given shock treatments and psychotherapy. She returned to Smith for her senior year in February, 1954.

Plath won a full scholarship to study German at Harvard in the summer of 1954. She returned to Smith in September; in January, 1955, she submitted her English honors thesis, “The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two of Dostoevsky’s Novels,” and graduated summa cum laude in June. She won a Fulbright Fellowship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge University, and sailed for England in September.

After one semester of study, she briefly toured London and then went to Paris to spend the Christmas break. Back in Cambridge, she met Ted Hughes at a party on February 25, 1956. They were married on June 16 in London. That summer, she and Hughes toured France and Spain. She was awarded a second year on her Fulbright; Hughes began teaching at a secondary school. She completed her year of study, and in 1957, she submitted her manuscript of poetry, “Two Lovers and a Beachcomber,” for the English tripos and M.A. degree at Newnham College. In June, 1957, she and Hughes sailed for the United States, where she would be an instructor in freshman English at Smith College. She enjoyed her teaching and was regarded as an excellent instructor, but the strain of grading essays led her to abandon the academic world after one year. She and Hughes remained in Boston for the following year, both trying to earn a living by writing and part-time work. In the spring of 1959, Hughes was given a Guggenheim Fellowship; meanwhile, Plath was attending Robert Lowell’s seminars on poetry at Boston University.

In December of 1959, the couple returned to England, settling in London after a brief visit to Hughes’s Yorkshire home. Plath was pregnant with her first child, and it was during these months in early spring that she learned of the acceptance by William Heinemann of her first book of poems, The Colossus, and Other Poems, for publication in the fall. On April 1, Plath gave birth to her daughter, Frieda. Her book was published in October, to generally favorable reviews.

In February, 1961, Plath suffered a miscarriage, and in March, she underwent an appendectomy. That summer, Plath and Hughes purchased a house in Croton, Devon, and went to France for a brief vacation. In August, they moved into their house in Devon, and in November, Plath was given a grant to enable her to work on The Bell Jar.

On January 17, 1962, Plath gave birth to her second child, Nicholas. Within a period of ten days in April, she composed six poems, a sign of her growing desire to fit into the village life of Croton and of her returning poetic voice.

In June, Plath’s mother arrived from the United States and remained until August. In July, Plath learned of Hughes’s affair with Assia Gutman. On September 11, Plath and Hughes journeyed to Ireland; almost immediately Hughes left Plath and went to London to live with Gutman. Plath returned alone to Devon, where, with her children, she attempted to rebuild her life. She wrote extensively: twenty-three poems in October, ten in November. She decided, however, that she could not face another winter in Devon, so she found a flat in London and moved there with her children in the middle of December.

That winter proved to be one of the worst on record, and life in the flat became intolerable. The children were ill, the weather was cold, there was little heat, the pipes had frozen, and Plath was suffering extremes of depression over her separation from Hughes. On January 14, 1963, The Bell Jar was published to only lukewarm reviews. Plath’s mood worsened. On February 11, 1963, she committed suicide in the kitchen of her flat.

Sylvia Plath Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Before her death in 1963, Sylvia Plath, through the eloquence of her autobiographical poetry, fiction, and prose, had established herself as one of the most promising writers of her generation and as one of the foremost modern interpreters of the female experience. Born in Boston on October 27, 1932, to Otto Emil Plath, a member of the Boston University faculty, and Aurelia Schober Plath, Sylvia was raised near the ocean in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Her stern father, whose presence haunts much of Plath’s writing, died in 1940. Two years later, Aurelia Plath moved herself, her two children, and her parents to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she taught medical secretarial courses. There, Sylvia Plath established a brilliant academic record and exhibited talent both as an artist and as a writer, publishing her first short story in Seventeen magazine soon after finishing high school.{$S[A]Lucas, Victoria;Plath, Sylvia}

Her academic and literary successes continued after her admission to Smith College in the fall of 1950. The recipient of several prestigious scholarships, she performed impressively in her college courses and published her works in several national magazines, earning, among other accolades, a summer guest editorship in New York City with Mademoiselle in 1953. Already subject to the anxieties of a perfectionist incapable of satisfying her own standards, a brilliant woman aware of the potential social penalties for her brilliance, and a daughter desirous of pleasing a zealously selfless mother, Plath found her New York City experiences both fascinating and confusing. Returning emotionally drained to her life in Massachusetts, she entered a period of deep depression, ultimately attempting suicide and undergoing hospital treatment for severe psychiatric problems. The nightmare of her breakdown later became the material for her novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, shortly before her death.

Despite her collapse, Plath returned to Smith College, graduating summa cum laude in June of 1955. For the next two years, she studied as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Cambridge, during which time she met and married British poet Ted Hughes. While dedicating much effort to her husband’s poetic career and to preparation for her own university examinations, she continued to write and publish both poetry and short fiction.

Following the successful completion of her course of study in England, Plath moved with Hughes to Massachusetts, and while she taught English courses to Smith College freshmen for a year, both writers attempted to advance their literary careers. Finding that the many hours she expended in her teaching frustrated her need to write, Plath resigned her position, and she and Hughes lived for several months in Boston. There Plath participated in the poetry workshops of Robert Lowell, and she and her husband continued to write and publish.

In December of 1959, after a short period of travel and a fruitful several weeks at a writers’ retreat at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, the couple took up residence in London, where they had a daughter, Frieda Rebecca Hughes, in April, 1960. Later that year, Plath’s first book of poetry, The Colossus, and Other Poems, was published by William Heinemann, with little immediate critical reaction. Overshadowed by her already successful husband, burdened by her roles of mother and helpmate, and plagued by health problems (including a miscarriage and an appendectomy in February of 1961), Plath experienced a period of depression and self-doubt which several professional successes and a new outburst of creativity, particularly the writing of a portion of The Bell Jar, went far to dissipate.

The family’s move to Devon in September of 1961 temporarily improved matters, and her work on an American poetry anthology, the publication of an American edition of her first book, and the acceptance of her short poetic drama Three Women for presentation by the British Broadcasting Corporation all boded well for her professional future. Unfortunately, following the birth of her second child, Nicholas Farrar Hughes, in January, 1962, marital problems developed, and within a few months, Plath and Hughes had separated. After another productive year and a final move back to London, Plath again fell into deep depression. On February 11, 1963, she took her own life.

Although there were fervent admirers of her work before her death, the rise in Plath’s reputation has largely been a posthumous phenomenon. That is hardly surprising, as much of her best writing became available only after her suicide, and The Bell Jar, the lightly disguised account of her own troubled coming-of-age, appeared for the first time under her name in 1966. The previous year, Ariel, a volume of many of the most eloquent of the poems of the last months of her life, had been published to a chorus of high critical praise, and in 1971, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees appeared. Collections of her letters, her journal entries, and miscellaneous other writings have also been published, and The Collected Poems, arranged and edited by Ted Hughes, received the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

What these various, carefully crafted volumes reveal is a woman of great sensitivity and lively intellect who was simultaneously aware of the joys and psychic terrors of earthly existence and for whom, despite extraordinary reserves of creative vitality, death was often more fascinating than life. They also show a woman struggling to cope with her several socially defined roles as a giving woman (daughter, lover, wife, mother) and with her contradictory human needs for independent selfhood and individual achievement. The tensions between the lure of life and the lure of death and the need to fulfill the expectations of others and the need to fulfill the demands of self are pervasive in Plath’s diverse literary output.

Sylvia Plath Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, to Otto and Aurelia Plath on October 27, 1932. Her father, whose distorted and terrifying image dominates so much of her work, was a Polish German who taught at Boston University and whose beekeeping provided another central symbol for his daughter’s poetry. Her mother, of Austrian descent, was an educated woman who later taught at the college level. Warren Plath, Sylvia’s only sibling, was born on April 27, 1935.

For most of Plath’s early childhood her family lived in Winthrop, a seaside town near Boston, and as a child Plath spent much of her time exploring, collecting shells, and examining marine life. In her thinly veiled autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar (1963), she was to have her heroine, Esther Greenwood, reminisce about the happiness she had felt “running along the hot white beaches with my father the summer before he died.”

The major event in Plath’s life was the death of her father, which occurred as a result of pulmonary embolism following an injury complicated by diabetes. His death occurred in November, 1940, when she was eight. The picture she paints of him throughout her work is not usually the idyllic memory of The Bell Jar, however, but a bitter assault. He becomes a Nazi, a demon, a devil—even a demon lover calling her to the grave. After her father’s death, Plath distinguished herself as a student and a precociously talented writer. She won numerous school and local prizes and managed to publish her first short story, “And Summer Will Not Come Again,” in the August, 1950, issue of Seventeen, just as she was entering college.

Plath went to Smith College on two scholarships, one from the Wellesley Smith Club and the other a private fund endowed by Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of Stella Dallas (1922), who was later to help pay for Plath’s medical treatment and was uncharitably caricatured in The Bell Jar. In August, 1951, Plath’s short story “Sunday at the Mintons” won Mademoiselle’s fiction contest. Plath also won great recognition at Smith for her poetry and her scholarship. In 1952, she won a guest editorship in Mademoiselle’s College Board Contest, giving her the experience in New York that she later recorded in The Bell Jar, and she had poems accepted by Mademoiselle and Harper’s. From the outside, things seemed to be going perfectly.

Pressures were building up, however, and to Plath the few disappointments (such as not being received into a writing class she wanted) outweighed her many achievements. She sank into a serious depression and, after ineffective psychiatric treatment, attempted suicide in the summer of 1953 by hiding herself away in a womb-like hole in her mother’s cellar and taking an overdose of sleeping pills. This confusion of birth and death is a major theme in her novel and poems. Discovered and hospitalized, Plath was given electroshock treatments and psychotherapy and was discharged as cured. She returned to Smith for a triumphant final year, a year studded with prizes and publications and crowned by a scholarship to the University of Cambridge.

At Cambridge, Sylvia met the English poet Ted Hughes; she married him in London on June 16, 1956. The couple lived in Cambridge, England, until the spring of 1957, when they moved to Boston. Plath became an instructor at Smith. She really wanted to be a writer and not an academic, however; she quit her post to spend her time revising and resubmitting her much-rejected poetry book. In December, 1959, they moved back to England. Their first child, Frieda, was born there in April, 1960.

To her great satisfaction, her book of poetry, The Colossus, and Other Poems (1960), was accepted by William Heinemann for publication. In addition, she received a Eugene F. Faxton Fellowship to complete the novel she had begun about her nervous breakdown; the family was then living in rural Croton, Devon. By the time her son, Nicholas, was born in January of 1962, Plath was well at work on The Bell Jar.

Plath and Hughes decided to separate in the fall of 1962. She moved to London with her children and was overjoyed to find free an apartment in what had once been W. B. Yeats’s house. Always a believer in signs and portents, she felt that this was surely an indication of coming good fortune. Although The Bell Jar was published in January of 1963, however, the reviews were not what she had wished, and the physical conditions of Yeats’s house were not conducive to optimism. The apartment was cold and drafty, pipes froze, and Plath could not get a telephone installed.

Ironically, at this time when she was despairing and often ill, she was driven to write almost furiously—she scribbled intense, desperate poems each morning before the children woke up. “The blood jet is poetry,” she said in one of these poems, “There’s no stopping it.” She did find a way to stop the blood jet. On February 11, 1963, she placed towels on the floor to prevent seepage into the other room where the children were sleeping, and she turned on the gas oven. She died at thirty, leaving her most acutely painful autobiographical poems to be published posthumously in Ariel (1965), Winter Trees (1971), and Crossing the Water (1971).

Sylvia Plath Biography

(Novels for Students)

Remembered today for her horrifying death as well as for her impressive body of literature, Sylvia Plath was born on 27 October 1932 in...

(The entire section is 661 words.)