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.
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.
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.