Plath is widely considered one of the most emotionally evocative and compelling American poets of the postwar period. Although Plath gained only modest critical success during her lifetime, after her suicide at the age of thirty and the subsequent publication of her poetry collection Ariel (1965) she achieved widespread acclaim as a poet. This status was affirmed when Plath's posthumously published Collected Poems (1981) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982. Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel titled The Bell Jar (1963), which, like her poetry, reveals an intensely personal struggle with self-consciousness, bold metaphors for death and sexuality, and a pioneering examination of societal limitations experienced by women. A complicated literary personality whose biography is nearly impossible to disentangle from her writing, Plath has often been regarded as a confessional poet, though her deeply personal lamentations often achieve universality through mythic allusion and archetypal symbolism. Viewed as a cathartic response to her divided personae as an artist, mother, and wife, Plath's works have been heralded by feminist critics for illuminating the personal and professional obstacles faced by women in the mid-twentieth century. These factors, combined with her tragic death, have made Plath an iconic figure whose popular fame has nearly equaled her literary acclaim.
Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932, the eldest child of Otto Emil and Aurelia Plath. Her father was a German immigrant who served as a professor of entomology at Boston College. An undiagnosed diabetic, Otto died in 1940 after complications resulting from surgery to amputate his leg. His death devastated Plath, who was then eight years old, and the sense of betrayal she felt following his passing would later become a major theme in her writing. While in her teens, Plath began to publish poetry and short fiction in various magazines, including Seventeen and the Christian Science Monitor. A precocious and highly motivated student, she received a scholarship and attended Smith College beginning in 1950. There, she continued to earn academic distinction and in 1953 she was selected to serve as a student editor for Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. Due to the stressful conditions of the guest editorship and the subsequent rejection of her application to a Harvard short story class taught by Frank O'Connor, Plath lapsed into a severe depression which culminated in her first suicide attempt. After overdosing on sleeping pills, she was hospitalized and received psychiatric care, including electroshock therapy to treat her depression. Plath convalesced and received outpatient psychiatric treatment for several months before returning to Smith College and graduating summa cum laude with a degree in English in 1955. That same year, Plath received a Fulbright scholarship and enrolled in Newnham College in Cambridge, England. There, she met English poet Ted Hughes, whom she married after a brief courtship in 1956. After completing her master's degree at Cambridge in 1957, Plath settled with Hughes in the United States, where she taught English at Smith College and attended poetry workshops given by Robert Lowell at Boston University. In 1959 Plath and Hughes returned to England, where she gave birth to their first child, Freida. Her first book of poetry, The Colossus, appeared in 1960. In 1961 she began work on The Bell Jar, which was published in London two years later under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. In 1962 Plath gave birth to a second child, Nicholas. That same year, she learned that Hughes was having an affair with another woman, and the two separated. During the divorce proceedings, Plath moved to a London apartment with her two children, where she became increasingly despondent. On February 11, 1963, she committed suicide by inhaling gas from her kitchen stove.
Commentators have generally agreed that Plath's literary oeuvre is remarkable for its unrestrained emotional intensity and its ubiquitous incorporation of personal detail inspired by the author's own life experiences. The Bell Jar, Plath's only novel, is perhaps her most explicitly autobiographical work. It recounts events strikingly similar to Plath's demanding student internship at Mademoiselle, her suicide attempt, and her subsequent psychiatric rehabilitation. The novel's protagonist, Esther Greenwood, becomes dissatisfied with her work at a New York magazine and struggles to develop her self-identity in opposition to conventional female roles. After strained encounters with several men who attempt either to manipulate or to subjugate Esther, she leaves New York and returns home, where she becomes depressed and attempts suicide. Esther is then hospitalized and undergoes electroshock treatment, eventually improving enough to return to school, although another breakdown threatens. Throughout the book, Esther seeks her own identity by comparing herself to other feminine archetypes whom she encounters, including a benevolent female doctor who is instrumental in her rehabilitation and a lesbian acquaintance who ultimately commits suicide. In the course of the novel, Esther also ponders the traditional expectations placed upon women and displays a strong aversion to the prospect of a stifling domestic existence as a mother and housewife.
Critics have observed that Plath's first poetry collection, The Colossus, displays an overriding preoccupation with estrangement, motherhood, and fragmentation within contemporary society. Many have further asserted that the collection demonstrates Plath's mastery of traditional literary forms while bearing the influence of confessional poets such as Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. Several of the poems in this collection introduce Plath's obsession with the symbol of the father figure, who is treated with scorn and rage but who is also invoked as a muse. The starkly direct poems in Ariel—many of which were written in the months and weeks prior to Plath's death—address similar subjects to those in The Colossus but display a more distinctive voice and a less formal style. Critics have pointed out that psychic distress is signaled through brutal self-revelation, violent imagery, and macabre associations, including disconcerting references to Nazis and the Holocaust. "Lady Lazarus" features a speaker who addresses "Herr Doktor" and references lampshades that Nazi torturers fashioned from the skin of their victims. The poem's central metaphor, the resurrected Lazarus from the Bible, has often been read as a reference to a woman who has survived several suicide attempts. The closing declaration of the woman's ability to "eat men like air" sounds a note of revenge against the male figure the speaker identifies as her "Enemy." Similar references are found in "Daddy," where the poetic voice associates both her father and husband with Nazism and herself with Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The title poem, "Ariel," displays Plath's intricate use of color imagery. It encompasses a forceful move from darkness to light that has been interpreted as a woman speaker transforming herself into the male image of the arrow. The poet's ongoing fascination with death is sounded in many of the Ariel poems, including "Edge," which presents a vision of a dead woman holding two dead children and noting the woman's "smile of accomplishment."
Most critics have acknowledged that Plath's poems display an accomplished technical acumen and a brilliant, yet stark insight into severe psychological disintegration and harrowing existential anxiety. Many have also asserted that despite its overall gravity, her poetry exhibits an appealing undercurrent of irony and dark humor in its treatment of morbid themes. However, some commentators have objected to what they perceive as Plath's histrionic display of emotion, inaccessible personal allusions, and nihilistic obsession with death. These critics have further averred that her use of horrific events as metaphors for personal anguish might be considered gratuitous and inappropriate. Regardless of the critical debate about the merit of Plath's themes and motifs, feminist scholars have championed the poet for her pioneering efforts to expose the absurdity of conventional feminine models and her attempts to establish equal footing for women writers in a male-dominated publishing industry. Indeed, critics have identified The Bell Jar as a groundbreaking female version of the typically masculine coming-of-age novel and hailed the book's incisive portrayal of the frustrations felt by a talented and ambitious young woman in a profession dominated by men. At least one critic, Diane S. Bonds, has challenged this notion, arguing that Esther's experience represents the concept of a separative model of selfhood. Bonds concluded that because Esther fails to cultivate a network of positive, non-hierarchical relations, especially with other women, within the challenging parameters of her masculine environment she is likely to re-experience the alienation that led to her suicide attempt. Joyce Carol Oates (see Further Reading) has also written of this alienation in Plath's poetry, contending that it represents outmoded Romantic ideas that identify the human condition as one of isolated competition. In this context, Oates has characterized Plath's poems as "regressive fantasies" that speak of a separate self rather than a universal one. Most feminist critics have affirmed, however, that insurmountable masculine oppression is what led to Plath's obsessive preoccupation with alienation. Kathleen Margaret Lant has asserted that "Ariel" serves as an analogy for Plath's role as a woman poet and argues that the female speaker's attempt to transform herself into a more masculine figure ultimately proves futile. Similarly, other scholars have discussed "Lady Lazarus" in the context of this struggle, with Maureen Curley (see Further Reading) contending that the poem serves as a commentary on the difficulties faced by female artists and Laura Johnson Dahlke (see Further Reading) concluding that the speaker's conflict with "Herr Doktor" represents a struggle against male dominance that ultimately ends in defeat. Christina Britzolakis has extended this gender conflict to society as a whole, arguing that Plath addresses a much larger issue than mere feelings of alienation and futility in the face of male domination. According to Britzolakis, Plath's poetry can be seen as an exhibition of ironic self-reflection in response to the widespread cultural objectification of women as mere commodities for mass consumption.