Sylvia Plath 1932–1963
(Also wrote under pseudonym Victoria Lucas) American poet, short story writer, diarist, radio dramatist, and novelist.
The following entry presents an overview of Plath's career through 1996. See also Sylvia Plath Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 9, 14, 17, 111.
Sylvia Plath is renowned as one of the most powerful American poets of the postwar period. Her acclaimed poetry and prose are characterized by intense self-consciousness, accusatory despair, and disquieting expressions of futility and frustration. A complicated literary personality whose biography is nearly impossible to disentangle from her writing, Plath is frequently 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 vivid and often shocking verse reveals the psychological torment associated with feelings of alienation, inadequacy, and abandonment. Her semi-autobiographic novel The Bell Jar (1963) and highly charged verse in The Colossus (1960) and Ariel (1965) won widespread critical appreciation and continue to attract scholarly analysis. The posthumous publication of her poetry in The Collected Poems (1981) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Since her tragic death, Plath has inspired a generation of women writers and feminist critics as a leading voice against female subordination and passivity in modern society. A poet of remarkable force and ability, Plath exerted an indelible influence on American literature as a self-possessed visionary and casualty of her art.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Plath was the eldest child of Aurelia and Otto Emil, a German-born professor at Boston University who authored a notable treatise on bumblebees. An undiagnosed diabetic, Otto died in 1940 after complications resulting from surgery to amputate his leg. Upon her husband's death, Aurelia secured a teaching position at Boston University where she trained medical secretaries. Shaken by the loss of her father, Plath took an early interest in creative writing and began to publish poetry and short fiction in various magazines, including Seventeen and the Christian Science Monitor. A precocious and highly mo-tivated student, Plath attended Smith College on a scholarship beginning in 1950. There she continued to win academic distinctions and was selected in 1953 to serve as a student editor for Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. During the same year, she lapsed into an episode of severe depression, culminating in a suicide attempt for which she was hospitalized and treated with electroshock therapy. Under psychiatric care, Plath returned to Smith College the following year, completed an honors thesis on Fedor Dostoevsky's fiction, and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English in 1955. The next fall Plath set off for Cambridge, England, to attend Newnham College on a Fulbright Scholarship. While overseas, she met poet Ted Hughes, whom she married in June of 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 worked briefly as a medical secretary at a Massachusetts psychiatric clinic. Plath attended a poetry workshop with Robert Lowell at Boston University in 1958 and spent several months at the Yaddo writing colony in New York the following summer. In 1959 Plath and Hughes returned to England where she gave birth to their first child, Frieda Rebecca. Plath published The Colossus, her first book of poetry, in October of 1960. After recovering from a miscarriage and appendectomy in 1961, Plath was awarded a Eugene F. Saxon fellowship and began work on The Bell Jar, which appeared in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Several months after the birth of their second child, Nicholas Farrar, in 1962, Plath and Hughes separated as a result of Hughes's infidelities. After a failed reconciliation, Plath moved to a London apartment with her two children where she became increasingly depressed and despondent, although it was at this time that she produced some of her finest poetry. Her sense of isolation was exacerbated by an unusually harsh winter, nagging illnesses, and the strain of single parenthood. In February of 1963, Plath took her own life by inhaling gas from her kitchen stove. Several posthumous volumes of Plath's poetry appeared over the next two decades, including Crossing the Water (1971), Winter Trees (1971), and the Pulitzer prize-winning The Collected Poems—all compiled under the editorship of Hughes. Further biographical information concerning Plath's life appeared in Letters Home (1975), a volume of Plath's personal correspondence published by Aurelia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977), a collection of Plath's prose writings and diary excerpts, and The Journals of Sylvia Plath (1983).
Plath's poetry and fiction are well-known for their intensity and ubiquitous incorporation of personal detail. The Bell Jar, Plath's only novel, is perhaps the most explicitly autobiographical, as it recounts events surrounding Plath's internship with Mademoiselle and subsequent nervous breakdown. The protagonist is Esther Greenwood, a nineteen-year-old college student whose intellectual talents and professional ambitions are frustrated by disillusionment and mental collapse following a summer in New York City as an intern for a woman's magazine. While in Manhattan, Esther quickly becomes dissatisfied with her superficial work as a fashion writer and struggles to develop her self-identity in opposition to conventional female roles. After strained encounters with several men, including one who physically abuses her, she throws her clothes into the street from the top of her apartment building and returns home, where she falls into a deep depression and eventually attempts suicide. While hospitalized, Esther is subjected to traumatic electroshock therapy, though, in the care of a benevolent female doctor, later recovers enough to return to school under the ominous threat of another, more severe, breakdown. As in much of her poetry, Plath evinces a morbid fascination with death and a strong aversion to the prospect of a stifling domestic existence as a subservient housewife and mother. Esther's disappointing social and sexual experiences also reveal the frustration and humiliation endured by women whose intelligence and abilities are disregarded in both the office and home. Plath's first volume of poetry, The Colossus, similarly displays an overriding preoccupation with estrangement, motherhood, and fragmentation in contemporary society. More formal than her later work, the poems of The Colossus reveal Plath's mastery of conventional forms, though bear the distinct influence of her association with confessional poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. Much of Plath's rage is directed against her father, whom she invokes as both a muse and target of scorn. While in the title poem Plath refers to him as an "oracle" and "mouthpiece of the dead," in "Electra on Azalea Path," she rails against his premature death and her own lost innocence. Likewise, "The Beekeeper's Daughter," one of many so-called "Bee" poems, alludes to her father and his expertise on the subject of bumblebees. Plath's concern with childbirth is evident in "Metaphors," a cryptic description of gestation introduced as "a riddle in nine syllables," and in "Poem for a Birthday," a series of five separate poems that explore the relationship between artistic creation and the maternal condition. The imagery of fetuses, pregnancy, and creation appear in much of Plath's poetry, especially as a foil for the opposite extreme of the life cycle—death, particularly the looming prospect of self-annihilation. Five months before her suicide, Plath composed the bulk of the poems in Ariel, her most famous volume of poetry, which contains "Lady Lazarus" and "Daddy," her best known and most anthologized poems. More so than in The Colossus, the poems of Ariel render isolation and insecurity as menacing threats with gruesome consequences. Through a synthesis of brutal self-revelation and macabre associations, including disconcerting references to Nazis and the Holocaust, Plath conjures historical and mythic allusions to give depth and immediacy to her psychic distress. Plath also uses color symbolism and archetypal imagery to juxtapose opposing aspects of nature and existence, as in "Tulips" and the title poem, "Ariel," where red and white alternately represent blood, life, death, and rebirth. Other poems, such as "Cut" and "Fever 103°," describe physical afflictions with a combination of clinical objectivity and surrealism that evokes a sense of disorientation and violent self-abnegation. On the theme of marriage and domesticity, "The Applicant" reveals the callous objectification of women as obedient wives whose value is determined by their household utility. As in much of her poetry, the appearance of wild spontaneity and free association belies the subtlety of internal metaphors, lyrical rhythms, and tonal complexity painstakingly formulated to dramatize the terrifying experience of raw, desublimated human fears and desires.
Plath is widely praised for her technical accomplishment and stark insight into severe psychological disintegration and existential anxiety. Despite her early death, critics continue to marvel at her rapid artistic development over a brief period of only several years. The contents of The Colossus and Ariel, along with additional compositions from Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, represent Plath's principal body of work, upon which her reputation as a poet rests. With the posthumous publication of The Collected Poems, Plath won renewed critical approval and gained an even larger following. As many critics note, her poetry exhibits an appealing irony, wit, and consistency in its recurring leitmotifs and colloquial symbols, particularly involving bees, infants, wombs, flowers, mirrors, corpses, the moon, and the sea. While Plath is commonly associated with the confessional poets, primarily Lowell and Sexton, the influence of Theodore Roethke is also apparent in her use of intuitive word associations, near rhymes, and Freudian childhood memories. Plath's poetry is typically criticized for its histrionic display of emotion, excessive self-absorption, inaccessible personal allusions, and nihilistic obsession with death. In addition, some critics object to references to the Holocaust in her later poetry, which, in the context of Plath's private anguish, are viewed as gratuitous and inappropriate. However, most agree that Plath's best poetry converts personal experience and ordinary affairs into the mythopoetic. Her only novel, The Bell Jar, is also regarded as a classic of modern American literature, drawing favorable comparison to J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Though later adopted as a heroine and martyr of the feminist movement, Plath's persistent efforts to deconstruct and recreate her self-identity in the transcendent language of metaphor and archetype remains among her greatest achievements. A gifted and much admired literary figure who has assumed cult-like celebrity since her death, Plath is considered among the most influential and important American poets of the twentieth century.