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Discuss Sylvia Plath’s ambiguous attitude toward father figures.

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Plath was her own chief subject matter. Does she get outside herself in poems of external nature such as “Black Rook in Rainy Weather,” “Stings,” and “Blackberrying”?

In what respects is Esther Greenwood of The Bell Jar decidedly not like Plath herself?

What generalizations can you make about the length and arrangement of Plath’s lines and stanzas?

The poem “Edge” begins with the statement “The woman is perfected.” What does this mean? Is there any definition of “perfected” other than the most usual one that applies?

How does Plath’s confessional poetry differ in tone from that of Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton?

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Sylvia Plath is widely recognized as one of the strongest and most distinctive American poets of the postwar period. Her major collections include The Colossus (1960), a number of posthumous collections including Ariel (1965), Crossing the Water (1971), and the definitive Collected Poems (1981). She also wrote the best-selling novel The Bell Jar, which first appeared in England under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963.


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Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1982. She was a Fulbright scholar in England (1955-1957) and a Phi Beta Kappan.

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Sylvia Plath was a prolific writer of poetry and prose. Her first publication was a short story, “Sunday at the Mintons’,” which appeared in Mademoiselle in 1952. Throughout the remainder of her life, her stories and prose sketches appeared almost yearly in various journals and magazines. Ted Hughes edited a selection of these prose works, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams (1977-1979). Plath’s extensive diaries and journals were also edited by Hughes; they were published as The Journals of Sylvia Plath in 1982. Her mother has edited a collection of letters written by Plath to her between 1950 and 1963, Letters Home (1975). Plath’s work in other forms included a poetic drama, Three Women, that was aired on the BBC on August 19, 1962; an autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas (1963); and a popular children’s book, The Bed Book (1976).


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Sylvia Plath’s poetry, like that of Hart Crane, will be read, studied, and known for two reasons: for its intrinsic merit, and for its bearing on her suicide. In spite of efforts to disentangle her poetry from her life and death, Plath’s reputation and impact have fluctuated with public interest in her suicide. Almost immediately after her death, she was adopted by many members of the feminist movement as an emblem of the female in a male-dominated world; her death was lamented, condemned, criticized, and analyzed as a symbolic gesture as well as an inevitable consequence of her socialization. Explanations for her acute mental anguish were often subsumed in larger arguments about her archetypal sacrifice.

With the publication of The Bell Jar and the posthumous collections of poetry, however, her audience grew in diversity and appreciation. She received the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry magazine in 1957, and The Collected Poems was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1982. Although she never lost her value to the feminist movement, she gained other sympathetic readers who attempted to place her in a social and cultural context that would help to explain—although certainly not definitively—her artistic success and her decision to end her life.

It is not difficult to understand why Plath has won the respect of a wider audience. Her poems transcend ideology. Vivid, immediate re-creations of mental collapse, they are remnants of a psyche torn by severely conflicting forces. However, Plath’s poems are not merely re-creations of nightmares; were they only that, they would hardly be distinguishable from reams of psychological case histories. Plath’s great achievement was her ability to transform the experience into art without losing its nightmarish immediacy.

To retain that immediacy, Plath sometimes exceeded what many readers consider “good taste” or “aesthetic appropriateness”; she has even been convicted of trivializing universal suffering to the level of individual “bitchiness.” The texture of her poetry demands closer scrutiny than such judgments permit, for Plath was one of the few poets to adhere to Theodor Adorno’s dictum: “To write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” In one sense, Plath redefined lyric by using that mode in a unique way. Plath’s Auschwitz was personal but no less terrifying to her than was the horror of the German death camps to the millions who died there and the millions who learned of them later. For Plath, as for the inmates of Auschwitz, survival became paramount, but her Nazis were deep in her own psyche and her poetry became a kind of prayer, a ritual to remind her of her identity in a world gone mad. As a record of such experiences, Plath’s poetry is unexcelled in any tradition.


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Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking, 1991.

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.

Gill, Jo, ed. Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, England: Cambridge, 2006. A two-prong approach to Plath and her works. One section deals with “Context and Issues” and the other “Works.” The student of Plath will find both sections invaluable.

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.

Helle, Anita, ed. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2007. Eleven original essays that draw on correspondence and manuscript drafts to discuss the life and writing of Sylvia Plath. Includes family photographs and full-page reproductions of her paintings.

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. 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.

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