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,...
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