Some of the most recognized names in the literary world today fell victim to their place in history, receiving little to no recognition during their lifetime. Such writers include Jane Austen, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and the subject of this write-up, Sylvia Plath. Plath, who wrote most of her acclaimed work from the mid ’50s to the early ’60s, was swept under the sardonic rug of literary criticism and left to be forgotten. Because of the fact that Plath was a woman, her personal, cathartic poems were regarded as overemotional and pathetic. Weak writing that was consequential of womanhood, according to modern critics of her time. Plath is now famous for advancing confessional poetry. The same style of writing that got her dismissed in the ’50s and early ’60s.
In her work, Plath addressed her depression, suicide attempts, insanity, and need for approval by those she held in high regards. Plath wrote from life. A life that was tragically cut short 50 years ago this year. Just weeks before Plath killed herself in London, she published her only work of prose, The Bell Jar. In The Bell Jar, Slyvia Plath uses the metaphor of being trapped inside of a bell jar to illustrate the depression that she succumbed to one summer after her junior year of university. The suicide attempt that is depicted in The Bell Jar, was just that-a failed attempt. But the bell jar depression would eventually shove her into an untimely death. On February 11,1963, Plath committed suicide by putting her head in the oven with the gas on, and thereby asphyxiating to death. She was 30 years old.
Plath’s psychological well-being emulated her unstable life. Her father, an entomologist who taught at Boston University near the home that Sylvia grew up in, died from diabetes after having his foot amputated when his daughter was 8 years old. Plath referred to the death of her father as the great tragedy of her life. She would never be the same. To Plath, her mother would prove to be a disappointing parent. In spite of her father’s premature death and tense relationship with her mother, Plath excelled in school, never making anything lower than an A. She received a full scholarship to Smith College in 1950. After graduating from Smith, she was awarded a Fullbright scholarship to study abroad at Newnham, College Cambridge in England. While attending classes at Newnham, Plath met the to-be-famous poet, Ted Hughes. Plath and Hughes courted for only a few short months before marrying in 1956.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’s marriage would be as passionate and abrupt as their courtship had been. The year before Plath killed herself, Hughes began an affair with a mutual friend of the poet-couple; one Assia Wevill, wife to the Canadian poet, David Wevill. Although this was not Hughes’s first affair that Plath was knowledgeable of, Hughes’s relationship with Assia was the final straw. Plath took her two-year-old daughter, Frieda, and 11month-old son, Nicolas, away from Hughes in September of 1962 after Plath had confirmed Hughes’s affair. After spending a few months away from London, the three eventually moved back, taking up courters in a small flat just a few blocks away from where Hughes and Plath had been living when Plath learned of Hughes and Wevill’s relationship.
While living in this small apartment, Plath wrote several poems that would appear in Ariel, a collection of poems published two years after her death. During this period of writing, reviews of The Bell Jar began to come out. Critics considered the semi-autobiography a work of mediocrity, regarding it as juvenile and insipid. Commentary on The Bell Jar worsened the psychological and emotional hell Plath was living in. Her beloved marriage with Hughes was over; since she had left Hughes her income was barely enough to support her and her children; England was in the midst of the coldest winter in one-hundred years, and worst of all, her dream of becoming a successful writer seemed unattainable. Plath had predicted this final descent a year before when she began writing The Bell Jar. In the last few pages of her novel, the bell jar metaphor becomes prophetic: “How did I know someday-at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere-the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?” Of course when Plath wrote these words she was already in Europe watching the thread of her life begin to unravel. For Plath, her depression was an uncontrollable force that would always threaten her life.
Almost fifty years after her suicide on that winter morning, the name Sylvia Plath is synonyms with literary genius. She published countless articles and poems in various magazines and more than half a dozen books of poetry, most of which were published posthumously. Her most acclaimed works are The Colossus, Ariel, The Collected Poems, and The Bell Jar. In 1982 The Collected Poems received a Pulitzer Prize. Today, The Bell Jar is extolled as a modern classic; a book that is now being read in high schools and universities around the world. As we approach the 50 year anniversary of the publication of The Bell Jar and Sylvia Plath’s death, we should remember Plath for what she was, and what the critics of her time failed to recognized her as-a great writer. A writer who advanced the style of confessional literature, a woman who asserted her intelligence in a world marked by sexism, and an artist who was bold enough to grapple with her fears and failures on a platform for the world to watch.
Plath reminds the individual that one’s struggles do not make them a continuum of some manufactured alien species designed to be rejected by humanity (regardless if humanity treats them as such). Depression, anxiety, insanity, and the need for affirmation are part of what make us human. Sylvia Plath’s booming honesty and transparency is a voice of reason for the confused and dispirited.