Studying the life and work of Sylvia Plath leads the student down a path littered with the dangers of hasty conclusions.
Poet Sylvia Plath, 1933-63, is often lauded as the guide-on bearer of the feminist movement, but after my recent short study of her life and some of her work, I think she truly only represents herself as a traumatized woman for whom psychiatric treatment was not successful.
Apparently much of her pain originated from her relationship with her father who died when Plath was ten. The year was 1943, the middle of World War II. He was Austrian, and much of Plaths2 work is a pastiche of references to the war and the Holocaust.
Plaths mother was no help. She seemed cold and uncommunicative to me, a woman who was more concerned with what others would think of her and her daughter. She did seek psychiatric help for Plath, but she continued to want Plath to be a good girl and not embarrass her.
Nothing seemed to bring balance to Plaths life even though she was an outstanding student, earning a scholarship to Smith College and later a scholarship to study in England where she met and married Ted Hughes who would become the Poet Laureate of England.
The plan was to retreat to a home outside of London, Court Green, to live as working poets, raising vegetables and kids, not succumbing to the glare of London literary life.
But the life of the secluded poet did not continue. After seven years of marriage Plath surely found out about Hughes adulterous relationship with another poets wife, Assia Wevill, who became pregnant. Plath moved back to London with her two children, Frieda, age four, and Nicholas, age one, and suffered through most of an extremely cold winter. It was in her London flat that Plath committed suicide in 1963.
Would she have become the literary figure she wanted to be if she had lived? Her poetry would certainly have sustained her reputation, but all of the attention paid her over the years has been because of her early death. Most of her poems and her novel The Bell Jar were published posthumously. The Collected Poems edited by Ted Hughes won the Pulitzer Prize 19 years after her death.
Because of all the secondary information about Plath which has become an industry in itself, one must read Plaths journals, her poetry, and The Bell Jar for himself to understand her and not her analysts.
First I draw my impression of Plath from her novel The Bell Jar, a story about her alter ego Esther Greenwood who spends a summer as an intern for a womens magazine in New York City. The novel was published under a pseudonym in England first and was later published in the United States 1971 by Ted Hughes and typically under the protest of Plaths mother. One biographer recorded Hughes published the book to fund the purchase of a third home. Ted is most often seen as the evil doer in Plaths life, to use an expression au courant.
The title of the book is a reference to the oppression Esther feels. She feels showcased in a glass jar, her behavior restricted and watched constantly by her neighbors, her teachers, doctors, her mother.
Esther/Sylvia is a bright college student who knew something was wrong with me that summer… In what seems like a giant leap to treatment, Esther is sent for electroshock therapy after a few visits to a psychiatrist. She spends much of her time in the rings of a mental hospital, moving from one level of confinement to another, until eventually she is released. The restrictions and confinement of the hospital mirror the restrictions and expectations of society in general. So many rules applied upon the person. There is also a second attempt at suicide.
Then there is sex. Esther is expected to marry a med student, Buddy Willard, who has been sent to a sanitarium for tuberculosis. He also confesses that he has had sex while Esther remains a virgin. Esther is devastated by this inequity and searches for someone, not Buddy, to claim her virginity. Armed with birth control pills, she sleeps with Irwin, a stranger who has asked her for the time of day. After intercourse, Esther hemorrhages and must be treated at a hospital. The episode is another example of an action that should be liberating and fulfilling which instead makes Esther a victim.
Mothers always play major roles in autobiographies. Mrs. Greenwood means well, but throughout the novel she is much more concerned with appearances than with real help for her daughter Esther. Mr. Greenwood has died, leaving the family without insurance, and Mrs. Greenwood must work hard to support herself and Esther. Mrs. Greenwood wants Esther to learn shorthand so she will always be employable, but Esther resists, knowing the life of a stenographer is not for her. Fortunately, there is a scholarship to college, an absolute financial necessity which Esther must not lose, and Esther feels the pressure to do well academically, take the right classes, achieve scholastic success. Achieve, achieve, achieve–what is the question. Her ambition and desire for career is explained in the metaphor of a fig tree–so many figs/careers to choose from; knowing which to pick is the frustration.
Marriage and motherhood offer no pleasant anticipation either. Esther watches in horror her neighbor with six children.
Even though the novel achieved no great literary acclaim, The Bell Jar became a manual for the feminist movement, denoting what awful things American society did to their precocious girls in the 50s an 60s.
My impression is Plath saw herself as a victim too much of the time, no matter what opportunity for success and happiness she was given. She came from a middle class family in which her father was a college professor who had a reputation for his knowledge of bees. His death was traumatic, and she hung on to her conflict over his death, writing about her relationship with him in her poem Daddy.
You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time–
Marble-heavy , a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal
And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend
Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you. The tongue stuck in my jaw.
It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you .
And the language obscene
An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.
I have always been scared of you
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You–
Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I ws ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look
And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, Im through.
The black telephones off at the root,
The voices just cant worm through.
If Ive killed one man, Ive killed two–
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Se ven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.
Theres a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, Im through.
The theme of confinement presents itself again in the poem Daddy. a black shoe becomes the metaphor for her dad under his influence she has lived like a foot…Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.
The poem expresses not only her conflict with her father but also a commentary of what must have been some serious turmoil over having an Austrian father who spoke German, the language obscene, while the United States was at war with Germany. Plath thinks she may well be a Jew scared of her dad" With your Luftwaffe…neat mustache…Aryan eye…Panzer-man, panzer-man…
But the next stanza she writes Every woman adores a Fascist, an expression of the attraction she feels for a man she is also very afraid of. He is a devil with A cleft in your chin instead of your foot.
He has Bit my pretty red heart in two…At twenty I tried to die And get back, back, back to you. I thought even the bones would do…a man in black with a Meinkampf look.
The final three stanzas alert the reader that for Plath there is even more than fear and hatred of her dead father. Another issue is she feels she killed her father, and now after marrying, she is in the process of killing a second man, her husband, Ted Hughes whom she sees as a replica of her father. If Ive killed one man, Ive killed two–…The vampire who said he was you And drank my blood for a year, Seven years, if you want to know. Daddy, you can lie back now. Plath must have known of Hughes adultery when she wrote this poem. Often wives feel responsible for their husbands infidelity.
There is no resolution of her fathers death early in her life; her idealized marriage has become torture. Husband Ted Hughes was often unfaithful to her and some biographers blame him for Plaths suicide. To compound the negative feelings Plath readers feel toward Hughes is the fact six years after Plath committed suicide his mistress, Assia Wevill, also killed herself and their four year old daughter, Shura. Ted Hughes married a second time and continued his affairs with other women. He died in 1998.
Psychiatrists need to explore Plaths relationships with men probably repeated over and over based on her first relationship with her father. My reaction is daddies need to be very careful with their daughters to avoid causing the trauma Plath suffered and had the talent to write about and the misfortune to repeat in her choice of a husband.
The second poem most often referenced as most representative of Plath is Lady Lazarus, which deals with her third attempt at suicide, also published in 1962.
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it–
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?–
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
So on, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot–The big strip tease.
These are my hands
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say Ive a call.
Its easy enough to do it in a cell.
Its easy enough to do it and stay put.
Its the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart–It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
Ash, ash–You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–
A cake of soap, A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Plath would be successful in the fourth suicide attempt as she left her two children in her London flat, closed the door to the kitchen and stuck her head in the gas oven.
She again uses references to the Nazis, the horrors of the Holocaust. She sees herself awakening as A sort of walking miracle, my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade…My face a featureless, fine Jew linen.
She has not died this time. And I a smiling woman. I am only thirty. And like the cat I have nine times to die. Readers can sense that this was not going to be the last of the suicide attempts. Plath saw she was talented in attempting death. Dying Is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well…I guess you could say Ive a call.
Her talent for death needs to be rewarded and she wants to charge observers who speak to her, touch her, want a piece of my hair or my clothes when she is revived. Here again is her expression she is always being observed.
In stanza 22 she addresses her doctor as Herr Doktor, …Herr Enemy. She has become his opus, his success, and she does not underestimate your great concern. But she has a warning for the men who bring her back to life. Flesh, bone, there is nothing there–A cake of soap, A wedding ring, A gold filling. Herr God, Herr Lucifer Beware Beware. The references to the concentration camps and the burning of the Jews continues. God and Lucifer are referred to with German addresses.
The last line is chilling. No one would want to know the agony of a woman who has just attempted suicide and sees herself not as a victim but as a force that destroys men. And I eat men like air.
So my conclusion on Sylvia Plath. Read her journals. Read The Bell Jar and her poetry. Read Janet Malcolms analysis of the analyses of Plath entitled The Silent Woman. Another choice would be Sylvia and Ted written by Emma Tennant who also had an affair with Ted Hughes. Visit PlathOnline.com. Most of all, keep this in mind: here was a woman who was bright, talented, afforded opportunity for education and success. She desired the life of a renowned poet, keeping a salon for other creative souls. In fact she married a renowned poet. She must have laughed, acted silly, dressed up, but her perception of life too often casts her in the role of victim, experiencing devastating disappointments which she could not overcome.