Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

    Contributing Editor:
    Linda Wagner-Martin

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Students usually begin with the fact that Plath committed suicide and then read her death as some kind of "warning" to talented, ambitious women writers. (The recent biography by Stevenson only supports this view, unfortunately.) What must be done is to get to the text, in each case, and read for nuance of meaning--humor, anger, poignance, intellectual tour de force. Running parallel with this sense of Plath as some inhuman persona is a fearful acknowledgment that women who have ambition are not quite normal. Plath receives a very gender-based reading. A good corrective is to talk about people who have tendencies toward depression, a situation that affects men as well as women.

    Focus on the text and ready information about the possible biographical influence on that text. Often, however, the influences are largely literary--Medea is as close a persona for some of the late poems as Plath herself-- T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, W. S. Merwin, W. B. Yeats, etc. Criticism is just now starting to mine these rich areas. Some attention to the late 1950s and early 1960s is also helpful: seeing the poetry and The Bell Jar as the same kind of breakthrough into the expression of women's anger as Betty Friedan's or Simone de Beauvoir's is useful.

    Hearing Plath read from her own late work is effective: She has an unusual, almost strident voice, and the humor and gutsiness of the 1962 poems come across well. Caedmon has one recording that has many of the late poems backed with Plath's interview with Peter Orr for the BBC, taped on October 30, 1962 (many of the poems she reads were written just that week, or shortly before). The PBS Voices and Visions Plath segment is also fairly accurate and effective.

    As mentioned above, the fact of Plath's suicide seems primary in many students' minds. Partly because many of them have read, or know of, The Bell Jar, it is hard to erase the image of the tormented woman, ill at ease in her world. But once that issue is cleared, and her writing is seen as a means of keeping her alive, perhaps the study of that writing becomes more important to students: It seems to have a less than esoteric "meaning."

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Themes include women's place in American culture (even though Plath lived the last three years in England, thinking wrongly that she had more freedom in England to be a writer); what women can attempt; how coerced they were by social norms (i.e., to date, marry, have children, be a helpmeet, support charities); the weight society places on women--to be the only support of children, to earn livings (Plath's life, echoing her mother's very difficult one, with little money and two children for whom she wanted the best of opportunities); the need for superhuman talent, endurance, and resourcefulness in every woman's life.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Versatility of form (tercet, villanelle, many shapes of organic form, syllabics), use of rhyme (and its variations, near rhyme, slant rhyme, assonance), word choice (mixed vocabularies)--Plath must be studied as an expert, compelling poet, whose influence on the contemporary poetry scene--poems written by men as well as women--has been inestimable. Without prejudicing readers, the teacher must consider what "confes-sional" poetry is: the use of seemingly "real" experience, experience that often is a supreme fiction rather than personal biography; a means of making art less remote from life by using what might be life experience as its text. Unfortunately, as long as only women poets or poets with abnormal psychiatric histories are considered "confessional," the term is going to be ineffective for a meaningful study of contemporary poetry.

    Original Audience

    Although most of Plath's best poems were written in the early 1960s, the important point to be made is that today's readers find her work immediate. Her expression of distrust of society, her anger at the positions talented women were asked to take in that society, were healthful (and rare) during the early 1960s, so she became a kind of voice of the times in the same way Ernest Hemingway expressed the mood of the 1920s. But while much of Hemingway's work seems dated to today's students (at least his ethical and moral stances toward life), Plath's writing has gained currency.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    The most striking comparison can be made between the early work of Anne Sexton and Plath (Plath learned a lot from Sexton), and to a lesser extent, the poems of Theodore Roethke. W. D. Snodgrass's long poem "Heart's Needle" was an important catalyst for both Sexton and Plath, as was some of Lowell's work. If earlier Plath poems are used, Stevens and T. S. Eliot are key. And, in moderation, Ted Hughes's early work can be useful-- especially the animal and archaic tones and images.


    Susan Van Dyne's essays on the manuscripts are invaluable (see Centennial Review, Summer 1988). See also the Massachusetts Review essay, collected in Wagner's Sylvia Plath: Critical Essays (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984) and Van Dyne's 1993 book from the University of North Carolina Press.

    Wagner's Routledge collection, Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage (1988) includes a number of helpful reviews.

    Linda Bundtzen's Plath's Incarnations (University of Michigan Press, 1983), Steven Axelrod's 1990 Sylvia Plath, The Wound and the Cure of Wounds, along with the Wagner-Martin biography of Plath, are useful. See also Linda Wagner-Martin's Plath's The Bell Jar, A Novel of the Fifties (1992).