Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
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
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.
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
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).