Going through my books, I came across The Bell Jar. The angst-like cover got me thinking of a quick round of word associations. If I say “Sylvia Plath” – what comes to mind? Here’s a list of possibilities: suicide, author, depression, pain, mental illness, fear, death, or oven. These may not have been the first words that flickered through your mind—but they’re certainly some of the ones that reoccur frequently, at least on social media platforms.
On these sites it feels as though she is sometimes diminished, all-too-often reduced to quotes in faux-vintage typewriter fonts; or a series of faded portraits. Her work is chopped up into sound bites, her life passed around as legend. There’s an uneasy sense of veneration, a collapsing of the distinction between Plath the poet and Plath the person— as though the two were one and the same.
I admire her work. It’s sharp, dark, funny and beautiful. But this is balanced against a load of what “Sylvia Plath” as an entity has become. The very personal nature of her work makes it a tricky line to tread.
I am not saying that it’s wrong to write, read, promote or celebrate works that plunge into the dark depths of mental illness. It’s actually key that we do so, and keep those lines of communication open to promote action toward combating mental illness.
Nor am I disputing the fact that Plath’s words resonate and mean a lot to plenty of people, particularly young women who’ve found Plath’s voice to be something of a beacon when no-one else seems to understand. It’s incredible that her thoughts continue to echo and remain relevant so many years after they were first committed to the page.
We all read Plath in our own way. Different parts mean different things to different people. For many, her descriptions of worthlessness, anxiety and struggle to keep going will be familiar – perhaps comforting as a lifeline woven into words.
For me, stanzas such as this one in Tulips feel particularly close and raw: “I am nobody. I am nothing to do with these explosions. I have given up my name and my day clothes to the nurses and my history to the anesthetist and my body to the surgeon.”
It summarizes the vulnerability of being in a hospital that can be appreciated on both individual and artistic levels.
The “I” of Plath’s poetry and prose is not the “I” of Plath herself. One can appreciate that Plath extracted the pain from her own life to create her art, without viewing her as a straight up autobiographer. She is first and foremost a poet and author intensely focused on rhythms, momentum, sound and image.
There’s a long tradition of seeing female writers as mouthpieces for their feelings and emotions—as though all that flowed from the pen was a spontaneous expression of self. There are two opposing ideas going on here. One is that it’s important that we value these expressions of feeling and emotion in fiction as commentary of our current social culture, to document lifestyle as literature and not judge it as self-indulgent pity. We need to see these topics as being just as worthy as the more traditionally masculine “bigger themes” like war, government or politics. But the other is to acknowledge that feeling and emotion aren’t all that writers are about. Their intelligence goes beyond the norm and spills into other areas. Plath is also an astute observer on character behavior, biting social observations and had a startling clarity of description. People rarely mention that The Bell Jar is funny, as well as devastating.
There are lots of other strands that could be highlighted, but I’d like to use this as an open forum. What do you think of Plath? Are you more interested in her life or her work? Why are we so utterly fascinated by her autobiography— and how does this affect our perception of a writer’s power? I’d love to hear your thoughts.