• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

On Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

by Sylvia Plath
Harper & Row, 296 pp., $6.95

Crossing the Water (to be published September 8)

by Sylvia Plath
Harper & Row, 96 pp., $5.95

In Sylvia Plath’s work and in her life the elements of pathology are so deeply rooted and so little resisted that one is disinclined to hope for general principles, sure origins, applications, or lessons. Her fate and her themes are hardly separate and both are singularly terrible. Her work is brutal, like the smash of a fist; and sometimes it is also mean in its feeling. Literary comparisons are possible, echoes vibrate occasionally, but to whom can she be compared in spirit, in content, in temperament?

Certain frames for her destructiveness have been suggested by critics. Perhaps being born a woman is part of the exceptional rasp of her nature, a woman whose stack of duties was laid over the ground of genius, ambition, and grave mental instability. Or is it the 1950s, when she was going to college, growing up—is there something of that here? Perhaps; but I feel in her a special lack of national and local roots, feel it particularly in her poetry, and this I would trace to her foreign ancestors on both sides. They were given and she accepted them as a burden not as a gift; but there they were, somehow cutting her off from what they weren’t. Her father died when she was eight years old and this was serious, central. Yet this most interesting part of her history is so scorched by resentment and bitterness that it is only the special high burn of the bitterness that allows us to imagine it as a cutoff love.

For all the drama of her biography, there is a peculiar remoteness about Sylvia Plath. A destiny of such violent self-definition does not always bring the real person nearer; it tends, rather, to invite iconography, to freeze our assumptions and responses. She is spoken of as a “legend” or a “myth”—but what does that mean? Sylvia Plath was a luminous talent, self-destroyed at the age of thirty, likely to remain, it seems, one of the most interesting poets in American literature. As an event she stands with Hart Crane, Scott Fitzgerald, and Poe rather than with Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, or Elizabeth Bishop.

The outlines of her nature are odd, especially in her defiant and extensive capabilities, her sense of mastery, the craft and preparation she almost humbly and certainly industriously acquired as the foundation for an overwhelming ambition. She was born in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Her mother’s parents were Austrian; her father was a German, born in Poland. He was a professor of biology, a specialist, among other interests, in bee-raising. (The ambiguous danger and sweetness of the beehive—totemic, emblematic for the daughter.) Her father died and the family moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, to live with their grandparents. The mother became a teacher and the daughter went to public schools and later to Smith College. Sylvia Plath was a thorough success as a student and apparently was driven to try to master everything life offered—study, cooking, horseback riding, writing, being a mother, housekeeping. There seemed to have been no little patch kept for the slump, the incapacity, the refusal.

(Whether she was anything like the creature her hasty biographer, Lois Ames, seems to be patching together we will never know. Mrs. Ames follows the Indian trail of the natural wherever a hint of a footprint can be found. Thus, we learn that “she played tennis, was on the girl’s basketball team, was co-editor of the school newspaper…” and so on. Everyone who writes about this life welcomes any collision with warming facts. They like to point out that she and Ted Hughes were married on “Bloomsday.” The letters written by Sylvia Plath—at least the excerpts we have seen thus far—tend to be rather minimal, flat, suppressed, impersonal, rather more an instance of her lack of genuine closeness to the recipient than of any wish to reveal herself. A. Alvarez does make her alive and real to us and his chapter on Sylvia Plath in his book about suicide1 is very moving. Alvarez is restrained, but he manages to suggest many of the private sufferings that were there at the moment of suicide.)

Sylvia Plath went on a Fulbright to Cambridge University. She met and later married the distinguished poet Ted Hughes, and after a year or so back in America they returned to live in England. Her first book of poems, The Colossus, was published in 1960, the same year her daughter Frieda was born. In 1962, her son Nicholas was born—and then life began to be hard and disturbing, except that she was able to write the poems now being issued under the title Crossing the Water. She was separated from her husband, came back to London with two small children, tried to live and work and survive alone in a bare flat during one of the coldest years in over a century. The Bell Jar was published under a pseudonym just before she died, in February, 1963.

In the last freezing months of her life she was visited, like some waiting stigmatist, by an almost hallucinating creativity—the astonishing poems in Ariel and in a volume already published in magazines but maddeningly to be withheld until after the valuable but less brilliant Crossing the Water has had its turn. This last book, written at the same time as Ariel, is to be called Winter Trees, or so I understand.

The creative visitation was not from heaven, but from the hell of rage. Yet so powerful is the art that one feels an unsettling elation as one reads the lacerating lines. The poems are about death, rage, hatred, blood, wounds, cuts, deformities, suicide attempts, stings, fevers, operations—there is no question of coming to terms with them. They are also about children, her own who were intensely loved, but “child” and “baby” as mere words are often attached to images of pain and death. Many of the poems are tirades, voiced at such a pitch of eloquence and passion they take your breath away. She, the poet, is frighteningly there all the time. Orestes rages, but Aeschylus lives to be almost seventy. Sylvia Plath, however, is both heroine and author; when the curtain goes down it is her own dead body there on the stage, sacrificed to her plot.

She has the rarity of being, in her work at least, never a “nice person.” She is capable of anything—that we know. Alvarez reminds us how typical of her nature is the scene in The Bell Jar in which she dashes down a ski slope without knowing how to ski; he remembers her reckless ways with horses, and tells of a deliberate smashing of her own car in a suicidal burst before the final one.

It is not recklessness that makes Sylvia Plath so forbidding, but destructiveness toward herself and others. Her mother thought The Bell Jar represented “the basest ingratitude” and we can only wonder at her innocence in expecting anything else. For the girl in the novel, a true account of events so far as we know, the ego is disintegrating and the stifling self-enclosure is so extreme that only death—and after that fails, shock treatment—can bring any kind of relief. Persons suffering in this way simply do not have room in their heads for the anguish of others—and later many seem to survive their own torments only by an erasing detachment. But even in recollection—and The Bell Jar was written a decade after the happenings—Sylvia Plath does not ask the cost.

There is a taint of paranoia in her novel and also in her poetry. The person who comes through is merciless and threatening, locked in violent images. If she does not, as so many have noticed, seem to feel pity for herself, neither is she moved to self-criticism or even self-analysis. It is a sour world, a drifting, humid air of vengeance. The Bell Jar seems to be a realistic account of her suicide attempt during the summer before her senior year at Smith. But the novel is about madness as well, and that separates it from the poems. Death, in the poetry, is an action, a possibility, a gesture, complete in itself, unmotivated, unexamined.

The Bell Jar opens with the line, “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.” The Rosenbergs are in no way a part of the story and their mention is the work of an intelligence, wondering if the sufferings of a solitary self can have general significance. Also with her uncanny recognition of connections of all kinds—sound, sensation—and her poetic ordering of material, the electrocution of the Rosenbergs and the shock treatment at the end of the book have a metaphorical if not a realistic kinship. In the end the Rosenbergs just mean death to Sylvia Plath. “I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive, all along your nerves.”

After a summer in New York, the girl goes back to Massachusetts and madness begins to close in on her. “I hadn’t slept for twenty-one nights. I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul de sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadows under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.”

Committing suicide is desperation, demand for relief, but I don’t see how we can ignore the way in which it is edged with pleasure and triumph in Sylvia Plath’s work. In The Bell Jar she thinks of slashing her wrists in the tub and imagines the water “gaudy as poppies”—an image like those in her late poems. When she is unable to do the act she still wants to “spill a little blood” for practice. “Then I felt a small, deep thrill, and a bright seam of red welled up at the lip of the slash. The blood gathered darkly, like fruit, and rolled down my ankle into the cup of my black patent leather shoe.” These passages, and others much more brilliant in her poems, show a mind in a state of sensual distortion, seeking pain as much as death, contemplating with grisly lucidity the mutilation of the soul and the flesh. In “Daddy,”

Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

With Sylvia Plath the submission to, the pursuit of pain are active, violent, serious, not at all in a Swinburnian mood of spankings and teasing degradation. Always, behind every mood, there is rage—for what reason we do not know, not even in the novel where the scene is open and explicit. In some poems the rage is directed blankly at her father; in others more obliquely, but with intensity, at her husband.

  1. 1

    The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, to be published by Random House next spring. The chapter on Sylvia Plath appears in New American Review 12 (Simon & Schuster, $1.95), just published.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print