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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.

The actual suicide she attempted, and from which she was rescued only by great luck and accident, is very distressing in its details. The girl goes down into a cold, damp, cob-webbed corner of a cellar. There she hides herself behind an old log and takes fifty sleeping pills. The sense of downness, darkness, dankness, of unbearable rot and chill is savored for its ugliness and hurt. “They had to call and call / And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls” (“Lady Lazarus”).

In real life there was a police search, newspaper headlines, empty pill bottle discovered; it was dramatic, unforgettable. Sylvia Plath was found, sent to the hospital, had shock treatment, and “the bell jar” in which she had been suffocating was finally lifted. The novel is not equal to the poems, but it is free of gross defects and embarrassments. The ultimate effort was not made, perhaps, but it is limited more in its intentions than in the rendering. The book has an interestingly cold, unfriendly humor. We sympathize with the heroine because of her drudging facing of it all and because of her suffering. The suffering is described more or less empirically, as if it were a natural thing, and the pity flows over you partly because she herself is so hard and glassy about her life.

This autobiographical work is written in a bare, rather collegiate 1950s style, and yet the attitude, the distance and bitter carelessness are colored by a deep mood of affectlessness. The pleasures and sentiments of youth—wanting to be invited to the Yale prom, losing your virginity—are rather unreal in a scenario of disintegration, anger, and a perverse love of the horrible. The seduction of Esther Greenwood, as the heroine is called, is memorably grotesque and somehow bleakly suitable. The act led to a dangerous, lengthy, very unusual hemorrhaging. The blood—an obsession with the author—flows so plentifully that the girl is forced to seek medical help. She rather grimly pursues the young man with demands that he pay the doctor’s bill, as if in some measure to get revenge for an action she herself cooperated with in the interest of experience.

The atrocious themes, the self-enclosure, the pain, blood, fury, infatuation with the hideous—all of that is in The Bell Jar. But, in a sense, softly, hesitantly. The poems in Ariel are much more violent. Indeed, the celebrated poem “Daddy” is as mean a portrait as one can find in literature.

Suicides are frequent enough, but the love of death, the teasing joy of it are rarely felt. Hart Crane, Virginia Woolf, many others committed suicide. Some believe even Sappho threw herself from a rock into the sea. We think of these self-destructive actions as more or less sudden or as the culmination of an unbearable depression, one that brings with it a feeling of unworthiness and hopelessness, despair that cannot imagine recovery.

Some of the journals Virginia Woolf wrote during the days before her death have in them the glittering contempt of a Sylvia Plath poem such as “Lesbos.”

Viciousness in the kitchen!
The potatoes hiss.
It is all Hollywood, windowless.

It goes on:

You have stuck her kittens outside your window
In a sort of cement well
Where they crap and puke and cry and she can’t hear.

This poem was written in the last weeks of Sylvia Plath’s life and I have no clue as to whether or not it was an actual scene. The excessive violence of the language, remarkable as it is, seems to come from a mind speeding along madly and yet commanding an uncanny control of language, sound, rhythm, and metaphor that is the very opposite of madness.

In the entry of Virginia Woolf’s diary there is a similar impatience. “They were powdering and painting, these common little tarts…. Then at Fuller’s. A fat, smart woman in red hunting cap, pearls, check skirt, consuming rich cakes. Her shabby dependant also stuffing…. Where does the money come from to feed these fat white slugs?”

Anger and contempt. And yet, when the day comes for Virginia Woolf, the pain of the illness bears down on her and she feels only apology, gratitude, and depression. Her letter to her husband reads, “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times…. I can’t fight any longer. I know I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work.” She weighted her skirts and managed to drown in the river.

With Sylvia Plath suicide is a performance. “Lady Lazarus” describes it with a raging, confident pride. There is no apology or fearfulness. Suicide is an assertion of power, of the strength, not the weakness, of the personality. She is no poor animal sneaking away, giving up, but strong, threatening, dangerous.

I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it—
“Lady Lazarus”

Sometimes the performance is a reposeful one, as in “Edge”:

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Occasionally, as in the ending of “Last Words,” domesticity and annihilation are mixed together:

When the soles of my feet grow cold,
The blue eye of my turquoise will comfort me.
Let me have my copper cooking pots, let my rouge pots
Bloom about me like night flowers, with a good smell.
They will roll me up in bandages, they will store my heart
Under my feet in a neat parcel….

Sylvia Plath’s preoccupation with the body at the moment of death reminds me of Mishima, although her concern is not to be “fit” as his apparently was but simply to have the sensation of the corpse. With both of these suicides the action is asserted as a value, a definition, a pure leap. It is even sometimes thought of as beautiful, “pure and clean as the cry of a baby.”

The circumstances of her suicide in London, the expectation that a girl would be coming in early to help with the children, the knowledge that the man in the flat below awakened early, the note with the doctor’s name and phone number: these facts lead Alvarez to speculate that Sylvia Plath didn’t entirely want to kill herself. She risked death—and lost.

Suicide, in that view, is thought of as a cry for help, one that cannot be uttered in the usual ways. The sheer fact of it was a tragic culmination and yet it is not the death but the obsessions with it that are her inexplicable subject matter. Torture, mutilation, destruction are offered as interesting in themselves, without any suggestions that they are a “problem.” Mishima tried to decorate his death with ideas of national policy which were, of course, ridiculous fantasies. Sylvia Plath always seems to be describing her self-destruction as an exhilarating act of contempt.

Anne Sexton’s prose and her poem about Sylvia Plath’s death are rather jaunty and casual and somehow rapid, as if one were telling an anecdote in fear of interruption. She speaks of herself and Sylvia Plath as “deathmongers,” and tells with great excitement of their talking about “their” deaths in the Ritz Bar in Boston.2 “We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric light bulb. Sucking on it!” This is a very sick scene, even if lightly tossed about in the memory. Anne Sexton tries, in a poem, to explain the suicidal impulse:

Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.

Suicide is only one of the distressing themes in Sylvia Plath’s work. There is fascination with hurt and damage and fury; she is a bluntly acute and rather heartless observer. There is a blind man at the table on a ship, feeling for his food. “His fingers had the noses of weasels. I couldn’t stop looking.” The bright reds of poppies and tulips become bloody and threatening. Gifts are not easily accepted. Slashing a finger in the kitchen is the occasion for “Cut,” with its transfixed accuracy.

What a thrill—
My thumb instead of an onion.
The top quite gone
Except for a sort of hinge

Of skin,
A flap like a hat,
Dead white.
Then that red plush.

A bruise is, in like manner, painted in “Contusion.”

Colour floods to the spot, dull purple.
The rest of the body is all washed out.
The colour of pearl.

Is the poem “Daddy” to be accepted as a kind of exorcism, a wild dramatic monologue of abuse screamed at a lost love?

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.

Her father died of a long illness, but there is no pity for his lost life. Instead he is not the dead one; he is the murderer:

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 association of her own pain with that of the Jews in Europe has been named very well by George Steiner, “a subtle larceny.” The father did not kill anyone and “the fat black heart” is really her own. How is it possible to grieve for more than twenty years for one as evil and brutal as she asserts her father to have been? On the grounds of psychology every opposite can be made to fall neatly into place—that jagged, oddly shaped piece is truly part of a natural landscape if only you can find that spot where its cutting corners slip into the blue sky. The acrimonious family—yes, any contrary can turn up there, logically as it were. But even strangers, the town, are brought into the punishment of her father and this is somehow the most biting and ungenerous thought of all:

There’s 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, I’m through.

She insists that she is the victim—poor and white, a Jew, with a pretty red heart. But she is a dangerous and vindictive casualty: “Herr God, Herr Lucifer / Beware / Beware.” “Daddy,” with its hypnotic rhythms, its shameful harshness, is one of Sylvia Plath’s most popular and known works. You cannot read it without shivering. It is done completed, perfected. All the hatred in our own hearts finds its evil unforgiving music there—the Queen of the Night.

Love for her children, what about that? Isn’t it mitigating? There is warmth and even joy. The boy and girl are “two roses,” a child’s smile is “found money,” children are “the one solid the spaces lean on,” the baby is a “high-riser, my little loaf.” But children also appear in the images of destruction. In “Edge” the woman who is perfected by death has her dead children with her.

She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odours bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

A child’s smile is a “hook.” There is a poem about the deformities occasioned by thalidomide. In “Death & Co.”:

He tells me how sweet
The babies look in their hospital
Icebox, a simple

Frill at the neck,
Then the flutings of their Ionian
Death-gowns,
Then two little feet.

What can we make of a poet so ambitious and vengeful, so brilliant and yet so willfully vulnerable? How can we judge such a sense of personal betrayal, such rage and such deformed passions? Her work is overwhelming; it is quite literally irresistible. The daring, the skill, the severity. It shocks and thrills. She called—in a typically awful phrase—her last burst of poetry “the blood jet.”

When the time came she had earned it by all those earlier poems, slowly, carefully written, by that long ambition, burning, waiting, learning, by her A’s, her Phi Beta Kappa, her driven perfectionism, her arrogance, her madness controlled to just the right degree. The loneliness which Alvarez so compellingly preserves for us, the freezing flat, without curtains, the icy early mornings furiously writing before the children cried and before the “glassy music” of the milkman, her husband off with someone else—there was have a “modern instance” if there ever was one.

It is not a question in these last weeks of the conflict in a woman’s life between the claims of the feminine and the agonized work of art. Every artist is either a man or a woman and the struggle is pretty much the same for both. All art that is not communal is, so to speak, made at home. Sylvia Plath was furious. Alvarez writes:

I suspect that finding herself alone again now, however temporarily and voluntarily, all the anguish she had experienced at her father’s death was reactivated: despite herself, she felt abandoned, injured, enraged and bereaved as purely and defenselessly as she had as a child twenty years before.

The sense of betrayal, even of hatred, did not leave her weak and complaining so much as determined and ambitious. Ambitious rage is all over Ariel and in the poems written at the same time and now coming out in magazines. “The Applicant” is a very bitter poem about the woman’s part in marriage. In “For a Fatherless Son” she speaks to the child about the absence of the father that will gradually grow in the child’s consciousness like a tree:

A death tree, color gone, an Australian gum tree—
Balding, gelded by lightning—an illusion,
And a sky like a pig’s backside, an utter lack of attention.

And that is what her own life was like at the end—the husband and father’s “utter lack of attention.”

In the explosive energy of her last months I see a determination to “win.” Indeed I feel, from the evidence of her work, that it is sentimental to keep insisting that the birth of her children unlocked her poetic powers. Why should that be? The birth of children opens up the energy for taking care of them and for loving them. The common observation that one must be prepared to put off other work for a few years is strongly founded. Of course it is foolish to generalize and it is the work itself, its hard competitiveness that glares out at every turn. When she died she was alone, exhausted from writing, miserable—but triumphant too, achieved, defined and defiant.

I don’t see the death as a necessity for the greatness of the work. Quite the opposite. It is the feeling not the action that assaults our senses; the action gives a little shiver, and only that. If anything could have saved Sylvia Plath it would have been that she, in life, might have had the good fortune to be alive and exactly where she is today. She has won the green cloth—no writer ever wanted it more. She leaped onto the mountain. Even The Bell Jar is on the best-seller list. Not only has she confounded her “enemies,” she would have had money, power over her own life, fame, all of it by her own efforts. As it is now, the pathos and irony are too much to think about. Lois Ames, whom she scarcely knew, writing her biography; her books dribbling out; every piece of Mademoiselle and college magazine prose threatened; her own ungenerous nature and unrelenting anger sentimentalized.

Beyond the mesmerizing rhythms and sounds, the flow of brilliant, unforgettable images, the intensity—what does she say to her readers? Is it simple admiration for the daring, for going the whole way? To her fascination with death and pain she brings a sense of combat and brute force new in women writers. She is vulnerable, yes, to father and husband, but that is not the end of it at all. I myself do not think her work comes out of the cold war, the extermination camps, or the anxious doldrums of the Eisenhower years. If anything she seems to have jumped ahead of her dates and to have more in common with the years we have just gone through. Her lack of conventional sentiment, her destructive contempt for her family, the failings in her marriage, the drifting, rootless rage, the peculiar homelessness, the fascination with sensation and the drug of death, the determination to try everything, knowing it would not really stop the suffering—no one went as far as she did in this.

There is nothing of the social revolutionary in her, but she is whirling about in the center of an overcharged, splitting air and she understands especially everything destructive and negative. What she did not share with the youth of the present is her intense and perfect artistry, her belief in it. That religion she seemed to have got from some old Prussian root memory of hard work, rigor, self-command. She is a stranger, an alien. In spite of her sea imagery—and it is not particularly local but rather psychological—she is hard to connect with Massachusetts and New England. There is nothing Yankee in her. So “crossing the water” was easy—she was as alien to nostalgia and sentiment as she was to the country itself. A basic and fundamental displacement played its part.

Long after I had been reading her work I came across the recording of some of her poems she made in England not long before she died. I have never before learned anything from a poetry reading, unless the clothes, the beard, the girls, the poor or good condition of the poet can be considered a kind of knowledge. But I was taken aback by Sylvia Plath’s reading. It was not anything like I could have imagined. Not a trace of the modest, retreating, humorous Worcester, Massachusetts, of Elizabeth Bishop; nothing of the swallowed plain Pennsylvania of Marianne Moore. Instead these bitter poems—“Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “The Applicant,” “Fever 103°”—were “beautifully” read, projected in full-throated, plump, diction-perfect, Englishy, mesmerizing cadences, all round and rapid, and paced and spaced. Poor recessive Massachusetts had been erased. “I have done it again!” Clearly, perfectly, staring you down. She seemed to be standing at a banquet like Timon, crying, “Uncover, dogs, and lap!”

It is a tragic story, completely original and unexpected in its scenes and its themes. Ted Hughes, her husband, has a poem about wives:

   Their brief
Goes straight up to heaven and nothing more is heard of it.

That was not true of Sylvia Plath, and since we now have no choice perhaps there is no need to weigh and to wonder whether her awful black brief was worth it.

  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.

  2. 2

    In The Art of Sylvia Plath, edited by Charles Newman (Indiana University, 1970).

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