Tomorrow, February 11, is the 60th death anniversary of Sylvia Plath, one of the most admired and influential poets of the 20th century, who, through her poems, short stories and sole novel, The Bell Jar, expressed the suffocation of the thinking woman in a patriarchal and conservative society. Perhaps without meaning to, she became one of the powerful voices for feminism.
Her death by suicide — she turned on the gas in the kitchen and asphyxiated to death — at the age of 30 was tragic, but also brought mental health issues into sharp focus; now they are discussed openly and celebrities talk about their struggles with depression and bipolar disorder, but back then, if women spoke of despair, they were up against an unsympathetic medical establishment. They were labelled hysterical, locked into asylums and either given heavy medication, or subjected to the supposed cure-all, electric shocks. Families were ashamed of mental illness in the family, and preferred to pretend it did not exist. In the latter half of the 20th century, it became fashionable for the wealthy to have therapy with expensive shrinks, but the rest were left to cope on their own, or with very little support.
Plath wrote of emotional turmoil of being stifled, her dark yet beautiful imagery spoke to readers and inspired other writers of the time. Most of her work was published posthumously, she was the first poet to win the Pulitzer Prize after her death; and decades later her writings have not dated or lost their power.
A snippet from her controversial poem, Daddy:
You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who
Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.
Or a section of Lady Lazarus:
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical…
Like many disturbed people, Plath’s problems could be traced to her childhood, when her strict father died when she was eight. At a very young age, when most kids cannot even clearly articulate their thoughts, she was writing poems; she started keeping a journal and barely into her teens she was already publishing her poems in smaller magazines, moving up to national magazines.
She was brilliant academically and won a partial scholarship to Smith College, at a time when women were allowed higher education, so that “there would be educated children.” Women who had entered the workforce during World War ll when the men were away fighting, were suddenly told they had to return to the kitchen, and aspire to be nothing more than good wives and mothers. According to a piece on her in owlcation.com, “This time in Plath’s life was marked with indecision as the poet was swept up with the changing society, questioning her abilities to work and marry, writing, ‘would marriage sap my creative energy… or would I achieve a fuller expression in arts as well as in the creation of children?’ Sylvia Plath was described as ‘different’ from the typical Smith girl of the time. Describing her own feelings in comparison to her peers, Plath said she did not plan to fill a ‘role’, or would not change for marriage, but would ‘go on living as an intelligent, mature human being’, mockingly pointing out the wrongful practice of woman’s ‘vicarious experience’ lifestyle in marriage.”
In 1953, Plath worked at Mademoiselle Magazine, in New York (a prize for winning a fiction contest), and that time, when she was obviously a misfit, became the basis of her novel, The Bell Jar.
After graduating, she moved to Cambridge, UK, on a Fulbright Scholarship. In early 1956, she met fellow poet Ted Huges and married him a few months later. Her first collection of poems, titled Colossus, was published in 1960 when she was just 28; she gave birth to two children, and suffered a setback when Hughes left her for poet Assia Gutmann Wevill. Her suffering led her to write several poems, and also the semi-autobiographical novel, which was first published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.
Plath dug into her life for a lot of her confessional poetry, and her novel was a roman a clef, that documented her own mental collapse, through the life of her protagonist, Esther Greenfield, who is disoriented by her life in New York which she finds flashy and vacuous. Like Plath, Esther also makes suicide attempts; like the writer, the character also goes through treatment for depression.
Other women of that era must have also been through those conflicts between traditional expectations and their ambitions. Plath not just expressed her angst in words, she spoke for a whole generation of women, whose skills and creative impulses were being suppressed.
The poetryfoundation.org site quotes Margaret Rees from the World Socialist, “Whether Plath wrote about nature, or about the social restrictions on individuals, she stripped away the polite veneer. She let her writing express elemental forces and primeval fears. In doing so, she laid bare the contradictions that tore apart appearance and hinted at some of the tensions hovering just beneath the surface of the American way of life in the post war period.”
For Plath and her alter ego, the bell jar symbolised a kind of madness, like being shut in an airless jar and being unable to breathe freely. As Esther says in the book, “Wherever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
Because of her blazing talent and morbid suicide, Plath has been analysed by scholars, written about in fiction, her story filmed, and books about her are on the way. As James Parker wrote in The Atlantic, “The ’70s enthroned her as a feminist martyr. She has been posthumously psychoanalyzed, politicized, astrologized. She did, it’s true, pack into her three decades a remarkable number of reboots and re-selvings — transformation, and its lethal opposite, was her theme — but even so … Can’t we leave her alone?”
Many more female poets since then have written about the experiences of women, but even today, after so many hurdles placed in the way of women’s progress have been removed, reading Sylvia Plath is almost a rite of passage for girls. By her dramatic death (she was once called the Marilyn Monroe of American literature), Sylvia Plath seemed to have ensured her immortality.
Deepa Gahlot is a Mumbai-based columnist, critic and author
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