Sylvia Plath 50 Years On: Why We Still Go Back To Her All These Years Later

It’s hard to believe that it has been 50 years this week, since Sylvia Plath’s death. The now iconic poet tragically committed suicide on the 11th February 1963, less than a month after her first and only (now beloved) novel The Bell Jar was published. In the years following her death the poet, writer and artist has been immortalised in our literary culture; The Bell Jar (published originally under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas in 1963), has sold millions of copies (it has just been re-released to controversy as the book cover was derided for being branded as ‘chick lit‘), been studied in schools and universities all across the world and has been subject to much adoration and acclaim from both the critics and lovers of literature alike. Despite the fact that though she only published one book of poetry in her lifetime, ‘The Colossus,’ the publication of this and her other works following her death, such as the renowned ‘Ariel,‘ meant the world had the opportunity to see just how truly gifted she was.

“Dying 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.” – Sylvia Plath

Tributes from across the globe have been written to mark the 50th anniversary of her death, in particular a favourite of mine was a piece on The Guardian, in which writers and poets reflect on what her work means to them. This got me thinking about the impact her work has had on me as a writer.

I remember the first time I read Morning Song, (I was still in school at that point) and even then, that initial reading of it had me transfixed with the powerful words and stark imagery she could create. I knew briefly of her troubles; how she struggled throughout her life with her depression and anxieties, trying to repress and make sense of the suffocating environments she often found herself in. She had high expectations of herself and her work reflects the challenges she went through as she tried to have it all in her life. I researched her as much as I could and have since devoured nearly everything she has ever written, but it was only when I read the The Bell Jar that my true “Plath obsession” as I like to call it, began to take hold.

The First Edition cover and the recently released 50th Anniversary Cover

The First Edition cover and the recently released 50th Anniversary Cover

The novel is, without question, a work of brilliance. Dark, shocking, painfully honest, humorous and heart breaking at times, there is a reason it has stood the test of time; everyone can and usually does find some part of this work that resonates with them. But, I should stress, that it’s no light read for the faint hearted — the descriptions are unforgiving, the subject matter often frighting — and it is also for this reason that the subsequent release of the 50th anniversary cover fills me with disgust; it depicts a flimsy, romantic read which could be nothing further from the truth. The image of a woman applying make-up against the colourful red backdrop and bright lettering is laughably inappropriate for a work tracing a descent into extreme near-suicidal depression, and above all, simply does no justice to the writing that’s behind it.

The story is told from the view point of our protagonist Esther Greenwood, a college student from Massachusetts, who travels to New York to work on a renowned magazine for a month. The trip however is not what she hopes it to be. Instead of feeling joyous at her accomplishment and enjoying and absorbing the glamourous, exciting New York lifestyle, she feels increasingly underwhelmed and “dead inside” as the trip progresses. She returns home feeling that she’s utterly wasted such an opportunity, is hugely inadequate and questions all her creative capabilities (this is made worse once she fails to make a prestigious writing course), and her mental state begins to worsen as a result of this. She endures some truly harrowing experiences as she attempts to cope and get treatment for her illness, and such is the power of her writing, the reader feels every ounce of pain that she does. She has a sure, strong voice throughout but underneath all that, her insecurities and venerable side are gradually revealed as the story progresses. It’s a mesmorising, but tough read as you’re rooting for Esther; you empathise with her, you feel the fear that she does, you hate the hypocrites as she does and above all, you want to see her make it out of that bell jar. Through Plath and this novel, much insight was given into an array of topics such as the effects of mental illness, pressure to succeed, psychiatric treatment and so much more, which would not have been spoken about so openly in the 1960s.

Sylvia Plath photographed at different periods in her life.

Sylvia Plath photographed at different periods in her life.

I’ve always recognised a lot of myself in Plath’s writing, which is what makes me love her work so much.The same is also felt by most that read it, I’m sure. After all, who hasn’t felt that same crippling feeling of self doubt at one time or another when they’re faced with rejection? Who hasn’t felt that yearn to succeed, while feeling bound by society’s rules and restrictions? In particular, Plath’s ‘fig tree’ metaphor for the lack of dimension often demanded of women’s lives is one of my favorites. Esther finds her self “starving to death” when she is unable to choose which metaphorical “fig” to reach for in life: should she choose tranquil domesticity and family life in the suburbs (as she feels is expected of her), a life of travel or a career as a poet? She simply cannot decide. Eventually, every fig rots and falls to the ground such is her indecisiveness. She simply cannot make a decision, therefore all her options slowly wither and die, and she along with them. It is such a powerful, vivid image and it’s moments like this that make the work completely compelling, yet you’re sometimes terrified to turn the pages. But turn them you will, because you’re with her with her right until the very last one. For those that don’t know, the novel is semi autobiographical; some events are taken directly from her life and others fiction, but either way, it is totally Sylvia. If you’ve not read The Bell Jar and you read nothing else by Plath, this is the one work you must read.

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
 – Sylvia Plath

In terms of her death playing a part in her legacy, I think it would be foolish to deny that this were true. The tragedy of a 30 year old, talented writer, poet, and mother ending her own life is I think, a part of what makes her work so compelling to read (aside from the wonderful writing that is); we’re searching for an insight into her mind. We certainly get this and so much more through her beautifully written work hence, why 50 years on, we still go back to it. Whatever might be said of her much talked about relationship husband with Ted Hughes, he did get her work out for us to enjoy after her death, so that is something we must be thankful for (if you’re going to read her poetry collections or journals however, I strongly suggest you hunt down the ‘unedited’ versions as Hughes tore a lot of her work apart with the release of the original versions). Her struggles, her sorrows, her moments of joy and happiness are all in her work so if you’re looking to learn more about her, I recommend reading The Bell Jar, her unabridged Journals and at least one of her Poetry Collections. ‘Birthday Letters’ by Ted Hughes is also a fantastic piece of work and provides a unique insight into their relationship, and the person that she was. She is my favourite writer and poet (and oh, how I long to write as she did!), and my bet is that 50 more years from now, she’ll still be a favourite for many others too.

To finish off, below is an audio file of Sylvia reading her well known poem and favourite of mine ‘Lady Lazarus.’ Enjoy!

Are you a Plath fan? Tell me your thoughts in the comment section!

Comments

  1. Have you seen the film Sylvia?

    • I have! I watched it from an objective perspective though because Sylvia’s daughter Frida Hughes was opposed to the film being made at all. She banned the film makers from using any of her mothers poetry in the movie. Frida is a poet herself and wrote a poem entitled ‘Mother’ about the whole process, it’s wonderful, you should check it out.

      I did think G Paltrow played a very good Sylvia though, she looks very like her!

      Did you enjoy the film?

      • Will definitely check out Frida’s poems. I really love Plath’s work. It is even more poignant after having a baby as you realise how dark things must have been in order to leave her child behind. All so sad, and it always makes one wonder what other great works would have been written had she lived!

  2. I know! It really is so sad, I almost can’t bare to wonder what might have been if she had lived, especially for her children (her son Nicholas died in similar tragic circumstances). I’m so grateful that we got to experience her work though, however small the amount.

    Frida released an ‘unedited’ version of her mother’s ‘Ariel’ collection not so long ago, so its as her mother intended it to be and there’s a fantastic introduction into the process too. It really makes me wonder what Hughes was thinking as he released her work as his versions are so drastically different from the originals! Though to be fair, in the early years after her death, he was thinking of his children and how they would feel reading the material, which was the right way to be.

    Have you read Sylvia’s journals from when she attended Smith College? If you love her work, you’ll most definitely love it!

    Thank you for visiting and commenting, everything is still in the early stages so its nice to see that people are reading and commenting etc.. Love your site too! 🙂

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