Plath, Sylvia (1932–1963)
Plath, Sylvia (1932–1963)
Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet, novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. Name variations: (pseudonym) Victoria Lucas. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 27, 1932; committed suicide in London, England, on February 11, 1963; first child of Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober Plath, both professors at Boston University; graduated from Smith College, 1955; married Edward James Hughes known as Ted Hughes (d. 1998, the poet), on June 16, 1956, in London (separated, October 1962); children: Frieda Rebecca Hughes (b. April 1, 1960, a poet who wrote Wooroloo and married the Hungarian-born painter Laszlo Lukacs); Nicholas Farrar Hughes (b. January 17, 1962).
Entered Smith College (1950); attempted suicide (August 1953); graduated summa cum laude (June 1955); received Fulbright fellowship to Cambridge University, England (1955); taught at Smith College (1957–58); returned to England (December 1959); published The Colossus and Other Poems (autumn 1960); bought house (Green Court) in Devonshire,England (1961); moved to London (December 1962); published The Bell Jar (January 1963); Collected Poems awarded the Pulitzer Prize (1982).
On October 16, 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother from London, where she was living, "I am a writer…. I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me." Four months later, Plath put her head in the open oven in her kitchen and turned on the gas—she was 30 years old. Suicide finally ended her struggle between her "warring selves." The outwardly articulate, energetic, intelligent, and talented young woman "lived an inner hell of her own making." Plath could be charming and affectionate if it served her purpose, but she was also obsessive, jealous, "innately self-righteous," and self-centered. She longed for perfection in her relationships, her writing, and her own life and was disappointed when reality fell short of her expectations. Unable "to re-create the world in her image," she chose to abandon it. In this final desperate act, she snuffed out a great talent that was reaching its acme.
Plath's biographers characterize her as a product of America and of the 1950s; she wanted a career as a writer, but she also felt she must have a husband, children, and a home in order to fulfill her dream, the American dream. With her extraordinary talent, her ambition, drive, and determination, Plath strove to have it all, but when she failed to achieve her "ideal world," she lost hope and her life.
Ironically, Plath's early childhood was near-idyllic. Her father Otto Plath was a professor of etymology at Boston University; he had taught foreign languages at the University of California and at MIT prior to doing graduate work at Harvard and earning a Ph.D. at age 43. Sylvia's mother, Aurelia Plath , was his student at Boston University where she was working on her master's degree. After marrying Otto, she gave up teaching languages at a local high school. They encouraged Sylvia to develop her imagination and provided an intellectually stimulating environment for their precocious daughter. However, life in the Plath household revolved around Otto and his scholarship; he wrote at home, and Aurelia worked with him. Sylvia spent much time with her maternal grandparents, the Schobers, who were educated, successful, and cultured Austrian immigrants.
In 1935, Otto and Aurelia had a son, Warren. Sylvia reacted angrily to this unwelcome intruder: "a baby," she wrote later, "I hated babies." She never ceased to crave attention from her father who always maintained a distance from his children, working and taking his meals alone in his study. As Linda Wagner-Martin notes, "Otto's approach to raising his children was to involve them in his life, rather than becoming a part of their lives." But early on Plath learned how to get her parents' attention; she spoke at an early age, had a large vocabulary, and made up stories and rhymes which she recited to them. In Sylvia's mind, intellectual success was necessary to be loved, a notion subconsciously reinforced by her scholarly parents. Plath's upbringing prepared her to excel in school; a straight "A" student, she treasured praise from teachers and her parents.
From the mid-1930s, Otto's health began to fail, and he became even more withdrawn from his family. He died in October 1940, at age 55. His protracted illness affected Sylvia whose fear of being abandoned was sharpened by his death. When Aurelia told Sylvia that her father had died, the child said calmly, "I'll never speak to God again," and went off to school as usual. Aurelia returned to teaching, and she and the children moved in with her parents to relieve their diminished financial situation. Plath's fear of being abandoned led her to write a note for her mother to sign—Aurelia had to promise not to remarry. She signed the note which only reinforced Sylvia's sense of importance. Insecurity became a constant in Plath's life, and despite having a strong mother and loving grandparents, she became "less sure of her place in the world … about her very existence."
When Aurelia was offered a teaching position at Boston University, she and the entire family moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts, an elite, upper-middle-class town where education was highly valued. Sylvia and Warren were surrounded by academics, and classmates who would be admitted to prestigious colleges. Living in Wellesley, Plath would be eligible to attend Wellesley College; still quite young, she "was already creating the ideal 'Wellesley self' who appeared confident, happy, poised, excited by life." Plath's adolescence was culturally stimulating and filled with reading, writing poetry and stories, and winning academic awards. Her first published poem had appeared in The Boston Sunday Herald when she was eight and a half years old.
Plath was expected to earn As in high school, and she did. She was not popular, however, which constantly worried her. A "smart loner," with an IQ of nearly 160, she had already received numerous academic and literary awards. She never doubted her scholastic abilities, but she suffered from an irrational fear of being deserted by her family coupled with an increasing self-centeredness. When her mother was approached to become dean of women at Northeastern University in Boston, Plath reacted angrily: "For your self-aggrandizement you would make us complete orphans," she said to Aurelia. Her mother turned down the position.
In her senior year of high school, Plath decided to attend an Ivy League college, but she would need scholarships, since money was always a concern. Plath resented not being able to enjoy the advantages of her wealthier classmates: travel abroad, expensive clothes, friends among the social elite of Wellesley. She would have to earn what others were given. From this time on, Plath wrote not only for critical acclaim but for commercial gain. To her, writing as an artistic expression was associated with earning money. By her final year of high school, she had already published her work in Seventeen magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Boston Globe. However, her intensity and dedication to her academic studies and her writing affected her health. Only perfection was acceptable, anything less brought on "black moods" and bouts of depression. As she noted in her diary, "Never never never will I reach the perfection I long for with all my soul," but she never stopped trying. Plath had set standards which would lead to a lifetime of disappointments.
Plath worked as diligently at being accepted socially as she did at her studies. During the 1950s, girls were expected to marry, and most, including Plath, unquestioningly accepted this social norm. She kept lists of her dates, the prep school or college the young men attended, their families' social status, and their future prospects for success, and she dated a number of "eligible" men who met her criteria. Plath had no intention of being an unmarried career woman—not to marry was considered "unfeminine" in her social circle. But pre-marital sex was strictly avoided by "nice girls." Plath knew, however, that she wanted more than the typical domestic drudgery that marriage implied, and she felt this placed her outside the mainstream of society. She wanted to be a writer. At age 18, Plath wanted it all.
Plath chose to attend Smith College, which meant she would not live at home. In consequence of her excellent academic record, she was awarded two scholarships, one of which came from Olive Higgins Prouty who became one of Sylvia's lifelong mentors and benefactors. Before entering college, Plath's short story "And Summer Will Not Come Again," which had appeared in Seventeen, had established her reputation as a writer at Smith. The publication of this story initiated a five-year correspondence with Ed Cohen, a university student in Chicago who was impressed with her work. They openly discussed sex, politics, religion, and the sinister effects of the McCarthy era on America. Plath admitted to Cohen that she was "sarcastic, skeptical and sometimes callous," but had a "vulnerable core"; she was not religious, she admitted—religion was for those "too spineless to think for themselves."
Plath's journals, begun in the summer of 1950, reveal the thoughts, feelings, and dreams she could not vocalize to friends or family: her impatience with people who did not meet her standards, her fear of failure, her need to be worthy of her scholarships and to live up to being a "Smithie." And how could she accept being a subordinate, submissive wife? "Spare me cooking three meals a day," she wrote, "spare me from the relentless cage of routine and rote." Plath wanted freedom to achieve in her chosen field, to be a famous, commercially successful writer. That she might have to choose between marriage and a career made her angry and fearful; "What is my life for and what am I going to do with it," she wondered, "I don't know and I'm afraid." In any case, she refused to become "a 'meek' Christian wife." As she expressed it in her journal, "I am I—I am powerful."
Plath was powerful, and she was brilliant and physically attractive. She earned excellent grades, dated men who were her intellectual equals and would be successful, and was active on several councils, boards, and committees on campus. Typically, however, the future was where happiness surely would be found. The present was always just a prelude to a happier future. Writing provided Plath with emotional release, and it would, she hoped, bring her immortality. But her achievements masked an inner turmoil. In a morbidly prescient revelation, Plath wrote in her journal, "I think I will be snuffed out. Black is sleep; black is a fainting spell; and black is death."
In her sophomore and junior years, Plath published poems and short stories in Seventeen, Mademoiselle, and Harper's, and her essay, "As a Baby-Sitter Sees It," appeared in The Christian Science Monitor. She won a prize of $200 for her story "Initiation," from Seventeen, a $500 first prize in the Mademoiselle Fiction Contest for "Sunday at the Mintons," and two Smith poetry prizes ($120). To be paid for one's writing would remain a major consideration throughout her life. Her abilities and talents were further recognized
at Smith when she was invited to join an arts honorary society and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Despite her impressive accomplishments, Plath was insecure; she had yet to find the "perfect" mate. Dick Norton, the son of family friends, and Myron Lotz, both of whom attended Yale and were entering medical school, were viewed as potential husbands. But Plath's need to control relationships, her jealousy and possessiveness, disturbed her male friends. And when her boyfriends lost interest in her, she reacted angrily to their "betrayal." To marry might require her to "whittle my square edges to fit in a round hole," but, she added, "God, I hope I'm never going to massacre myself that way."
By fall 1952, Plath's self-doubt, irrational sense of failure, and exhausting schedule adversely affected her health; her menstrual cycle was interrupted, and she suffered from insomnia. In November, she wrote her mother: "Everything is empty, meaningless. This is not education. It is hell." And in her journal she noted, "I feel behind my eyes … a mimicking nothingness…. I want to kill myself…. I do not know who I am, where I am going." Her grim outlook hardly matched her cumulative successes; in May 1953, Plath went to New York as one of 20 young women chosen for the Mademoiselle College Board. She worked as a guest managing editor, but comments and criticisms from staff members undermined her confidence and depressed her. On returning home, she was devastated to learn that she had not been accepted for a summer course at Harvard University.
I think I would call myself "The girl who wanted to be God."
Increasing lethargy and insomnia, worry over her prospective senior thesis and exams, and an ineffectual suicide attempt in July, prompted her mother to seek psychiatric help for Sylvia. As a result, she underwent terrifying electric shock treatments which failed to relieve her problems. On August 24, Plath swallowed almost a full bottle of sleeping pills, leaving a note for her mother saying she "had gone for a long walk," and would return the next day. Two days later, her brother found her under the floor boards of their house. After months of hospitalization, undergoing therapy and further shock treatments, Sylvia was able to return to college in 1954.
Plath continued to be considered an "academic star" on campus with a reputation of being a loner, a beautiful, rather intriguing figure who had tried to take her own life—her disappearance and unsuccessful suicide attempt had made national news. Plath's fragile mental state did not interfere with her achieving excellent grades, writing poems which later won prizes, and for the first time enjoying sexual liaisons with several young men, all of whom measured up to her criteria for a future husband.
After receiving several more prestigious awards at Smith College, Plath graduated in June 1955, summa cum laude. Her academic achievements and her literary talents paid off; she was granted a Fulbright fellowship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge University, in England. All expenses, including books and travel, would be paid for a period of one or two years. Marriage could be deferred, but it was not repudiated. Plath now had two goals, to get the best possible education and to find a husband in England before returning to the States.
At Cambridge, Plath was regarded as a "dramatic, attractive American," ambitious, talented, and self-indulgent. Intending to take advantage of everything Cambridge had to offer, Sylvia was active and involved, writing articles for a local paper, acting in an amateur Dramatic Club, attending classes, and submitting the required weekly essays to her tutors. However, friends in her dormitory residence found Plath difficult at times. She was still prone to angry outbursts and appeared nervous, aggressive, and shrill, especially when she did not get her own way. She dated frequently, still seeking her "true love"—when on February 25, 1956, she bought a copy of a literary magazine and read some poems by Ted Hughes.
Impressed with Hughes' poetry, Plath asked an American friend to introduce her to the poet. They met that same evening at a celebratory party for the magazine, "a collision of two glamorous carnivores." A graduate of Cambridge in anthropology (1954), Hughes was intelligent, cultured, talented, tall (6'6"), and handsome, and became "the greatest living English poet" at the end of the 20th century. Plath recorded their "collision" in her journal; that evening "he kissed me bang smash on the mouth … and I bit him long and hard on the cheek and when we came out of the room blood was running down his face." Hughes confirms Plath's description of their encounter in his book of poems Birthday Letters (1998). He recalls "the swelling ring of tooth-marks/ That was to brand my face for the next month/ The me beneath it for good." Plath knew that she had found her "true love" though he might be, as she wrote Prouty, "a breaker of things and people." Moreover, Plath wrote that she "suspected that he loved to drink and make conquests of women." Prouty advised her not to rush into marriage, but Plath ignored her mentor's admonishment. To her mother, Sylvia announced that she was in love, a love "which can only lead to great hurt." If Plath had any reservations about Hughes, they could not outweigh her determination. In characteristic fashion, she began to idealize their future life together, setting herself up for the disappointment that reality always had in store.
On June 16, 1956, Edward James Hughes and Sylvia Plath were married in the church of St. George the Martyr in London; one of the poems in Hughes' Birthday Letters poignantly recalls his bride: "In your pink wool knitted dress/ Before anything had smudged anything/ You stood at the altar." The marriage was kept secret from friends and family, except for Aurelia who had attended the wedding. Plath feared she would lose her Fulbright fellowship if she were married.
During their honeymoon in Spain, Sylvia began to realize that wives were expected to do the shopping, cooking, and housework, and she resented it. She loved Ted, but "the consistent bliss she had envisioned" had not materialized. In her journal, in Spain, she noted, "It is very quiet. Perhaps he is asleep. Or dead. How to know how long there is before death." Only a month later, she lamented: "The world has grown crooked and sour as a lemon overnight."
From Spain, the Hugheses went to the village of Heptonstall in Yorkshire to visit Ted's family. They were pleased with the marriage, and Sylvia enjoyed the countryside and seeing Ted in "his home country." On her return to Cambridge, Plath resumed residence at Newnham College; Ted went back to Yorkshire. But they found they could not live apart. After talking to her tutor, Irene Morris , Plath was granted permission to complete her year at school and to retain her Fulbright fellowship. In November, she and Ted moved into a small apartment. Plath prepared for her exams and did household chores; she and Ted worked on their own writing each morning for about five hours. He was doing especially well in getting published, and Sylvia served as his agent, sending his poetry to prestigious journals. She appeared to have all she had hoped for; she was married to a marvelously talented man who shared her interests and admired her poetry. Ted was, as Sylvia wrote her brother Warren, "the only man in the world who is my match." Plath worked hard, worried about money, and began behaving "erratically at times." Marriage, she had discovered, interfered with her writing and her scholarship.
Neither she nor Ted wanted to take permanent jobs, but in April 1957, Plath was offered a teaching position at Smith College for the coming academic year. She accepted the position to teach three sections of freshman English, hoping Ted could teach at Amherst or the University of Massachusetts. She did not want him to teach at Smith where he would attract "the predatory Smith students." In the spring, Plath passed her exams and decided not to work on a Ph.D. She wanted to concentrate on her writing. She had recently published in The Atlantic Monthly, six poems in Poetry, for which she won the Bess Hokin prize, and an essay on life in Spain, which she illustrated, in The Christian Science Monitor. Sylvia was anxious to begin a novel about her love for Ted and their first meeting, tentatively titled Falcon Yard. They spent the summer writing in a cottage on Cape Cod which Aurelia had obtained for them. Sylvia was not satisfied with what she was writing and became anxious and upset when she thought she was pregnant. If pregnant she could not teach, and she experienced "a black lethal two weeks…. The horror … of being pregnant [which] would end me, probably Ted, and our writing and our possible impregnable togetherness." Ted tried to be helpful and supportive, but Sylvia seemed to take on the problem of her pregnancy alone. Wagner-Martin notes that Plath assumed the responsibility, the burden that "would unbalance and slant the ledger for the rest of the marriage." Sylvia was not pregnant, but she was angry because she had been unable to concentrate on her writing.
Sylvia and Ted moved to Northampton, less than a mile from the Smith campus, before fall semester began. Plath realized almost at once that she lacked the temperament and patience required to work with students and to correct "eye-socket searing" term papers. Petty bickering among the English faculty also disappointed her. Ted was able to write at home while waiting to begin teaching part-time at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for the spring term. Sylvia resented that he had time to write and she did not. Teaching and household duties left her exhausted and ill, physically and mentally. Her life, she confided to her journal, was "a grim grind," and "I deserve a year, two years, to live my own self into being." Plath was writing well, but friction over money and over their future plans, coupled with Sylvia's jealous tirades and lack of tact, resulted in violent arguments. Ted was publishing more and was sought after to do readings of his work. But Sylvia was also receiving recognition; she read for a Harvard Library recording of her poetry and also did one for the Library of Congress. Even when she was writing well, Sylvia worried that she was not good enough to earn a living by writing. Ted had no such doubts, and he was less concerned about publishing his work than whether his writing satisfied him.
Plath became depressed, even after she resigned from teaching at the end of the school year, and she and Ted moved to the Beacon Hill area of Boston; here they were able to socialize with literary figures with whom Sylvia was acquainted. And they could devote themselves to writing. Plath was concerned about not having an assured income, but she sold several poems to The New Yorker, and Ted insisted they could live off their writings. Sylvia, however, was less confident and took a part-time job at Massachusetts General Hospital for a short time. She did not press Ted to do the same, but she was openly resentful of his ability to turn out excellent work, and she envied his growing reputation. Depressed and angry, Sylvia sought psychiatric help. Some feminists have accused Ted Hughes of causing Plath's depression and of not being sufficiently supportive of her efforts, but their friend, Dido Merwin , claims: "Their working symbiosis was a genuine 'marriage of true minds' … that [Ted] prized above everything apart from his own writing." Sylvia's self-doubt and depression had plagued her long before she met Ted Hughes. Plath was actually doing some of her best writing at this time, including her story "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," and several excellent poems. Living in Boston gave her the opportunity each week to attend Robert Lowell's Boston University poetry workshop where she met the talented poet Anne Sexton with whom she became close friends. Plath had found someone with whom she shared "attitudes, knowledge, and experiences." Sexton was not impressed with Plath's poetry at that time, but she liked Sylvia personally. In May 1959, Sylvia's book of poems, The Bull of Bendylaw, was chosen as the alternate to the winner of the Yale Younger Poets contest. Plath was furious, for she thought herself a better poet than the winner. She would have to work harder.
Boston was energizing and culturally stimulating, but Sylvia and Ted decided to return to England where Ted would be happier, and they could live more economically. Before departing, they spent the fall at Yaddo, an artists' and writers' colony in upstate New York. Here Sylvia "grew as a poet" and found a "voice" for her writing that was "witty, wry, American, brazen, arrogant," a contrast to what Plath called "drawing room" speech. Her new-found voice is evident in her collection The Colossus and Other Poems, which would appear in England in the fall 1960. Colloquial language and subjects based on Plath's own experiences make the collection one of her best and most personal. While on a cross-country trip before sailing for England, Sylvia became pregnant. Obviously motherhood would entail responsibilities that would take precedence over writing. But, as usual, Plath had high expectations that would be dashed by the banal realities of everyday living.
The Hugheses found an apartment in the Primrose Hill area of London near Regent's Park. The next month, Sylvia signed a contract with William Heinemann Ltd. to publish The Colossus and Other Poems, scheduled to appear in the fall. London Magazine took one of her poems and her story about Massachusetts General Hospital, "The Daughters of Blossom Street." Despite her success, Plath was tired, and the grey, cold winter depressed her. Sylvia became more demanding, insisting she had to have privacy and her own space in their tiny apartment. According to friends, Ted was relegated to working on a borrowed portable table in a dim hallway; Sylvia's needs, they claim, always took precedence over Ted's. Moreover, Plath was becoming more possessive and tactless, resentful of anyone who invaded their lives, even visitors. Their friend Lucas Myers notes that she did not want Ted to talk to anyone but her, that she was "trying to swallow him whole." After the birth of their daughter Frieda Hughes , Sylvia's post-partum depression exacerbated her destructive behavior. Domestic duties increasingly consumed Plath's energies while Ted was gaining a national reputation for his poetry and his work for the BBC. Their friends W.S. Merwin and Dido Merwin lent Ted the study in their apartment in which to work quietly. Sylvia convinced Ted to share it with her. She worked in the study in the mornings, Ted in the afternoons. Even though she now had a routine and time to work, Plath was still filled with anger and anxiety over money and her ability to write. She and Ted often quarrelled. Yet Plath loved London and its cultural opportunities, and she loved Ted. In October 1960, she wrote a poem for him ("Love Letter"): "Not easy to state the change you made./ If I'm alive now, then I was dead,/ Though, like a stone, unbothered by it."
By autumn of 1960, Plath was writing well. She produced several good poems and was planning to write a novel. Her poems reveal her deep dissatisfaction with life, as she began to explore her psyche rather than depending on lists of topics Ted had made for her. But Sylvia was restless and depressed. She always needed activity, a change, a "better" future, and began to make plans to find a house and perhaps have a second child. Colossus received good reviews which pleased her, and she made the first of many appearances on the BBC. Prouty sent her a congratulatory check of $150. Sylvia, who had always "wanted it all" seemed to have achieved her goal, but debilitating moodiness, frequent ill health, and a miscarriage in February 1961, badly affected her relations with Ted. In a fit of jealousy, she burned Ted's notes and drafts of his new works, an "act of spite," declares Dido Merwin, and adds that Sylvia never felt any regret or showed any remorse for her irrational behavior.
Themes of death and about women and children dominated Plath's poems of the spring 1961, written in a woman's voice. She and Ted appeared together on the BBC, and Sylvia began to write her novel The Bell Jar. This book was more than autobiographical; she wanted "to speak for the lives of countless women she had known," women who were forced to make choices; "No woman can have it all," Plath wrote, "but choosing is also difficult." Writing The Bell Jar was a liberating experience for Sylvia, as Wagner-Martin notes, and Plath's writing "for the first time ever provided a continuity" for her. The novel is a story of betrayal and of external forces that inhibit and oppress the female heroine. She would initially publish the book under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas.
When Sylvia became pregnant again, she was determined to leave London and live a "simpler" life in the country. She and Ted finally purchased an ancient ten-room house, called Green Court, in Devonshire, in 1961. The property included a stable, a courtyard, gardens, and a large orchard. Typically, Plath threw herself into keeping house and writing. "The Moon and the Yew Tree" is a personal evocation of her Devon yard, located near an old church cemetery. Discomfort, a sense of foreboding, and "images of blackness, fear, and hopelessness" figure large in her poems at this time. In contrast to her dark mood, Plath was increasingly recognized as a major talent; she and Ted continued to win awards and prizes for their work and to maintain their professional contacts in London. Even after the birth of their son, Nicholas, in early 1962, Sylvia tried to care for their large house and property and the two children and to write. A radio play, "Three Women," was taken by the BBC, and she completed The Bell Jar which encouraged her to work on her novel about how she and Ted met and her love for him.
But feelings of isolation from London and resentment over not having time for herself, for writing, and for Ted, troubled Sylvia. During the winter and spring of 1962, she was aware that something was wrong; Ted was moody, distant, and his poetry dwelt on "bleak and introspective things" and an "obvious distrust and anger toward the feminine." Plath felt uneasy. Then in May, David and Assia Wevill arrived to spend a weekend at Green Court. Sylvia was convinced that Ted was, or would be, involved with Assia who was obviously attracted to him. (Assia Wevill would commit suicide in 1969 by putting her head in a gas oven.) Sylvia's reaction to her suspicions is revealed in her poems "The Rabbit Catcher" and "Event:" "I cannot see your eyes…. I walk with an absence," and ending, "I am appalled by the death smell of everything."
As Ted spent more and more time in London, Sylvia, too, began living a more independent life. In her poem "Poppies in July," she realizes: "I am unattached. I am unattached." But she could not calmly accept that her marriage was in trouble, that Ted had severed their "togetherness." When what she referred to as "mysterious" phone calls for Ted occurred, she became agitated, tore out the phone wires, and once again burned Ted's letters, drafts of his work, and her book that described her love for him, "it was, in effect, a funeral pyre." At the same time, Plath's career was taking off; The Colossus was published in America, The Bell Jar was accepted for publication in England, several of her poems were accepted by prestigious journals, and she was writing a variety of essays and the play for the BBC.
In September 1962, Sylvia decided to seek a legal separation from Ted Hughes. She felt betrayed, her health began to deteriorate, and she could not eat and had trouble sleeping. In letters to her mother, Plath accused Ted of being "immature, selfish, cruel," and a liar who destroyed their happiness. In the midst of uncertainty and despondency, Plath entered one of the most productive periods of her writing career; she wrote most of her "Ariel" poems and her "bee sequence, her survival poetry" (she had taken up bee-keeping in Devon). In her bee poems, the queen bees, i.e., women, survive and endure—"They had got rid of the men/The blunt, clumsy stumblers, the boors." Plath was aware that she was "writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name."
Despite their separation, Ted helped Sylvia find an apartment in London, again in the Primrose Hill area, in the fall of 1962. She had dreaded spending the winter in Devon and hoped to begin anew in the city where she could have frequent contact with literary friends. Before moving, she continued work on a third novel and put together the poems for Ariel which told the story of her life as writer, mother and wife, and of "the dissolution of that life." Exhausted, ill, and incapable of handling even the most routine daily responsibilities, Sylvia, the children, and their nurse moved to London in December 1962. Again, the life in London which she had hoped for and expected did not materialize. Infrequent social invitations from old friends, the rejection of many of her poems by The New Yorker and of The Bell Jar by Knopf and by Harper & Row in America left her despondent and unable to function. Housekeeping and caring for the children "was all too much trouble, everything was too much trouble," she admitted. She confided in Professor Thomas, a neighbor, that she was angry at her husband and "the other woman" (Assia) and of being "chained to the house and children when she wanted to be free to write and become famous." However, Plath was still able to turn out work of an exceptionally high quality, and she had gained a considerable reputation from publication of The Bell Jar in England and from her poetry. Plath's personal life was becoming intolerable. Feeling betrayed, isolated, and tied down by domestic cares, she felt she was "in limbo between her old life and an uncertain grim new one." In the early morning hours of February 11, 1963, Sylvia Plath took her own life.
Not all of Plath's personal, revelatory journals have survived her death. Ted Hughes admitted he destroyed one of the volumes, which created an uproar among scholars and Plath admirers. Hughes has been reviled by some feminists since Plath died; he was picketed during public appearances by women's groups, and angry Plath partisans have obliterated Hughes' name from Plath's tombstone several times.
In one of Plath's last poems, "Edge," she seems to be reflecting on her own situation: "The woman is perfected./ Her dead/ Body wears the smile of accomplishment." This talented, bedeviled woman deserved to wear "the smile of accomplishment" for she had come farther than she could have imagined. She is buried in the village of Heptonstall, in Yorkshire, near the graves of Ted Hughes' family. Ted Hughes died in October 1998.
Knoll, Jack. "Answering Ariel," in Newsweek. February 2, 1998, pp. 58–59.
Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. NY: Viking, 1991.
Kukil, Karen V., ed. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962: Transcripts from the Original Manuscripts at Smith College. NY: Anchor, 2000.
Plath, Aurelia, ed. Letters Home by Sylvia Plath, Correspondence, 1950–1963. NY: Harper & Row, 1975.
Plath, Sylvia. Ariel. Edited by Ted Hughes. NY: Harper & Row, 1966.
——. The Bell Jar. NY: Harper & Row, 1971.
Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Manuscripts, work sheets, unpublished poems and fiction, journals and correspondence are located in the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, and in the Neilson Library, Rare Book Room, Smith College.
Jeanne A. A. , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah