Bookish Birthday: Sylvia Plath

26th Oct 2012

Bookish Birthday: Sylvia Plath

Much like The Catcher in the Rye, coming of age novels and films can’t resist name-dropping the likes of The Bell Jar in order to establish a certain character’s persona.

Think of it as a literary version of The Smiths being used to show how alternative and ‘adorkable’ someone is in a film.

I think this is a massive injustice to the twisted beauty of Plath’s writing, and of her life. Born 27th October 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts, Plath has become a legend of autobiographical literature.

Her simplistic narration describing complex emotional and mental issues is entwined with a wit that is so often overlooked and forgotten.

There’s not much I can tell you about Plath’s life that you won’t already know. Her father Otto Plath, twenty-one years her mother’s senior, died when Sylvia was just eight years old due to complications of undiagnosed diabetes.

This event is incredibly prominent in her poetry, and I don’t advise you read Daddy, but listen to the sound clip of her reading it.

She went to Smith College in 1950 and excelled academically, and it said to have felt as though the whole world was open to her at this time. She got on to an internship working at a magazine for a month in New York, an event which could pinpoint the moment her mental health took a turn for the worst.

Plath has become infamous for her suicide attempts. The first time, she took a bottle of pills and hid in the crawlspace in her mother’s basement. She died after turning on the gas cooker and laying her head inside. From her early twenties she experimented with self-harm, cutting her legs to see if she could handle the pain and fear of suicide.

She was in and out of mental institutions for most of her life. Subject to, at the time, experimental therapies such as electric shock treatment and antidepressants, it appears that nothing helped, at least in the long run.

Many suggest that her final suicide attempt was a cry for help rather than a genuine desire to die. Friends argue she meant to take her life that time. All we really know is the great measures she took to protect her children – lining the doors with damp towels and preparing them a final meal of sandwiches.

Though her turbulent mental health and eventual suicide are important aspects of her story, it is her literature that will survive forever as her true legacy, most specifically her poetry collection Ariel, and her only novel, The Bell Jar.

Fascinating and enthralling, The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical and informed by Plath’s time in New York, making the experiences of the narrator, Esther Greenwood, all the more enlightening and heartbreaking.

The times in which she describes her depression starting in New York, leading up to her first suicide attempt in her mother’s basement, are incomparable to any other piece of literature I have had the pleasure of reading.

These narratives are not only relatable for those having dealt with mental health issues, but for anyone who has felt alienated at any point in life.

The manner in which the metaphorical bell jar is said to surround her, and which finally lifts at the books conclusion, is an apt and vivid metaphor for any who have felt separate from their fellow humans.

The Bell Jar is also, at times, bloody hilarious. The descriptions of her boyfriend at the time are just amazing, the penis description in particular (it’s got to do with turkeys). It feels inadvertently feminist, and not just for the ridiculing of cock and balls.

The sexual descriptions are traumatic for numerous reasons, but she still took control of her reproductive system despite the social disgust for birth control at the time.

It has become a stereotype to gush about The Bell Jar, but don’t let that stop you. It’s such an important novel, both internationally as a famous text, but for the manner in which it penetrates your life, your thoughts, and your attitudes towards mental health.

You are left with a real hope towards the end of the narrative, which makes the author’s early demise seem so much more tragic. There are few novels that need to be shown to every girl and woman as much as The Bell Jar.

Ariel is a collection I have written about before in Poets’ Society:  The Prelude. Allow me to briefly gush once more. I began my love affair with poetry solely thanks to this collection. Deep, dark, painfully emotional, exotic – I won’t bore you with any more adjectives.

Despite covering such complex topics, it remains accessible, making it a fantastic collection for poetry beginners, breaking open your mind and flinging you in to the unknown.

I truly believe there are few twentieth century writers  as important as Sylvia Plath. So happy birthday, Sylvia. I fervently hope you found peace in death; I only wish you had lived long enough to see how loved you are.

Do you adore Plath’s writing as much as me? Which of her works is your favourite?

Gina Kershaw