Sylvia Plath

Known for her confession-style poetry, literary depiction of self-destruction, and tragic suicide, Sylvia Plath is one of the best-known female writers of the 20th century. Though she was well-received in literary circles in her own time, Plath's most famous work was published posthumously, and she never got to see the extent of her success. She won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982 for The Collected Poems, published in 1981, almost 20 years after her death.

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Table of contents

    Sylvia Plath, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Sylvia Plath is considered part of the Confessional Poets.

    Sylvia Plath: Biography

    Sylvia Plath Biography
    Birth:27th October 1932
    Death:11th February 1963
    Father:Otto Plath
    Mother:Aurelia Schober Plath
    Spouse/Partners:Ted Hughes (1956 - 1963)
    Famous Works:
    • Ariel
    • The Bell Jar
    • The Colossus
    Literary Period:Confessional Poets

    Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1932. The daughter of an immigrant professor and one of his students, Plath had a complicated relationship with her father that only worsened when he died in 1940 after ignoring his diabetic health issues. Plath was 8 years old, and his death prompted a lifelong struggle with religion and mental health.

    Plath's poem "Daddy" (1962) was a reflection of the betrayal she felt at her father's death. Her mother moved her, her siblings, and her grandparents to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where Plath stayed until she graduated high school.

    When she was 8, Plath had her first poem published in the Boston Herald's children's section. By her teenage years, Plath had several stories and poems published in national magazines. She sold her first poem to The Christian Science Monitor and her first short story to Seventeen magazine while she was in high school.

    Plath received a scholarship to attend Smith College, a private women's liberal arts college, and did well academically, artistically, and socially. In her third year, Plath won a writing contest and was given a prestigious position as guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York the following summer.

    During her undergraduate years, Plath began to suffer from the symptoms of severe depression. On August 24, 1953, Plath attempted suicide by sleeping pills; she was 20 years old. She survived and was hospitalized for six months, receiving electro and insulin shock therapy. She recorded the experience in her novel The Bell Jar (1963), which fictionalizes her personal breakdown and recovery.

    Plath returned to school and graduated with the highest honors in 1955. She received a Fulbright Fellowship, which allowed her to continue her education at Cambridge University in England. There she met fellow poet Ted Hughes in February 1956; the two married in June. In a 1961 interview about her relationship with Hughes, Plath said:

    I'd read some of Ted's poems in this magazine and I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him. I went to this little celebration and that's actually where we met... Then we saw a great deal of each other. Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married a few months later... We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on."1

    Plath and Hughes had two children. The couple moved around between the United States, where Plath taught English for a while, and England, where Plath published The Colossus (1960), the only poetry collection she published before her death, and The Bell Jar (1963), her only novel. When Plath found out that Hughes had been having an affair with a married woman who was renting their home, she separated from Hughes and moved to London with their two children.

    Beginning in October 1962, Plath had a surge of creativity and wrote most of the poems in her posthumous collection Ariel (1965). Although her depression returned, Plath was able to complete her poetry collection, which would be published in 1965 in the UK and 1966 in the US. It is this collection that most of Plath's success rests on.

    Sylvia Plath: Death

    Plagued by depression her entire life, Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963. She had spoken to her general practitioner in January after battling her last depressive episode for 6 or 7 months. He prescribed her a new anti-depressant and attempted to visit her every day, worried that she was high risk because she lived alone with her one-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

    On the morning of her death, Plath sealed the room between herself and her children with towels, cloth, and tape, leaving food out for them and making sure they were safe in their bedrooms. Then she turned her gas oven on and committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide. She was 30 years old.

    Sylvia Plath is buried in St. Thomas' Churchyard, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England. There was controversy for years over her grave because "Hughes" was included in her name since the two poets were not legally divorced. Hughes even chose Plath's headstone's inscription:

    Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted."

    Sylvia Plath, Carbon monoxide, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - Plath died from inhaling carbon monoxide gas.

    Sylvia Plath: Poems

    Here are some of Plath's most well known poems in her collection Ariel.

    'Daddy' (1965)

    Although Plath's father died when she was 8 years old, she didn't get true closure with his death until she wrote 'Daddy' in 1962. Her father was authoritative and strict, a German immigrant who taught biology but ignored his own diabetes until it was too late. He died due to complications after a foot amputation.

    Plath wrote 'Daddy' one month after her separation with Hughes and four months before she ended her own life. It is an example of confessional poetry, where readers get a glimpse into the author's psyche through their poetry. At first the speaker in the poem idolizes her father, even calling him a God and wanting to "recover him."

    However, even these positive feelings towards her father are overshadowed by dark images, and the tone quickly changes to paint him as the villain. The speaker compares her relationship with her father to that of a Jew being hunted by a German, emphasizing the emotional warfare she felt with him.

    Plath also references her own suicide attempts when she was young to get back at her father, but instead of dying, she replaces her father with another man. This is presumably Ted Hughes, whom she married when she was 23 and stayed with for seven years.

    The poem was written a few months after she discovered that he was having an affair. At the end of the poem, her father and her husband become one vampiric figure, who she murders with a stake to the heart.

    What do you think about Plath using the suffering of the Holocaust to emphasize her own pain? Do you think it's distasteful? Does knowing her father was German have any effect on your interpretation?

    'Lady Lazarus' (1965)

    This poem, like 'Daddy,' is a confessional piece that examines the oppression that Plath felt at the hands of the men around her and the effect that had on her mental health. 'Lady Lazarus' uses biblical allusions to compare Plath's failed suicide attempts to the resurrection of Lazarus in the Bible, as well as historical allusions to compare Plath's oppression to a Jewish person living in Nazi-occupied Germany.

    Plath wants to die in this poem because she feels oppressed in the male-dominated world. However, each time she attempts to end her life, she is resurrected by outside influences who watch her resurrection with amusement like a "peanut-crunching crowd." Each time she comes back she feels less like herself, but she looks exactly the same.

    At the end of the poem, she compares herself to the mythical phoenix and states that she will rise from the ashes again. This time, though, she will eat the men who are their enemies, as easily as if she were breathing air.

    What effect does the last line in the poem, "I eat men like air," have on the reader? What does this line make you think of Plath as a person? What effect does it have on your interpretation as Plath the poet?

    Sylvia Plath, Phoenix rising from the ashes, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The speaker in 'Lady Lazarus' compares herself to a phoenix rising from the ashes.

    Sylvia Plath: Novel

    Though famous for her poetry, Plath is also well known for her prose works.

    The Bell Jar (1963)

    In this semi-autobiographical novel, Plath fictionalizes her own descent into depression and months of hospitalization after her failed suicide attempt. Although she published this novel under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, most of the material comes directly from Plath's personal experiences, with the names changed.

    The novel focuses on Esther, an intelligent writer from the suburbs of Boston that has received a scholarship from a wealthy benefactress to attend college. She has been accepted into a prestigious internship at the Ladies' Day magazine, but is disillusioned by the work and by New York City.

    Upon returning home, Esther doesn't know what to do with her life because her entire identity was based on succeeding academically, and she is not interested in any of the typical female jobs (housewife, stenographer, etc).

    Esther becomes increasingly depressed and goes to see a psychiatrist, who uses electroconvulsive therapy to try and cure her depression. Her mental state only worsens, and Esther attempts to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.

    The suicide attempt fails, and she is taken to a mental hospital where she receives more electroshock therapy and insulin shock therapy. The novel ends with doctors deciding whether she can leave the hospital and return to school or not.

    In real life, Plath was able to leave the mental hospital and return to school, but she committed suicide less than 10 years later. Since The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical, does the knowledge of Plath's personal life and tragic death influence how you view the story? Does her background influence how you think about her heroine Esther?

    Sylvia Plath: Quotes

    In much of her poetry, Plath's themes center around mental health, disillusionment, and female oppression in a male-dominated world. Since the majority of her poetry is at least partly autobiographical and confessional, her conflicts often represent what she experienced in her own life.

    When reading Plath's fiction and poetry, it is important to remember that the speaker/narrator is not Plath. Because Plath's poetry is confessional, meaning it closely mirrors her life, many people assume that she is the one narrating. She is not.

    Confessional-style poetry gave Plath an outlet to work through her feelings, but it is still impossible to distinguish between which of the character's feelings/actions were a reflection of Plath's, and which were dramatized for the effect.

    Plath's themes of oppression, self-destruction, mental pain, and disillusionment are reflected in some of her most famous quotes.

    What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don't know and I'm afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones, and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited."

    This quote was taken from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000), which was published after her death. Plath began journaling at age 11, writing about her struggles with mental health and the world. This quote centers around her disillusionment with the world and her life. She wants to be everything and do everything, but she knows she neither has the time nor the privilege to live the kind of life she wants.

    This quote also reflects how hopeless she feels. There are so many things that she, as a woman, cannot do, and many things in her life working against her simply because of who she is. The quote also reflects the despair Plath feels about her mental state: although she tried electro and insulin shock therapy, she was never able to experience any other kind of mental state, and she struggled with depression her entire life.

    If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed."

    The quote was included in Plath's 1963 novel The Bell Jar, published a month before she took her own life. The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel that parallels Plath's own mental deterioration and descent into depression. This quote touches on many of the themes in Plath's writing already discussed.

    With respect to the above quote, which was spoken by a fictional character that Plath created, many interpretations focus on Plath's own mental health. Here is what we know for a fact: Plath never had a good support system.

    She felt betrayed by her authoritarian father, who died because he didn't take care of himself. Her relationship with Ted Hughes was also volatile; not only did he cheat on her, but Plath implied he caused the miscarriage of their second child after beating her.

    While the following quote could potentially reflect Plath's own disillusionment with her loved ones, it is more important as an example of one of the central themes in Plath's poetry:

    It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative – whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”

    Although bipolar disorder wasn't officially recognized as such until 1980, today's doctors affirm that Plath suffered from bipolar II disorder or manic depression. This quote, taken from one of Plath's journal entries in 1953, highlights Plath's mental highs and lows.

    She suffered from severe depression from when she was an undergraduate student until her death. In this quote, one gets a glimpse into Plath's mental state and the reason behind a lot of her self-destructive tendencies.

    In the months leading up to her death, Plath had a burst of creativity, writing at least 26 of the poems included in her posthumous collection Ariel. Today's doctors would say that was a manic period, followed by a depressive one. The quote above reinforces that assumption.

    Sylvia Plath, An electric current with positive and negative ends, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Plath used an electric current with positive and negative ends to describe her own mental state.

    Sylvia Plath - Key takeaways

    • Sylvia Plath was born in Massachusetts in 1932. She had a complicated relationship with her father, who died when she was young. She wrote her poem "Daddy" about the betrayal and pain she felt towards him.
    • Plath began writing at a young age and had her first short story and poem published when she was still a teenager. She received a scholarship to go to college in Massachusetts and later received a grant to study in England
    • She met fellow poet Ted Hughes in England and married him within a few months. They had two children, but their marriage was volatile. He cheated on her, and the two separated in 1962.
    • She had one poetry collection, The Colossus (1960), and one novel, The Bell Jar (1963), published while she was alive. Her poetry collection, Ariel (1965), was published two years after her death.
    • She started struggling with depression when she was an undergraduate student. After multiple failed suicide attempts, Plath took her own life in January 1963 by turning on her oven and gassing herself.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Sylvia Plath

    How did Slyvia Plath die? 

    Plagued by depression her entire life, Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963. 

    Where is Sylvia Plath buried?

    Sylvia Plath is buried in St. Thomas' Churchyard, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England. 

    Who is Sylvia Plath?

    Sylvia Plath was an American poet famous for her collection of poems called Ariel (1965).

    What is Sylvia Plath's most famous poem? 

    Sylvia Plath's most famous poem is 'Daddy' (1965).

    Why is Sylvia Plath so important?

    Sylvia Plath is an important poetic figure for her use of the Confessional style, and the themes in her poetry such as mental health and female sexuality/ oppression. 

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