Feature Writer: Sylvia Plath

It is, no doubt, an irrational comparison, founded on loose if not unstable grounds, but I wish to compare Sylvia Plath to my mother. Both women were born in October 1932, only nine days apart. My mother was born on a kitchen table in Athol, Idaho. Plath came to life in Boston, Massachusetts. Both women suffered from depression. Both women lived remarkable lives, but Plath would become a famous poet, and my mother, though well-liked by those who knew her, lived in obscurity. She lived a long life and died at seventy-four. Plath, unfortunately, died young. She was only thirty-years-old when she took her own life. This comparison has no use except to help provide context for my understanding of the poet. Sylvia Plath was my mother’s age.

Sylvia’s father was Otto Plath, a German immigrant. As an entomologist, he taught at Boston University and wrote Bumblebees and Their Ways. After one failed marriage, he chose Aurelia Schober as his second bride. They married in January 1932; in October, Aurelia gave birth to Sylvia. In April 1935, she had her second and final child, Warren. The family lived in Winthrop, Massachusetts, a seaside town near Boston. Sylvia felt close to her father. She loved swimming in the ocean with him.

When she was eight years old, Otto died. He had diabetes, which he didn’t know about until his foot went numb. The doctors amputated his leg, but it grew gangrene and killed him. That was in November 1940. Two years later, Aurelia moved the family to Wellesley. Sylvia lost not only her father but also her beloved ocean.

Even from an early age, Sylvia had a strong work ethic and high ambitions. She published her first poem at age 8 in the Boston Herald. When it came time for college, she earned a scholarship to Smith College. In the summer after her third year, she won an internship as guest editor at Mademoiselle. Though this was an excellent opportunity to see behind-the-scenes of the publishing world, Sylvia felt disappointed in the experience. She became further disappointed that summer when she was rejected for a writing course at Harvard. These events triggered her depression and led to her first suicide attempt.

Since Sylvia wrote about this attempt in The Bell Jar, I won’t detail it here. In studying Sylvia, my most surprising discovery doesn’t concern her depression—I knew about her depression for decades—but it involved her hopes. Sylvia’s life feels like a pendulum that swings between hope and despair, aspiration, and defeat. I think this is the way it often is with people who suffer depression. It’s not just a black mood that darkens their entire life. It comes as an episodic digression from their better selves. At least, that was the way it was with Sylvia. All her life, she pushed herself hard to excel. Who does that when plotting suicide?

After the suicide attempt, she spent six months in a mental hospital. (Asylum by the term used in her day.) There she was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy and insulin shock therapy. Novelist Olivia Higgins Prouty, who awarded Sylvia her scholarship to Smith College, also paid for her hospital bills. After release from the hospital, Sylvia returned to Smith College, where she graduated in June 1955 with high honors.

Sylvia’s hard work paid off in another scholarship. This was the Fulbright Scholarship to Newnham College, a women-only college in Cambridge, England. While at Newnham, she met Ted Hughes. They married on June 16, 1956.

When Sylvia finished her studies at Newnham, the couple moved to the United States. Sylvia tried teaching at Smith College, but she discovered it didn’t give her the time to write. Taking evening writing seminars given by Robert Lowell, she met fellow writer Anne Sexton. Encouraged by both Lowell and Sexton, Sylvia began to write autobiographical work.

Sylvia and Ted Hughes returned to England in 1959. She gave birth to her first child, Frieda, in 1960. Also that year, she published The Colossus, her first poetry collection. During her second pregnancy, according to a letter she wrote her therapist, Ted Hughes beat her. Two days after the beating, she suffered a miscarriage. She gave birth to Nicholas, their second child, in January 1962. Later that year, she discovered that Ted was having an affair. The couple separated in September.

During this time, she was writing The Bell Jar. Using the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, she published it in 1963. It was her only novel. A month after its publication, on February 11, Sylvia killed herself. Throughout her life, she had attempted suicide several times. Unfortunately, failed attempts proved a great teacher. To protect her children from the gas, she sealed off the kitchen door. (Why do I find the next line so hard to write? I always knew I had to write it.) She put her head in the oven and let the gas finish her.

Two years after her death, Ted Hughes, legally still her husband at the time of her death, edited Ariel. This volume established Sylvia as a poetic genius. In 1981, Hughes also served as editor for The Collected Poems. Like so many talented people, Sylvia Plath was under-appreciated in life. But in the decades since her death, she had become recognized as one of the most important poets in American Literature.

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