Fifty years have passed almost to the day since Sylvia Plath was writing the last of her journals. Thoughts, feelings, stories and personal confessions of Plath were committed to paper in the last weeks of her life, only to be destroyed by her late husband Ted Hughes, in respect of the maxim of forgetfulness as ‘an essential part of survival’. It will bring no surprise to the reader to learn that he himself was a poet, the artist lovers famously entwined in books, separated by their passion.
Plath’s suicide at the age of thirty in 1963 secured her reputation as the archetypal modern ‘suicide writer’, a hero of deep prose for the younger generation. So what is it of the enigma surrounding Plath which remains? A quick glance at the history of literature would show that she was hardly the first ‘troubled’ female author to gain such a reputation. Virginia Woolf had preceded Plath by about 35 years and was twice her age when she finally killed herself in 1941, not before declaring “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Plath built upon this affirmation with her tale of the conflicting desires inherent in the young writer in The Bell Jar, published a month before her death in 1963, sometime ‘Between the end of the Chatterly Ban and the Beatles’ first LP’ ( if we are to take Larkin’s account of the year).
The Bell Jar, arguably Plath’s most acclaimed work and the only novel she actually completed, is constructed in remarkably readable prose with each turn of the page seeming more lucid than the last. Plath drew on her own youthful experiences for the novel and the main protagonist is undeniably hers; Plath, like her doppelganger Esther Greenwood, lost her father at the tender age of eight and was somewhat of a wondering nomad, securing a position as editor at Mademoiselle in New York City following her college education. Plath moved around different parts of Massachusetts throughout her childhood. Born to an Austrian mother and a German father, Plath seemed to carry a sense of Holocaust guilt and a minor preoccupation with Jewishness, mentioned several times in the novel and some of her seminal poems in Ariel (1965). In fact Plath’s father, Otto, shared the same first name as the tragic Anne Frank’s father, a name that might ring odd in the ears of the modern-day observer. Plath moved herself to Cambridge, England to study and then to Devon, finally settling in London, burying herself in the English winters.
One factor which makes The Bell Jar and Plath’s work in general widely accessible is her ability to relay both the obscure aspects of a life lived in capitalism and the more general, the universal. An example of this realism is contained on page 53 where Esther describes the predicament of having wished she’d said something different in reply to a comment or jibe: ‘These conversations I had in my mind usually repeated the beginnings of conversations I’d had with buddy, only they finished with me answering him back quite sharply, instead of just sitting around and saying ‘I guess so’. The metaphors employed by Plath for casual observations are succinct and mentally pleasing, ‘My secret hope of spending the afternoon alone in Central Park died in the glass egg-beater of Ladies’ Day’s revolving doors.’, raising the question of why Larkin (who was a contemporary poet, though slightly older) never conjured such an image considering his inevitable daily entry to Hull University’s Brynmoor Jones library.
Plath’s prose reads well on the page and gives one the impression that Plath barely had to try once pen had hit paper, an achievement most writers will understand to be harder than it looks. Plath’s writing contains mountains of clarity in the manner of George Orwell, though she leaves Orwell behind in her sometimes naive worldly observations, and attitudes surrounding mental illness, the charming nihilism for which she is often famous. Plath is rejected for this too often by those who feel fit to be critics and troubled Manic Street Preacher Richey Edwards even had the audacity to proclaim ‘I spat out Plath and Pinter’ in 1994, though he was undoubtedly influenced by her literary clout. One must keep in mind the fact that at the time of writing, manic-depressive heroes were in short supply and the approach of emptying the contents of the mind, un-judged, was relatively new in the pre-sexual revolution of the early 1960’s – the dark split between the social norm and personal reality.
A useful but humorous comparison may be drawn between The Bell Jar and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) in that both contain characters dealing with the oppressive sensation of nausea. Sartre’s existential ‘masterpiece’ draws its strength from the sense of displacement one feels through the character of the lone wanderer, the individual who is incurably sick at the comprehension of nature’s reality and the movement away from a solipsism previously held (and an idea which had historically plagued so much philosophical thought). Esther too became sick in the social arena of hotels and cinemas. One presumes the reason for this is a similar sort of existential crisis – but we soon learn that flamboyant Esther had simply consumed too much bad crabmeat at someone else’s expense, as did many other girls in her company. The resulting impression (one that is welcomed) is that she too is a material being who is not to be singled out as any special exception, which relates in a curious way to the reader, who might’ve noticed such a distinction between fiction and reality on one’s own accord.
Plath’s poetry, for which she was most well known in her lifetime, is notable too for its fractured imagery and the ability to incorporate life experience into a simple turn of phrase. She returns to her upbringing and family in what is arguably her most famous poem (published posthumously) ‘Daddy’, with the displacing opener:
You do not do, you do not do,
Any more, black shoe’.
Reading the stanzas for a BBC program in October 1962 following a creative spurt in which she produced around 50 poems in just a few months, Plath has a remarkable tone of voice, which recalls Judy Garland’s Dorothy in point of directness and sweetness. This clashes irresistibly with the ghoulish content that permeates Plath’s work, establishing her as the first mentally ill, feminine housewife who wrote poetry for the masses. Plath fell forever in love with Ted Hughes and was consigned to a miserable last few months, looking after two children on her own in a cold London flat, following their fateful split. And what was left of Plath’s riddled conscience?
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.’
If there is any social statement which oversees Plath’s work it is surely a critique of the American dream, the Western dream; the fact that even pretty suburban girls like herself can fall far from grace. This is the real face of depression, a girl with the need to die. Plath wanted badly to caste out the monster of mental illness and portray it in the English language.
Half a century since her death, Plath is remembered for achieving this above all things, and The Bell Jar is a novel I’d recommend to anybody in pursuit of either education or pleasure. This type of writing had and has been done before. Only Plath did it with such a distinctive style.
 From ‘Ariel’, published in 1965.