Disclaimer: I do not, just as anyone else does not, know the exact circumstances of Plath's life. I can only gather what I take to be facts from several sources, articles, and Plath's own journals. Mental illness is a complex and often misunderstood topic, and I in no way intend to simplify it. Plath's death was the cause of her mental illness(es), and her mental illness(es) alone. I do not, in any way, implicate any man/men as being the direct reason for her death. However, to look at her life through a feminist lens is important, due to the nature of the time period in which she lived and due to her many poetic, albeit graphic, showcases of harmful male dominance in her life. To take this legacy and view her life through it not only honors her work but also helps us to understand the systematic circumstances that may have had an effect on her upbringing and career. By doing this, we can become more educated on the female experience.
History is saturated with the blood of women whose achievements never saw the light of day. Kept in the shadow of men, a vicious cycle of misogyny haunts the spaces between the lines of our history books. American poet Sylvia Plath, praised by some, criticized and patronized by others, is a physical embodiment of the hidden plight women have faced throughout history. Plath's husband, who controlled her during her life, ended up being responsible for her reputation and success after her death. The cover-up of his own wrongdoings, and the current attack on Plath fans today reveal the dark underbelly of Plath's life and display the long-term effects of misogyny. This is why proper history matters, this is Sylvia's story.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts in the heat of the Great Depression, Sylvia Plath's DNA was laced with hardship. She was raised mostly by a single mother after the death of her authoritarian father, whose self-inflicted illness (he refused treatment for diabetes) and harsh, possibly abusive, behavior emotionally drained the family. Despite her rocky emergence into the world, Plath's dedicated and studious nature earned her a scholarship to Smith College and a position as a guest managing editor at a local magazine. What seemed like the perfect career fruition quickly turned into an anxious meltdown, which ended in a sleeping pill-induced suicide attempt. She recovered, miraculously, and finished her senior year at Cambridge. There she met poet Ted Hughes and married him in 1956. Six years later Plath had the seemingly perfect, life; complete with two children, a full-time writing career, and a husband with a Guggenheim Fellowship award. But, one year later on February 11th, 1963, Plath was found dead in her own kitchen with her head in the oven.
Sylvia Plath was officially diagnosed with depression at the age of twenty, and many psychologists today believe she actually had bipolar disorder and/or manic-depressive disorder. In short, these issues caused her to feel life's ups and downs at a higher octave than the average person. Therefore, her reactions to those ups and downs were always much too large. We have to realize that mental illness was always present in Plath's life. Her suicide was mental-illness induced, as all suicides are. Nobody kills themselves in the absence of mental issues. However, with this in mind, we need to also examine the possible external factors to her suicide.
The story of Plath's spiral to suicide begins in the year 1961, when she miscarried her prospective second child. It is now known, through her writing, that her husband had violently beaten her a few days before she lost the child. Friends of Plath say that this was not a one-time occurrence, and that Hughes chronically abused her. The couple then leased their London flat to Assia and David Wevill and moved to North Tawton, England. About a year later, in June of 1962, Plath inexplicably, but intentionally, drove her car into a river. One month following her second failed suicide attempt, Plath discovered an ongoing affair between her husband and Assia Wevill. Soon after, Hughes left his family to live with Wevill in the London flat he had recently shared with his wife.
However, Plath seemed to be handling this upset relatively well. In letters to her mother, she stated that her marriage had simply been an interruption in the upward trajectory of her life, and that her husband's affair had freed her from the chains of housewivery. She claimed to feel freer, more inspired, and ready to advance her career. She even planned to move back to London, where she felt she could be around intelligent and active-minded people. Despite her outward happy demeanor, Plath had lost around twenty pounds in a short period of time, and taken up smoking. In general, though, Sylvia seemed rather upbeat.
In November of 1962, The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly rejected many of the poems Plath had personally deemed "the best poems of [her] life." She had expected them to "make [her] name." But they didn't. Her confidence should have come to a complete halt. Yet, by early December she was happily situated back in London, and had proudly published the manuscript, 'Ariel, and other Poems.' She kept writing, later publishing 'The Bell Jar,' which received mixed reviews. And then suddenly she spiraled, as Plath had done many times before in her life. She seemed to vacillate violently between happiness and emptiness, never finding a proper middle-ground (likely due to her mental illnesses). Plath detailed to her neighbor that she felt "incarcerat[ed]" by Hughes; he got to have a free and exciting life with Wevill, while she cared for two children. In a strange change of heart, Plath called Hughes and asked to meet him for lunch. That day, the two stayed together until the early morning. Ted listened to Sylvia read her new poems and played with his children. However, the day after their meeting, Plath called her former husband and asked him to leave England. She claimed she couldn't move along with her career when she had to hear of his professional successes in the same city. She also wrote her last letter to her mother, this time admitting how "grim" she was feeling.
In her last week of life, Plath stayed three nights at a friend's home, as she wasn't feeling mentally well. While there, she wrote to Hughes, telling him in a two-sentence letter that she intended to leave the country and wanted to say goodbye. When he met with her in person in regard to the letter, she refused to elaborate any further on her statement. That day she left her friend's home and returned to her own, where she asked a neighbor, Trevor Thomas, for mailing stamps. Thomas stated that during their interaction Plath seemed euphoric and hyperactive. He offered to call her doctor for her. Plath refused, saying that she didn't want to see her doctor. Little did Thomas know, he was the last person to see the now famed Sylvia Plath alive. She left his doorstep around midnight on February eleventh. She returned to her children, leaving food and water in their room, and attached a piece of paper with the name and phone number of her doctor written on it to her son's crib. Then she ended her life at approximately 5 a.m.
Therefore, many attribute Plath's suicide as a response to her husband's infidelity. However, her suicide attempts prior to their marriage, and prior to her knowledge of the affair, highlight the presence of mental illness in her life. There is no denying the fact that Plath's brain chemical misalignments were the true cause of her suicide, but we cannot for a moment discount the beating life dealt her as a woman. She is widely regarded as a raging feminist poet. Famous for lines such as, "I eat men like air," and poems such as Daddy, which depicted the harshness of male abuse, it is clear she felt as though she was always living beneath the shadow of the men in her life.
The patriarchy, both a cause and an effect of misogyny, is not simply about sexual harassment, rape, or the wage gap; it is all of those things, but it largely describes a society in which women are systematically dependent on men. A society in which, in the absence of a man, a woman has little value and, therefore, little influence on her world. Actively, this causes the decisions and actions of men to cause a much bigger ripple for the women of the world than the men of the world. With Plath's father being the main breadwinner, as is usually the case in a patriarchy, his untimely death financially strained the family to a greater degree than the death of her mother would have. A victim of this system at a young age, Plath's mental illnesses likely emerged from her father's abuse, a commonly recognizable result of misogyny, and from being raised in social and financial hardship.
Additionally, it is possible that Plath's father's refusal to be treated for diabetes originates from a place of fragile masculinity. To be seen as weak, physically or mentally, especially in Plath's time period, was a social death sentence for men. Obviously there are many men who have taken on treatment for their illnesses. However, it is a possibility and a lense that we cannot overlook. Plath's father, a harsh man, may not have wanted to validate his "weakness" by giving into treatment. Again, this is not a certainty, but it is something to, at the very least, consider.
Ted Hughes mimicked Plath's father in ways she may not have even noticed at the time. Likely used to be ruled and commanded by her father as a child, the first glimpse of Hughes' domineering personality likely did not shock Sylvia. Her image of how men should act was skewed from a young age. It is possible she regarded all men to act the way her father did, meaning Ted's harshness wasn't a red flag. He was, after all, a poet just like her. So, in Plath's mind, he likely was a good match. Many psychologists believe that her marriage to an abusive man may have triggered a sort of PTSD type mentality in regard to her relationship with her father. There was no suicide attempt for Plath after the age of twenty, when she underwent electroconvulsive therapy (which Plath seems to regard as effective in her indirect auto-biography, The Bell Jar). As stated earlier, her second attempt did not take place until after marrying Hughes.
Her writings speak of men in roles of brute domination over her and the world as a whole. In letters to her mother, Plath wrote that Hughes was a "breaker of things and people," but that she is "strong in herself" and prepared to work on domesticating him. The ingrained belief that it is the woman's job, when in an abusive relationship, to handle and alter the man's behavior is a consistent theme throughout history. The transfer of power over Plath from that of her father to her husband is hauntingly reminiscent of the days in which a woman was physically owned by a man, her father, until she was handed over to another, her husband. It is important to note that Plath and Hughes' daughter, Frieda, consistently states that there was no abuse between her mother and father. However, Plath's death took place when Frieda was just two years old. We cannot know the true inner-workings of their family dynamic. But we can draw from Plath's own journals and poems.
One such journal, a letter to her mother, states that Hughes has torn an "uncaring rip through every woman he's ever met." This is a large statement to unpack. Clearly, Ted had an adverse effect on Sylvia's life. Curiously, Assia Wevill, his mistress, committed a murder-suicide in the same manner that Plath ended her life, a shocking detail to many Plath fans. Wevill, who took on the mothering of both of Plath's children after her suicide, killed herself and her 4-year old daughter, Shura, in a scarily familiar manner; a gas stove in a sealed kitchen. Of course, this fact unearths the conspiracy theorists who claim that Hughes killed both women. This is not the case, there is substantial evidence that both women did commit suicide. However, there are a few theories as to why Wevill ended her own life. Limiting the reasoning behind such a complex decision to just a handful of possibilities is incorrect. But, this is the evidence we have to work with and consider. Some claim Wevill was also a victim of Ted's abuse, and suicide was used to save her and her daughter from his wrath. Others attribute her suicide to the stress of raising the children of Ted's past marriage, and the blame much of society placed upon her for Sylvia's suicide. Hughes has come under great scrutiny in modern times, of course, for his wife's suicide. But, at the time, Wevill often took the brunt of the blame. It is likely that she felt an amount of guilt for breaking up Ted and Sylvia's marriage. Wevill was publicly thought to be scandalous and promiscuous. Hughes was never given such an insulting title. Ted's parents also were very hesitant to welcome Wevill into their lives. This societal and domestic rejection may have been too much for Wevill. These misogynistic views of Assia and Ted's affair offer another piece of evidence in the cycle of misogyny that plagued Plath's life and those she was involved with. Was Assia's suicide just another "uncaring rip" caused by the patriarchy?
During Plath's life she was not a widely known poet. Locally, yes, but her fame was yet to come. Her tragic death likely aided in much of the fascination surrounding her life. Hughes, still legally married to Plath at the time of her suicide, became the owner of her literary property. As Frieda Hughes, their daughter, mentions often, Ted did publish his late wife's work. He did attempt to honor her and her passions. But, to the extent that this was honest work is questionable. There are three main issues with the way Hughes published Plath's poetry, all erase his possible abusive behavior (which may not be regarded as only a possibility if the public could have seen her true writing).
First, when he published "The Journals of Sylvia Plath" he failed to publish Plath's final journal, the one she wrote just before her death when her rage surrounding her husband would have been the most raw and present. Hughes has claimed this last journal "had been lost." He also preceded each journal with an explanation, written by himself, indicating the meaning and message of Plath's writing. Hughes was not a third-party source, and this is clearly a conflict of interest. He had a moral obligation to publish these self-implicating journals, but worked tirelessly to alter his late wife's true intentions. Secondly, in the poetry collection "Ariel" Plath wrote poems that arched from happiness, to despair, back to happiness. It was intended to be a collection depicting recovery after betrayal. It is now known that Hughes omitted several poems ("Mystic," "Brasilia," "A Secret," "The Jailer," "Purdah," to name a few) that incriminated him as a sexual betrayer and a cause of much of Plath's suffering. Thirdly, Hughes not only edited Plath's words to absolve him of abuse, he wrote his own innocence. In a collection of Plath's poetry Hughes published, titled "The Collected Poems," Hughes grouped some of Plath's most dark and depressing works at the end. Granted, much of her work was bleak. But it appears that the ending of "The Collected Poems" was especially grim. Literary critics claim that this intentional arrangement creates an overwhelming of sense of dread concerning Plath's mindset, and indirectly asserts that her suicide was almost an inevitability. These critics say that Hughes may have over exaggerated Plath's mental instability to place greater weight on her own mind than his actions. Hughes is thought to have written the last line of "The Collected Poems," which is "fixed stars govern a life." This once again asserts Plath's destiny, and predetermination, to end her own life. This is simply a critique, not necessarily a truth. Her mental problems were certainly the driving force behind her suicide. But Hughes' actions may have triggered those problems, and he put in an immense amount of effort to hide this possibility.
Yes, Hughes did do Plath a great service by turning her into the famous poet she deserves to be. He could have decided to leave her writings in a dusty drawer, never to see the light of day. It is clear that Ted Hughes did love his wife, and wanted to see her shine. But, it is fact that he over-edited and altered her words, this swallows up her autonomy as an artist. That is the true tragedy behind Sylvia Plath's glamour and fame; we can never fully know what is and what is not hers, we cannot ever truly know what is and what is not Ted's. This is something that her following has to consider. Plath is clearly a talented and worthy poet. We can and should admire her work. But we should also stay ever aware of the factors that may skew her message. She was heavily controlled and vulnerable to the whims of the men in her life; in childhood and adulthood. And, even after her death, she continues to be male-dominated.
This cycle of misogyny sadly does not end with her or her legacy. Sylvia Plath fans, usually young women, are not taken seriously. Critiques today of both Plath and her fans is that Plath's writing comes from a place of "hysteria" that is "sharply feminine." This, beyond being outrightly sexist, denigrates her image from being the poetic genius she was into just another crazy, hysterical, emotional woman. Another critic even went so far as to say that her poetry was only valid because "what [she] threatened she performed." In other words, Plath's depression-filled words would hold no weight if she hadn't killed herself. Many young girls who like Plath's work are considered to be the archetypical college-girl romanticizing suicide and dramatically raging about feminism. The irony here is that this is just the kind of critiques Plath herself receives. This complete dismissal of the intellect, creativity, and emotional stability of women has to stay in the past.
So, even after her death, these sexist comments plague Plath's image and the reputation of her fans. But here is the truth, young women don't like Plath's work because they want fit some image of a quirky, deep-thinking, sad girl. No. That is not it at all. It is because the cycle of misogyny in Plath's life is not an isolated experience. In Plath, girls see small pieces of themselves. Though feminism has made drastic strides, many modern day young women grew up in abusive households, are in an abusive relationship, have a mental illness, or feel dominated by the patriarchy, among many other societal plights of women. They are entering a stage in their life, as young adults, where they either become themselves, or let somebody else make them. Plath is that paradox; she is both self-made, and (literally) man-made. The truth is that women, much more than men, recognize how easy it is for them to slip into the shadows of the world. And they fear, more than anything else, falling into oblivion. They fear becoming just another woman turned to dust on the back-burner of history.
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