Prodding the Bell Jar

“Perhaps someday I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.”
– Sylvia Plath.
Fifty years into the demise of Sylvia Plath, her life and work resonate with themes still largely relevant to the plight of the individual today. With a distinctly American voice, yet encapsulating experiences from across the Atlantic, her writing weaves together sentences in brutal, lyrical ways leaving the reader introspective at the very least. Sylvia was born in Boston in the autumn of 1932 to Otto and Aurelia Plath, and spent the first eight years of her life until the death of her father in the vicinity of the sea that she learned to love. This was a period in her life she described later, in times of more distress, as being “sealed off like a ship in a bottle- beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth”.  As a student, Sylvia was exceptional, in English particularly, and creative writing. She had her first poem published at the age of 8 in the children’s section of the Boston Herald. From there onwards, there was no looking back. Her stint as the editor of the Smith Review, her college literary magazine, proved fruitful as in 1953, her short story “Sunday at the Mintons” won her the coveted position as guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York City. By the time she returned from New York, her downward spiral into what some term as, “clinical depression”, had already begun, and it was during this time that she also attempted her first suicide by swallowing almost an entire bottle’S worth of sleeping pills. She was found three days later in an unconscious state and immediately admitted to a mental recovery facility. She spent six months here, by the end of which Plath had recovered remarkably well. She went on to finish college at Smith and even won a Fulbright scholarship to continue studies at Newnham College in Cambridge, England.
It was in Cambridge that, what can be termed the next phase of her life, began. Here, she met Ted Hughes, and the tumultuous relationship they came to share was probably what influenced her most in the years to follow. They were married within four months of meeting and the couple spent a few happy years working, studying, and in love. Sylvia completed her degree at Cambridge summa cum laude and took to teaching, but soon began to find it exhausting and unpleasant, especially as it left her with no time at all to write. Her consequent decision to give up teaching entirely and devote all time to writing served the poet in Plath well, as can be seen in the poems she came to write, each better than the previous. Her focus gradually moved from technique to style and content – deeply personal and often describing intimate feelings about topics considered taboo at the time; she pioneered what would come to be called the genre of “confessional poetry”. Sylvia and Hughes had two children together, a girl named Freida in 1960 and a boy named Nicholas in 1962.
Alas, the good times ended too soon. Following Plath’s discovery of Hughes’ affair with their tenant’s wife in 1962 and their separation a few months after, she began to fall once again into the recesses of the desperate hopelessness that she had managed to conquer years ago. Plath returned to England, and seemed in good enough spirits on arrival, particularly pleased about renting the same house that William Butler Yeats had once rented. That winter in England was the coldest the country had experienced in a century, and the loneliness rekindled her bouts of depression and listlessness, even as she went on writing feverishly amidst caring for her young children. It was during this time that in a burst of creativity, she produced the two poem collections “Ariel” and the “The Colossus”, and her only novel, the “The Bell Jar” – the works for which she is most known today in the literary community and far beyond.  Her poems during this time spoke of death as something intimate and welcoming, and many have touted her subsequent suicide to have been an unanswered cry for help. Other motifs addressed in her poems were nature, womanhood and everyday domestic experiences. She had a way of romanticizing even the most mundane occurrences giving them an almost surreal quality.
The end came on February 11, 1963. All who knew her were shaken by the tragedy of her suicide, and probably none more so than Ted Hughes himself, who till the end quested for an answer to why his beloved first wife would have ended her life. In fact, it is to him that we owe many of her posthumous publications, including “The Collected Poems”, which won her the 1982 Pulitzer Prize and the publication of the first version of her journals, limpid in style and deeply honest in content. One question that we try to answer as readers is that of, how similar we are to the author we’re reading? And in a way, how much we are tied to the book is proportional to how uneasy this question makes us, because can we really afford to not know the answer? When it is posed by Plath in her poems, you never can be sure, and thereby you are hooked.
Sometimes, I question whether it wasn’t just pure and unadulterated love for the man, Ted Hughes, that brought forth the intensity of emotion in Plath. Here was a woman wishing to do so many things, trapped however, in a life so limited like the rest of us. With him, perhaps, she could be a little of everything? Of course, we’ll never know, though not for the lack of trying. So much has been studied and said about the writings she has left behind, so many tags associated with her today – feminist, bipolar, confessional, suicidal, domestic surrealistic, even melodramatic.  This was a woman with a full heart and an intricate mind, filled as much with contradiction and confusion as candor. As described succinctly by Robert Lowell in his foreword to Ariel, she was “brilliant, tense presence, embarrassed by restraint”. And thus all analysis aside, perhaps the wisest thing for us to do would be to simply be grateful that Sylvia Plath chose to write, above all.

—Sadhwi Srinivas






Leave a Reply