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Critical Essay by Wendy Martin
SOURCE: "'God's Lioness'—Sylvia Plath, Her Prose and Poetry," in Women's Studies, Vol. 1, 1973, pp. 191-8.
In the following essay, Martin provides both a brief overview of The Bell Jar and examples of Plath's poetry to illustrate the autobiographic and social context of her work. Challenging the "negative and even hostile judgment of Plath's politics" levelled by some critics, Martin extols Plath's talent and influence as "one of the leading American women poets since Emily Dickinson."
In recent years, cultists have enshrined Sylvia Plath as a martyr while critics have denounced her as a shrew. Plath's devotees maintain that she was the victim of a sexist society, her suicide a response to the oppression of women, and her poetry a choreography of female wounds. Conversely, critics such as Elizabeth Hardwick and Irving Howe complain of her "fascination with hurt and damage and fury." Hardwick can't understand how Plath could persist in her bitterness toward her father years after his death and implies that it was sadistic, or, at best, self-indulgent, to publish The Bell Jar.
Echoing Hardwick, Howe accuses Plath of not "caring" or even being "aware of anyone but herself" and asserts that her poetry is "unmodulated and asocial." Complaining that in "none of the essays devoted to praising Sylvia Plath, have I found a coherent statement as to the nature, let alone the value, of her vision," Howe also dismisses Plath's work. This negative and even hostile judgment of Plath's politics obscures the fact that she is one of the most important American women poets since Emily Dickinson; therefore, it is imperative that her work receive attention which is unbiased by sentimentality or authoritarianism.
Born on 27 October 1932 in Boston, Sylvia Plath grew up near the sea in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Her father, a professor of biology at Boston University and author of a respected treatise on bumble bees, died when she was eight; her mother who had been a graduate student in German when she married Otto Plath, taught medical secretarial training at Boston University in order to support the family.
Plath was awarded a scholarship to Smith College where she wrote fiction and prize-winning poetry; as a winner of the Mademoiselle College Board Contest, she spent a month in the summer of 1953 in New York City as a guest editor. Later that same summer, she became acutely depressed and attempted suicide. After receiving extensive psychiatric treatment as well as shock therapy, she returned to Smith and graduated summa cum laude in 1955. Sylvia was then awarded a fellowship to Newnham College, Cambridge, where she met Ted Hughes, also a poet, in February 1956 and married him in June, a few months before her twenty-fifth birthday.
Sylvia and Ted moved to the United States in the summer of 1957; she taught at Smith College for a year but decided to give up teaching because it took too much time for her poetry writing. The Hughes then moved to Boston where Sylvia audited Robert Lowell's poetry classes with George Starbuck and Anne Sexton. In December 1959 Sylvia and Ted returned to England and their first child was born in April 1960; she continued to write, alternating the baby-sitting with Ted. During this time, she began writing her novel, had a miscarriage, an appendectomy, and became pregnant again; her second child was born in January 1962 shortly after their move to Devon. The following year, Sylvia decided to move to London with the children; Ted remained in Devon. When The Bell Jar was published in January 1963 under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, she was hard at work on her Ariel poems. One month later on 11 February 1963 during the coldest winter in London since 1813–14, Sylvia Plath killed herself; she was thirty-one years old.
What is striking about Sylvia Plath's biography is that she was an accomplished writer, wife, and mother; she even described herself as a "triple-threat woman." Friends describe her as energetic, efficient, and cheerful and often express surprise or are shocked by the isolation, confusion, searing pain and anger in The Colossus (1960), Ariel (1965), Crossing the Water (1971), and Winter Trees (1972), her four volumes of poetry.
Apparently, Sylvia Plath played her social role so convincingly that few guessed at the intensity of her despair, but her novel, which is largely autobiographical, illuminates the sense of isolation conveyed by her poetry. In spite of the fact that The Bell Jar has been on the national best-seller list for over a year, it has received very little serious critical attention; this critical lapse is especially surprising in view of the fact that it is an extraordinary first novel paralleling F. Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise or Hemingway's In Our Time.
Not since Kate Chopin's The Awakening or Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps has there been an American novel which so effectively depicts the life of an intelligent and sensitive woman eager to participate in the larger world, who approaches experience with what amounts to a deep hunger, only to discover that there is no place for her as a fully functioning being. Like Chopin's Edna Pontellier and McCarthy's Margaret Sargent, Esther Greenwood struggles to develop the strength to survive in a world where women are alienated from themselves as well as each other (it is this alienation that Doris Lessing explores in The Golden Notebook which was published in 1962).
The Bell Jar chronicles Esther Greenwood's rite de passage from girlhood to womanhood, and explores such subjects as sexual initiation and childbirth which are, for the most part, taboo in women's fiction. Superficially, Esther Greenwood appears to be the 1950's model college girl, but she feels claustrophobic in the world of ladies' luncheons and fashion shows which she must attend as guest editor for a magazine in New York City.
Esther expects more from life than free complexion and hair care advice and would rather be in a bar than a beauty salon. But her nightclub experiences with her glamorous friend Doreen and disc jockey Lenny Shepard serve only to teach her that in order to live outside the ladies' luncheon circuit, a woman must attract an escort in order to experience the larger world. Sickened by this parasitic femininity, she resolves to get by on her own; she wants to see life for herself: "If there was a road accident or a street fight or a baby pickled in a laboratory jar for me to look at, I'd stop and look so hard I never forgot it."
On her return to Boston, her mother informs her that she hasn't been accepted to a writing program that was important to her, and she resigns herself to writing her thesis while living at home. At this point, Esther's world begins to fall apart; she has rejected the passive femininity of Doreen, but the other women in her life fail to provide her with viable alternative life-styles. Her mother advises her to learn shorthand, but Esther is determined to dictate her own letters. Her resolutions notwithstanding, there are no outlets for her enormous energy and potentially constructive aggression; she turns this energy inward, becomes morbidly depressed, and tries to kill herself.
The "stale and sour" climate of Esther's inner world reflects the stifling conditions of her external life: the bell jar is a symbol for the internal chaos and despair produced by excessive external prohibitions. Ironically, there are carefully detailed rituals and traditions regulating virginity and defloration in Esther's world, but there were insufficient guide-posts for intellectual development and creative accomplishment. There was no one in Esther's world to help her break out of her confinement—her boyfriend Buddy demands that she remain a virgin but insists that a poem is a "piece of dust."
Life outside the academy leaves Esther with the choice of being an adjunct to a man and mother to a "big cowy family," or a pioneer in uncharted social and emotional territory. Esther's fear and anxiety get the best of her, and it takes extensive therapy to enable her to emerge "patched, retreaded and approved for the road." When she is finally able to rejoice in pure being, "I am, I am, I am," the external world is still threatening, but at least she is her "own woman," and this hard-won independence enables her to withstand the taunts of people like Buddy: "But who will marry you now?"
In spite of the often grim events of The Bell Jar, the novel is frequently humorous: at the elegant luncheon given by wealthy Philomena Guinea, Esther drinks the contents of the fingerbowl, cherry blossoms and all, assuming that it was Japanese after-dinner soup; about to receive her first kiss, she positions herself while her date gets a "good footing on the soil," but does not close her eyes. Plath's narration of Esther's gaffs is brilliant, and her skill provides ample evidence of her commitment to fiction. In an interview with Peter Orr for the British council in October 1962, Plath commented that, unlike poetry, fiction permitted her to luxuriate in details; she also said that she viewed The Bell Jar as her apprentice effort and planned to write another novel. In the same interview, she stated that she composed her poems to be read aloud and admitted that The Colossus privately bored her because the poems in that volume were not composed for oral presentation.
To hear Sylvia Plath read her own poetry is truly a thrilling experience: her voice was full-bodied, vibrant, and authoritative. Her voice creates the impression that she was not hysterical, timid, or easily subdued. Hearing her read makes it obvious that being a poet was central to her existence—"The actual experience of writing a poem is a magnificent one," she once said, and the immense vitality of her reading underscores the energy of her poems.
Savage anger and bitterness frequently spring from Plath's poems: "Lady Lazarus," "The Applicant," "Daddy," "The Beast," "Zookeeper's Wife," "Magi" are monuments to her rage. "I made a model of you,… A man in black with a Meinkampf look … And I said I do, I do…. So daddy, I'm finally through"; "Daddy" turns on retribution; yet it expresses the release of immense energy that occurs with the decision to break away from emotionally damaging relationships. In An American Dream, Norman Mailer experiences the same release when he kills his wife Deborah and metaphorically as well as literally breaks away from her domination: "… and crack the door flew open and the wire tore in her throat, and I was through the door, hatred passing from me in wave after wave, illness as well, rot and pestilence, nausea, a bleak string of salts. I was floating."
Male writers are permitted to articulate their aggression, however violent or hostile; women writers are supposed to pretend that they are never angry. Sylvia Plath refuses to honor this concept of feminine decorum and dares to express her negative emotions. "Beware … Beware … Out of the ash … I rise with my red hair … And I eat men like air" ("Lady Lazarus"). Plath chooses to be true to her experience and to her art rather than to the traditional norms of feminine experience.
Plath's anger gives her strength to face her demons: "Nightly now I flog apes wolves bears sheep … Over the iron stile. And still don't sleep." ("Zookeeper's Wife"). But if Plath's poetry is often an exorcism, an effort to stave off madness, it also modulates longing and fear: "I am inhabited by a cry … Nightly it flaps out … Looking, with its hooks, for something to love. I am terrified by this dark thing … That sleeps in me." ("Elm").
Critics frequently point out Plath's love/hate for her father, but they rarely mention her mother. This is a major over-sight because the loss of mother-love haunts Plath's poetry and is the basic cause of her profound despair: "Mother, you are the one mouth … I would be tongue to" ("Who"); "The mother of mouths didn't love me" ("Maenad"); "Mother of beetles, only unclench your hand" ("Witch Burning").
Born under the sign of Scorpio, Plath speaks of the "motherly pulse of the sea" in an essay entitled "Ocean 1212-W," and here she again laments her abandonment: "Hugging my grudge, ugly and prickly, a sad sea urchin … I saw the separateness of everything. I felt the wall of my skin: I am I. The stone is a stone. My beautiful fusion with the things of this world was over."
Plath was two and a half years old when her brother was born, and like many sensitive children of that age, she felt replaced by her brother and rejected by her mother. Her father's death when she was eight undoubtedly aggravated her already acute sense of loss. The working through of Oedipal and sibling conflicts in Plath's writing is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her diary, "I used to think of him (her father) and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back to me sometimes, but differently. I believe this to be true—that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act."
In addition to childhood losses, the conflict between domestic and artistic interests, and the lack of financial security as well as health problems undoubtedly left Sylvia Plath extremely vulnerable to depression and suicidal impulses. Lacking favorable or at least serious critical response to her work must have been difficult and painful. Certainly interviews which described her as an "attractive young suburban matron … in a neat oatmeal colored suit of wool jersey … a living realization of every young college girl's dream" must have been discouraging.
One of Plath's last works "Three Women: A Poem for Three Voices," which appears in Winter Trees, is set in a maternity ward and seems to celebrate, in part, fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood along with acceptance, or perhaps resignation, to a women's domestic identity. It concludes, "I am a wife … The city waits and aches. The little grasses … Crack through Stone, and they are green with life." Again, Plath echoes Virginia Woolf; "And now with some pleasure I find that it is seven; and must cook dinner. Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down." Shortly after this 8 March 1941 entry, Virginia Woolf weighted with stones, walked into a tributary of the Thames to drown.
Like Woolf, Plath made desperate efforts to balance on the "razor edge" of the opposing forces of life and death. Kali-like, Sylvia Plath's poetry embodies the profound interrelationship of destruction and creation. Whether or not she could have moved toward a strong affirmation of life as did Anne Sexton in Live or Die is a question her readers will never be able to answer.
A. Alvarez in his memoir of Sylvia Plath argues that she was by nature a risk-taker and that her suicide was her last gamble: "Having worked out the odds were in her favor, but perhaps, in her depression, not much caring whether she won or lost. Her calculations went wrong and she lost." Alvarez points out that Plath left the doctor's number near her, that the au pair girl was due to arrive early in the morning, that the man who lived below was an early riser. Plath could not have realized that the gas that suffocated her would sedate him so heavily that he didn't hear the frantic knocking of the au pair girl or that this delay would cost her her life. Yet, the moment she decided to turn on the gas jet, an irrevocable chain of events occurred which caused the "jet blood" of poetry to stop forever.
Sylvia Plath was one of the first American women writers to refuse to conceal or disguise her true emotions; in articulating her aggression, hostility, and despair in her art, she effectively challenged the traditional literary prioritization of female experience. In addition to being a novelist and poet, she was a pioneer and pathfinder.
This section contains 2,671 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)