“Swaying so slender/it seemed your long, perfect, American legs/simply went on up. That flaring hand, those long, balletic, monkey-elegant fingers…
And your eyes, squeezed in your face, a crush of diamonds, incredibly bright, bright as a crush of tears.. you meant to knock me out/with your vivacity
”. (excerpt from Ted Hughes
’ ’St Botolph’s’
Sylvia’s lightened hair had been ‘carefully trained to dip with a precise and provocative flourish over her left eyebrow’ (’A Closer Look At Ariel’, 1974). It was this hair that hid the scar on her face, from one of her suicide attempts. Sylvia had a constant drive for perfection. This drive provoked the nickname "The High Priestess of Suffering" and dominated the rest of her life. Much of her anguish came from her misshapen relationship with her father. Other factors that influenced her works were her strained views of human sexuality, her sado-masochistic tendencies, self-hatred and her traditional upbringing. Sylvia was misogynist; subconsciously, she viewed femininity as sinful. In her play Three Women, the women recount their associated alienation and depression. This may also allude to the fact that Plath suffered post-partum depression. Her poem "Lesbos" clearly depicts the female gender as sinful and unwanted. She uses strong language, calling a young, schizophrenic girl a "bastard," while someone else suggests that the girl be drowned. Meanwhile, a baby boy is regarded a precious gem. Plath was fatally dependent on the men in her life. As much as men had caused her pain and anguish, it is suggested that she wanted to be one, that she hated the subordinancy associated with femininity.
Plath displays symptoms of the "Electra Complex." Just as Oedipus Rex was a mythical king of Thebes who killed his father and married his mother, Electra was a woman who plotted to murder her mother. Plath had a very bipolar relationship with her father, Otto. She was very close to him, and yet hated him viciously. When he died, eight year old Sylvia proclaimed, "I'll never speak to God again". The fact that he died when she was so young, before adolescent years when she would have instinctively separated her identity from being “Daddy’s daughter” to being “Sylvia”, meant that in her mind, he was still the god-like figure a father is to his small children. Following her first suicide attempt at the age of nineteen, she said, "He was an autocrat . . . I adored and despised him, and I probably wished many times that he were dead. When he obliged me and died, I imagined that I had killed him." Plath's liberation came in her poem "Daddy," in which she compares herself to a Jew and her father to a Nazi, and a vampire.
Sylvia first saw her future husband when she arrived quite drunk to a party held to celebrate the launch of a Cambridge literary magazine. She spotted Ted Hughes, a "big, dark hunky boy", the only one huge enough for her, and wanted to know who he was at once. After meeting Hughes in person, she quoted one of his poems to him. He pulled her into a side room, and ripped her hairband and earrings off when she pulled away as he tried to kiss her. She then bit his cheek when he went to kiss her. Apparently Hughes was fiercely attractive, and later a friend warned her that Ted Hughes was "the biggest seducer in Cambridge."
They married, and Sylvia gave birth to her first child, a daughter, on April 1, 1960. That February, Sylvia had a miscarriage, an event that provoked the world renowned poem, "Parliament Hill Fields" and sent her on into a state of emotional volatility. Ted and Sylvia had a second child, Nicholas, in 1962 and the family relocated to an isolated farm. Feeling removed from the rest of the world, Sylvia wrote and cared for her children. In July of that same year, Sylvia discovered her husband was having an affair. They would separate in September and later divorce.
Sylvia reluctantly packed her bags and moved with her two children to an apartment in London. She did not hve much in the way of money or food, and she became ill that winter with what doctors referred to as an "extended flu." The difficulty in her life allowed Sylvia to write, and she did so at four o'clock in the morning until the children woke. “The Bell Jar” (largely autobiographical) was published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas in 1963.
Sylvia was depressed over the breakup of her marriage and lack of success. She penned her last works, which became her best, and were published three years after her successful death in a volume called “Ariel”.
Sylvia attempted suicide for the first time in 1952 by swallowing about forty sleeping pills. She had left a note that she was going for a long walk, and after being missing for two days, her mother heard groaning noises coming from the basement and she was rescued. She was then institutionalized and treated with insulin shock treatments, psychotherapy and electroshock. Sylvia continued to write during treatment, generating the creation of her second award winning short story, "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams”. It is said that Sylvia never wanted her suicide attempts to end up anything more than just attempts. This can be assumed after reading Ted Hughes’ poem, “Sam”, as well as her poem “Whiteness I Remember” which tell the story of a runaway horse that nearly killed her. It was seen as a miracle she didn’t die, and Hughes drew conjectures on what blind force it was that drove her to cling on to the horse for dear life, despite the violent and fatiguing ride. It is also thought that Sylvia’s final suicide attempt was simply a strategy to get her husband back.
In February of 1963 Plath awoke early and went to the kitchen to prepare a plate of cookies and two glasses of milk. She carried the tray to her children's room and sat it beside their bed while they were still asleep. She closed their bedroom door and stuffed towels in the crack of the door. She went back to the kitchen, opened the oven door, and turned it on. She laid a towel on the oven's door and wrapped her head in a towel, and then knelt to the floor, resting her head on the open oven door. Apparently her neighbour was supposed to let a lady, an au pair in that very morning, so it would seem Plath timed it so that she could be saved. However, the fumes from the oven were so strong that the neighbor had passed out in his bed. Plath's au pair came late that morning, and found the door locked. She smelled the gas fumes and called the police.
On Plath's headstone, Ted Hughes had inscribed the name "Sylvia Plath Hughes." Feminists who despised Hughes and placed blame for Plath’s death upon him, chiselled the name "Hughes" from the headstone. In 1988, after Hughes had replaced the stone for the fourth time, a local resident erected a simple cross from two sticks bound into a cross. On the cross, serving as a headstone, was written "Sylvia Plath."
Sylvia Plath was honored posthumously with a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
Interestingly, not only did Hughes’ new wife commit suicide in the exact same way as Plath, but A. Alvarez, a friend of the couple who wrote Plath’s memoirs, has since killed himelf as well.