Sylvia Plath was an instinctive poet with great intelligence and strong pessimism.
Her life was crowded with events and experiences but above all with suffer that made her a symbol of Feminism.
It also appears in poems, diary and in the only one novel she wrote, “The Bell Jar”.
Sylvia was born on October 27, 1932 in Boston. Her parents were both university lecturers from whom she probably learnt the interest in writing.
Her father died in 1940, when Sylvia was only 8 years old.
She was still confused and angry about her father’s death, she sometimes felt that, in a way, he had committed suicide because he could have prevented it. Her strong and conflicting emotions of love, hate, anger and grief at the loss of her father were to affect Sylvia for the rest of her life. In that moment she proclaimed: “I’ll never speak to God again“.
On the 12th October 1962, the year before she committed suicide and during the breakup of her marriage, she wrote “Daddy”, a poem which became a cult text for the American feminists.
It’s a terrible poem, full of blackness and one of the most nakedly confessional poems ever written.
She describes her true feelings about her deceased father.
Throughout the poem, many instances illustrate a great feeling of hatred toward Plath’s father. At the beginning, she expresses her fears of her father and how he treated her.
These feelings are clear for example in “I never could talk to you“, “The tongue stuck in my jaw“, but the sense of the childhood terror melds into a suggestion of the Jewish persecution and terror with the next line: “It stuck in a barb wire snare“. She admits that she was afraid of him.
The historical references to wars being fought in Germany allow her to dramatize her rebellion against the oppressive father. In the first stanza she compares him to a “black shoe in which she has lived like a foot” and it is certainly a stifling image but not yet a clear reference to the father’s evil nature. Next he is “Marble heavy, a bag full of God” and a “Ghastly statue“, images which reveal the daughter’s struggle to cope with his death.
The turning point in the poem is “But they pulled me out of the sack and they stuck me together with glue, And then I knew what to do. I made a model of you“.
This last statement could mean she made of her father a prototype of all men.
Her image of the “man in black with a Meinkampf look” is superimposed to destroy, she has two, the prototypic father and the husband who is fashioned in his likeness.
The poem “Stings” establishes a similar relationship between the dead imaginary father and the living but spectral husband: “A third person is watching. He has nothing to do with the bee-seller on me. Now he is gone. In eight great bounds, a great scapegoat“.
By killing her father’s memory maybe Sylvia could find relief, becoming an independent self, so we could say that “Daddy” is a metaphorical murder but she exorcizes her father’s memory by rejecting the husband, symbolically killing not one man, but two.
In fact she says “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two the vampire who said he was you and drank my blood for a year, /Seven years if you want to know“. She separates the figures of father and husband and the period of seven years corresponds exactly to the duration of the poet’s marriage, thus identifying the vampire with the husband.
Since the original violence was described in language that implicated the husband, it’s clear the revenge is committed against him.
She confesses her feelings about men and death and how they are related and she is influenced by the divorce from her husband.
Sylvia wrote this poem about the many struggles in her life, that she felt were caused by either her father or her husband. All of these struggles left her a feeling of insignificance toward men, primarily her father.
By writing this poem, she is releasing her inner hostility as a means of closure for the treatment she has received.
This poem ends with a sort of “goodbye” to her father with the use of a violent language: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through“.
But Sylvia accused her mother of the loss of her father. She has killed the first man of Sylvia’s world and so she has complicated the relationship with the other men for the rest of her life.
Plath’s life was characterised by turbulent relationship with the other sex, first of all with the authoritarian figure of the father who symbolizes the patriarchal society.
Her life changed in 1956, when she met the English poet Ted Hughes, “a big, dark hunky boy, the only one…huge enough for me“, as Sylvia said.
A male friend warned her that Ted was “the biggest seducer in Cambridge“, but the attraction between Ted and Sylvia was even greater at this meeting, she found Hughes’s power and strength irresistible.
She was very much in love with him, he was the perfect man, the saver and the “colossus” of her fantasies.
In one of her poem named “Pursuit” she said: “There’s a panther stalks me down. One day I’ll have my death of him“.
She quickly started writing poems to him and they got married.
“I feel miraculously, I have the impossible, the wonderful” she wrote in her journals about her husband, “I am perfectly at one with Ted, body & soul, as the ridiculous song says – our vocation is writing, our love is each other – and the world is ours to explore“.
It was difficult for her accepting her female identity, she felt envy for men and at the same time she wished a life which was not controlled by the husband, she needed the ideal marriage, the ideal love that had to join together in a “literary marriage”.
She wanted a man who loved her because she was special, but she didn’t want to rule her future husband and at the same time she didn’t want to be ruled.
So she made the image of an ideal man, the only one who, maybe, she could accept. He was a strong man, good looking, a sort of god with whom she could create a relationship which unites creative energies.
This is why on 21st April 1956 she wrote “Ode for Ted“, a poem where she compares her husband to a superior force, showing him as a sort of god who can produce nature.
She gives him a lot of definitions, at the beginning Ted is a “shrewd stoat” that frightens rabbits (symbol of cowardice) and makes them run away, but he can even stalk red fox which is famous as a cunning animal.
But he’s also a mole with the “blue fur” that “shunt up from delved worm haunt“.
He’s strong enough to smash a quartz and he has the power to turn “flayed colors” into “ripen rich, brown” colours under the sun-light.
Ted’s look makes the soil rich and if he just touches the ground, this gives fruits and leaves, he makes the corn sprout just because he wants it!
If he moves his hand the “birds build“. He’s a sort of “king”, woods are Ted’s kingdom, a place where “Ring doves roost shirr songs to suit which mood he saunter in“.
Ted is compared to the sun and she names him “Adamo” and no woman can resist him…
She was sure that it wasn’t enough being a woman and she thought that it was a conviction she hadn’t man’s opportunities.
She wrote: “If I were a man, about this I could write a novel. But why, being a woman, have I only to cry and freeze, to cry and freeze“?
Sylvia Plath was an excellent writer, she had beauty and wit but it wasn’t enough for her, she was unhappy.
She looked for greatness but she tried to become who her mother wanted she became.
Her mother was proud of her and she projected her wishes to her daughter, those ambitions that she couldn’t cultivate because of her husband and his death.
Sylvia loved her mother’s Sylvia, she felt her as a part of her but she came to hate her and she wanted to punish her because she imposed her a hard challenge that never lets up. So she didn’t manage to be spontaneous.
She said: “My life is a discipline, a prison“, she wrote in March ‘58, “I live for my own work, without which I am nothing“.
Sylvia wanted to become a perfect personality who wasn’t afraid of her ambition and of her literary success. She said: “I think that I want to be omniscient” and she defined herself “the girl who wanted to be God“.
In “Soliloquy of the solipsist” she shows a typical feature of her personality that the same author seemed to know.
In this poem she puts right in the centre of the reader’s attention subjectivity and her ” I “, which is set on the top of every stanza.
At the beginning ” I ” could be a way to catch her personality attention…Sylvia looks after and calls for it…but she hasn’t any answer now…
After that ” I ” becomes something which explains who Sylvia is, what she usually does or how she gets in touch with the other people.
It seems as she wants to show her superiority towards anything else…towards anything natural as the moon, the trees , the grass, the sky, the sun and the flowers, or artificial as the street and the houses.
She uses her power against people, for example in sentence “dangles the puppet people” who don’t know that if “I choose to blink, they die“.
The most particular thing is that in the third stanza there’s a sort of contrast between “I-life” that “grass its green” and “blazon sky blue and endow the sun with gold” and “I-death” that makes the opposite effect on nature “to boycott color and forbid any flower to be“.
But on the last stanza Sylvia’s ” I ” comes declaring her power and her force denying that it sprang out of her head.
Anyway Sylvia tells the reader that her beauty and all her wit is nothing else that a gift from her.
The title “Soliloquy of the solipsist” has a meaning: Sylvia is an egocentric person, and her ” I ” is something really important for her because it helps her into knowing and finding herself.
Sylvia Plath couldn’t be defined a mad person, she was weak and fragile and above all too much unhappy.
Anyway she could be considered unstable because she suffered depression and she attempted suicide: the first time on August 24, 1953 and the second (the last) on February 11, 1963.
In her poems she deals with themes of death, suicide, depression: an example is “Lady Lazarus“, written in 1961, when she fuses the worlds of personal pain and corporate suffering. As in “Daddy” Sylvia Plath has used a limited amount of autobiographical details and the references to suicide reflect her own experience.
The first stanza introduces the subject: she attempted suicide and cheats death every 10 years. She says: “I have done it again / One year in every ten / I manage it“.
She equates her suffering with the experiences of the tortured Jews and she makes some Nazi references when she says: “A sort of walking miracle, my skin/Bright as a Nazi lampshade/My right feet/A paperweight/My face a featureless, fine/Jew linen“.
Her face is featureless, just like the face of one who has been burned and because burn victims are wrapped in napkins, the command to “Peel off the napkin” means the poet was a burn victim.
Later, she describes some of the only recognizable features of one who has had their face badly burned, including nose and eye pits, teeth, and the sour breath.
So she reveals that is her third suicide attempt: “And I a smiling woman/I am only thirty/And like the cat I have nine times to die/This is Number Three“. And this implies that she will continue to attempt suicide every ten years.
In the ninth stanza she addresses an audience as “Gentlemen, Ladies”, a phrase used at the circus.
Her suicide attempts become the source of the other’s amazement and entertainment: society is fascinated with death.
Many connections can be drawn between this poem and Sylvia Plath’s life.
Referring to suicide attempts, the poet says: “The first time it happened I was ten/It was an accident“.
When she was ten, her father died, a life-changing event. She may think of this as a death of the part of her.
Next, she says “The second time I meant/To last it out and not come back at all./I rocked shut/As a sea shell/ They had to call/ And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls“.
She refers when she tried to commit suicide when she was twenty.
She overdosed on sleeping pills, and it took multiple days for others to find her. This poem could be read as a prophecy, the third suicide attempt discussed being one Plath herself would undertake. After this poem was written, Plath successfully committed suicide by sticking her head in oven on February 11, 1963, at the age of thirty.
“The Bell Jar” is the only one Plath’s autobiographical novel based on her experiences.
It speaks about early 1950’s society and the doubts of a girl, Esther Greenwood, an excellent student with great potentials, especially in writing.
The uncertainty about her future, after the university and the big discomfort toward a society steeped in conformity, brings her to a strong identity crisis, to attempt suicide and to a subsequent, slow and doubtful “return to life”.
By thinking about herself, she shows us the opportunities that often a brilliant twenty year old woman as her had in America.
Marriage is the target of a critic which wants to underline how it’s often like a cage for the freedom of a woman, like a negation of an independence that, it Esther’s case, made itself the education.
With the female characters of the novel, Sylvia deals with the social question about Feminism.
The need of independence clashes with different male characters who reflect a traditional mentality and substantially a chauvinist male.
Their difficulties emerge above all when she faces the choice about what job she has to do.
A great deal of the novel concerns the expectations that others have for Esther with regards to behaviour and her future, as well as the expectations that Esther has for others.
Esther feels that she is pressured to succeed in whatever career she chooses and she also feels pressured concerning proper codes of behaviour, particularly with regard to sexuality.
She worries most that she cannot cook nor take short hand, and ironically she worries about not being able to fulfil mundane duties rather than worrying about larger questions of what she does as a successful career woman. Her problem is that she has too many options, but no satisfying option that can conform to what is traditionally expected of her.
She cannot reconcile a successful career that she may choose with the traditional roles of her society.
She is constantly monitored by others and one of the most significant causes of her depression is the high-pressure environment where Esther lives, so the madness is a desperate reaction to what the world can give her.
The theme of societal pressure even continues into mental hospital where the greatest concern of Esther’s mother and even some of the patients is that they will not be accepted in their particular social circles because of their mental illness. Esther’s decision to abandon her long time devotion to chastity could represent an assertion of her independence in the face of the societal repression around her.
Sylvia lends credence to the idea that is repression that drives Esther Greenwood to despair and depression.
Buddy Willard comes to symbolize the broader forces of society that repress Esther: he literally calls her “crazy” for never wanting to get married, thus assuming that the only same choice for a woman is to become a wife.
A sense of confinement permeates Plath’s novel, even represented by the bell jar that forms the title of the book. The sense that she is trapped is the most obvious manifestation of her mental illness. She feels as under a bell jar, protected and far from what happens around her, for example she stays in a hotel only for women and probably this means an attempt to keep away women from men.
The bell jar symbolizes Esther’s suffocation, for the jar intends to preserve its ornamental contents but instead traps them in stale air.
Plath includes several instances in which Esther imagines herself as confined.
She says: “It’s quite amazing how I’ve gone around for most of my life as in the rarefied atmosphere under a bell jar“.
Plath’s poems belong to the so called “confessional poetry”, since they reveal the most subjective feelings, the deepest emotions and torments as if in a confession.
They are usually written in free verse as fragments of consciousness by a masterful use of sound effects and rhythm.
So her poetry couldn’t be defined only a feminist or female poetry, it’s the proof of her suffer and the description of her personality: she was egocentric, sad and pessimist, so she needed to burn again with poetry and with death’s thought.
She manipulated words in a magic way, looking for a careful and original use of words.
She used repeated sounds, melodies, refrain and nursery rhyme, looking for musicality of words, and at the same time she seemed angry showing it with a violent and deep language.
Anyway Plath’s poetry is above all pure emotion, something spontaneous which frightens her.
Poetry is self-analysis, the search for her identity, the only way she could put order to her life.
Sylvia said : “Poets that I love are possessed by their lines as the rhythm of their breath. I think that my poems arise immediately by my sensuous and emotive experiences, but I’ve to say I don’t like heart’s shouts… I think that the experiences, even the most terrifying, even madness and torture have to be manipulated“.
Poetry and breath are the same thing and Sylvia said : “I would die if I didn’t manage to write about nobody else who is not me“.