SYLVIA PLATH (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963)

A poet and author, Plath’s brief life yielded deep poetry that earned her a place among the greatest American poets.

Main Accomplishments:

  • Studied at Newnham College, Cambridge, on a Fulbright Scholarship (1955).
  • Wrote The Bell Jar (1963).
  • The first recipient of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize (1982).

     

    Best known for her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and her two collections of poems “The Colossus” and “Ariel,” American poet, short-story writer, and novelist Sylvia Plath was one of the most talented and beloved American poets. She advanced the genre of confessional poetry.

    EARLY LIFE

    Once described as a “raving avenger of womanhood and innocence,” Sylvia Plath, the poet, and novelist, was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of Otto Plath and Aurelia Schober. Her parents met at Boston University, where Aurelia was a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in teaching, and Otto was a professor. Otto taught various biology and German courses at the university. The couple wed in January of 1932, and they had Sylvia in the fall of that same year. 

    Plath grew up writing and loving the craft of literature. She published her first poem in 1940 at the young age of eight years old. That year, her father passed away from complications with diabetes. Her father’s austere, authoritarian method of child-rearing left lifelong marks upon Plath, as observed in her poem, Daddy. “Daddy, I have had to kill you,” Plath wrote, “You died before I had time …” 

    At the age of eleven, Plath took on the hobby of journaling and continued to harness her poetic prowess. Local newspapers even published some of her earliest works. She first stepped onto the national stage in 1950 when she had a poem published in the Christian Science Monitor shortly after graduating from high school.

    COLLEGE YEARS AND CAREER

    After graduation, Plath attended Smith College, a private liberal arts college in Northampton, Massachusetts. While studying, she earned an internship at Mademoiselle Magazine, which inspired her novel, The Bell Jar, published in 1963. 

    During her time at Smith College, Plath attempted to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills while hiding underneath her house. She was immediately moved into a mental health institution and soon recovered.

    After graduating from Smith College summa cum laude in 1955, Plath moved to Cambridge, England, on a Fulbright Scholarship. While studying at Newnham College, she met poet Ted Hughes at a party. The pair quickly married in 1956.

    In 1957, she moved back to Boston for a short time to study with American poet Robert Lowell, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1947 and 1974. While in Boston, Plath also taught English at her alma mater, Smith College. 

    Upon returning to Cambridge in 1959, she continued writing poetry. Her first published collection was released in 1960, titled “The Colossus.” During that year, she gave birth to her first daughter, Freida. In 1962, she and her husband bore a second child, their son Nicholas. Following the birth of her son, Plath discovered her husband was having an extramarital affair. Hughes left her for another woman, which left Plath in a state of despair. 

    END OF LIFE

    After suffering through her marriage’s tumultuous end, Plath wrote The Bell Jar, published in 1963. Plath’s only novel tells the tale of a young woman named Esther Greenwood, who takes a summer internship at a magazine in New York City. While interning at the magazine, Greenwood finds herself in a state of pure boredom. She did not like her work nor the glamorous culture of the city. 

    After attending a banquet, she has a romantic stint with a man who nearly rapes her, and Greenwood breaks his nose in self-defense. She returns to Boston, where she expects to attend a writing course taught by a world-renowned writer. After being rejected from the program, Greenwood finds herself in a state of sorrow. She placed all of her self-worth in her academic performance and failed in that regard. Like Edna Pontellier of Kate Chopin’s, The Awakening, Greenwood did not believe being a domestic mother or a career woman to be satisfying. 

    Now in a state of depression and constant insomnia, her mother takes her to a doctor who prescribes electroconvulsive therapy. Her state continually descends into hopelessness despite treatments, and Greenwood makes several ineffective attempts at committing suicide. 

    After trying to kill herself by swallowing fifty sleeping pills, an event which harkens back to Plath’s own experiences, Greenwood is sent to a mental hospital where she receives better treatment. The “bell jar” she was stuck with is lifted because she enters an improved mental state and into a state of freedom. After feeling frustrated that she cannot live as freely as a male, she asks for a diaphragm which allows her to have sex without the perpetual fear of getting pregnant. This sexual liberty, along with other events, alleviates her issues and provides her with a newfound state of sanity. 

    This novel was autobiographical for Plath. She resonated with her protagonist, who often searched for emancipation amid mental health issues and societal stigmas. 

    Along with The Bell Jar, Plath also wrote a poetry collection, “Ariel,” published posthumously in 1965 and regarded as her most brilliant work. 

    Plath took her own life on February 11, 1963. She was only thirty years old at her time of death. 

    Following her death, Hughes became her literary executor, much to the dissatisfaction of Plath’s fans. He edited “Ariel” and continued to release collections of Plath’s poetry. To this day, people remember her as one of the greatest poetic talents of the twentieth century. 

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