Most of Sylvia Plath’s works are propelled by “inexorable and often terrible forces driving through her mind and bodyThe forces are fears, or nightmarish impulses towards brutality or suicide” (Knickerbocker 346). These dark emotions are present and felt in her works, alluding to the kind of life she lived before her suicide when she was just 30. There was nothing much that can be learned about her personal life which exposed her in the kind of sufferings that her works have alluded to, but her poem “Daddy” talked about a German father who was a Fascist and died when she was just ten (Knickerbocker 346). The poem describes the strong feelings of fear, love, hatred, and longing for that father that the girl carried in her heart for twenty years. The name Sylvia Plath is well-known as a poet during the postwar era, with he poetry “The Bell Jar” catching the attention of the audience who learned about the morbid anxiety that she experienced growing up in her Massachussettes until she attended Smith College (Wagner-Martin 439). She was a girl who grew up wanting success as she was raised by her German entomologist father who was more of a critic or a judge. According to Linda Wagner-Martin (1988), who wrote Sylvia Plath: A Biography, Plath grew up carrying the strong inlfunce her father had on her, believing that “doing things for the fun of doing was less important than doing them because she could do them better than most people” (as cited in Wagner-Martin 439). She lived her life putting on faces, acting light and gay even though she was not. Her life became a contradiction of sorts, where she achieved high honors despite the depression and drugs (she graduated summa cum laude despite the depression and a suicide attempt), but with her life filled with emotional torment. Her career as a writer was picking up fast, but with the success of landing an internship at Mademoiselle she again attempted suicide (Wagner-Martin 439).
She had a brilliant marriage with Ted Hughes, but in the latter part of their marriage, after Plath gave birth to two chidlren, they ended up getting a divorce. According to Wagner-Martin, what initially influenced Plath’s suicide that took her life was Hughes distancing herself from her because he was having an extramarital affair. According to Wagner-Martin’s report, Hughes told Plath that if she were to commit suicide again, the situation would be easier for him. This was of course denied by Hughes, and in one of her journals, she was able to recognize that her enemy was herself alone, whom she derogatively described as “over-grown, over-protected, scared, spoiled baby” (Wagner-Martin 440).
Plath’s recognition in literature was mainly due to her “formal and meticulously crafted style that features elaborate syntax and well-developed metaphors” (Knickerbocker 94). However, her later works were more recognized due to their deep and serious subjects that she was able to present eloquently through her genius in using imagery, irony, dramatic allusions to classical mythology, sprinkled with traditional fairy tales and legends (Knickerbocker 94). Her works were also characterized by her ability to present what were seemingly small and insignificant matter that she was able to transform into something that pronounces great importance. Critics say that her poems were self-reflexive, illustrating her “keen sense of the aesthetic attributes of writing” (Knickerbocker 94) and how her works would fit into the universe of poetry.
Among her most famous works, ”The Bell Jar” was the one that had her catapulted to literary fame. Accordingly, she published the poem using the pseudonmy Victoria Lucas in her attempt to spare her parents from being offended as the characters were said to be based on them. Plath wrote about a wide array of topics that were mostly difficult to deal with, such as mental and physical pain, death, grief, transformation, loss, alienation, conflicts in marriage, motherhood, and the innocence of children (Blackburn 346). However, in ”The Bell Jar,” Plath leaned heavily towards the idea of female stereotypes and expectations, as she described how a girl of 19 had to deal with her failures as she tried to become a writer, how she had to step back from the career that she wanted, of setting herself free from her role at home, how she had to face and struggle from relationships that only caused her pain and suffering, and how she wanted to be sexually free in a culture that repressed it. From these feelings, she goes back to her feelings of depression and mental breakdown that caused her to commit suicide after coming home visiting her father’s grave.
One of her works that I had the pleasure of reading and anlyzing was “Lady Lazarus.” The poem is an obvious allusion to suicide. Although it was addressed to no one in particular, it was clear that the narrator was talking about how she has attempted to commit the unnamed act every ten years, an indication of how she was always plagued with the same feeling of depression, that had her described as a “walking miracle, my skin bright” (Plath 4-5). She asked another unnamed someone, an enemy, whom she asked to peel the napkin from her face, asking if he was terrified by the features of the the woman that he see. She told him that “The sour breath/ Will vanish in a day” (Plath 14-15). The next lines were a closer allusion to herself, as she states how sure she is that her flesh will be restored and her face will be complete after she had sacrificed to the grave. By then, the narrator said, she will be a smiling 30-year old woman, alluding to Plath’s age. She then continues to discuss how in the end she will be able to die after ten deaths, just like a cat, and that she already did three times. She then describes how after each of her death, peple would press in on her to see her unwrapped body. According to her, sher will remain skin and bone, the same form that she was before despite the repeated deaths.
The narrator describes that her first attempt to commit the unnamed act when she was ten,and it happened as an accident. However, the second one was intentional and the intention was to die. This did not happen, as instead, she was “rocked shut as a seashell.” The people then had to call and pick up the worms from her, referring to the people’s efforts to save her from death. She considers death as an art, and that she does it rather well. In the end, she refers to an Herr Enemy, an Herr Doktor who poked and stirred her, and warned err God and Herr Lucifer because she was going to rise.
The title of the poem was an allusion to a character from the Bible, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead. One notable idea that she presented was how she attempted to commit multiple suicides, and while she failed, she believed that eventually she will be able to fulfill what she believed as “Dying is an art” the she does “exceptionally well,” as if indicating that she will achieve perfection and freedom after she was able to escape her body when she dies. The narrator also mentioned about her harsh criticism of the Germans and how complacent they are and simply watched while the Jews were being punished and thrown into concentration camps. The poem can also be interpreted from the point of view of a feminist as she shows the struggles of a woman to achieve autonomy in a society that was dominated by men.
Sylvia Plath’s writings and the themes she was able to describe naturally, skillfully, and with flair were ideas that are difficult to face. These emotions are hard to face and deal with, but are all realities in life that some people have to deal with. If anything, her writings about her struggles were reminders that these feelings are as real as they are, that like Miss Plath, people who are suffering from extreme depression do so because of different reasons. This would give people awareness, compassion, and more sensitivity towards those who are suffering. Unlike Miss Plath, who had no real friend to consider who would have shared her burdens, her debilitating feelings of insecurity, fear, and extreme sadness, people should learn to offer a shoulder to those who are exhibiting such signs. Instead of simply pouring it all out in a journal, people should not wait for someone to approach them and tell them about their problems, because like Miss Plath, there are people who are not cut out to be social or ask for help. When one senses that there is something wrong, people should offer comfort, a kind word, or a light touch. Sometimes, that is all it takes to communicate sympathy, compassion, and understanding.
Miss Plath was sadly a product of a family that was not supportive or understanding enough about what she was going through. Her story could be an inspiration to all families to always be present and felt for their children in order to avoid such destructive behavior to develop. Although there is no guarantee that Miss Plath would be saved had an intervention from her parents was given, it can be guaranteed that things would have been different.
Literature is the mirror that reflects people’s lives, it is an expression of an author’s experience, thoughts, and observation that made a difference on how s/he thinks and believes about things and people. As such, it is important to understand that more than the words, there are things which are expressed in poetry that one could gain something from. We see the world from the author’s eyes as they offer things that are seen from different perspectives. Despite what people say about how literature is impractical, there is much about life that can be learned from them. We become reflective as we think about the concepts and ideas presented, and how we will be able to apply them in our lives. Indeed, words are powerful, words move.
Blackburn, Thomas. “Plath, Sylvia (1932-1963), An Introduction to.” Contemporary Literary
Knickerbocker, Scott. “Bodied Forth in Words: Sylvia Plath’s Ecopoetics.” Contemporary
Literary Criticism. pp.93-242.
Plath, Sylvia. “Lazarus.”
Wagner-Martin, Linda. “Introduction to Sylvia Plath: A Biography.” Contemporary Literary