Authors: Sylvia Plath

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American confessional poet and novelist

October 27, 1932

Boston, Massachusetts

February 11, 1963

London, England

Biography

Before her death in 1963, Sylvia Plath, through the eloquence of her autobiographical poetry, fiction, and prose, had established herself as one of the most promising writers of her generation and as one of the foremost modern interpreters of the female experience. Born in Boston on October 27, 1932, to Otto Emil Plath, a member of the Boston University faculty, and Aurelia Schober Plath, Sylvia was raised near the ocean in Winthrop, Massachusetts. Her stern father, whose presence haunts much of Plath’s writing, died in 1940. Two years later, Aurelia Plath moved herself, her two children, and her parents to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she taught medical secretarial courses. There, Sylvia Plath established a brilliant academic record and exhibited talent both as an artist and as a writer, publishing her first short story in Seventeen magazine soon after finishing high school.

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Her academic and literary successes continued after her admission to Smith College in the fall of 1950. The recipient of several prestigious scholarships, she performed impressively in her college courses and published her works in several national magazines, earning, among other accolades, a summer guest editorship in New York City with Mademoiselle in 1953. Already subject to the anxieties of a perfectionist incapable of satisfying her own standards, a brilliant woman aware of the potential social penalties for her brilliance, and a daughter desirous of pleasing a zealously selfless mother, Plath found her New York City experiences both fascinating and confusing. Returning emotionally drained to her life in Massachusetts, she entered a period of deep depression, ultimately attempting suicide and undergoing hospital treatment for severe psychiatric problems. The nightmare of her breakdown later became the material for her novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, shortly before her death.

Grave of Sylvia Plath

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Mark Anderson [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite her collapse, Plath returned to Smith College, graduating summa cum laude in June of 1955. For the next two years, she studied as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Cambridge, during which time she met and married British poet Ted Hughes. While dedicating much effort to her husband’s poetic career and to preparation for her own university examinations, she continued to write and publish both poetry and short fiction.

Following the successful completion of her course of study in England, Plath moved with Hughes to Massachusetts, and while she taught English courses to Smith College freshmen for a year, both writers attempted to advance their literary careers. Finding that the many hours she expended in her teaching frustrated her need to write, Plath resigned her position, and she and Hughes lived for several months in Boston. There Plath participated in the poetry workshops of Robert Lowell, and she and her husband continued to write and publish.

In December of 1959, after a short period of travel and a fruitful several weeks at a writers’ retreat at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, New York, the couple took up residence in London, where they had a daughter, Frieda Rebecca Hughes, in April, 1960. Later that year, Plath’s first book of poetry, The Colossus, and Other Poems, was published by William Heinemann, with little immediate critical reaction. Overshadowed by her already successful husband, burdened by her roles of mother and helpmate, and plagued by health problems (including a miscarriage and an appendectomy in February of 1961), Plath experienced a period of depression and self-doubt that several professional successes and a new outburst of creativity, particularly the writing of a portion of The Bell Jar, went far to dissipate.

The family’s move to Devon in September of 1961 temporarily improved matters, and her work on an American poetry anthology, the publication of an American edition of her first book, and the acceptance of her short poetic drama Three Women for presentation by the British Broadcasting Corporation all boded well for her professional future. Unfortunately, following the birth of her second child, Nicholas Farrar Hughes, in January, 1962, marital problems developed, and within a few months, Plath and Hughes had separated. After another productive year and a final move back to London, Plath again fell into deep depression. On February 11, 1963, she took her own life.

Although there were fervent admirers of her work before her death, the rise in Plath’s reputation has largely been a posthumous phenomenon. That is hardly surprising, as much of her best writing became available only after her suicide, and The Bell Jar, the lightly disguised account of her own troubled coming-of-age, appeared for the first time under her name in 1966. The previous year, Ariel, a volume of many of the most eloquent of the poems of the last months of her life, had been published to a chorus of high critical praise, and in 1971, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees appeared. Several of her children's stories were found and put into print in ensuing decades. Collections of her letters, her journal entries, and miscellaneous other writings have also been published, and The Collected Poems, arranged and edited by Ted Hughes, received the 1982 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. In 2004, Ariel was republished using the selection and arrangement of poems, as well as notes, that Plath herself wanted, as opposed to the choices that Hughes made for the initial posthumous publication of the collection. Frieda Plath penned the introduction to the new facsimile edition, highlighting the differences between the 1965 and 2004 editions.

What these various, carefully crafted volumes reveal is a woman of great sensitivity and lively intellect who was simultaneously aware of the joys and psychic terrors of earthly existence and for whom, despite extraordinary reserves of creative vitality, death was often more fascinating than life. They also show a woman struggling to cope with her several socially defined roles as a giving woman (daughter, lover, wife, mother) and with her contradictory human needs for independent selfhood and individual achievement. The tensions between the lure of life and the lure of death and the need to fulfill the expectations of others and the need to fulfill the demands of self are pervasive in Plath’s diverse literary output.

Author Works Poetry: The Colossus, and Other Poems, 1960 Three Women, 1962 Ariel, 1965 (revised as Ariel: The Restored Edition, 2004) Uncollected Poems, 1965 Wreath for a Bridal, 1970 Child, 1971 Crossing the Water, 1971 Winter Trees, 1971 Fiesta Melons, 1971 Crystal Gazer and Other Poems, 1971 Lyonesse, 1971 Million Dollar Month, 1971 Pursuit, 1973 Trois Poemes Inedits, 1975 The Collected Poems, 1981 (Ted Hughes, editor) Dialogue over a Ouija Board, 1981 Selected Poems, 1985 (Ted Hughes, editor) Long Fiction: The Bell Jar, 1963 Short Fiction: Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, 1977, 1979 (prose sketches) Nonfiction: Letters Home, 1975 The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1982 (Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough, editors) Above the Oxbow: Selected Writings, 1985 The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, 2000 (Karen V. Kukil, editor) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: The Bed Book, 1976 The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit, 1996 Collected Children's Stories, 2001 Bibliography Alexander, Paul. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking, 1999. An unauthorized, yet respectful biography of Plath's life that begins with her parents, chronicles her upbringing through young adulthood, and covers her rise to literary fame after death. Alvarez, A. The Savage God: A Study of Suicide. New York: Random House, 1972. Probes the connections between Plath’s thematic preoccupation with suicide and the inner traumas that led her to take her own life. Uses the life and work of Plath as a focal point for a broadly based discussion of the theme of self-destruction and annihilation present in the work of many artists. Axelrod, Steven Gould. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. Calling his book a “biography of the imagination,” Axelrod makes sophisticated use of psychoanalysis, feminist and other recent critical theory, and biographies of the poet to interpret her life and work, including her major poems, letters, and journals. Includes bibliography. Bassnett, Susan. Sylvia Plath: An Introduction to the Poetry. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. This second edition of an important work in Plath scholarship makes use of recent scholarship. Provides intriguing and controversial analysis of Plath’s work, breaking from traditional interpretations. Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. New York: Longman, 2001. A biographical study of Plath and her writings that argues for a distinction between Plath’s real life and her artistic expression. Brain suggests that readers should consider even Plath’s journals as less than strictly autobiographical. Bundtzen, Lynda K. Plath’s Incarnations: Woman and the Creative Process. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1983. A collection of critical essays exploring various issues in Plath’s poetry and fiction, particularly those related to feminine identity. Contains an exceptionally perceptive analysis of The Bell Jar and Plath’s related, “autobiographical” fiction. Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York: Seabury Press, 1976. The first major critical biography of Plath; a highly accessible account of the forces that shaped her distinctive poetic and fictive voices. Butscher, Edward, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Woman and the Work. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977. A collection of critical essays on the life and work of Plath compiled by her principal biographer. Opens with a biographical essay by the editor, followed by critical essays on Plath’s work by a number of prominent writers and critics, including Joyce Carol Oates, Irving Howe, and Marjorie Perloff. Devotes two chapters directly to the discussion of Plath’s fiction. Gill, Jo, ed. Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath. Cambridge, England: Cambridge, 2006. A two-prong approach to Plath and her works. One section deals with “Context and Issues” and the other “Works.” The student of Plath will find both sections invaluable. Hall, Caroline King Barnard. Sylvia Plath. New York: Twayne, 1998. A critical introduction to the life and work of Plath. Hall identifies remaining puzzles that face Plath scholarship, particularly those rearrangements and deletions made by Ted Hughes, her husband. Hayman, Ronald. The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Heinemann, 1991. Attempts to make sense of Plath's suicide, analyzing her troubled childhood and marriage with Hughes. Also covers Hughes's publication of Plath's works, his death, and biographies. Helle, Anita, ed. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2007. Eleven original essays that draw on correspondence and manuscript drafts to discuss the life and writing of Sylvia Plath. Includes family photographs and full-page reproductions of her paintings. Hughes, Ted. Birthday Letters. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. A collection of poems written by Hughes on the subject of his heavily mythologized relationship with Plath. At times joyous, at others painfully self-revealing, the book offers valuable insights into both the professional and personal relationship shared by these two literary icons. Malcolm, Janet. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. A provocative inquiry into the controversial life of the American poet Sylvia Plath and of her husband, the English poet Ted Hughes, which also probes the nature of biography and attacks contemporary biographers. Middlebrook, Diane. Her Husband: Hughes and Plath—a Marriage. New York: Viking, 2003. Middlebrook brings insight and empathy to a probing examination of the literary marriage of the century. Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. More personal in nature than Butscher’s biography, this book focuses more closely on the pathology of Plath’s struggle with depression. Draws heavily on insights gained from close friends and acquaintances of Plath’s, making it as much a depiction of Plath the person as Plath the writer. Wagner, Eric. Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of the Birthday Letters. London: Faber and Faber, 2000. A careful examination of the writings that detail the minds and relationship of poetry’s most harrowing couple.

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