Who hasn’t heard of Sylvia Plath before? The Bell Jar, Lady Lazarus, Ariel? Do any of these ring a bell with you? No?
Okay, in case you don’t know who Sylvia Plath was, let me introduce her to you: she was an American poetess, sadly better known for her suicide in 1963 and her troubled marriage with Ted Hughes, also a poet. That so, most people identify her with death, suicide and depression (well-known are the verses “I am vertical / but I would rather be horizontal” or “Dying / is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well”, referring her multiple suicide attempts). The absence of her father, who died when she was eight, casted a huge shadow over her work and life (famous is her poem “Daddy”, where in an intricate way, ends up doubling up the figure of her father with her husband’s). It’s almost as if her life was completely dominated by patriarchy, and everyone knows what feminists think about that.
It seems like Sylvia had different labels during her whole life: first, daughter; then, prize winning student, winner of scholarships; after that, when she met Ted, wife; and later, mother. But, what about the “author” label? Throughout her life, she seemed to have an intense desire to be a “beloved and a loving wife”, as well as a wish of being a mother –it was decided, she would be a wife and she would write as well. It was as if her person wanted to follow two different paths: 1) successful author and 2) mother and wife. I guess we all know that must have been a difficult task during her time, the conservative 50s.
In her poem “Two Sisters of Persephone” (1956), she writes about two sisters who are completely different from each other: the first one is logical, mathematical and intellectual; the second, a vibrant, nature-connected woman. It happens to be a clear self-portrait, in which she sees herself both as a potential spinster, unmarried, dedicated to intellect and as a woman completed thanks to motherhood –“she bears a king”, says the poem.
As we can see, motherhood was a huge deal for Sylvia –probably a result of the time’s education, but who knows? In her journals she wrote things such as “I must first conquer my writing and experience, and then will deserve to conquer childbirth” and “I will write until I being to speak my deep self, and then have children, and speak still deeper”.
People often wrongly think that her breakdown and final suicide was caused by her separation, but in truth, she seemed to have found a balance between the responsibilities of being a single mother and her desire of writing (it is said that she started to write between 4 and 8am every morning, before her children had woken up) –and it’s true that the time of her separation (from July 1962 to her death, in February 1963) was one of the most productive times for her, when she felt betrayed and angrily wrote poems after finding out her husband was having an affair.