Sylvia Plath: The Accidental Feminist

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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.

Now, to the question: was she really a feminist when feminism didn’t even mean anything? (Let’s remember that feminism during the 50s wasn’t really that advanced, and women were still expected to live for and because their husbands)

Well, draw your own conclusions but after reading a lot about the subject, I can summarise it for you: as always, she had two different sides.

  • 1st side: ERM, NO. YOU’RE WRONG
    Well, we have seen her love and devotion for her children and her efforts to be a good wife –social oppression? Guilt? Who knows, really. Her journals and her letters are often so different that it’s hard to know what she really thought about the matter.
  • 2nd side: YES, SHE WAS A FEMINIST!
    In a time when women were not supposed to sit in front of the typewriter and develop their art, she couldn’t care less about society and worked, HARD. She flipped off the male literary tradition and kept doing her thing: writing. She believed in her own talent and knew her fame would be harder to achieve for her than for other male authors; also, she knew she would be judged from different standards (imagine a woman neglecting her housework to write poems??) She was definitely, a woman ahead of her time. Some say her life would have been saved by the rise of feminism during the 60s-70s, that she would have felt empowered. But, in my opinion, her problems went beyond that.

600full-sylvia-plath

(image via summerpierre)

Knowingly or not, her writing has been inspiring for feminists after her time (including those from the writing collectives of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 60s and 70s). These are a few examples why:

  • In her poem “Stings” (1962) she reaches the climactic moment when the Queen Bee escapes from her enclosure in “the mausoleum, the wax house”. The Queen Bee is the totem of female power; she is a mere instrument of the hive’s survival, and to that extent reinforces a mythic view of feminity as grounded in unchanging laws of nature. It is a masculine figure, the beekeeper, who exploits and regulates the labour and raw materials of the hive and the fertility of the Queen Bee.
    ———(as read in “The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath”, 2007)
  • Never forget the end of her poem “Lady Lazarus” (1962): “out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / and I eat men like air”. This is seen as a triumph over patriarchy, eating men in demon form, refusing any other objectification of herself –she is rising stronger this time.
  • And, finally, the triggering verse for this post: her poem “Last Words” (1961), where she speaks about how she would like to be buried. Like an Egyptian pharaoh, she wants to be buried with her most precious possessions. Guess which? “let me have my copper cooking pots, let my rouge pots / bloom about me like night flowers, with a good smell”. You could have never guessed, right? In a mocking, subversive way, she, as a woman, wants to be buried with her cooking pots and rouge pots (source of beauty).

If this doesn’t make you think, I don’t know what will.

 

In case you want to read more from Plath:

And in case you want to read more from those who really know about the matter (and have been my sources of inspiration for this post):

In Spanish:

  • Viorica Pâtea, “Entre el mito y la realidad: aproximación a la obra poética de Sylvia Plath” (1989)

In English:

  • Janet Badia, “Sylvia Plath and the mythology of women readers” (2001)
  • Suman Agarwal, “Sylvia Plath” (2003)
  • Edited by Jo Gill, “The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath” (2007)
  • Binod Mishra, “Critical Responses to Feminism” (2006)
  • Connie Ann Kirk, “Sylvia Plath: A Biography” (2004)
  • David Perkins, “A History of Modern Poetry: Modernism and After” (1976-1996)
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8 thoughts on “Sylvia Plath: The Accidental Feminist

  1. I found this very interesting as Sylvia Plath happens to be one of my favorite poets. I also liked the picture/diagram of the things you’ve learned from her craft. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I am writing a paper about Sylvia Plath and I would like to work cite this page but I need the author is there anyway you could tell me the name of the author please Thank you so much

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