Womaness as Madness: Sylvia Plath

May 17, 2023

Collage created by Sadie. Photograph of Sylvia Plath (centre) cut-out from image of her and Ted Hughes by Freddie Phillips at Flickr licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic with other images from Pexels

Sadie Souter explores how female individuality and expression are so often confused with madness

In this series of three articles, I’m going to be taking a closer look at Sylvia Plath, Frida Kahlo, and Amy Winehouse, who inspire me with their unashamed femininity and creative power.

Chapter Two: Sylvia, Mad Girl’s Love Song
Dying is an art, like everything else

Sylvia Plath lights the match that sends a blaze rioting through the inky black of the night. Paper slips from her shaking grip. Etched with swirls and lines and tears, they pour into the flames that lap at her feet. One by one, they melt into the raging inferno and, one by one, she feels a weight lift off her shoulders.

White bullets rip through the air, rip out of her skin, and disappear into ash. She tastes the bonfire on her tongue; black drifting into pink lungs. The air is thick with broken promises and red hot with the weight of her passing youth. Small infant hands clutch at glass and beady eyes peek out from behind curtains as a mother burns her past.

I made a fire; being tired
Of the white fists of old
Letters and their death rattle.

– Burning the Letters

How do we tell the story of Sylvia Plath? So many choose to start at the end, the 11th of February 1963, the day that Plath chose to end her life, but really what matters was her work. Her tragic suicide tends to cast this looming, all-consuming shadow over her life, extinguishing the little fires she started with her poetic arson.

In July 1962, Sylvia lit a match to her marriage and that was when her true artistic outpouring began. She worked on her final manuscript of Ariel, producing one of the most blazing triumphs of anger and rebellion in English literature, having uncovered her husband Ted Hughes’ affair.

Every woman adores a Fascist
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

– Daddy

The poem ‘Daddy’ was written during this time. It crackles with thunder, unflinching in its assurance, demanding revenge: first over her father’s death when she was eight and then over her husband’s betrayal.

She writes from the perspective of a girl who has a Nazi father and a Jewish mother, separating her own pain from the poem, likening marriage to a war zone.

Anger pours from her newly liberated lips, her tongue once “stuck in a barb wire snare”, and she turns murderous, her soul darkened by the smoke of war. Yet Plath is almost cheerful as she describes the man who “bit her pretty red heart in two”.

In the decade after her death, ‘Daddy’ became a mantra of the feminist movement, but this success brought Ted Hughes under fire. Robin Morgan, poet and activist, wrote ‘The Arraignment’ in 1972 which begins “I accuse/Ted Hughes”, condemning him as the murderer of his wife.

Ted Hughes and Sylvia met for the first time at Cambridge university, Sylvia reciting Hughes’ poems word for word to him, ablaze with American charm in the cold austerity of post-war Britain. They were married right away, glowing with the hope of a poetic revolution that would brew under their roof. Beware.

Out of the ash.
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.

– Lady Lazarus

History is littered with so many suffering geniuses that it has become difficult to separate the two; pain and art being so deeply intertwined. Dr James Kaufman, at California state university, found in his study, that poets, female poets in particular, were statistically far more likely to suffer from mental health issues, calling it the “Sylvia Plath effect”.

However, pain is perhaps less of a creative prerequisite but rather a result of contagion as we continue to allow these harmful stereotypes to breed a culture of romanticising mental illness. You can read more here about the ‘tortured artist’ in the Independent.

Sylvia Plath is so often diagnosed as yet another ‘tormented creator’, her suicide eerily predicted in her debut novel. The Bell Jar was written in 1963, originally under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and is often considered to be a roman à clef – a book with a key – providing insight into Sylvia’s own life.

The protagonist of The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood’s mental deterioration gives insight into Plath’s own struggle with depression, stuck “under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air”. Plath’s novel documents a woman grappling for control in a society that allows her such little autonomy.

Esther Greenwood buckles under the weight of her success, having won a job at a leading women’s magazine in New York. At the beginning of the book, she finds the view from the top troubling. “Is this all there is?” was what occupied the minds of a generation of oppressed housewives of the 1960s, a time when gender roles were in flux and the beginnings of second-wave feminism began to bubble.

With each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant

Esther desperately constructs a mask of what she thinks the American dream should look like, torn between the possibilities that stretch before her in the acidic madness of the mid-century, “I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest.”

Reality simply falls short, and she can’t fight the growing ache of emptiness in her stomach. Feminist author Jeanette Winterson writes of the world of the Bell Jar, “Why wouldn’t a woman go mad in a world like this?” You can read more here from Jeanette Winterson and others on Plath.

Plath transcends her reputation of being a one-dimensional teen-angst icon, meaning profoundly more to her readers than just a “Plath phase”. The Bell Jar was not only revolutionary in its depiction of a contemporary young woman with mental health issues, but it also exposed the deficiencies of a psychiatric system advocating valium and electroconvulsive treatments.

When Plath was just 20, she first attempted suicide, swallowing sleeping pills and climbing into a crawl space beneath her family home. “Rocked shut / as a seashell” she describes in Lady Lazarus.

She was soon sectioned and put on a course of electroshock treatments. She details this in Chapter 12 of ‘The Bell Jar’ as “with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant.”

Sylvia Plath was an artist and she lives on in her work and in the beating hearts of her haunted readers”

The term ‘confessional artist’ is so often thrown around, especially when describing women. ‘Confessional’, at first glance, is a word of emotion, storytelling and truth, but underneath that is an underlying sense of shame, guilt and atonement, as if female emotions are somehow sinful. The label has become so reductive; male artists who write intimately are hailed for speaking universal truths while women are reduced to little more than reading aloud from their diaries. You can read more about this here in the Guardian.

Ultimately, it suggests that women need to work so much harder to have their voices heard and to prove their stories worthy of consumption. Jaqueline Rose, in her book ‘The Haunting of Sylvia Plath’, suggests that the tendency to read ‘The Bell Jar’ as utterly autobiographical is to minimise its message.

Too often we cheat her of her imagination and artistry, her ability to turn her reality into something more. Plath’s daughter, Freida described her mother’s power as that of a semantic seamstress, “She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress”.

Not simply tragic, not simply tortured, not simply hysterical, Sylvia Plath was an artist and she lives on in her work and in the beating hearts of her haunted readers.

‘Wintering’ is the final poem of Sylvia’s posthumous poetry collection ‘Ariel’ and it details a swarm of bees flocking to a syrup tin. The bees are women and “they have got rid of the men”, fighting and working amidst the cold unforgiving winter, as women do, huddling together for warmth and strength.

The poem, and thus the anthology, ends with this beautiful image of captured optimism, the taste of the future on the reader’s lips, on an uncomplicated and understated note of hope. The very last word of ‘Wintering’ is ‘spring’; Sylvia keeps the last embers of hope flickering, even as her own flame was snuffed out.

Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas
Succeed in banking their fires
To enter another year?

What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?
The bees are flying. They taste the spring.

– Wintering

Womaness is vibrancy, wisdom, innovation. The only madness is to be silent.

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