Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sylvia Plath: American Icon

Discussing with my wife the quality education that women get in women’s colleges, Mary Patricia pointed out to Wellesley producing Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Smith College Sylvia Plath. Of Mrs. Clinton we know a lot, but of Sylvia Plath we know less. Sylvia Plath attended Smith from 1950-1955, and graduated summa cum laude, wining a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge. There she met poet Ted Hughes, whom she later married. Not only was she talented poet but also an essayist and a fine novelist. In all genres she displayed a dark streak for brooding, melancholy, and self destruction. Her literary production, much autobiographical, shows the struggles of a tortured soul caged and bound, and that only death could set free.


From her poem “Daddy” we can see the confinement and death laden imagery:

You do not do, you do not do Any more,
black shoe In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time-- Marble-heavy,
a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe Big as a Frisco seal

In another poem she intimates the almost died from a swimming accident at the age of 10. We also know that she also attempted suicide when she was 20 years of age. Plath was hospitalized for swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills and crawling into a hole in a wall in her cellar, where her mother found her two days later.

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar is Sylvia Plath’s most important and moving fictional work. A bell jar —a vacuumed sealed jar used in labs— symbolizes the protagonist’s life: “I would be stirring under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.” The cry for freedom and release is obvious. Faced with portraying the death of a beautiful, talented, and successful woman —Esther Greenwood— the author stylizes her prose to create a surreal atmosphere where the boundaries between sanity and inanity are erased. It is this aspect, the play of reason and unreason, which has made this novel a cultic American classic.

The death of the author

On 11 February 1963 Sylvia Plath sealed the rooms between herself and her children Freda and Nicholas in her apartment in London, left some bread and milk out, and turned on the gas. Her body was discovered the next day by a regular nurse and a construction worker. She died at the age of 30.


During her short life (born on 27th October, 1932 in Boston), she managed to write daily. She left autobiographical and confessional journals, diaries, letters, and many other documents from which her lifetime can be reconstructed. While writing for many is a form of catharsis, for Sylvia Plath it was a temporary, tenuous lifeline at best. Smith College has much to be proud of in having produced a true literary figure in Sylvia Plath. While many students prefer co-ed colleges, women’s colleges do have an important role to play in educating literary luminaries.
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