Sylvia Plath was a beautiful, confessional writer and poet who, via bot her tragic life and her piece de resistance, The Bell Jar, discussed the fragility of the Human Condition.
Sarah Nicole Prickett is a New York-based writer who voices her opinions for Bullett, The Hairpin, T Magazine, n+1 and VICE. She is a contributing editor at The New Inquiry Adult; an erotic magazine by women, for women.
August 1950. Sylvia Plath, a Smith College freshman, went to get her wisdom teeth out. Her journals—which she kept from age 11, in a constant rush, until the coldest month of 1963—tells us that the doctor asked: gas or novocaine? “Gas,” said Sylvia, firmly. All her life she would resent not the choices she made but the fact of having to choose, coupled with the impossibility of knowing her own mind. On this point, though, she never trembled. She’d rather be knocked out altogether than numbed and awake for one breath.
Feeling it all is rarely compatible with doing much of anything, but aside from her first big breakdown, in ’53, and the half-year of treatment that followed, Sylvia Plath was a model of productivity. At Smith, she edited The Smith Review and published her poems in the Varsity, and in her junior year she did a prestigious, June-long internship at Mademoiselle. This spell of “pain, parties, and work” in Manhattan became The Bell Jar, which she wrote over the spring and summer of 1961, the year she turned 28. At 30, one month after the novel came out and eight months after discovering her husband, Ted Hughes, was two-timing, Sylvia sealed off the rooms between the kitchen and her sleeping children, then kneeled before the oven, put her head inside, and waited. Gas.
“I / am a pure acetylene / virgin,” pleads the narrator in “Fever 103,”my favourite among the dozens of dizzyingly ascendant poems Sylvia wrote in the rip of time between leaving Hughes and leaving everything. Acetylene, too, is a gas—transparent and, in its purest form, unstable. The smell it lets is sweet. Bipolarity, the thing with which Sylvia is most often, retroactively diagnosed with, tends not to make its sufferers ugly: somehow they shine on no sleep, and can seem much lovelier than they actually are. In the weeks before she died—if you believe her friends—Sylvia was busy, and content. She wrote—like no one was writing; like hell—every day. It is historically difficult to feel sorry for someone who never looks sick. Who never even looked like she’d get old, and because she didn’t Sylvia assured her Mary Mother status, in the Church of Manic Depressive Nightmare Girls.
In truth I think Anne Sexton was a braver, better poet than Sylvia was, but Anne got to be a woman; she turned 40, then 45; she showed the care around her eyes. She too did it with gas, in the garage. Invisible, intractable, no trace on the body: gas is the thing that kills that is most like what made you want to die. Plus, it leaves a pretty corpse. Sylvia was pretty when she died, like Marilyn, and sometimes I think that’s it: we worship girls who stay beautiful. “The Fearful,” another of Sylvia’s last poems, goes: “She would rather be dead than fat / Dead and perfect, like Nefertiti.”
Had Sylvia left behind only Ariel, and Other Poems and The Bell Jar, she would indeed be dead and (very near) perfect, her final work a blast of the damnable purity that exists only in the young, the mad, and the futureless. She also, however, left a whole stack of those journals. If in her work—as in her desperate, stellar performances of life as a student, a daughter, a wife, an all-American girl—Sylvia had always been a perfectionist (so that even the tripiest of her early poems and stories had a certain untouchable sheen), it is in her diaries where she misspelled, misspoke, and generally made a mess of her self-presentation. For every flight of wild, early ingenuity, there is a passage that reads like late Thought Catalog (you know, comparing her summer job as a nursemaid to “slavery”). In her diaries you can see all the crude elements—talent, self-interest, drive, loss, and super-ability to feel—that would eventually form a pure, unstable compound, but they rarely come together on the page. You also see that the events of Sylvia’s life are the events of any pretty, smart, hard-working, lucky girl’s life in the ’50s. What was extraordinary about her was only how she felt about, or dealt with, the ordinary - her every action was an over-reaction. But, god! In this anodyne age of “It Happened to Me” essays, I have to say, it’s a relief to re-read the reverse: The Bell Jar is above all else the story of a girl happening to the world and to life, and not life happening to a girl.
In the weeks before her death, a doctor put Sylvia on antidepressants. At last she’d chosen novocaine. It seems that for Sylvia, feeling less was a fate far worse than the other thing.
This feature was originally published in our winter 2014 issue, 'All Our Heroes Are Weirdos, and you can still buy a copy of this issue!
Subscribe to our e-newsletter for news you want, fashion you like and opinions to share.