Thank You, Sylvia Plath

The poems, quotes, letters, photos of a beautiful blonde woman with a wide smile were all over my news feed yesterday. A mother, a wife, a talented poet – ‘she had it all’ as they like to say in the west, but somehow it wasn’t enough.  And now on October, 27th we celebrate the unfortunately too short but important life of a woman who was equally impressive as an author and as an individual – Sylvia Plath.

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Sylvia Plath on the beach, summer 1953 (photo from the Gordon Ames Lameyer Papers)

Ever since opening the Bell Jar for the first time, I remember how I couldn’t believe it’s real. I read it while staying at my grandma’s house during the endless, annoying summer 12 or 13 years ago. I didn’t know what to do with myself until I found some books randomly stacked up in the ugly living room cupboard. Some of them were cookbooks, foreign fairy tale editions, cheap crime novels, and two other books who, at the time sounded a bit familiar but I had no idea they will leave such an impression on me. Both controversial in their own way, one on the each end of a spectrum – Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

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Up to this day I have no idea who brought the particular book to that house and how it ended up in that cupboard. Back at home we always had big piles of books everywhere, I didn’t have to go to the library for a long time because we had all the important titles on our shelves. But The Bell Jar never belonged in that collection, it’s not well-known in my country, it’s not even mentioned in school literature classes. Today I am finally aware why that is the case and why her work was marginalized. The thing is, it took me a while to realize that women and men can’t suffer the same way when it comes to public perception of mental problems, or just problems in general. Men’s demons and self – destructive behaviour augment their artistic substance while women should suffer in silence and hide, or even worse, they are expected to at least pretend to be happy most of the time.

Unfortunately, the part that made Plath (in)famous was her depression and the way she ended her life a short while after her only novel was published. I’m ashamed to admit that was what made me like her even more after I learned those information from the author’s biography at the back of the book. That is, I suppose, a normal  reaction for an overly sensitive teen who is looking for idols in all forms, contemplating life and, naturally, idealizing ‘tortured artist’ syndrome. On the surface it seemed like Sylvia fits right into that imaginary mold I’ve created. As soon as I started reading I could sometimes imagine myself in her shoes, I was still too young to  understand the struggles around college life, almost being  an adult, sexual relationships, finding a purpose, etc., but the general tone tinctured with insecurity felt surprisingly close. Many years later I still remember some of the lines from the novel and think how they seem relevant to me.

In her semi autobiographical novel, Plath speaks through the main character  Esther Greenwood and refers to her time at college where she showed great talent and gained success. Just like in real life, after some disappointment, she started to have mental issues that grew bigger and made her feel like an outcast in comparison to people her age, although she tried to understand their interests, goals and behavior. Nothing is left for her but frustration and confusion. As a reader I felt the most frustrated at the parts when Esther is given shock treatments to help her deal with depression and insomnia.

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The novel also deals with  a topic that is, although common, pretty much under the radar – a  typical problem for  exceptionally good students is the question about the future. Of course, everyone has anxieties about what happens next, but what are those students supposed to do after they leave school? Leaving an environment where they were considered smart and capable to start from the beginning where they are considered to be nobodies. They may continue to educate themselves in some form or another, but are expected to get a job, start a family, long story short – they get thrown into the adult world and simply have to fulfill their role in society. There’s no time for complaining. Esther can’t imagine herself enjoying the, at the time, typical female role of a wife and a mother who doesn’t pursue a career, and that is making her feel lost and trapped.

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Sylvia Plath tried to commit suicide many times, the first time it was documented in 1953 after taking sleeping pills but was found alive in her mother’s cellar after three days. The final attempt which turned out tu be successful  happened after a depressive episode in 1963 when she was found with her head in the oven with the gas turned on. She was only 30 years old.

Who knows what she could’ve wrote next? Not long before her death she had just finished The Bell Jar and had a creative period that left us with  numerous poems and short stories  who represent a testament to her genius, tumultuous mind. Breaking the taboos, being candid about personal struggles  and the recognition of female rights are finally getting the necessary attention which is making Plath’s work contemporary and more and more important and influential. Little girls wanting to be poets or writers have someone to look up to. Thank you for being an inspiration to us while we’re getting involved with art or going through our personal struggles.

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