Sylvia Plath, Narcissist Poet

I’ve continued to indulge my Sylvia Plath obsession by devouring the second volume of her correspondence, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963. The first volume (1940-1956 ) included Sylvia’s pre-college and college years, and chronicled with particular poignancy her first nervous breakdown and the lead-up to her suicide attempt in the summer of 1953. After a hiatus of six months during her subsequent hospitalization, she resumed her life and letter-writing energetically, as if making up for lost time. After graduating from Smith College in 1955, she traveled to England to study on a Fulbright grant at Cambridge University. She met and married fellow poet Ted Hughes, and the match seemed idyllic at first.

The second volume covers the blossoming and conflicts of that marriage, including two years spent teaching and traveling in America, the births of two children, the establishment of a permanent home in England, and numerous literary triumphs for both writers. Then came the discovery of Hughes’s infidelities, the dissolution of the relationship, and Sylvia’s descent into madness a second time, from which she was destined not to recover.

The outlines of the story were already well known to me. I tried to add another dimension to my understanding by concurrently reading The Collected Poems, which includes most of Plath’s output from 1956 to 1963, plus some juvenilia from her college years. This collection was assembled by Ted Hughes around 1980, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Much of this poetry is difficult, although lyrical and masterful. It gets increasingly personal as time goes on. Knowing some of the facts of Plath’s life is helpful; without that, I’m guessing much of it would be incomprehensible.

Joyce Carol Oates, novelist and literary critic, offers some insight into this “personal” phenomenon in an essay included in the digital edition. This piece, entitled “Sylvia Plath and the Death Throes of Romanticism,” argues that the world is no longer as receptive as it used to be to this “romantic” brand of poetry, which is increasingly regarded as narcissistic. Oates cites several of Plath’s later poems as prime exhibits. One of these is appropriately entitled “Mirror.” Oates criticizes the self-centered nature of this piece: “the result of a limited vision that believed itself the mirror held up to nature,” and therefore godlike. She argues further that there is no hope for social integration in this stubbornly individual viewpoint: society is simply “an organization of the solitary.”

Oates also cites one of Plath’s most famous poems, “Daddy,” a bitter attack on her long-deceased father. In a wild exaggeration, Plath conflates her father’s German ancestry with Nazi identity. She describes herself, a victim of his supposed tyranny, as “a bit of a Jew.” She doesn’t stop there, but includes her estranged husband in this indictment, and by extension, all men: “Every woman adores a Fascist/the boot in the face, the brute/brute heart of a brute like you.” Oates condemns such a viewpoint, which “never crosses over the threshold of an active, healthy attack upon obvious evils and injustices.” Plath expresses no true sympathy for the actual victims, as she keeps stewing in her own private Holocaust.

This leads Oates to accuse Plath of being blind to the real thoughts and feelings of other people. I find myself wondering if this is really the way Plath was, or if her narcissism was mostly a literary device. Quite a few people who knew her have described her complicated nature: warm and caring at times, but utterly self-centered and rude on occasion. Perhaps Oates’s most serious indictment is that Plath’s poetry treats even her children as mere images. Does this mean she wasn’t a caring mother?

Plath’s correspondence from her teenage years on testifies to her determination to have both a family and a career. In letters to various girlfriends, she claimed that giving birth to her daughter Frieda in 1960, and her son Nicholas in 1962, had been the most satisfying experiences of her life. But the realities of her situation made motherhood a difficult proposition. One of the most devastating results of her marital breakup was Hughes’s confession that he had never wanted children, but had lacked the courage to tell her so until it was too late. When it came to caring for them day-to-day, he made it clear that they would be her responsibility. Her letters from this point on describe her relentless, almost feverish search for reliable nannies and babysitters who would allow her the private time she needed for writing. Her only alternative, as long as she lacked adequate help, was to rise every morning at four a.m. and write for three or four hours until the children awoke.

Plath is perhaps at her cruelest in the poem “Lesbos,” written in October 1962. This poem emerged shortly after her separation from Hughes became permanent, and was evidently inspired by a visit she paid to a couple they both knew. The woman, supposedly a friend, is described in hostile terms. She was an aspiring actress, and Plath mocks her aspirations: “It is all Hollywood, windowless/the fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine.” The two of them are discontented mothers, commiserating with each other, yet failing to bond, despite the suggestive title of the poem. Oates indicts Plath as  “an adult woman denying her adulthood, her motherhood, lashing out spitefully at all objects―babies or husbands or sick kittens―with a strident, self-mocking energy.” Since her husband is not there, the bulk of her rage is visited on her children. She stews in the day-to-day realities of child care:  “There’s a stink of fat and baby crap/I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill/the smog of cooking, the smog of hell.” Her daughter’s tantrum is equated with a nervous breakdown: “And my child―look at her, face down on the floor/little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear/why she is schizophrenic.”

Anger and revenge were the ingredients that made Sylvia Plath’s name as a writer after her suicide. She would never have acquired such fame if not for the rage-filled poems of her posthumous collection, Ariel, written mostly during her hard-won early morning private time. There are no happy poems, celebrating domesticity, as she neared the end. On the contrary, she seemed determined to break those bonds.

Maybe Ted Hughes deserved a beat-down like this, but what about the children? How did they cope with such a legacy? They both seemed to have traveled long distances from the scene of their family tragedy in order to forge their own identities. Frieda moved to Australia, married and divorced three times without children, and pursued a career as a painter. Nicholas moved to Alaska, became a well-respected professor and researcher in ocean sciences, never married, and died by suicide at the age of 47.