Where to start: Sylvia Plath | Wrote

WEthan Sylvia Plath’s short life has produced works that, decades later, are still read and studied around the world. Best known for her sectarian poetry, for which she received a Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1982, she also wrote exceptional fiction and memoirs. In honor of the 90th anniversary of her birth, Eileen Colehead, whose novel Euphoria is a fictional depiction of Plath’s last year, provides an insightful guide to the work of the great American writer.


Throughout her writing life, Sylvia Plath has berated herself for not being able to write a novel. However, I did write one, and it’s great. The Bell Jar is an autobiographical account of being a young woman in the United States in the 1950s, who brings a Trojan horse onto stage when the reader least expects it, and issues a whole host of musketeers of taboo subjects at the time. It’s about depression, suicide, female sexual liberation, maternal hatred, and ECT in a world that lacks the language a girl goes through. Esther Greenwood wants to go against the worldview she aims to describe against her will; She wants to get out of the store window, to expand, to become more, to undress and to throw off her clothes on a New York night, not as a gesture of self-annihilation but as a sign of omnipotence: “I am, I am, I am.” Esther Greenwood’s heart beats, in an idealized image of self-expansion through writing. The Bell Jar is a novel brimming with contempt and self-loathing that thrives in the heart of the oppressed girl.

basic reading

Notwithstanding the bell-jars, the short stories, and the dense prose of magazines – Plath was at heart a poet. Poetry It was the place where she expanded her imagery, title, soul, and dramatic self. Her poems use language to dig into the deepest layers of consciousness, sometimes making the reader unsure: what is a poem really, and what is really going on in its field? The collection of poems offers a unique opportunity to discover the writer’s growth into a stunt poet who has pushed, step by step, the limits of what is possible in the fields of literature.

The Sylvia Plath Letters: Volume 2: 1956-1963, edited by Karen F.  Coke and Peter K.  Steinberg.
The Sylvia Plath Letters: Volume 2: 1956-1963, edited by Karen V Kukil and Peter K Steinberg

It is worth persevering

The 14 letters Plath sent to her psychiatrist Ruth Bucher during the last six months of her life, from 1962 to 1963, which were revealed in 2017 (previously privately owned), are unrecognizable. They were published in 2018 as Messages Sylvia Plath: Volume 2: 1956-1963, edited by Karen V Kukil and Peter K Steinberg. In these letters, Plath has insight into life as an abandoned mother with young children in a vulnerable position, and interprets the chain of events in clear, conscious and lively prose. Plath and Ted Hughes’ daughter, Frieda Hughes, wrote a beautiful introduction to this edition detailing what it was like reading her mother’s last letters for the first time.

The person you will learn from

Plath wrote an article America! America! Just weeks before she killed herself, at the age of 30. The book was first published in Punch, two months after her death, and was later included in the collection of Johnny Bannick and The Gospel of Dreams. In it, Plath described her conservative upbringing in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, and wrote of the devastating conformism that stifled her talents. “I was probably very strange at first,” she wrote, referring to the inner and outer frameworks of creativity that she has worked all her artistic life to perfect. America! America! It is for those who want to understand what it means to have a restricted childhood.

hidden gem

Heather Clark suggests in her autobiography Red Comet that Plath went to the cinema in London in 1961, watched a very close to life film by Ingmar Bergman, written by Ola Isaacson, and was inspired by their portrayal of the physical and vulnerability of various forms. maternity The film highlights how close one is to death and life as a mother, which may have energized every literary impulse in Plath.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on their honeymoon in Paris.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on their honeymoon in Paris in 1956. Photo: Everett Historical Collection / Alamy

The radio play ‘Three Women’ that she wrote a year later, shortly after the birth of her son, is inspired by the film and based on three sharply different women’s views on abortion, childbirth, and child abandonment. Here the paradox of motherhood is put into words wildly. But a few more subtle lines of literature are also found in this theatrical poem. Plath is clearly touched by the raw miracle of becoming a mother, and this is evidenced by the way the mother talks to her son. I decided it couldn’t be an exception, because “it is the exception that matters to the devil.” She wants him to be in common, to love him, as she loves him. There is also a wonderful alienation of the masculine in this text – masculinity is described as “that flat, flat, out of which thoughts, destruction, bulldozers, guillotines, and the white chambers of screaming.” Three Women is an amazing piece of world literature that deserves to be read more widely.

The person who will change you

“I think there are people who think like me, who think like I think, who will think like I think.” Reading Sylvia Plath’s magazines (edited by Karen V Cockell) that changes you. In her diaries, Plath allowed her literary record to appear widely, which was not always the case in her works of fiction from the same time. Journals give voice to Plath’s authentic self: in them they dare to fail, to be contradictory, and to give way to forbidden thoughts and feelings. She sampled life for material—a literary method that was later expanded upon in The Bell Jar and her poetry collection Ariel.

Once you read everything else

The wonderful short story “The Mothers” is only worth reading because of Esther’s reappearance from “The Bell Jar”. She has become a mother and lives in the English countryside where she is trying to fit in with the other villagers. To me, it feels like the seed of another novel, a sequel to the first. It’s a bittersweet glimpse of what could have been.

trance by Elin Cullhed, translated by Jennifer Hayashida, published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Controller, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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