The Life of Sylvia Plath Essay Example

  • Category: Literature, Poem,
  • Words: 1184 Pages: 5
  • Published: 20 June 2021
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Virginia Woolfe, Earnest Hemmingway, and Anne Sexton all have two things in common: they are talented, well-known writers who committed suicide. Among them is Sylvia Plath: the heroine of confessional poetry. Deep and personal, her poems are almost like an autobiography. Through her poems, she reveals herself intimately. Without knowing any background of who she is, one can tell that she has a poor relationship with her late father and serious depression that resulted in self harm and multiple suicide attempts. Knowing the details of her life, however, can reveal why her poems are filled with agony. 

Born in Boston in 1932 to immigrant parents, Plath experienced a difficult childhood. Her father, Otto Plath, was an entomology professor at Boston university and an expert on bees (Hobby). One of Otto’s students, her mother eventually taught at Boston as well. Plath’s father was afflicted with diabetes, about which he was in denial (Hobby). He contracted a gangrenous infection in his foot, resulting in an amputation. Nevertheless, the infection spread and he died of a pulmonary embolism when Plath was 8 years old (Hobby). She would come to resent her father- believing that his negligence of his health caused him to die and abandon his daughter. Thus, her mother had to raise two children on her own. Not wanting her children to see her grieve, her mother did not take Plath or her brother to their father’s funeral and did not encourage them to grieve (Crowley). To Path, her father’s death was unmourned. She anguished deeply at his loss, swearing to never believe in God again (Sylvia Plath’s Life and Work 863). Two years later at ten years old, she attempted her first suicide by cutting her throat with a razor blade (Sylvia Plath’s Life and Work 863). The loss of her father would forever affect her mental state. 

Compensating for her psychological damage, Plath excelled in writing and academics. In college, she was an ambitious straight-A student.  Driven by a desire for recognition, she began submitting her work to publishers, for which she won several awards (Crowley). Although she was successful, she frequently received rejection which heavily affected her self-esteem (Crowley). Triggered by repeated failures and her inability to get into a Harvard class that she had her heart set on, she once again fell into hopeless depression, gashing her legs and attempting suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills (Crowley). For three days she was comatose in the crawl space beneath her mother’s house. Afterwards, she received electric shock therapy- the standard treatment for depression in the 1950’s. The treatment was successful and she eventually graduated. 

While in college, Plath met fellow poet Ted Hughes. In 1956 they married and had two children (Crowley). The two worked well together at first, supporting one another’s writing careers. However, their relationship was riddled with conflict and resentment. Both freelance writers, they were under pressure to earn money from their work.  Perhaps Plath felt jealous of her husband’s success, having to struggle with her own writing while caring for their two children. Hughes often cheated on Plath, which damaged her already fragile self-image.  Eventually they separated and Plath moved with her kids into her own home in London, where, fueled by sorrow, she wrote her most famous poetry. Unfortunately, the same suffering that nourished her poetry swayed her to successfully commit suicide by gassing herself in her oven in 1963.

War and Death are two themes that are consistent in Plath’s work and both stand out in one of her most famous poems called “Daddy”. Growing up during WWII and spending her life in the era of the Cold War, political conflicts troubled her, leading her to become politically engaged (Crowley). Born during the era, WWII haunts her. Holocaust references make a connection to her parents, who emigrated from Germany during that time. In “Daddy”, Plath uses the authoritarian rule in Nazi Germany to symbolize her feelings about her father and her ex-husband. The Nazi imagery is an exaggeration of the “daddies” in her life- there is no documentation that she was physically abused or traumatized. Yet she brings the historical violence of WWII in conjunction to her domestic relationships as an expression of the torment and suppression that she felt in her mind. In other words, rather than the actual Holocaust, she makes comparisons to an internal, emotional holocaust. 

Along with war, death is a theme seen in much of her writing. Seemingly romanticizing death and cruelty, she hints at her own self-harm and suicide attempts in her work. In “Daddy”, she mentions her first suicide attempt when she was ten years old, claiming it was an accident. In a later stanza, she mentions her second suicide attempt which was intentional- hinting that she wanted to be dead to be back with her father. 

Neither time nor academic achievements could soften Plath’s loss of her father. This poem manifests her feelings of fear and admiration she had for him as a child and her persistent bitterness following his death.  In the second stanza she writes “Daddy, I had to kill you./ You died before I had time-,” as an implication that she’s still trying to “kill” him by removing him from her psyche altogether. By making her father out to be a Nazi, she’s blaming him for her own torment. Likening herself to a Jew, she feels imprisoned by him- unable to live a normal life due to the heaviness in her heart. The second stanza includes the lines “Ghastly statue with one gray toe / Big as a Frisco seal,” referencing her father’s infected toe that led to his death. She believes that it was his fault for allowing his illness to kill him. There are direct autobiographical lines such as “I was ten when they buried you. / At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you.” Those lines suggest that her suicide attempt was because of him and not because of her own failures that weakened her confidence. 

In addition to her own father, she was referencing Hughes, who was the “daddy” to their children. Although she was deeply in love with him, their relationship caused her extreme anger and stress. The poem was written shortly after their separation. Perhaps the stress caused by their divorce triggered her to lash out emotionally at her father. In the lines following the reference to her suicide attempt, she writes “And then I knew what to do. / I made a model of you, / A man in black with a Meinkampf look,” meaning that she found a partner who was like her father. She hints that she fell in love with him in part because he reminded her of her father, and made her suffer in the same way he did. Comparing Hughes to her father in another stanza, she writes: “The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year, / Seven years, if you want to know.” Those lines are speaking to her father about Hughes, symbolizing that both of them have sucked the life out of her. 

The unique and tragic life of Sylvia Plath was an inspiration for some of the greatest contributions to confessional poetry of all time. Sometimes an artist can become deeply inspired by their inner turmoil, but it can have an unfortunate effect on their mental condition. In the case of Plath, the loss of her father at a young age caused her to develop depression. Marital complications combined with overwork led to her demise. Her work became even more famous after her death and she is now known as one of literature’s greatest confessional poets.



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