Books Culture

Holding Sylvia Plath accountable

TW: discussion of mental health and racism

“I have been, and am, battling depression…. I am now flooded with despair, almost hysteria, as if I were smothering. As if a great muscular owl were sitting on my chest, its talons clenching & constricting my heart.”

I first read The Bell Jar when I was 17, and it changed my life. It was as though this book written in a different century, in a different country, somehow knew exactly how I was feeling. The semi-autobiographical novel only furthered my obsession with Sylvia Plath, the author, and her poetry, which deeply resonated with me. A quick search on the internet will show that so many feel the same, with articles titled the likes of ‘Why 20-year-olds today must read Sylvia Plath’ and ‘Why Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is still relevant 50 years later, especially for millennials’. Plath’s writing strikes a contemporary chord while at the same time being clearly set in a bygone era through her discussion of the stifling constraints on women in the 20th century. However, the most jarring part of this context is the racism deeply prevalent throughout Plath’s works which I feel is too often ignored while she is praised for her surprisingly modern take on women’s rights and mental health. 

Like many other women, I found myself relating to the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, and understanding much of what she was talking about. In the words of Jeffrey Davies, “I wanted to hold onto her for as long as possible because she made me feel safe. She made me feel understood. I read her words and always thought, she gets it”. She speaks candidly about issues that are both contemporary to her and yet still timeless – mental illness, fears for the future, abuse and a desire to be important. The common worry of opportunities diminishing and doors closing as time progresses, wanting to follow every path and take advantage of every opportunity – yet simultaneously not feeling desire nor ambition to do anything – is immaculately encapsulated in Plath’s famous ‘fig tree metaphor’:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet, and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” 

A male-dominated literary world filled with praise for ‘complex’ men, such as Byron and Keats, retains contempt for women who write about similarly dark themes. Critics continue to diminish Plath to tropes like a woman scorned by love, or a mentally fragile suicide victim. Too often, her work is regarded solely in a prism of the abusive relationship and marriage she endured with the unfaithful Ted Hughes for years, with fans scratching out Hughes’ name from her grave. While certainly relevant to her work, these biographical comparisons are condescending. Dismissing The Bell Jar as ‘personal’ is similar to how we dismiss films about women as ‘chick-flicks’, assigning it less gravitas than it deserves. Countless reviews and memoirs written by women recount their first times reading Plath as a turning point for them – they worship her, for among the overwhelming representation of men lies a small corner for women frustrated with their lack of participation in the world. She speaks with shameless – albeit shocking – candour and one can sense the anger and disappointment in her work. One of Plath’s legacies is perhaps demonstrating courage to discuss her own issues, opening the door for more open dialogue on mental health. 

However, we cannot discuss Sylvia Plath without approaching the subject of her blatant racism and disrespect for Black people and Jewish people. Scholars have been accused of favouritism because criticisms and biographies rarely encroach upon the territory of Plath’s racism, often relegating it to being ‘of her time’. The only non-white character in The Bell Jar is scolded by Esther, treated in a derogatory manner and described stereotypically. Plath’s allusions to Esther’s feelings of ‘otherness’ and ugliness involve vicious comparisons to non-white people, and the white supremacy in Plath’s writing diminishes her literary authority. Her poems crassly compare her suffering to that of the Holocaust and beyond her fiction, Plath’s diaries dating back to her high school years show a history of hateful and disrespectful white supremacist thinking.

Plath was indeed of her time, but still manages to transcend the sixties and show how the situation for young women has scarcely changed beyond a superficial level. Reading The Bell Jar made me feel the relief of knowing that, somewhere else, there was a young woman unsure of herself and feeling that time is running out. She does not give answers, but offers solidarity and support. While she is helpful to many young women struggling with mental health and a feeling of isolation – and has indeed helped me through dark moments – it is still impossible to ignore Plath’s racism, which inhibits us from appreciating her work. The viciousness of her comments about Jewish and Black people and the insensitive comparisons of her own struggles to those of the victims of the Holocaust show her to be completely out of touch with the era of progressive and civil rights activism. Plath is not alive today to apologise for or modernise her views, preserving her works in the same bell jar that she found herself in. 

Image: Creative Commons Cripple Creek, Colorado, 1957, Kodachrome by Chalmers Butterfield.jpg by Sba2 is licensed under CC BY 2.5

Lily Shanagher

Lily is studying Spanish & Russian and is now in her third year at Teddy Hall.