The only thing most people know about Sylvia Plath’s (1932-63) suicide is that she stuck her head in an oven on February 11, 1963. While this is factually accurate, Sylvia Plath’s life and works provide an interesting window to read deeper into what prompted the American writer and poet to end her own life. Having only one published novel in her bibliography, Plath was already one of the most important twentieth century poets by the time she ended her life at 30. She met Ted Hughes, poet and fellow Fulbright Scholar, at Cambridge University, leading to a tumultuous relationship and subsequently, a marriage that was troubled at best, and one that impelled her precarious temperament born out of manic-depressive illness. From the first suicide attempt at nineteen to the final one at thirty, the eleven years in between are what carved out Sylvia Plath as we now perceive her.
Plath wasn’t writing to soothe anybody’s nerves; this much is evident from the violent and starkly brutal nature of her works. The Bell Jar, a largely autobiographical novel, is a direct reflection of the emotions enveloping Plath throughout her life- electric happiness alternated with a suffocating sense of despair and paranoia, and a perpetual obsession with death. As the protagonist Esther Greenwood stares out at the sea while slowly walking further into its depths, we see how Plath herself was drawn towards the idea of walking into a calm death. It conceptualizes how she made the idea of death a sensory one- a respite and reprieve; a pacific alternative to the violence and despair of her own life and relationships. While this sounds very Keatsian in its understanding of death as a quietus, like having emptied “some dull opiate to the drains”, the violence Plath infuses in her works distinguishes them from the domain of the Romantics.
Sylvia Plath’s art and her death seem to be entwined in a strangely inverted cause-and-effect relationship- the death was the cause and her poetry, the effect. Her works come across as posthumous, almost self-reflexive in their style and content, as though her poems are explanatory of her suicide. Her works insidiously tell the story of her disturbed relationships with her father and her husband and the anguish that result from them. But they are not infused with pathos and they definitely do not incite pity for the poet. Plath’s poems are jarring and raw, and they create not a sense of sympathy, but a surrealist understanding of the whirlwind of emotions that plagued her; the metaphorical bell jar entrapping the poet herself. In her suicide, Sylvia Plath welded art and death, and the sense of consumption that accompanies both. Her death does not validate her place as a poet- her works are powerful enough to do that on their own. Instead it becomes a subject for her poetry, the way any other poet takes up any other subject. In retrospect, the reader realizes that her works somehow anticipate her death, and subsequently justify it, thus taking on the office of what appears to be a self-fulfilling destiny.