Reclaiming Sylvia Plath

There’s nothing like being told your influences show your immaturity. Recently, in an apparently casual chat about favourite writers, I happened to mention Sylvia Plath. Instantly, the tone cooled a few degrees. There was a sniff, a vaguely disapproving comment that, “we’ve all been through that phase”, and the subject was dismissed.

For as long as I’ve been a fan of Plath, I’ve been aware that it puts me in a certain demographic box.  You lucky ones who don’t know what I’m talking about, put down this article and go read your copy of The Bell Jar in unselfconscious peace. Far be it from me to taint your enjoyment of a modern classic. But most of us, reader and non-reader alike… We’ve seen them. The inspirational quote brigade on Tumblr, Twitter and Pinterest. In pastel photosets, or faux-typewriter fonts, they paste chunks of her journals and poems, out of context amidst Instagrammed Starbucks cups, pictures of blue hair or whatever else people deem white girl, hipster fodder nowadays. I’m not one to judge people’s interests. As far as I’m concerned, you like what you like. The problem is, other people do judge, and they’ve been at it long before social networking has been a thing. For years, the works of Sylvia Plath have been synonymous with mixed up adolescent girls bearing misplaced poetic aspirations; a dark pond, deep enough perhaps to drown in if you’re trying very hard, but basically pretty shallow.

Plath’s place within the literary pantheon, whether one of the greats or largely overrated isn’t particularly the point. The truth, as is so often the case, falls somewhere in between. What interests me is how a writer who struggled her whole life to express truth has become so misrepresented in our culture. Plath’s writing is not wispy and ethereal, nor is it self-indulgent. In fact, Plath railed against the sort of adolescent, pseudo-poetic naval gazing her fans are tarred with. As a writer, she feared falling into it, purging her writing of all such traces. True, she reflects on the workings of the mind, but along with this is a visceral physicality, an iron vein of practicality and detailed, sometimes cutting, analyses of human absurdity. With this in mind, here is one passage of Plath you won’t see on all the sad black and white blogs:

‘Do you realize the illicit sensuous delight I get from picking my nose? I always have, ever since I was a child – there are so many subtle variations of sensation. A delicate, pointed-nailed fifth finger can catch under dry scabs and flakes of mucous in the nostril and draw them out to be looked at, crumbled between fingers, and flicked to the floor in minute crusts … Or sometimes there will be blood mingled with the mucous: in dry brown scabs, or bright sudden wet red on the finger that scraped too rudely the nasal membranes. God, what a sexual satisfaction! It is absorbing to look with new sudden eyes on the old worn habits: to see a sudden luxurious and pestilential “snot-green sea”, and shiver with the shock of recognition’.

Yup. She wrote all that, so lyrically, about her snotters.

I love this passage, because it’s the antithesis of whatever people who haven’t read Plath think Plath is supposed to be. It’s sensual, descriptive, funny – and it’s true! Stomach-churning truths are what this writer deals in. When I was sixteen and first encountered The Bell Jar, I still bought into the lie that being “not like other girls” would somehow make me special. Thinking the way I did, Plath seemed like required reading. What I found confused me however, because this novel shatters the very myth it is perceived to perpetuate. Very simply put, it’s about one girl who has drifted through life as the most special of snowflakes, and is hit terribly hard by the reality of the world around her.

Assuming all this is true, why has the misapprehension been allowed to continue for so long? The first two reasons are pretty standard. First: people believe what they’re told. We all fall into the trap of dismissing something because someone else tells us it’s crap. This in turn feeds the second reason: teenage girls do love the works of Plath – and when has society ever been particularly kind about things teenage girls like? Think about it. My final reason is more slippery and subjective. Plath’s writing courts states of the in-between. Life and death, fecundity and barrenness, sanity and sickness. It is difficult to cope with. It’s easy to dismiss such states as the sole preserve of hipster teens. But I’d argue they are the ongoing nature of life as a human.

So what can we do to rehabilitate Plath’s image? Simple. Read her. I want to see pensioners on buses, glued to The Bell Jar, and heavy-set builders with copies of Ariel in their back pocket. Because I don’t need to defend Plath. Her work defends itself.

[Helen Murray]

1 Comment

  1. I love that quote about picking her nose hahaha. People do not see that enough. Her poetry is totally brutal and sharp as a knife and it can’t fit comfortably in anyone’s box.

    I think a lot of miserable teenagers and 20-somethings read “The Bell Jar” and put themselves in Sylvia’s place, basically writing her out of the book–they use the book as a means of acting out their own suicidal fantasies, their dramatic sense of themselves as mad–without, often, noticing the ironic undercurrent of the book, which quietly mocks its protagonist as really quite pathetic and pretentious–think about the part where she tries to read “Finnegans Wake” and can’t get past the first sentence, or the horrible racist way she treats the hospital worker, intentionally crushing his toes with her foot. Esther Greenwood is an arrogant little brat.

    I’d also argue that the same irony is missed, sometimes tragically, by a lot of teenage readers of “The Catcher in the Rye”. But that’s for another discussion….

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