Seeing Sylvia Plath

A new movie rekindles curiosity about the poet's life, love and suicide at age 30

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(Continued from page 2)

Awake in the pitch dark where the animal runs,

Where the insects couple as they murder each other.

Hughes, she thought, might be worthy—or so he seemed on paper. When she saw him at the party, she felt she had found her mate. With his manly brow, angular jaw and unruly hair, Hughes cut a handsome figure—as he well understood. “He was a predator, compulsive. He liked women, let’s put it that way,” says Alvarez. “Women tended to throw themselves at him. He had that dark, handsome, Jack Palance gunfighter air about him.” Alvarez claims to have known a woman, a psychoanalyst, who was so overcome by the sight of Hughes that she excused herself to the bathroom and vomited.

Perhaps the bite to Hughes’ cheek was Plath’s equivalent reflex. After the party, Hughes returned to London for a job as a script reader for a film company. Plath was disappointed, wishing he would visit her before she set off on a spring break trip to Paris. Hughes did, though at first she didn’t know it. In the dead of night, Hughes and Myers sneaked behind Plath’s residence, tossed mud at what they thought was her window and called out “Shirley” (mistaking Plath’s name). When she found out what happened, Plath was horrified— sort of. On March 23, the night before she departed for the Continent, Plath turned up at Hughes’ flat in London. She didn’t leave until morning.

From the outset, her emotions ran high—perhaps impossibly high. With friends, Plath shared her concerns that Hughes was a womanizer. But she was determined to tame and possess him, even making a list in her journal of things she should or shouldn’t do to keep him: “. . . never accuse or nag—let him run, reap, rip—and glory in the temporary sun of his ruthless force.” Hughes may not have felt quite the same level of commitment. Still, says Elaine Feinstein, author of Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet, in Plath “he saw many things he wanted: animation, a whole American culture. . . . And, of course, he recognized a first-class intelligence, even genius.”

On June 16, 1956, they were wed. He was 25; she 23. Their marriage would prove in time to be deeply flawed, but when it was healthy it was also remarkably productive. They read, and admired, each other’s work. He suggested subjects for her poems; she edited his prose and acted as literary agent for the two of them.His works—which she placed in Poetry, the Nation, the Atlantic Monthly and other magazines—met with increasing success. The couple entertained modestly and cultivated friends—most especially poet W. S. Merwin and his wife, Dido, who would become godparents to their first child, Frieda—in notable academic and literary circles in London and New England. But they also spent a great deal of time alone together. Chronic and serious money problems dogged them, and they spent hour upon hour cleaning, painting and decorating to make their often tiny and shoddy accommodations homey. And though Hugheswould be criticized for relegating the greater share of household duties to Plath, he was, says Her Husband author Diane Wood Middlebrook, relatively egalitarian for the era: “He recognized that the demands of her writing were exactly the same as the demands of his, and the two of them worked out a way of life that afforded them both time for their work and, later, for their children.”

But it was as early as their honeymoon in Spain that Plath first voiced second thoughts. While one journal entry boasted that she and Hughes were “fantastically matched,” requiring the identical amount of sleep and sharing a kind of “antisocial” preference for their own company, another entry warned, “The world has grown crooked and sour as a lemon overnight.” Her gloom apparently arose when they rented a small house and Hughes left Plath to do most of the chores.

For the first time, Plath confronted what it meant to be a wife in the 1950s. In her journal, she had written that she wanted not a career but a life of “babies and bed and brilliant friends and a magnificent stimulating home,” plus a man to whom she would give “this colossal reservoir of faith and love for him to swim in daily.” She embraced convention and showered her mother with letters about her happiness. But as much as she coveted the societal norm, she also sought perfection in her writing. It was a tension that would define most of her married life; there was simply not often time for both.

It was with some relief that Plath, who quietly longed for a steady source of income and a tidy, stylish home, received an offer in April 1957 to return to Smith the following fall to teach freshman English. She had often considered teaching and, given their educational backgrounds, Plath and Hughes could easily have fashioned stable, well-paying careers to fund their writing. That summer they sailed for America, where Aurelia greeted the young couple with a welcome home party and the gift of a rented cottage on Cape Cod for their summer break. But what was intended to be an idyllic time of rejuvenation was completely undone by a pregnancy scare that, in retrospect, highlighted Plath’s priorities. In her ideal world there were babies galore, but in reality, they were hard-pressed to make a living even with Hughes’ increasing success. She now saw pregnancy as a debilitating blight: “. . . clang, clang, clang, one door after another banged shut with the overhanging terror which, I now know, would end me, probably Ted, and our writing and our possible impregnable togetherness.” Then, happily, she got her period.

Teaching, perhaps predictably, was a disaster. Plath’s crystalline ideal of academia was quickly blemished by petty squabbles among professors, a crushing workload and her own characteristic sense that she was not as good a teacher as she should be. She barely managed to complete the first year of her two-year commitment when she resigned. Wanting to celebrate, she asked Hughes to join her on campus on her last day. He was late. Searching for him, she spied him coming up a road wearing “a broad, intense smile, eyes [looking] into the uplifted doe eyes of a strange girl with brownish hair, a large lipsticked grin, and bare thick legs in khaki Bermuda shorts.” On seeing Plath, the girl fled. Plath was blind with rage, and no explanation could calm her. While the girl was a student of Hughes’ and the encounter may have been by chance, Plath felt that Hughes had betrayed her trust and made a mockery of her sacrifices.


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