Seeing Sylvia Plath

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

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That spring, having recently completed a draft of The Bell Jar, Plath welcomed David and Assia Wevill to Devon for a visit. Clouds quickly gathered. Plath thought she saw something in the way Hughes spoke to Assia that betrayed his interest. Months later, on July 9, while Aurelia was visiting, Plath’s darkest suspicions were confirmed when she intercepted a phone call for Hughes from Assia, who attempted to disguise her voice. According to Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: A Biography, Plath ripped the phone wires out of the wall, gathered up baby Nicholas (leaving Frieda with Aurelia) and drove to a friend’s home, where she spent the night. The following day she returned to Devon, collected a stack of Hughes’ work, plus the manuscript of what was to be her second novel—an adoring paean to her husband—took the papers outside and set them ablaze.

The next several months were a mix of success and tension. Colossus had been released in America (though scarcely reviewed then, it is now praised for its craftsmanship), The Bell Jar had been accepted for publication and several of Plath’s poems were appearing in prominent literary reviews. To those who didn’t know them, Plath and Hughes presented a picture of unity. In actuality, Plath was feeling that she must have been somehow flawed for Hughes to make off with another woman. She also resented that her hard work to help him gain fame had made him only that much more alluring. The split finally came October 11—he moved out.

Plath was disconsolate. Her role as ideal wife had been shattered. Increasingly desperate, she turned to her source of greatest solace: her writing. In the early fall, she began a new novel, one that she would later tell Alvarez would far surpass The Bell Jar. She began to churn out poems—sharpedged, brutally honest, fiery works—some of which were published in the New Yorker and the Observer newspaper. It was as if, creatively at least, she had emerged from the chrysalis of her anguish and found purpose, hope and her truest voice. “She wanted an idyllic life—books and babies and beef stews—she wanted to have it all as a woman and as an artist,” says Kate Moses, author of Wintering, a 2003 fictionalized account of Plath’s last year or so. “But artistically she needed to be standing more at the edge of an abyss in order to work. So she may have needed a huge emotional shakedown to get to another level artistically. And the shakedown was the end of her marriage.” In “Event,” Plath refers to her marriage at about the time that Hughes left with Assia:

A groove of old faults, deep and bitter.

Love cannot come here.

Some feel that the poems written during this time, examining man’s cruelty, loss and betrayal, trace an emotional descent to an inevitable suicide. But at the same time, there are signs that Plath is fully prepared to battle the fates. In a letter to her mother, she asks for financial help, but conveys an unusually acute confidence and an almost eager outlook: “I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life. . . . ”

To be nearer her friends and the literary sources she hoped would buoy her, Plath returned to London and rented a flat (oddly, around the corner from Assia) just in time for the worst English winter in well over a century. The apartment lost power and water routinely, and she and her children succumbed to a series of fevers. Hughes, who was living nearby, dropped in regularly, often bringing small gifts, but his visits gave Plath little comfort. Alvarez visited her on Christmas Eve and found the usually orderly mother unkempt and the apartment spare and cold. He sensed that she was in trouble, but failed to act. “I could have helped much more than I did,” says Alvarez, who once attempted suicide himself. “I was one of the people she could talk to, and I kind of backed out at the last minute.”

Eight years later Alvarez would enrage his still-devastated friend Hughes by publishing, first in the Observer and then in his book The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, an account of what he believes happened the morning of February 11, 1963. A few hours before a newly hired au pair was scheduled to arrive, Plath went upstairs to her children’s room, set down two mugs of milk and a plate with bread and butter, and returned to the kitchen. Sealing the door and window with towels, she opened the oven, laid her head on a cloth and turned on the gas.

Hughes had published more work and to better reviews than Plath, but her suicide spawned a virtual cottage industry of analysis, criticism and biography; in death, Plath began to eclipse him. It was as if every learned observer wanted to solve the riddle of why Plath, so talented and so young, took her life. Many were quick to point accusing fingers at Hughes. To feminists, Plath became a kind of martyr, a victim of an era—and of a domineering man. (As a measure of how high passions ran, Plath’s gravestone was repeatedly defaced, her married name, Hughes, chipped off.)

The attack on Hughes sharpened six years later when Assia killed herself and 4-year-old Shura, the daughter she had had with Hughes, by putting their heads in a gas oven in seeming solidarity with Plath. Hughes’ old friend Lucas Myers says that Hughes felt powerless to prevent Plath’s suicide, but believed he could have saved Assia. “During those six years between Sylvia’s death and Assia’s death, Ted could not, did not, get his life so arranged so that he and Assia could establish a household,” says Myers. But time, further research and the publication in the past 20 years of Plath’s journals and Hughes’ letters suggest to some that Hughes may simply have been a convenient, or politically expedient, scapegoat.


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