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Seeing Sylvia Plath

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

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Alvarez is one of the very few who postulates that Plath probably expected to be rescued: “She set things up to be saved. But she was beyond caring.” Late the night before, according to Alvarez, she knocked on a downstairs neighbor’s door, ostensibly to borrow stamps. She questioned him pointedly about what time he got up in the morning. She also knew that the au pair was scheduled to show up relatively early. Alvarez suggests that she was counting on the neighbor to smell the gas or the baby sitter to open the door to save her. But the au pair had no key, and the neighbor was himself knocked unconscious by gas that seeped downstairs.

Wintering author Kate Moses believes that Plath displayed the symptoms of bipolar disorder, which may have been aggravated by a severe form of premenstrual syndrome. Moses adds that Plath may also have learned that Assia was pregnant.

Plath herself had become acutely concerned about her mental health. Realizing that she was exhibiting symptoms similar to those she experienced before her suicide attempt years earlier, she had sought psychiatric help. Adoctor, John Horder, who was arranging therapy sessions for Plath, first prescribed an antidepressant. Hughes later surmised that the psychoactive drug was itself the culprit, noting (as did Horder) that such a drug can pull a patient out of the doldrums just enough to provide the energy and will to carry out a suicide.

Hughes was also condemned by detractors for destroying Plath’s last journal, or parts of it; among varying responses, he said that its contents would simply have been too painful to her family, especially their children. No trace of the novel she had supposedly begun was ever found. Some suggest that Hughes had simply eradicated documents that portrayed him in an unkind light, a conclusion that even he conceded was inevitable. “I saw quite clearly from the first day that I am the only person in this business who cannot be believed by all who need to find me guilty,” Hughes wrote to Anne Stevenson, shortly after her controversial Plath biography, Bitter Fame, was published in 1989. For her part, Middlebrook defends Hughes: “Anyone who criticizes him isn’t giving enough weight to the crushing guilt that followed from Plath’s death and his own horrible situation afterward. It took him a while to get his feet down, probably ten years.”

Hughes, in fact, must be credited with making sure that Plath’s work would be read. She had spent a great deal of time arranging the order of the Ariel poems. But when a publisher turned the manuscript down, Hughes agreed to revise the organization, and the book was published in England in 1965 and the United States in 1966. Author Kate Moses notes, however, that Plath’s version of Ariel was “fragile but hopeful,” while Hughes’ reorganization turned the poems into a “long, slow, painful, furious ‘suicide note.’ ” Says Moses, “This is why we think of Sylvia Plath as we do— because of how Ariel was published and what it seemed to tell us about her.”

Hughes also arranged for the publication, in 1981, of Plath’s Collected Poems and, later, her journals. It is especially sad, says Karen Kukil, associate curator of rare books at Smith and editor of the journals, that Hughes got to know his wife better after her death. “In reading her journals, he wrote a lot of his Birthday poems,” says Kukil. “In a way he learned a great deal about her and what she was thinking by reading her journals after she died.”

Even before Sylvia was released, the film had found one very vocal critic: Frieda Hughes, now 43, Plath and Hughes’ daughter and a poet in her own right. “Why would I want to be involved in moments of my childhood which I never want to return to?” Frieda asked when invited by the BBC to collaborate on the film. Indeed, she wrote a poem in protest, which at one point scorns the “peanut eaters, entertained / At my mother’s death.”

In “Lady Lazarus,” one of Plath’s best-known poems from Ariel, the “peanut-crunching crowd” gawks at Plath who entertains the masses by barely surviving accidents and her early suicide attempt. There is a kind of sarcasm in what is one of the poem’s most quoted lines, but beneath its flippant veneer lay a terrible truth:

Dying Is an art,

like everything else.

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