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Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932 – February 11, 1963) was an Americanmarker poet, novelist, children's author, and short story author.

Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book's protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith Collegemarker who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New Yorkmarker. The plot parallels Plath's experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt.

Along with Anne Sexton, Plath is credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry initiated by Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass.



Plath was born during the Great Depression on October 27, 1932 in Jamaica Plainmarker, Massachusettsmarker, to Aurelia Schober Plath, a first-generation American of Austrian descent, and Otto Emile Plath, an immigrant from Grabowmarker, Germanymarker. Plath's father was a professor of biology and German at Boston Universitymarker and author of a book about bumblebees. Plath's mother was approximately twenty-one years younger than her husband. She met him while earning her master's degree in teaching. Otto was alienated from his family because he chose not to become a Lutheran minister, as his grandparents wanted him to be. They went as far as taking his name out of the family Bible.

In April 1935, Plath's brother Warren was born. The family moved to Winthrop, Massachusettsmarker in 1936 and Plath spent much of her childhood on Johnson Avenue. She was raised a Unitarian Christian and had mixed feelings toward religion throughout her life. Plath's mother, Aurelia, had grown up in Winthrop, and her maternal grandparents, the Schobers, had lived in a section of the town called Point Shirley, a location mentioned in Plath's poetry. Plath published her first poem in Winthrop, in the Boston Herald's children's section, when she was eight years old. In addition to writing, she also showed early promise as an artist, winning an award from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 1947, for paintings.

Otto Plath died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath's eighth birthday, of complications following the amputation of a foot due to diabetes. He had become ill shortly after a close friend died of lung cancer. Comparing the similarities between his friend's symptoms and his own, Otto became convinced he too was ill with lung cancer and did not seek treatment until his diabetes had progressed too far. Otto Plath is buried in Winthrop Cemetery, where his gravestone continues to attract readers of Plath's poem "Daddy." Aurelia Plath then moved her children and her parents to 26 Elmwood Road, Wellesley, Massachusettsmarker, in 1942. Visiting her father's grave prompted Plath to write the poem "Electra on Azalea Path."

College years

Plath attended Smith Collegemarker, dating Yale senior Dick Norton during her junior year. Norton, upon whom the character of Buddy in The Bell Jar is based, contracted tuberculosis and was treated at the Ray Brook Sanatoriummarker near Saranac Lakemarker. While visiting Norton, Plath broke her leg skiing, an incident that was fictionalized in the novel.

During the summer after her third year of college Plath was awarded a coveted position as guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, during which she spent a month in New York Citymarker. The experience was not at all what she had hoped it would be, beginning within her a seemingly downward spiral in her outlook on herself and life in general. Many of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her novel The Bell Jar. Following this experience Plath made her first medically documented suicide attempt by crawling under her house and taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Details of her attempts at suicide are chronicled in her book. After her suicide attempt, Plath was briefly committed to a mental institution where she received electroconvulsive therapy. Her stay at McLean Hospital was paid for by Olive Higgins Prouty, who had also funded the scholarship awarded to Plath to attend Smith. Prouty had successfully recovered from a mental breakdown herself. Plath seemed to make an acceptable recovery and graduated from Smith with honors in June 1955.

She obtained a Fulbright scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridgemarker where she continued actively writing poetry, occasionally publishing her work in the student newspaper Varsity. It was at a party given in Cambridge that she met the English poet Ted Hughes. They were married on June 16, 1956 (Bloomsday) at St George the Martyr Holbornmarker in the London Borough of Camdenmarker, after a short courtship.

Personal life and poetry

Plath and Hughes spent from July 1957 to December 1959 living and working in the United Statesmarker, where Plath taught at Smith Collegemarker in Northampton, Massachusettsmarker. The couple then moved to Boston where Plath audited seminars by Robert Lowell that were also attended by Anne Sexton. At this time Plath and Hughes met, for the first time, W. S. Merwin, who admired their work and was to remain a lifelong friend.

Upon learning Plath was pregnant the couple moved back to the United Kingdommarker. Plath and Hughes lived in Londonmarker for a while on Chalcot Square near the Primrose Hillmarker area of Regent's Parkmarker, and then settled in the small market town of North Tawtonmarker in Devonmarker. In 1960, while in London, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. In February 1961 she suffered a miscarriage. A number of her poems address this event.

Plath's marriage to Hughes was fraught with difficulties, particularly surrounding his affair with Assia Wevill, and the couple separated in late 1962. She returned to London with their children, Frieda and Nicholas, and rented a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road (only a few streets from the Chalcot Square flat) in a house where W. B. Yeats once lived. Plath was pleased by this fact and considered it a good omen.


Plath took her own life after she completely sealed the rooms between herself and her sleeping children with "wet towels and cloths." Plath then placed her head in the oven while the gas was turned on. The next day an inquiry ruled that her death was a suicide.

It has been suggested Plath's suicide attempt was too precise and coincidental, and she had not intended to succeed in killing herself. Apparently, she had previously asked Mr. Thomas, her downstairs neighbor, what time he would be leaving; and a note had been placed that read "Call Dr. Horder" and listed his phone number. Therefore, it is argued Plath must have turned the gas on at a time when Mr. Thomas should have been waking and beginning his day. This theory maintains that the gas, for several hours, seeped through the floor and reached Mr. Thomas and another resident of the floor below. Also, an au pair was to arrive at nine o'clock that morning to help Plath with the care of her children. Upon arrival, the au pair could not get into the flat, but was eventually let in by painters, who had a key to the front door .

However, in the book Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, her best friend, Jillian Becker says "according to Mr. Goodchild—a police officer attached to the coroner's office . . . she had thrust her head far into the gas oven. 'She had really meant to die.'"

Plath's gravestone in Heptonstallmarker churchyard bears the inscription "Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted." The gravestone has been repeatedly vandalized by some of Plath's supporters who have chiseled the name "Hughes" off it. This practice intensified following the suicide in 1969 of Assia Wevill, the woman for whom Ted Hughes had left Plath, which led to claims Hughes had been abusive toward Plath.



Plath began keeping a diary at age 11, and kept journals until her suicide. Her adult diaries, starting from her freshman year at Smith College in 1950, were first published in 1980 as The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Frances McCullough. In 1982, when Smith College acquired Plath's remaining journals, Hughes sealed two of them until February 11, 2013, the fiftieth anniversary of Plath's death.

During the last years of his life, Hughes began working on a fuller publication of Plath's journals. In 1998, shortly before his death, he unsealed the two journals, and passed the project onto his children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, who passed it on to Karen V. Kukil. Kukil finished her editing in December 1999, and in 2000 Anchor Books published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. According to the back cover, roughly two-thirds of the Unabridged Journals is newly released material. The American author Joyce Carol Oates hailed the publication as a "genuine literary event".

Hughes faced criticism for his role in handling the journals: he claims to have destroyed Plath's last journal, which contained entries from the winter of 1962 up to her death. In the foreword of the 1982 version, he writes, "I destroyed [the last of her journals] because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)."


Plath has been criticized for her controversial allusions to the Holocaust, and is known for her uncanny use of metaphor. Her work has been compared to and associated with Anne Sexton, W.D. Snodgrass, and other confessional poets.

While the few critics who responded to Plath's first book, The Colossus, did so favorably, it has also been described as somewhat staid and conventional in comparison to the much more free-flowing imagery and intensity of her later work.

The poems in Ariel mark a departure from her earlier work into a more personal arena of poetry. It is a possibility Lowell's poetry—which is often labeled "confessional"—played a part in this shift. Indeed, in an interview before her death she listed Lowell's Life Studies as an influence. The impact of Ariel was dramatic, with its potentially autobiographical descriptions of mental illness in poems such as, "Tulips", "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus".

In 1982 Plath became the first poet to win a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for The Collected Poems. In 2006 a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth Universitymarker discovered a previously unpublished sonnet written by Plath entitled "Ennui". The poem, composed during Plath's early years at Smith College, is published in Blackbird, the online journal.

Ted Hughes controversy

In the realms of literary criticism and biographies published after her death, the debate about Plath's work very often resembles a struggle between readers who side with her and readers who side with Hughes.

Many critics accused Hughes of attempting to control the publications for his own ends, although the money earned from Plath's poetry was placed into a trust account for their two children Frieda and Nicholas.



  • The Colossus and Other Poems (1960)
  • Ariel (1965), includes the poems "Tulips", "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus"
  • Three Women: A Monologue for Three Voices (1968)
  • Crossing the Water (1971)
  • Winter Trees (1971)
  • The Collected Poems (1981)
  • Selected Poems (1985)
  • Plath: Poems (1998)


Audio poetry readings

  • Sylvia Plath Reads, Harper Audio 2000

Children's books

  • The Bed Book (1976)
  • The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit (1996)
  • Collected Children's Stories (UK, 2001)
  • Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen (2001)

See also


  1. Sylvia Plath
  2. Taylor, Robert, America's Magic Mountain, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986. ISBN 0-395-37905-9
  3. Sylvia Plath
  4. Frieda Hughes, ed., Ariel: The Restored Edition, p. xvii
  5. Review - Sylvia Plath Reads - Suicide


  • Sylvia Plath (2004, Chelsea House, Great Writers Series) by Peter K. Steinberg, ISBN 0-7910-7843-4
  • Sylvia Plath: Method & Madness (A Biography) (2004, Schaffner Press, 2Rev Ed) by Edward Butscher, ISBN 0-9710-5982-9
  • Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life (2003, Palgrave Macmillan, 2Rev Ed) by Linda Wagner-Martin, ISBN 1-4039-1653-5
  • Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, a Marriage (2003, Viking Adult) by Diane Middlebrook, ISBN 0-670-03187-9
  • Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath (1991, Da Capo Press) by Paul Alexander, ISBN 0-3068-1299-1
  • The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (1991, Carol Publishing) by Ronald Hayman, ISBN 1-5597-2068-9
  • Bitter Fame. A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989, Houghton Mifflin) by Anne Stevenson, ISBN 0-395-45374-7

Other works on Plath

  • The 2003 motion picture Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, tells the story of Plath's troubled relationship with Hughes.
  • Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of Birthday Letters (2002, W.W. Norton) by Erica Wagner | ISBN 0-3933-2301-3
  • Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath by Jillian Becker (a friend with whom Plath spent her last weekend) (Ferrington, London, 2002).
  • Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words (1992, Johns Hopkins University) by Steven Gould Axelrod | ISBN 0-8018-4374-X
  • The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995, Vintage) by Janet Malcolm | ISBN 0-6797-5140-8
  • A psychobiographical chapter on Plath's loss of her father, and the effect of that loss on her personality and her art, is contained in William Todd Schultz's Handbook of Psychobiography (Oxford University Press, 2005).

Fictional offerings

  • Sylvia Plath: A Dramatic Portrait Conceived and Adapted from Her Writings (1976, Faber and Faber) by Barry Kyle. ISBN 978-0571106981.
  • "Sylvia Plath" - A song written by Ryan Adams and Richard Causon on the album Gold (2001, Lost Highway)
  • Sylvia Plath Must Not Die - A performance piece by the troupe One Yellow Rabbit, staged at the Young Centre for the Performing Artsmarker in December 2008
  • Escape from Hell - by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (Tor, 2009), prominently features Plath in Hell after her death, in Dante's Wood of the Suicides
  • "Your Own, Sylvia: a verse portrait of Sylvia Plath" by Stephanie Hemphill (2007). ISBN 037583799X.

External links

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