Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Sylvia Plath in one of her happiest moments.
Sylvia with her two children, Frieda and Nicholas.

Sylvia Plath, born October 27th, 1932 to parents Otto Emil Plath and Aurelia Frances Schober, began her life as what was described as a very happy one. Her brother, Warren Joseph Plath, was born April 27th 1935, exactly two and a half years after Sylvia. However, the first obstacle that Sylvia faced happened when she was just eight ears old. In 1940, Sylvia’s father passed away at the young age of fifty-five. This left Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia, a heartbroken single mother who never remarried. “She (Sylvia) insisted that her mother sign a contract vowing to never remarry, which Aurelia did without reservation." (Steinberg 13). In 1942, the Plath family moved to Wellesley, Massachusetts to benefit the children’s health and education. Being the daughter of extremely bright parents, Sylvia began to read earlier than normally and started school a year earlier than expected. During her time in junior high, Sylvia had began to write in a journal, which she would continue doing through college, and began writing her own poetry and between the years of 1945 and 1947 had written approximately fifteen poems and had one published. In the next year, Sylvia wrote a poem called “I Thought That I Could Not Be Hurt” which many consider to be her best poem. As years passed, Sylvia’s writing skills and love for writing increased so much so that by the time she was to enter high school, she was even more driven to focus on writing. Plath sent out her writing to numerous magazines and newspapers and had received countless rejection slips, but that did not stop her from working on and improving her writing and eventually sending out more of her writing. Sylvia had always gotten very impressive grades, which aided her in her choice of colleges. Since she was so smart, scoring in the ninety-eighth percentile of an IQ test, she had her fair amount of colleges to choose from. In 1950, Sylvia’s high school sent out her transcript to Smith College, an all girls’ school, which was Sylvia’s first choice. She was accepted to Smith College in May of 1950.

After debating what she wanted to major in, Sylvia decided that she wanted to major in English although she enjoyed writing and art classes. “Plath was still undecided as to what her major would be in the spring semester of her first year.” (Steinberg 27). Just like high school, Sylvia also excelled in college. However, even though she was prevailing in college, her mental heath was beginning to deteriorate even more. Sylvia made her first reference to committing suicide in 1952. She was extremely harsh to herself and often called herself a “conglomerate garbage heap of loose ends.” (Steinberg 33). She began asking herself existential questions about who she really was. "... I can't think logically about who I am or where I am going. I have been very ecstatic, horribly depressed, shocked, elated, enlightened and enervated— all of which goes to make up living very hard and newly." (Steinberg 37). As time continued to pass, Sylvia began to become more and more unhappy. In her journals she wrote, “Is anyone anywhere happy?” (Steinberg 36). Sylvia was exhausted from schoolwork and her mental state, which eventually drove her to the severe depression she developed. She often thought that her life was unimportant unless she was writing. Plath needed reassurance that she was a good writer at all times due to rejection slips that would make her feel like a failure. Sylvia felt that she was talentless and had let down all of the people who enjoyed her writing. Her mother tried to convince Sylvia to let some things go, but she wouldn’t budge. She had completely given up. As a clear sign that she needed help, Sylvia cut her thigh with a razor. This caused her mother to bring Sylvia to a psychiatrist. Her doctor soon decided that electroshock therapy (ECT) should be preformed on Sylvia.

By this point, Sylvia was in the worst state she had ever been in. Sleeping pills no longer worked and the electroshock therapy was more like near-electrocutions, which made her feel even worse. She felt lonely and like there was no one there for her. This is what drove her to attempt to take her life for the first time. Sylvia left a note on the dining room table of her mothers house reading, "Have gone for a long walk. Will be home tomorrow." (Steinberg 41). Upon finding the note, Sylvia's mother was in a panic. She notified the police, who did everything in their power to find Sylvia. Three days later, Sylvia's brother Warren heard a moan coming from the basement. He then rushed downstairs to find his sister in a small crawlspace. While being rushed to the hospital, Sylvia was very ill, falling in and out of consciousness. Because of her attempt to kill herself, Sylvia lost the ability to read and had to be taught again. Once she was discharged from the hospital in 1954, Sylvia had to return to the academic world. She continued to see the college psychiatrist and talked with her mother often.

Her mental health began to improve although did not become perfect. She worked extremely hard and on May 20th, she had won a scholarship to attend Cambridge University. Sylvia enjoyed her time at Cambridge but she soon found that her grandmother was extremely ill and as winter approached the weather began to become cold. Both had a negative effect on her spirits and self-confidence. Sylvia dated many men in her life but she was determined to meet a boy named Ted Hughes. She loved his writing and wanted to get to know him. After meeting him, the two talented writers fell in love and decided that they should sail to America, get married and start a family. Through all of this time, Sylvia still had many accomplishments with her writing. She published many of her poems, and wrote even more. Many of her poems reflected on her surroundings, breakdown and her recovery. At this time, Sylvia and Ted Hughes were beginning to start a family. On April 1, 1960, Frieda Rebecca Hughes was born. At first, for the both of them, it was hard to adjust to parenthood. With the balance of their work and a newborn baby, they both were under a lot of stress. But, eventually both Sylvia and Ted became accustomed to it so much so that they decided to have another baby. However the second attempt didn't go as planned. Sylvia had a miscarriage. But they tried again and on January 17, 1962, Nicholas Farrar Hughes was born. Sylvia had said that everything about Nicholas was "Hughes like," and nothing like Frieda. (Steinberg 100). Although they had two children, Ted and Sylvia often fought. Ted had been accused of having an affair with another woman, which drove Sylvia into wanting a divorce. This also added to Sylvia's stress and weakening mental stability. Although, soon after splitting up, Sylvia did not know if that was what she wanted. "Plath broke down crying in front of him (Hughes), saying she wanted to get back together and did not want a divorce." (Steinberg 117). She felt once again alone, and this time, with two children.

Once again, Sylvia was falling deeper and deeper into a dark depression and this time, was not able to be saved. They became good friends and knowing how depressed Sylvia was, they helped take care of her and her children. Before Sylvia's suicide, Gerry was driving her home and she began crying. Gerry had asked if she wanted to be driven back to his house, but she declined, saying that she needed to get home. Although both Gerry and Jillian were worried, they took her home. When Sylvia was home, her neighbor knocked on her door and immediately noticed how sluggish she seemed. She was slurring her words and claimed to be “dreaming” (Steinberg 118). Her neighbor offered to call her psychiatrist but Sylvia said that she would be fine. The next morning the nanny arrived. She smelled gas and nobody had answered the door when she had knocked. The nanny and a builder broke into Sylvia's apartment and found her on the kitchen floor unconscious. Sylvia had locked her two children upstairs in their room with the window open while she killed herself by using her oven to give herself gas poisoning. There was a note that Sylvia had left that read, "Call Dr. Horder." (Steinberg 118). Dr. Horder was Sylvia's doctor and a close friend. When Dr. Horder arrived, he pronounced Sylvia dead. The antidepressants had given her the energy they were supposed to, but never made her any happier and so she had killed herself as a result as her long lasting depression. Sylvia was only thirty years old at the time of her death on February 11th, 1963.

Sylvia Plath is looking back at her husband, Ted Hughes, on board the Queen Elizabeth sailing towards New York Harbor on June 25th 1957.
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath early in their relationship.

I chose this song because not only is it beautiful even without lyrics, you can feel the music and how at some points it is happier and faster but then gets lower and slower. At other times it gets louder, indicating that there is a sense of empowerment. This can relate to Sylvia and her life battle with depression because not every point in her short life was bad, there were some good aspects as well. The loud points in the song can represent her long fight with her depression and how hard she tried to become happier. But this song ends with slow and quiet notes which can show how Sylvia had given up in the last few moments in of her life before she made the decision to take her own life.

Sylvia and her two children, Frieda and Nicholas.

The central idea of the biography of Sylvia Plath written by Peter K. Steinberg is life with depression. This book shows how one woman loses control of her mental stability and falls into a vulnerable state of mind. Through her life Sylvia went from a happy child, to a teenager who was full of spirit, to her downfall in her early twenties and so on. However, a person does not just suddenly become depressed. Depression isn’t a quick act. It takes time to completely settle in and suddenly there is no escaping it. This raises the question of whether or not Sylvia had shown symptoms of unhappiness as a teenager, or even as a child. When Sylvia’s father dies in 1940, Sylvia had claimed that she did not really know why her father had died. “Sylvia never understood why her father had died, or at least she did not immediately understand.” (Steinberg 13). As Sylvia grows older she begins to write and she used her writing, whether it be poems or just simple journal entries, as an escape from the world. She wrote to get what she was feeling on the inside to the outside. Writing is how she dealt with the loss of her father, her miscarriage, her split with her husband, her depression and suicide attempt, and everything in between. Depression had followed Sylvia her whole life and was clinically depressed for most of her adulthood. The book even mentions that Sylvia had self-harmed by cutting her thigh with a razor. She tried to take her life once before and the second time succeeded with a note left in her flat saying, “Call Dr. Horder,” which was yet another cry for help. (Steinberg 118). All of these aspects of Sylvia’s life are driven by her depression. She lived her entire life with the fear of not being good enough and the constant sadness and anxiety of failing herself and others. Sylvia’s cause of death was not only suicide, it was depression.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes holding their newborn child.

The video above is of Sylvia Plath reading one of her own poems entitled, "Daddy."

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