Poetry News

Gabrielle Bellot on Sylvia Plath and Unlearning Depression's Stigma

By Harriet Staff

At Literary Hub, Gabrielle Bellot contributes an article about Sylvia Plath's trajectory, mapping the publication of The Bell Jar, and Plath's ultimate suicide, before revealing her experiences in the contemporary moment, with depression. Along the way, we learn about some the long-standing beliefs surrounding the illness, and about how difficult it can be: "For some of us, Death offers her hand more than once for a dance in her ballroom. We may want her to, fed up as we are with life, or we may be swallowed up by the grey of depression, not even fully realizing we have taken Death’s dark-nailed fingers in ours," Bellot writes. From there: 

We sway, her blue curls brushing our cheeks, her soft scent become almost familiar after the second time around the floor under the pink-black lanterns, but we always find ourselves, with rage or relief, back beyond the dancefloor, breathing. We fail to die, try as we might.

If Lady Lazarus is defined by her brushes with and ultimate defiance against death, such is also the case, though more poignantly, with another heroine of Plath’s, Esther Greenwood, the narrator of her only finished novel, The Bell Jar. (She had started composing at least two other novels before her death, one manuscript of which Plath’s mother claimed was lost to fire; only The Bell Jar was completed.) Though finished in 1961, the part-autobiographical novel—its early titles were Diary of a Suicide or The Girl in the Mirror, the latter of which emphasizes Esther’s connection to Plath—was published in England in January, 1963, mere weeks before Plath would kill herself. Early reviews seemed tepid; Plath felt stung. Her abusive husband, Ted Hughes, had abandoned her, leaving her to raise two children—Frieda, three, and Nicholas, one—alone. Early in the morning on February 11th, in the London flat William Butler Yeats had once lived in, she ended her life by placing her head in an oven, gas switched on. Wishing to spare her children, if not herself, she opened the window and sealed off the kitchen door with tape and wet towels, so that the lethiferous carbon monoxide would not leak through. In her last parental act, small but heartbreaking, she left out mugs of milk for her children before turning on the oven.

Despite being an American, she had expressly requested that The Bell Jar not be published in America, as its roman à clef elements were clear enough that she feared her family and acquaintances recognizing themselves in it. Ergo, American readers would have to wait until the next decade for her only novel to reach their shores, though bootleg copies of The Bell Jar quickly appeared in bookstores in New York and elsewhere, largely because Plath’s suicide had caused her fame to swell. Suddenly, everyone wanted to The Bell Jar, in case it might hold a key to her self-execution; the publishers who had earlier pooh-poohed her subject matter now yenned for the rights to it. For young women, in particular, The Bell Jar resonated, provided they could get their hands on a copy.

Read more at Literary Hub.

Originally Published: December 14th, 2018