Brain Pickings

An Addict of Experience: Sylvia Plath’s Sexual Repression and Class Struggle

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A journey into “what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.”

Half a century ago this month, Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world — took her own life, leaving behind her husband Ted Hughes and their two children. In the highly anticipated new biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library; UK) — titled after the exquisite Plath poemAndrew Wilson explores the poorly understood period of Plath’s life before her relationship with Hughes. Diving into the darkest corners of her diaries and letters, as well as previously unavailable archives and direct interviews with those who knew Plath, Wilson sets out to “trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factors — the real disquieting muses — conspired against her.”

He writes in the introduction:

In her journal in 1950 she wrote of how she was living on the ‘edge.’ She was not alone, she added, as all of us were standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into darkness, peering into an unnerving pit below.

This book will show what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche.

Wilson notes Plath’s chronic dissonance between repression and an insatiable hunger for life:

Plath was an addict of experience, and she could not bear the fact that young women like her were denied something so life-enhancing. In the same letter she goes on to write of her deep envy of males, anger she describes as ‘insidious, malignant, latent.’

Sex — or rather the constraints and repressions surrounding it — played a central role in Plath’s creative and psychological development. She realized, as she wrote in her journal in the autumn of 1950, she was too well brought up to disregard tradition, yet she hated boys who could express themselves sexually while she had no choice but to ‘drag’ herself from one date to the next in ‘soggy desire.’ The system, she added, disgusted her.

But Wilson tends to jump to causality a little too eagerly. As Clay Shirky poignantly pointed out about the recent tragic loss of Aaron Swartz, “suicide is not only about proximate causes.” Wilson writes:

If too much has been made of the symptoms of Plath’s mental illness, so too little attention has been paid to its possible causes. Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury. Not only did she feel maddened that she could not express herself sexually, she also was furious that she had not been born into a family of greater means. Her letters and journals are full of references to feeling inferior and self-conscious because of her low status. As a scholarship girl at Smith College — one of America’s top universities for women — she was surrounded by the daughters of the country’s great and the good. She peeled potatoes, chopped vegetables, and waited on tables as a way of reducing her course fees. In order to try and take the burden off her mother — who worked at Boston University’s College of Practical Arts and Letters to pay the shortfall between her daughter’s fees and her scholarship — Sylvia volunteered for extra jobs at the college and, in whatever spare time she had, she wrote poems and stories for money. If she took boys home to her family’s two-bedroom house in Wellesley, Massachusetts — where she was forced to share a room with her mother — she worried that they would see the marks and rips in the wallpaper; on occasions like these, the lights would have to be kept low so as to try and disguise the blemishes. In her first semester at Smith, in the fall of 1950, she wrote in her journal of the arduous transition period between childhood and young adulthood. To help her make sense of this new, troubling reality, she made a list of certain aspects of life that she found difficult, an inventory of notes addressed to herself that she could use to boost her confidence when it was low. One of the sections focuses on her economic position in society. She noted how she knew she would have to compete with other girls who had been born into wealthier families. The Plaths, she realized, were not only of modest means but they didn’t come from a line of well-connected intellectuals. She observed how boys from richer families would often remark, in a casual fashion, of her ‘side of town,’ and although they didn’t mean to be cruel, she felt the comments keenly.

Though I have little else in common with Plath, I too found myself a “scholarship girl” amidst “the daughters of the country’s great and the good,” dirt-poor by the standards of the Ivy League institution into which I landed from Eastern Europe, and working up to four jobs at a time to support myself. Yet while the enormity of the mental and emotional burden inflicted by this constant sense of economic inferiority couldn’t be overstated, to call it a “possible cause” of suicide — rather than something more causally neutral, like a “trigger” or “contributing factor” — is questionable at best.

Still, semantic nitpicking aside, Mad Girl’s Love Song remains rigorously researched and absolutely fascinating, with its ample footnotes alone a treasure trove of insight into Plath’s previously unexplored life.

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