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Sylvia Plath: Death, Depression, and Despair


By Emma Agripino


    Born on October 27,1932, in Boston, Massachusetts, Sylvia Plath was a 20th century American poet typically associated with the Confessional movement. Plath’s father died when Plath was eight years old, and his death along with his strict, authoritarian attitudes shaped not only her relationships, but her poetry as well. Plath’s notorious struggle with depression provided an extensive list of works, often lamenting life through vivid, violent, and disturbing imagery most are unable to comprehend. Known for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, Plath’s poetry features an abundance of works targeting her relationships and their contribution to her depression. Plath’s work is distinguished through her contrasting coupling of haunting imagery and animated rhyme that often portray her primal fears and obsession with death. A plethora of her poems blur the lines of desire and reality and promote cynicism; her cynical lens of life is often explained through her disastrous relationships with the men of her life. Critics argue it washer father’s death that developed Plath’s own obsession with death and was the primary source of her self-destruction. While Plath was relatively unknown at the time of her death, today her poems are glorified due to her recurring theme of fascination with death paired with her brutally honest evaluation of the human psyche.

    Plath employs a universally acknowledged correlation between her own suicide attempts and her enigmatic attraction to death. She unveils her intrigue by fixating on the five senses of the human body while contemplating her existence in both life and death — living in the state of bardo. In “Lady Lazarus,” Plath openly discusses her suicide attempts and attempts to contemplate why they failed; in doing so, she reveals why she proceeds to achieve death:

Dying
Is an art, like everything else,
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I've a call.
(Lady Lazarus 48-52).
Her ultimate epiphany induces an ominous reaction in the reader: Readers ponder the feeling of death, what it feels like to lose consciousness, what it feels like to begin vanishing from this world. Plath does not dismiss that agony her “deaths” cause, but rather embraces it; it is the pain she exerts upon herself that validates her existence. She has achieved the unfathomable: existing between life and death. Plath beautifully, but eerily, acknowledges her “rise from the dead” does not change her demeanor, nor does it change the fact that she will incessantly continue her attempts until she finally achieves death. The emergence of her new life encapsulates the notion that human beings are put on this earth only to die; as one is entering the world, and departing it, they annihilate everything in their surroundings. “Lady Lazarus” presents three deaths throughout the poem, despite the fact that Plath explicitly states, “And like the cat I have nine times to die” (Lady Lazarus 21). Yet, out of these “three deaths” only two of them were actually committed by Plath, considering the “first death is generally taken to mean the death of Plath’s father” (Constantakis). Plath’s inclusion of her father’s death references the effect his death had on her. Although his authoritarian nature terrified her, his death evoked her obsession with death and had her beg the question of what it means to die. This bond between Plath and her father epitomizes the notion that regardless of the status between a parent and their child, when a parent dies, a part of the child dies as well — they lose their creator, they lose a half of their being.

    Plath’s conflicted emotions towards her father are dominant throughout her poems, but she evaluates her relationship with him to reveal female oppression, an issue still prevalent in today’s society. In her poem “Daddy,” she compares her inability to speak in front of her father as a “barb wire snare” (Plath, “Daddy” 6), and begins to associate every German she ever encountered with her father. Tired of being silenced, Plath discovers her own voice:

An engine, an engine,
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.
(31-35).
The analogy between a German and Jew emphasizes her hatred towards the perpetrator-victim status she and her father have achieved; Plath astutely identifies “herself as a victim, his victim, and calling up images of Nazi brutality, identifying herself with the recipients of violence” (Poetry for Students). Plath’s painful comparison expresses her anger and reveals her state of alienation. Plath feared raising her voice, it was a daunting task, but as she learns how to sound out each syllable, she disassociates herself from her father. At the time of the poem’s composition, Plath’s father had already passed, therefore, she is expressing every ounce of resentment she developed throughout his existence. However, “Daddy” reveals the conflicting emotions a girl feels towards her father, coupling the hatred with love. Plath recounts her father’s appearance and reveals she carries a photograph of him, but the most important detail likes in the fact that “At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you” (Daddy 58-59). Her father’s death drastically shaped her adolescence and despite the built up anger, Plath wanted no more than to be with her. Her desire to coexist with her father once again led to her first suicide attempt and began her struggle with depression. The ironic nature of Plath’s relationship with her father emphasizes the prevailing states of men in her life and the oppression it causes — silence and an inescapable longing. Plath distinguishes her feelings, ultimately deciding it is time walk away from the toxic relationship that has forged her self-destruction. Her elegiac poem connects female readers across all periods of time as Plath warns readers to refuse the demented approval of suppression before calamity arrive.

    In the short poem “Mirror,” Sylvia Plath writes, “Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me / Searching my reaches for what she really is” (Mirror 10-11). Plath presents a lake as an alternative to the ordinary mirror. In doing so she recounts the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man consumed by his own appearance which leads to his untimely death. Plath’s decision for a lake to embody a mirror was no coincidence; lakes are often used to symbolize a person’s self- reflection, but the use of this lake “also suggests the coldness, the unknown, and the threat of death by drowning” (Napierkowski). Critics’ speculation of Plath’s lake representing death by drowning is not far-fetched: A person has the capability to drown themselves in their appearance, they have the capability to decide they dread what they see and wish to cease their existence. Plath’s allusion to Narcissus presents the idea that individuals become so transfixed on their appearance, they can no longer breath, and eventually they come face to face with death. Furthermore, the woman searching through the bottomless lake becomes consumed in her lake, aspiring to find a better version of herself. The longer she delays the acceptance of her mortality, the deeper she goes underwater; this ruthless cycle continues until the woman eventually drowns. However, what astonishes readers the most is the validation the mirror seeks itself. The mirror desires to feel needed and wishes to maintain its purpose in life, reveal the truth. It is human nature to believe every individual and object is important, and Plath ingeniously reveals this through a mirror’s perspective. Plath’s mirror, meant to be “only truthful” (Mirror 4), analyzes human logic and harshly reveals a darkness devours the mind when a person lacks meaning in life. Plath’s revelation frightens the reader and ultimately reveals why Plath’s work is so compelling. She light-heartedly observes and analyzes life while simultaneously and subtly incorporating the value of death into her work.

    Sylvia Plath achieved the unthinkable by exploring death and the inner-workings of the human mind candidly and beautifully. Plath does not shy away from revealing her most personal details, nor does she dismiss her mental illness. While her poems are menacing and complex, readers relate to the intimate messages Plath shares and upon completing a thorough read of her poems, readers feel as if they grew up with Plath. Plath encourage the reader to explore the monstrous side of individuals and to be honest with oneself in order to properly understand human nature.

Works Cited

"Overview: 'Daddy'." Poetry for Students, vol. 28, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.
"Overview: 'Lady Lazarus'." Poetry for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 49, Gale, 2015. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.
"Overview: 'Mirror'." Poetry for Students, edited by Marie Rose Napierkowski and Mary Ruby, vol. 1, Gale, 1998. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.
Plath, Sylvia. “Daddy” from Collected Poems. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1960.
Print. Plath, Sylvia. “Lady Lazarus” from Bell Jar. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1963.
Print. Plath, Sylvia. “Mirror” from Crossing the Water. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1971. Print

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