Wednesday, April 2, 2014

"She burned with determination": Sylvia Plath's early magazine writing

Plath on her first day at Mademoiselle. Later she would write: “I am worn out now with the strenuous days at the office and the heat and the evenings out. I want to come home and sleep and … get tan again.”
This year is the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, which occurred a month after the publication of her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, and just after she completed her poetry collection Ariel.
We have a bumper crop of Plath books at the moment, including two on her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, and one one her 1953 summer in New York working for a month as a guest editor for the "college" issue of Mademoiselle (along with 19 other young women—many of whom author Elizabeth Winder interviews for Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953). Above left: Plath leaves her home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, on her way to New York City.
Plath interviewing Elizabeth Bowen for Mademoiselle
Plath had intended to publish The Bell Jar under an assumed name because she feared the pain it would cause her mother. In Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms, Carmela Ciuraru describes the dynamics of that relationship as well as Plath's relentless determination to succeed as a writer:
Plath always knew that she stood apart from others. Because she was viewed as "dangerously brainy," she felt it was in her self-interest to mask her sharp intellect and turbulent emotions. Not only did she embody the role of a perfect, straight-A student, but she was determined to become popular. She also pursued the approval of adults, both at school and at home. Other students might merely work hard, but she burned with determination. Before her first short story appeared in Seventeen (in the August, 1950 issue), Plath had submitted forty-five pieces to the magazine. At eighteen, she berated herself in her journal: "What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don't know and I'm afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want."
Plath with fellow poet Ted Hughes, in happier times


  1. What an interesting character. I'm sure many young women can identify with her nowadays.

  2. In response to the previous commenter: I'm not sure that young women can really identify with her entirely. She has some great poetry and wonderful quotes but when it comes down to it, she was very young, selfish, and very unstable. She's romanticized to be some sort of role model for women but her instability and lack of control of her emotions make her the opposite of what I'd want for a role model.

    Also, something I read somewhere about her suicide: I heard that she wanted to be saved, that she tried to send a message to her neighbor hoping that he would come by but that message wasn't received so she went through with it. If it's true that she was hoping her neighbor would save her, it was an extremely desperate attempt to feel cared for.

    I think Ted Hughes' next wife also killed herself. Despite what people say about him, that he was very domineering over Sylvia, I'm sure that she wasn't exactly an easy person to live with either.

  3. Edit: It wasn't his next wife that killed herself; it was his girlfriend after Sylvia, Assia Wevill, that also killed herself by gas oven.

    1. Some guys are toxic (like Debussy). I totally agree with your assessment of Sylvia Plath as role model. Suicide is a cry of the needy. Women must be stronger than that, and many are.

    2. "What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don't know and I'm afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want."

      I only meant that they can probably identify with her in a sense that many young women with all the societal pushes, have a hard time figuring out their place in the world. But I do agree, she wasn't the best role model and her death was definitely a cry for help.

  4. I also agree with the statements above. According to Carmela Ciuraru, it appears as if Plath wanted to hide who she was, and instead appease all of those around her. I would instead encourage, girls, and everyone, to embrace who they are and not worry about being "popular." I imagine that this kind of life style contributed to her dissatisfaction with life.