A Disquieting Muse: On Reading Sylvia Plath

By Allyson Vaughan

I drummed my fingers against the hollow space below my neck, repeating in my head the lines I’d just read, “I am, I am, I am.” It was my first reading of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, a novel I’d wanted to read for years, but had feared to start. I feared Plath’s novel because I must’ve had some cognitive clue that what I would find bled out onto those pages would startle in me a recognition I wasn’t ready to cope with. And I did find myself in the pages, the lines, the words Plath strung together to tell the story of a young woman, sick and depressed with herself and society’s hold on who she was. Plath found herself plagued by self-doubt during her lifetime, and my own fears of failure were echoed back to me in the novel. It was possibly the first time I’d read a book where I felt wholly in tune with every action of the story. I felt so in tune with it that it would surprise me when stroking the cover the way I’d stroke a cheek, I didn’t feel it on my own.

I found a first reading of Plath’s novel a raw, unadulterated experience that left me winded by her style, captivated by the linguistic brutality I would find common later on in her other works. Reading Plath’s novel for the first time, at just 18 years old, I knew nothing of Plath but her reputation. She was, as I’d always known her, the poet who stuck her head in an oven early one winter morning and wrote a book everyone said I should read. I knew nothing of the life she’d breathed before then, but was woken by the breath her novel had breathed into me. When I’d first discovered Plath, I was coming off a bad year of family shifts and changes I was little equipped at such a young age to deal with. I was practically friendless, lost, and abused by circumstances beyond my control. No longer certain of who I was, I felt comforted when I read Plath’s musings, “I know pretty much what I like and dislike; but please don’t ask me who I am.” Like her protagonist Esther Greenwood, I possessed no idea of who I was beyond the fledgling notion that I could be a writer. And even that idea at the time seemed uncertain. But I found in Plath’s work her doubt about her art, her ability to express in fullness all that festered inside her head, and I craved more understanding.

plath2Before long, like all long-time Plath fans come to find, I discovered I could have more of Plath. Not just her fiction or poetry, but I could get inside the head that seemed to have gotten inside of mine. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath gave me far more than I’d bargained for. Here Sylvia was, for all to see plainly and intimately. It seemed in every entry I found something of myself, something of Plath, and I clung to the book when I read, “I am gone quite mad with the knowledge of accepting the overwhelming number of things I can never know, places I can never go, and people I can never be.” Even now, those words feel like my own. But they came from Plath, and I wanted to write her back, scribble down in a fury that all that I wanted, but couldn’t have yet also overwhelmed me. Plath worried that she wouldn’t come together as an artist and a woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it. Plath and I craved absolute certainty where there was none. Neither of us seemed to be aware that there is no time limit on piecing what we are together, but in that unified struggle Plath became timeless to me.

So I lived comfortable in my perception of Plath as a gifted, tragic writer who lost herself the way I felt, as a new artist, I was losing mine. I read Ariel: The Restored Edition just before I took my first poetry workshop at University, which I feared more than any fiction workshop I’d ever been in. Plath’s work had taught me that poetry was something I had to strip myself down for. I had to expose everything the way she does in her work, and so Plath became my muse in my early poetry. But I found that not everyone saw Plath as I did. The Professor of the workshop demanded we all write our information on notecards the first day. When we turned them in, he laughed. “You all wrote on the same side,” he said. We were followers, he said, we were sheep.

But he’d also asked us to write down the last book of poetry we read. I wrote down Ariel, glad that I’d read something recently so he wouldn’t think I was kidding myself by being there. He read all of our cards out loud, and when he got to mine, he raised his eyebrows. “You read Sylvia Plath?” he asked. He spat her name out like she was a wad of fat stuck to the roof of his mouth. “She almost killed her downstairs neighbor, you know, when she killed herself by sticking her head in the oven. Carbon monoxide sinks.” And then he made a sinking motion with his hand, staring at me like I was meant to apologize for Plath. Many people, I would discover, find Plath to be selfish, dramatic, and cheaply shocking. I’d never thought to question Plath because I trusted her. Her struggles were no secret. Until I was in an environment where I could write papers on Plath, dissect her and her work, did I find she was timeless to some not for her work, but rather timeless only by reputation.

sylvia-plath-en-yorkshireAs it turned out, it was something of a trope for young, anxious, and sad college age girls to be in love with Plath. I wasn’t unlike hoards of other girls who’d read Plath and found an inkling of their depression written down for them. I had to admit, as I read more of her poetry and did an entire senior research paper on The Bell Jar as a piece of Gothic fiction, that I understood how that could be. Plath’s strengths became her weakness. She’d pegged her experience down so acutely that it resonated almost too far and wide. But I also came to understand that Plath’s writing, working as a mirror to my inner workings, was as underrated as it was rated. I too was guilty of appreciating her simply for the comfort I found in the likeness of our suffering, and not for the skill in which she executed that suffering with. But there is nothing to apologize for. I feel entitled to my love of Plath because there are so few works I’ve read where such a dark, banal truth about what it is to be beneath the bell jar as an artist, a woman, is depicted and no one can undermine the comfort that brings. I return time and time again to Plath’s work now more so for my admiration of her style and frankness than anything. My writing benefited from Plath’s honesty. It gave me the courage to dig deeper in my work, peel back my skin and show the world what runs in my veins. Plath’s work made me brave, and the more I learned on my own as a writer, the more I found to learn from Plath.

In the poem “Lady Lazarus” Sylvia ends the poem with the lines, “Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air.” My eyes flutter over those lines even now when I read her poetry. Eyes that see more than they once did, like the careful consideration she put into each word, each phrase. I’ve spent years pouring over Plath’s poetry, journals, letters, short stories, and novel. And in each article about her life I’ve read I’ve seen how often the importance of her death is prioritized over the importance of her life. When Plath died, her legacy became her suicide, and she became an icon not for what she is worth as an artist, but for what she’d chosen to do on a bitterly cold morning on February 11th, 1963. But the real legacy I’ve found is that Plath managed, in her skill and talent, to create work that translated her body and soul onto paper in a way where she remained purely whole, but thousands could find their likeness in. Trapped inside her own mind, Plath opens the minds of those that are willing to be opened. And her memory lingers like a flame, not an ember or a pile of ash, but a full-blown fire like a real life Lady Lazarus.

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