Today I picked up Anais Nin's Cities of the interior, alongside Volume 1 of her published diaries and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. The pair go hand in hand as Anais Nin and Henry Miller were longtime literary friends turned lovers. Anais Nin actually helped edit Miller's Tropic of Cancer and wrote a wonderful preface. I've read excerpts of her diaries but I look forward to reading volume one in its entirety. As for Cities of the Interior, it's actually a sequence of 5 separate short novels, and I started on that one first. Stay tuned.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes met at a party in Cambridge, fell in love and married just months later. Both poets, Sylvia once said of their courtship;"We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on". But it was Ted that was receiving most of the literary recognition. While Sylvia had several published poems and scholarships, Ted's collection Hawk in the Rain (the manuscript typed up by Sylvia Plath) acquired widespread critical acclaim, while Sylvia received numerous rejection letters. Still, Plath was happy to stand behind her husband, pushing him and inspiring him, fulfilling her role as a wife and shortly after, mother.
Of course, we know that Sylvia Plath not only had a history of mental illness but a deep-seated ambivalence. She writes (in The Bell Jar):
"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. On one fig was a husband and a happy home with children, and another fig was a famous poet, and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.
I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of the, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."
She also once wrote her mother:
"I could never be a complete scholar or a complete housewife or a complete writer, I must combine a little of all, and thereby be imperfect in all."
One can only speculate that these feelings manifested themselves in their relationship. Time and time again, Plath struggled to find compromise and balance between her role as a wife, mother, individual and writer. It's safe to assume that any betrayal or neglect from Hughes would send her over the edge - and it did.
The volatile pair separated when Hughes left Plath for Assia Wevill - a refugee from Nazi-Germany. He left both her and their 2 young children (4 year old Frieda, 1 year old Nicholas) to fend for themselves. Soon after their split, and after writing what would become her most famous book of poems, Ariel, Plath had sealed the doors to her children's bedroom and then stuck her head deep inside of an oven with the gas on. She was found dead on February 11, 1963 - just 2 weeks after The Bell Jar was published in the UK.
Ted Hughes received considerable backlash from Feminists, especially after his mistress killed herself and their daughter in a similar fashion. He was painted as an abusive man, and Sylvia Plath became some sort of Feminist martyr, completely encompassing the strife of a woman struggling to become more than a mere wife and mother under her husbands foot. Some say that Hughes himself was also mentally unstable, speculating that he suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. If that were the case, his union with Plath was a disaster in the making from the beginning, considering her history with depression and suicide attempts, and how the two would play off of one another.
For years Hughes did not blatantly publish anything about Sylvia Plath. Not until 1998, the year he succumbed to death by cancer. In his collection of poems Birthday Letters, he speaks quite candidly of his relationship with Plath, painting a picture of their explosive relationship and his strife in dealing with her, and subsequent death. Reading Plath's Ariel and Birthday Letters by Hughes side by side, you almost get the sense that the two are conversing with one another, giving readers an inside look at the dynamics of this iconic and tragic relationship.
Hughes did receive negative reviews for Birthday Letters. Critics viewed the publication of this intimate collection as a ploy to paint himself as the victim of Sylvia's mental illness, and many found it curious as to why he had waited so long to publicly address the controversy of their relationship and become an active part of the public conversation. Why, after all these years and in failing health, did he open the door to even more speculation? Was it, in his mind, his last chance to "set the record straight" and gain public forgiveness?
Whatever it was, we can't conclusively establish. We will never know if Plath made this grand artistic gesture by surrendering to her mental illness in the wake of Hughes' abandonment, or if Hughes did indeed abuse her and drive her to suicide. The truth is far too personal for us, the audience, to ever know. But perhaps their tragedy is the very spotlight on their undeniable literary talent. Perhaps the guesswork is what keeps us interested.
Would Sylvia Plath be as famous as she is today, had she simply lived into old age and her marriage to Hughes remained out of public interest? Would her haunting poetry still be as haunting? Would it have even been published and vastly recognized as it is today? It's difficult to say. What we can say is that her suicide not only branded herself onto Hughes, deeming him to forever be known as "Sylvia Plath's husband", but she ultimately eclipsed him in the literary world.
Last night, on a whim, I picked up The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath for the second time. It took me about 4 hours to read it in one sitting. I had read it once before, a time in my life where I felt that I too would stick my head in an oven.
OK, not really but I would be lying if I said I wasn't going through a bout of "suicidal ideation" (without intent of course). The fact that Plath had succumbed to such desires fascinated me. I was wildly curious about this woman and her life. And as I had already read her beautifully written journals and was just discovering her poetry, I bought The Bell Jar to get a feel for what this woman was like as a novelist.
The Bell Jar was initially published in London in January 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, just 2 weeks before her death. It didn't reach the US until years later, but has since become a sort of female rite-of-passage novel. It is said that the novel is semi-autobiographical, though through my own research it seems entirely accurate with Sylvia having only changed names. In fact, in an interview, one woman that worked with Sylvia during an internship at Mademoiselle magazine says that so many details were released about the students that "they could never look at each other again".
The Bell Jar is about Esther Greenwood and her downward spiral into depression, despair, and suicide attempts. Esther is a poor girl from the suburbs that has won an internship writing for a notable fashion magazine in New York city. While the other 11 girls chosen alongside her idolize and emulate the glamorous lifestyle the job offers them, Esther can't rid herself of the emptiness she feels from within. Though realizing how lucky she is and that she should be thrilled, the fact that she still feels bored and empty disturbs her. She says the wealthy girls at her hotel should epitomize glamor, freedom, and happiness, but they seem spoiled and “bored as hell.” Additionally, Esther's encounters with New York men prove to be disappointing and sometimes brutal. First, she is first stuck with a short an ugly man on a double date with her friend Doreen and famous disc jockey, Lenny. The man leaves, leaving Esther as the third wheel on Doreen's date. She then meets a man for a date and decides that she will sleep with him. The two fall asleep in bed as he is not sexually interested in her. She leaves feeling rejected and unattractive. Later, she is set up again with a woman-hating man named Marco whom believes all women are sluts. He pushes Esther into the mud after tearing her clothes off and attacking her.
Throughout the novel Esther reminisces of her hometown boyfriend Buddy Willard, a medical student that Esther quickly begins to reject. She had always admired Buddy from afar but upon getting to know him, she sees his flaws and labels him a hypocrite. Buddy is handsome, athletic, and on his way to becoming a doctor, but he often makes unthoughtful remarks about her writing stating that "poems are dust" and that her aspirations will quickly fade when she becomes a wife and mother. What really turns Esther off is finding out that Buddy was not a virgin like she was and he had slept with a waitress numerous times. Esther begins to question why she was even saving her purity when men are as sexually promiscuous as they please. She subsequently lets go of the notion of "saving herself" and henceforth shows no attachment to her virginity and sets on losing it more as a rebellious act than anything else.
After her month spent in New York, Esther returns home to find out that the writing program she was set on attending had rejected her. This event is what seemingly sends her into a tailspin and exasperates the looming mental illness within her. She is devastated by the rejection and all the questions it brings up about her life, writing, and future. She can no longer sleep, eat, or read. She begins to see a psychiatrist that performs painful electric shock treatments. At this point Esther becomes reckless and suicidal. She is often thinking of ways to go about it and gives a few half-hearted attempts before finally deciding on taking 50 sleeping pills and crawling in a space under her house.
Her mother hears moaning from the basement and Esther awakens in a hospital. She is then admitted to a mental institution where she refuses to open up to her therapist and simply keeps to herself. Later she is transferred to another more expensive institution payed for by Philomena Guinea - a famous novelist who once gave Esther a scholarship to attend college. At that institution she receives better treatment from Dr. Nolan, a female doctor that performs electric shock treatments in a gentler, painless manner. After 6 months of treatment, Esther feels the bell jar lift from above her, letting air circulate for the first time in months. However, it still hovers above her, waiting to drop at any moment.
(Bear in mind that my summary does the novel no justice).
I found this book completely captivating the first time I read it just because I found it so relatable to my situation. Plath's portrait of Esther's debilitating indecision resonated with me personally, to such an extent that I couldn't see the technicalities of the actual novel that I saw this time around.
Plath is an excellent writer with a style that just sucks you in and takes you for a ride. The imagery is on point, the tone is so eloquently expressed, you don't even notice how engrossed you become, more so by her writing than the actual story. Sylvia's skills as a writer and a poet remain unquestioned.
However, reading the book objectively, I wouldn't give it 5 stars. This book does not stand on it's on merit. It is simply a piece of the beautiful picture that is Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar is not a captivating story as much as it is the sliver of the mind of a captivating woman. She opens up to the public about her life under the guise of fiction, and I feel like that is where the notoriety comes from.
So, do I recommend this book?
Well, it depends. If you're a depressed writer, this book will make you want to kill yourself. Especially if you know that it is based on a riveting and talented woman that did actually end her own life just 2 weeks after this book was published. It's dangerous in that sense, because when you let this demon into your mind, it's hard to ignore. Sylvia Plath was brilliant. She was an excellent writer with the intellect to back it up. She will have you thinking that there was some reason to her actions. It's a slippery slope.
If you want a good read with a good story, and don't know much about Plath, there are definitely better novels out there. The Bell Jar is, to be frank, kind of a bummer. It may even be viewed by many as whiny, depressive, pretentious bullshit. But if you want to take a slow somber ride with rich, decadent writing, and can appreciate The Bell Jar for just that, I don't think you will be let down.