Sylvia Plath: The Muse of Teen Angst

Sylvia Plath may have Hollywood staying power, but her influence on young women often fades as they age. Here, Janet Rafferty and her daughter Mary consider how adulthood altered their perceptions of the poet.

Mary Rafferty Haroun, 35

I pulled The Bell Jar from my mom’s bookshelf when I was 9. I thought it was really morbid and sad but grew to appreciate it. Teenagers glorify anything that is dark and anyone who commits suicide. I went to Catholic school, so suicide was evil. As a teen, I had this overwhelming feeling of hatred and anger for my father, and Plath verbalized it [in poems such as “Daddy”].

But poetry means different things at different points in your life. I cannot relate to it at all now. When I reread her poems now, I think about bipolar disorder and wonder, “Did she just need to be on medication, or would the meds have quashed her creativity?” As an adult, you just think, “What’s wrong with her?” If “your dying is an art,” [as Plath famously states in the poem “Lady Lazarus”] then maybe you need to see a therapist.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

Janet Wagner Rafferty, 72

Rafferty and Plath were Mademoiselle interns in 1953. The Bell Jar is a roman à clef based on that summer, and Janet served as prototype for the unsophisticated character, Betsy.

I really did love Sylvia. We were drawn to each other and very close during the month we spent together in New York. Sylvia was a bit of a snob; she was mortified that I had repeated the third grade. She didn’t think anyone should repeat the third grade and be successful.

When The Bell Jar was published in the U.S. [in 1971], I asked for it as a birthday present. The bookseller tried to talk my daughter out of buying it because it was a “downer.”

I suppose Sylvia is still so famous because she struck out and regardless of all odds she wrote poetry—which is what she wanted to do. She saw the pain in childbirth and the agony and hurt that women feel trying to juggle home life and a career. The women’s movement was going on while she was alive, but she had no interest in it. She was very focused on herself. I know now that mentally ill people are that way. I didn’t know it then.

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?