By Alissa Quart, published on November 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 8, 2012
Sylvia Plath is American poetry's lone 20th-century celebrity. We have largely forgotten the lives of once famed public poets such as Marianne Moore and Robert Lowell. But many years after her death, we are still enthralled with the 1950s sweater girl who transformed herself into the poetic persona of Lady Lazarus.
Plath's continued popularity can be chalked up to both the emotional immediacy of her confessional poems, and a biography that careens from apple-cheeked sorority sister to suicide at age 30. The combination continues to intoxicate three groups in particular: script writers, biographers and angst-ridden teens.
No surprise, then, that this is once again the season of Sylvia Plath. Gwyneth Paltrow starred as the poet in the film Sylvia. Off-Broadway offered a less pretty version of Plath's life, with the one-woman show Edge. The teeming canon of Plath biographies expanded with Diane Middlebrook's Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of A Marriage. Plath is even name-checked on television and in a song by rocker Ryan Adams. On an episode of the television show Gilmore Girls, the show's clean teen heroine Rory reads Plath's diaries.
And real teens continue to love Plath. Jesse Cordes Selbin, a 16-year-old in Georgetown, Texas, first read Plath's novel The Bell Jar when she was 14. The roman à clef was a gift from Selbin's mom, herself a former die-hard Plath fan. "Plath is so good at gory, descriptively gross things," says the teen. For her, The Bell Jar is not just a novel about teenage crack-ups. It's a novel, in a sense, about Selbin herself.
The Bell Jar tracks high-achieving Plath stand-in Esther Greenwood, who despite her conventional achievements—high marks at an elite college, an internship at Mademoiselle magazine, a number of suitors—is alternately despairing and independent-minded. Esther is also fueled by contempt for other girls, those who merely dream of being hat makers or paramours, while she aspires to be a poet.
The Bell Jar captures the minute details of middle-class teendom: the struggle to excel at a summer internship, the feeling of being a social outcast, the awkwardness of not knowing how to act at restaurants and bars and, inevitably, sexual anxiety.
"Esther is an outcast," says Selbin. "If you are an outcast teenager, you want to identify with someone who feels the same way—that's not Miss Popularity and her crowd."
Twenty-first-century teens' belief that they've found a kindred outsider in Plath is evident in the thousands of Internet sites and Web logs that now celebrate the poet. Some girls dub their journals "bell jar" or "ladylazarus." On plathonline.com, girls with e-mail addresses like sylviaaplath, plath2002 and LuvlySylviaPlath feel that the poet speaks the truth and speaks it only to them.
They write of how they are the only students in their English classes who really understand and appreciate Plath. They write of their aspiration to be like her. One notes, "I love Sylvia... she's my favorite... ever since 7th grade... me and Sylvia all the way." Terry Zlabinger, a longtime English teacher at the American International School in Vienna, Austria, finds that "there are always females who feel they 'own' the emotions Plath describes and so respond very personally to the poems. Then they discover The Bell Jar and dive into that. They love her tragic story."
Some girls were disgusted that Paltrow portrayed their idol. "I think this movie is the wrong kind of recognition... Gwyneth Paltrow. Eww," one girl writes, perhaps thinking the flaxen-haired Paltrow too much of a Hollywood darling to do a plausible rendition of the poet. "If I was dead and she was playing me in a movie, I'd roll over in my grave." Indeed, in Sylvia, Paltrow's open smile and sad-but-pretty poses evince little of the dark, venomous intelligence for which Plath is famous.
Plath's writing experiments with identity and the search for an authentic voice. And it's the poet's skill at conveying this search—a quest that is conducted through thinking about living as well as thinking about dying—that continues to draw teenagers to the cult of Plath. In the poem "Daddy," she plies a favorite theme: trying to find herself in the murk of her Oedipal drama: "I was ten when they buried you/At twenty, I tried to die/And get back, back, back to you/I thought even the bones would do."
Todd Schultz, a professor of psychology at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon, who has written extensively on Sylvia Plath, believes that "supersensitive" young women may find Plath liberating because she attempts to resist traditional female roles, all the while struggling against her ingrained perfectionism. After The Bell Jar's heroine has a nervous breakdown, she sheds her identity as an emotionally repressed overachiever and starts telling the truth to wrong-headed authority figures and hypocritical peers. It is in part this acerbic "truth-telling" that attracts teenagers. Angelica Torn, the star of the Plath biographical one-act play Edge, recalls being drawn into the Plath fold at age 14 by The Bell Jar's "brutal reality."
"I was having problems with cliques," Torn remembers. "Then I found The Bell Jar and read it five times." Before she read Plath in the late 1970s, Torn says she was a "wild child" sneaking out of her family's home at night to frequent clubs. "The Bell Jar gave me faith in sticking to my individuality—with its scars and bruises. Plath helped me have faith in what's really there."
But Plath's search for identity in life always morphs into an exploration of identity through suicide or death. She is not just a literary icon because of her rich, strange metaphors, or the emotional honesty of her work. "Unfortunately, Plath's appeal is because she killed herself, which is not a great legacy," says Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Plath, like many people with dramatic lives, suffered from severe depression. Teenagers may appreciate Plath because they are experiencing intense moods and emotions for the first time. They are also at the average age for the onset of depression. People keep writing books about Plath's long-suffering marriage, demonizing Ted Hughes. How many people actually read her poetry rather than read about her life?" Indeed, Zlabinger discourages zealous students of Plath from writing extended essays about the poet because "adolescent girls—boys are never drawn to her voluntarily—have trouble getting beyond the biographical elements and reading the poetry as art."
Plath's short life had the mark of melodrama. Her stormy marriage to the poet Ted Hughes was troubled by his emotional domination of her, and their bitter separation. Plath's suicide in February 1963, at age 30, occurred at the peak of her creativity, just after she'd completed the poems published posthumously as Ariel. Sixteen-year-old Plath fan Selbin understands the intrigue of such an exit. "If you die right after you do your great work, then you get to be even more idolized, like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe. I try not to buy into that."
As the writer Janet Malcolm noted in her meta-biography of Plath, The Silent Woman, "She will never reach the age when the tumults of young adulthood can be looked back upon with rueful sympathy and without anger and vengefulness." And in a sense Plath appeals to teenagers because she is forever young: trapped in the heady, furious emotions of the quasi-adult. Teens have a tendency to idealize states of being. They do so because they have not yet developed that mature, plodding faith that their momentary feelings of love or desire for self-annihilation will soon stabilize into feelings that are both cheerier and more mundane.
In fact, Plath's paradoxical knack for setting her morbid preoccupations into stanzas that burst with life may be what makes her so appealing to a certain stripe of teenager. A new theory of youth suicide claims that the desire to kill oneself and the desire to live more intensely can be one and the same. Researchers at the University of Illinois argue that suicidal impulses may be motivated by a young person's desire for power—for control over their own lives and over other people. According to this theory, youth suicide is not always a cry for help, though it is often portrayed as such.
Fantasies of suicide "can be quite addictive and can involve an idea of personal fierceness, like Plath's fierceness," says Paul Joffe, a clinical psychologist who chairs the University of Illinois Suicide Prevention Team. "Young people may see suicide as a path toward experimenting with identity and with experience. We found that many are reluctant to give [this impulse] up—they enjoy being suicidal. They have a desire to feel alive through feeling suicidal."
The poems collected in Ariel capture this paradox through vital portraits of a self in the throes of what Freud called the death drive. "There's a sense that in Ariel, Plath is finally speaking in her most authentic voice," says Schultz. Plath's words drip with violent, nearly melodramatic metaphors, as in the poem "Death & Co": "He tells me how sweet/The babies look in their hospital/Icebox, a simple/Frill at the neck/Then the flutings of their Ionian/Death-gowns."
Today's teens are drawn both to the passionate bleakness of poems such as "Death & Co," and to the amusingly acidic The Bell Jar; but it is Plath's soap operatic relationship with Hughes, as well as her suicide, that Hollywood producers have cottoned to. The movie Sylvia and Middleton's biography focus rather single-mindedly on Plath's danse macabre with Hughes; neither work seems to be capable of resisting the urge to idealize death. Psychologists such as Jamison have no time for films or books that transmit this message. "Suicide is thought to have a romantic quality," says Jamison, bitterly. "I've gone to too many funerals—there's nothing romantic about that."