Critical Essays What Went Wrong for Sylvia Plath?


This may be an impertinent question. There is the equally valid litany of "what went right?" because Plath left behind a collection of impressive poetry, a novel, a distinguished academic career, a marriage to an important British poet, and two children. She was not a stereotypically brilliant but eccentric loner. Yet the shortness of Plath's life, plus her suicide, leads most of us to wonder about her tragic death.

Perhaps Plath was one of the first of the post-World War II, post-1950s era women who lived lives of intensity, creativity, and success, and died early of some kind of self-abuse. Sensitive artists, frustrated by a world that they found cruel, demanding, seductive and bewildering — these poets, musicians, and artists of varying kinds took excesses of different kinds of drugs. We witnessed the drug-related deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the suicides of Marilyn Monroe and the poet John Berryman, and the alcoholism of many creative men and women.

We look to modern society for the sociological causes for these self-destructive phenomena, to the human mind for the psychological causes, and to the individual characters of the personalities involved for the specific reasons for the early loss of our creative spirits. In Sylvia Plath, all these causes can be duly noted. But still we wonder: why? Is it not possible to have more specific answers, more scientific approaches?

One of the latest approaches to mental illness is physiological. It is now believed by a growing segment of the medical profession that serious psychotic disturbances, whether chronic or periodic in their manifestations, are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain and/or neurological systems. These various syndromes may be genetically, or chromosomally, transmitted. Manic-depression and schizophrenia are now suspected to run in certain families and are being treated with chemicals such as lithium with some degree of success.

The idea that any mental disorder is physically inherited is disturbing and frightening to many Americans, especially since our country has emphasized the psychoanalytical approach to curing emotional problems. One remembers Ingmar Bergman's classic film Through a Glass Darkly; there, a young woman is going mad, again, and we learn that her mother died in an institution for the insane. Scandanavia has long realized and accepted the notion that perhaps madness can be inherited. America is only now considering the theory, guardedly.

In the controversy over cause, however, we should not lose sight of remedies that alleviate or help control the condition. It is clear that psychoanalysis and psychiatric therapy have helped many people. Others claim relief from drugs and even electro-shock therapy. Soon we may have tests, taken from body samples, that will pinpoint specific deficiencies in the body that, when corrected, will lead the patient to renewed mental vigor. Currently some doctors do hair analyses to see if certain nutrients are lacking in a person's body. This and other methods, especially those related to the health food movement, are frowned on by the traditional medical profession. Yet the need for extra vitamin C and its usefulness in preventing colds, or even cancer, is a controversy that continues. Obviously, more scientific data is needed. Until then, sensitive persons can look only to themselves and follow paths of moderation and try to keep their own bodies and minds in balance by whatever means seem appropriate and useful to them.

Then there is the last period of Plath's life — when she had been seriously ill with flu for some time, and she was using drugs to get herself up and down for work and sleep. Certainly her body was not in any balanced, healthy condition at the time of her death. Did she ever eat or exercise properly? We have no real evidence that she did.

One psychologist interested in whether Plath might be a manic-depressive, depressed at certain periods and manic in her creative periods, believe that the girl in The Bell Jar (and thus perhaps Plath herself) had endogenous depression, a condition thought to be congenital, or something one is born with. He points out that none of the events of Esther's life prior to the overdose of pills were traumatic enough to warrant her reactions and that the descriptions in the book outline a character who has been depressed for a very long time. Many readers of the book itself are struck by how depressing the story is. One student recently observed that not only is the girl in The Bell Jar depressed, but that the woman who wrote it was probably depressed.

An interesting aspect of Esther/Sylvia's mental problems as a young girl is that her behavior took the form of withdrawal and then depressive suicide. When one compares this to other examples of intelligent youths who are disturbed, one observes that often young males act out their problems aggressively in society, sometimes appearing criminally destructive, while Plath's female characters, Esther and Joan, hide in lonely self-destruction. A contrasting example is Alex, from a 1978 Norwegian film Says Who? In this protest film, written, directed by, and starring Petter Vennerød, the young poet is angry at society's injustices and his own inability to find a good place in the world. Like Esther, Alex is very bright and sensitive, but he starts fights and is dragged off to mental hospitals while Esther just locks herself in her bell jars.

On the other hand, a 1983 Swedish film, Mama: Our Life Is Now, by Suzanne Osten, uses the diary of Ms. Osten's mother, written from 1939-44, to give us a portrait of a young female film director. The artistic and egocentric Gerd, "Mama," wrote about a bell jar that she felt surrounded her. When Osten was asked about her mother's use of that image in an obscure diary that Plath could never have read, her response was, "This must be some common experience that women have." Whatever the causes of this bell jar depression and whether or not women experience it differently than men can, of course, never be determined absolutely, but certainly these two women have given us memorable accounts of what it feels like to be encased within a bell jar.

The difficulty of concluding what was wrong with Sylvia Plath resides, of course, in the complexity of Plath, as well as her situation, especially her situation as a woman, and the difficulty in any case of mental ill-health in determining the cause, much less the cure. Some day, there may be tests to determine chemical imbalances of the nervous system and specific remedies to right the body and mind. Until then, we must look at Plath's life as we would view any sad story and say that it was plagued by problems and some bad luck. For if she had had a different mother, or if her father had not died when she was young, if she had had more supportive female friends, if she had had different medical or psychiatric treatment, or different nutrition, would she be alive today? That is what tragedy is — the accumulation of many factors and causes which add up to a conclusion of futility. If we alter any one of them, the tragedy might not have occurred. The interesting question, then, is: if and when a cure has been found for various forms of depression, will that eliminate the tragedy of suicide? Probably not. But it might alter and prolong the emotional states and lives of certain sensitive people. For the present, unfortunately, we cannot discover what went wrong for Plath; we also cannot discover exactly what caused her creative output. We are left only with the portrait, the sometimes sketchy picture, of her life, with its early end. And, of course, we are left with its poetry, its art.