In the 2003 film Sylvia, Gwyneth Paltrow plays the tragic heroine in a tale that has already become one of the most infamous literary lives in 20th century literature. Sylvia Plath was an all-American girl from a middle class family who received a fine education at Smith College in the United States and at Cambridge in England. She married the English poet Ted Hughes (who would go on to become the Poet Laureate) and became a mother to two children, as well as an esteemed poet, short story writer and novelist in her own right. Yet, what has come to define Sylvia Plath in the public imagination, what prompted the 2003 film and countless studies of her poetry and fiction, was her life long struggle with depression and eventual suicide in 1963.
Many readers come to Plath thinking of her apparent unhappiness, but to indulge this tendency is to miss out on the rewards of Plath’s literary work. Plath is both great and greatly misunderstood, and now there are attempts being made to salvage her poetry from her biography. Tracy Brain, a critic who published a book in 2001 entitled The Other Sylvia Plath, is one such critic. We don’t allow the lives of other great writers to cloud our judgement of their work, so why should it spoil Sylvia Plath, one of our great modern poets?
In her lifetime, Plath published one collection of poems entitled The Colossus (1960) and a novel The Bell Jar (1963). After her death, a further collection of poems was published, Ariel (1965), and it is on that collection that much of her reputation rests. The poems in Ariel are powerful, sometimes dark, and they use language in such a forceful way that they sometimes stick in your brain long after you read them. One example of this is ‘The Applicant’; you can listen to Plath read this poem, and study the text, at The Poetry Archive.
‘The Applicant’ compares the capitalist employment market with the pressures put on women in the 1960s to marry and not work. In some ways, this poem is darkly humorous; it uses the conventions of job interviews and exaggerates them. Plath repeats certain phrases several times to make them sound more maddening, most notably in the final line. This final line is also interesting because it uses the language of a question, but there is no question mark, which is unsettling and suggests some level of resignation. In some lines, too, the poet isn’t saying what she really means, for example in the final stanza when she claims there is nothing wrong with marriage. The overall tone suggests something quite different.
We can draw many interesting conclusions from even a very quick glance at one Plath poem. If you read more Plath yourself, and try not to let Gwyneth Paltrow ruin it for you, you may find many more reasons to consider Sylvia Plath great and inspiring.