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Haunted Sylvia Plath

The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, by Jacqueline Rose (Virago Press)

by Joyce Carol Oates

Originally published under the title "Behind the Icon" in TLS, the Times Literary Supplement, June 21, 1991. Reprinted in Where I've Been, And Where I'm Going.

What a compelling argument against suicide, the melancholy example of Sylvia Plath! This immensely gifted and ambitious poet, thirty years old, in a paroxysm of domestic unhappiness, emotional crisis, and physical breakdown, gassed herself in the depths of a bitter winter in London 1963, shortly after having written a number of extraordinarily powerful poems—the very poems, white-hot, venomous, self-lacerating, that would make her posthumous fame. (These were gathered into Plath's second book, Ariel, 1965, in an arrangement by Plath's literary executor and husband, Ted Hughes, that has been faulted by critics for violating the poet's own intention: Hughes, from whom Plath was separated at the time of her death, admitted that he had left out some of "the more personally aggressive poems ... and might have omitted one or two more had [Plath] not already published them herself in magazines—so that by 1965 they were widely known.")

Plath's suicide may have been, as some have theorized, rather more a gesture toward suicide than an act of absolute self-annihilation, a desperate wish that, by cruelly punishing herself, she might punish others, particularly her estranged husband, Hughes. It is impossible—indeed, unseemly—to speculate about such a matter, but Plath had in fact attempted suicide some time before, in adolescence, and had been saved; this resuscitation would have felt to her like a resurrection, confirming her (our?) unconscious conviction of immortality. Plath's most characteristic poetry celebrates an intensely romantic view of death (as in "Edge": "The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of an accomplishment .... ") that evokes it as a magic principle of purification and abstraction, and, no doubt, revenge upon one's enemies, not as a principle of decay or mere physical deadness. Its romance too is with the defiant uttering of those things that should not be uttered, nor even thought; if Plath has become an icon of sorts for some—in Jacqueline Rose's words, a "shadowy figure whose presence draws on and compels" it is not likely to be because of the high quality of her poetry, but because of the taboos she is perceived as having broken, and the sensationalism of her death, the bitterness of the feud with Hughes, the posthumous and sordid controversy.

What irony, as savage as any evoked in Plath's most mordant poetry!—not only did her act of suicide destroy a remarkable talent, but, since Plath had not yet signed divorce papers, it legally delivered over her work, so precious to her—a considerable body of poems, stories, journals yet unpublished—to the very people Plath had surely wished to punish, Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, whom Hughes named literary executor of Plath's estate in his place. Given this legal imprimatur, Hughes has been within his rights in destroying the final volume of Plath's journals and in freely censoring other work to remove the "intimacies" and "nasty bits" he finds offensive; since permission to quote from copyrighted material must be obtained from the Plath estate, critics and biographers must conform, or give some initial promise of conforming, to the estate's strictures. Just as we prize our own privacy—which is to say, our control of others' images of us—conversely, we are frustrated and alarmed by others' attempts to control their privacy, particularly when these attempts are successful. Jacqueline Rose is not the first commentator on Sylvia Plath to have entered into conflict with Ted and Olwyn Hughes, but she may well be the first to have detailed the experience in print, in this book's most passionately argued chapter ("The Archive"), and to relate the Plath controversy to theoretical issues of who "owns" another's work; who controls "facts"; is there a "singular truth" of a historical narure to which all other speculation must conform; who defines another's "real self," which in Rose's words, "can surely have meaning only as self-definition, as a self-defining of self"? (This, in response to Hughes's imperial statement that only the poems he has so judged are the work of Plath's "real self"—her other writings are "waste products.") Rose notes wryly that, at one point, not only do the Hugheses censor Plath and what they can of commentary on Plath directly, but Plath's mother, Aurelia, in assembling her determinedly upbeat collection of letters from Sylvia, Letters Home (1975), which omits letters and passages that might reflect poorly upon the mother-daughter relationship, in an effort to correct "cruel and false caricatures" promulgated by Sylvia Plath in her work, is forced, in turn, to conform to further cuts in these letters demanded by Ted and Olwyn Hughes. On all sides people claiming to know Sylvia Plath's "real self" and what "really happened" feel obliged to correct "false" texts—the locus of falsity being, of course, Plath, and not her censors.

In Rose's words,

The problem is then compounded by the way the process of editing, specifically in relation to the Journals, strikes at the corpus of the writing in the most vulgar, physical sense: ... Scholars who go to Smith College [where the Plath archive is located] ... are presented with a text part original, part publisher's typescript ... with the latter at various points literally cut to pieces—pages with sections cut out in the middle, other lines made illegible by heavy black ink, sections ringed in red and marked "cut." Faced with this, it is not difficult to see how this editing could be regarded as violation—"corps morcelé"—body in bits and pieces.

The Plath estate denounced The Haunting of Sylvia Plath as "evil" and threatened legal action; Rose's interpretation of a poem of Plath's, "The Rabbit Catcher," was said by Ted Hughes to be, "in some countries, 'grounds for homicide.'" Of Linda Wagner-Martin, author of Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1988), Hughes fulminated, "She's so insensitive that she's evidently escaped the usual effects of undertaking this particular job—i.e., mental breakdown, neurotic collapse, domestic catastrophe—which in the past has saved us from several travesties of this kind being completed."

For the record, Jacqueline Rose's analysis of "The Rabbit Catcher," like most of the literary analysis in this book, is both temperate and convincing; Wagner-Martin's biography is a model of sensitivity and tact.

The Haunting of Sylvia Plath is less a unified work than a compendium of engagingly written articles, part literary politics, part theoretical, somewhat doggedly psychoanalytical, speculation. The critic sets as her task the hope to "find a way of looking at the most unsettling and irreducible dimensions of psychic processes which [Plath] figures in her writing without turning them against her—without, therefore, turning her into a case." The tendency for commentators on Plath has been to split into two groups—those who would pathologize the poet, reducing her art to symptoms; and those who would stress the representative nature of her work, particularly in terms of a repressive patriarchal society. Rose focuses upon the primary processes of Plath's imagination, with some emphasis upon Plath's contextual position—as a poet with a keen sense of her craft, and an agenda for professional success. In this she succeeds admirably, though there is a sense throughout the book, in even those chapters devoted to a purely literary-psychoanalytic approach, of a stormy adversarial atmosphere; a need to protect, defend, explain, redeem the poet against a field of detractors. So much negative, carping, small-minded criticism, duly recorded, and taken so seriously!—it is as if Jacqueline Rose is unaware of the fact that all writers of originality and significance arouse hostile attention—this, in fact, is a warning signal that they are original and significant.

Indeed, the space given to a somber recounting of "negative" criticism has the inadvertent effect (inadvertent because Rose is hardly antagonistic to her subject) of obscuring the fact that, from the first, Plath received highly respectful criticism from first-rate commentators; an early volume, The Art of Sylvia Plath, 1970, contains contributions by Charles Newman, Richard Howard, Mary Ellmann, John Frederick Nims, M. 1. Rosenthal, and set a tone of quality for subsequent work. To focus upon the poet's angry detractors, even to expose the anti-feminist or anti-female bias of their remarks, is to suggest that these critics are somehow more important than the others. (Or, at least, more exciting: "Would it be going too far," Rose inquires, "to suggest that Plath has generated a form of 'psychotic' criticism?")

The very title, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, and the book's opening gambit ("Sylvia Plath haunts our culture") strike the ear as excessive. If by "culture" one means "London literary culture" racially and economically delimited, this might be so; otherwise, it is too capacious a notion. Even among practitioners of poetry in, for instance, the United States, where the number of poets is almost exactly equivalent to the number of readers of poetry, though it is probably a bit higher, Sylvia Plath is often conflated with Anne Sexton and other women poets; the work of women writers is cheerfully muddled in the popular imagination, like their names and "tragic" histories. Plath's accomplishment as a literary artist transcends the parochial, just as the passion that underlies her art is refined by painstaking craftsmanship. Plath is most helpfully linked not to the demeaning disputes of her milieu but to such powerful predecessors as Theodore Roethke, T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, above all Emily Dickinson.

Ambition, like talent, is a gift. In some, it is a prodigious gift. Without it, talent itself may quickly wither, or content itself with easy and repeated successes. One of the most significant facts about Sylvia Plath, which Jacqueline Rose rightly emphasizes, is that, far from being at the mercy of a wayward, demonic psyche, Plath was, from earliest adolescence, determined to be a writer—a writer of consequence. She was willing to work tirelessly learning the forms of poetry, the strategies of prose fiction. She set out to dismantle the stories of Frank O'Connor—"I will imitate until I can feel I'm using what he can teach." (Quoted in Ted Hughes, introduction to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, by Sylvia Plath, 1979.) She learned from Wallace Stevens and James Thurber; from Seventeen, The New Yorker, and The Ladies' Home Journal. Her journal is rife with self-admonitions, pep talks, plots. This voice may not be the "real" Sylvia Plath, but it is a wonderfully appealing, forthright voice:

First, pick your market: Ladies' Home Journal or Discovery? Seventeen or Mlle? Then pick a topic. Then think.

Sent it off to The Sat Eve Post: start at the top. Try McCall's, Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping ... before getting blue.

I want to hit The New Yorker in poetry and the Ladies' Home Journal in stories, so I must study the magazines the way I did Seventeen.

I will slave and slave until I break into those slicks.

If the "blood-jet" of poetry, as Plath would later call it, came with tremendous, unbidden power, whatever mysterious force it was that generated the voices of prose had to be coaxed, flogged. In the journal, Plath notes, with typical ingenuousness,

I need a master, several masters. Lawrence, except in Women in Love, is too bare ... in his style. Henry James, too elaborate, too calm and well-mannered. Joyce Cary I like .... Or J. D. Salinger. But that needs an "I" speaker, which is so limiting.

Where another critic might have quickly glossed over such remarks, as demeaning to the high seriousness of her subject, Jacqueline Rose argues that this too is a legitimate voice of Plath's. Writing in journals, letters, a novel (The Bell Jar, to be published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, in 1963), short stories, poems, Plath created a diversity of voices that "enter into an only ever partial dialogue with each other which it is impossible to bring to a close. To which of these voices are we going to assign an absolute authority?" It is futile, Rose says, to seek a "singular, monologic reading" of Plath.

One of the attractive qualities of The Haunting of Sylvia Plath is the author's thoroughness in researching the women's magazines of Plath's era to which she had pinned such naively high hopes. The Ladies' Home Journal—alternately an object of "desire, critique, and identification"—is discovered to be, like other publications of its genre, not so predictable as one might think: Much of the material dealt with marital unhappiness and female problems of one klnd or another, though the core of women's existence, marriage and motherhood, was never questioned. Rose includes too some chilling excerpts from Philip Wylie's now-forgotten best-seller Generation of Vipers (1942), a pathological diatribe of misogyny that helped to shape the consciousness of the era in which Plath came of age; Rose quotes some equally misogynous, if more pretentious, pseudomythology from Robert Graves's The White Goddess, which Plath, under Ted Hughes's tutelage, was reading in the mid-1950s: "'The White Goddess is anti-domestic; she is the perpetual "other woman," and her part is difficult indeed for a woman of sensibility to play for more than a few years, because the temptation to commit suicide in simple domesticity lurks in every maenad and muse's heart'"; and, "'Woman is not a poet: she is either a Muse or she is nothing.'" The ironic, combative tone of Plath's most celebrated poetry is surely, in part, the result of her need to define herself as both poet and woman in the face of such stultifying sexist clichés.

Admirable in passion and integrity as The Haunting of Sylvia Plath is, the book is nonetheless an uneven affair; rather more, as I've suggested, a compendium of articles, with fluctuations of tone, purpose, density, and pacing, than a single coherent work, as if it were written over a period of time and subsequently spliced together. This is not a criticism in itself, for there is no special virtue in consistency, but the book's chapters do not seem to follow from one another; the strengths of one are abandoned as another theme emerges, and the narrative thread that connects them is not always evident. A culminating chapter is badly needed, for the book breaks off abruptly with an odd quotation from Marguerite Duras's La Douleur, to the effect that a writer identifies with all her characters, good and evil, and a very old journal entry of Plath's. The reader feels the book gain strength and momentum as it proceeds, but its effect is seriously dissipated in the final, overlong chapter, which examines Plath's famous (notorious?) poem "Daddy" as if it were not a poem so powerful and direct as to be, in essence, immediately comprehensible to any reader of moderate intelligence but a strand of DNA in need of meticulous decoding for an audience of unenlightened laymen. More than thirty pages of background and exegesis to "explain" Plath's poem, by a circuitous route that involves the usual chorus of "outraged" critics, papers presented at the 1985 Hamburg Congress of the International Association of Psychoanalysts, Holocaust commentary, Nazism, William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, and much more—to provide us with innocuous or even doubtful conclusions: "I read 'Daddy' as a poem about its own conditions of linguistic and phantasmic production." And, wonderfully "lit.-crit." in its breathless revelation, of a kind to stun fellow theorists:

This is the father as godhead, as origin of the nation and the word—graphically figured in the image of the paternal body in bits and pieces spreading across the American nation state: bag full of God, head in the Atlantic, big as a Frisco seal. Julia Kristeva terms this father "Père imaginaire," which she then abbreviates "PI." Say those initials out loud in French and what you get is "pays" (country or nation)—the concept of the exile. Much has been made of Plath as an exile, she goes back and forth between England and the United States ....

Elsewhere in the book, particularly in an analysis of Plath's "Poem for a Birthday," the author takes us through punctilious classroom exercises in literary exegesis, which, though well-intentioned, and informed by an overall intelligence and generosity of spirit, have a numbing effect—like making one's way, with mincing steps, through a tide of glue, so that, by the time one gets to where one is going, not only has one forgotten where one began, but when, and why.

Such devout attention to her every word would surely have pleased Sylvia Plath, however displeased she would be regarding the current state of the Plath "archive." For this was the brilliant, gifted, impatient, forever scheming young woman who complained in her journal, "It is sad only to be able to mouth other poets; I want someone to mouth me."