Friday, August 5, 2011

The Journals of Sylvia Plath

The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a must-read for anyone who is fond of Plath’s poetry and wants to better appreciate the vagaries of creative insecurity.  Of all the things that most stood out to me, were the parts that sounded so familiar both in my own struggles with my writing and in the struggles I’ve witnessed in other writers, their words as confessed in blogs or in their published journals.

Her depression is, of course, evident as it ebbs and flows.  She often has what seem to be manic episodes of happiness followed by “depths of despair,” as Anne Shirley would say.  I found myself noting the books she read, making a sort of Sylvia Plath Syllabus, noting whenever she did why she read one writer or another.  Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence seem to offer room for balance in her own writing. There are mentions of many poets she admires and deprecates, although she occasionally redresses her original opinion and suggests an appreciation for a poet she denigrated before.

I would have been content with some of the editorial comments removed.  A few, I concede, were necessary to allow some context but to have either her former husband or her mother explain what is happening is an insult to the reader.  Yes, tell me when there are geographical changes or that there is a break in journal entries because she was in a hospital but leave me the space to interpret the content for myself, allow me to define the meaning behind the words.

I avoided the reading for a long time because I was concerned it would make me feel sad and I confess that it did.  I think it’s naïve to blame Hughes for her suicide.  It’s all rather chicken/egg postulations.  She had tried to commit suicide before she ever met him and at their initial meeting she literally bit him until he bled.  On his cheek.  That this was not enough to scare him off suggestions that he had quite a few issues of his own.

Trust me, if a man were to bite me on my face the first time I met him, I wouldn’t want to see him again and if a man called me after I had done this to him, I wouldn’t answer.

It is also overly simplistic to suggest that society was a source of the problem.  Had she lived in another time, would she have been more content, more happy?  Perhaps if only because we have better drugs.  She obviously needed something to help her maintain some semblance of emotional balance.

All apologies aside, I think it was heinous for Hughes to destroy the journals she kept towards the end of her life. How dare he destroy anything that belonged to a woman he had abandoned?  She obviously had emotional problems long before her successful suicide and I can’t help wondering if she didn’t struggle with post-partum depression as well.  And where does one thing begin and the other end?  Who knows?  Again, we’re back to the whole egg/chicken issue.  This is a woman who was a genius but was broken before her brilliance ever found an audience and one can’t point a finger at any one element, like society or her father’s death or Ted Hughes or motherhood or her talent.  It is not that simple and to suggest otherwise is to deny the obvious complexity of being human and tragically flawed.

This is one of the Books I Should Have Read By Now choices I made as part of my Fifteen in 2011.


  1. I think I actually owned this book but gave it away without reading it. Wish I had now. I think I didn't read it for the same reasons you put it off. Great review.

  2. Thank you, Karen. I suspect someday I'll turn around and read the unedited journals. I'm passing this book on to my daughter because I know that she, as a visual artist, struggles with many of the self-doubts that Plath communicates so eloquently. In fact, a few of the quotes I collected I literally felt could have been said by my daughter.

  3. I'm contemplating whether or not I should read this or The Bell Jar first. I have only read some of her poetry, which absolutely floored me. Also, I have stumbled across a bunch of her quotes and they are mind-blowing.

  4. Jason, I'd say read The Bell Jar first as it is the usual entry point for most people. A whole generation of women grew up reading that book in high school before ever reading a line of her poetry. Also, it help to know a little about her life in general--her very early successes, etc. She mentions this often in her journals, beating herself up for not being as successful later. Unnecessarily beating herself up, obviously, because what came so easily in her early life was something at which she had to work later in life and she equated work with lack of talent.

    But as with reading anyone's journals, you have to be emotionally invested in reading about that person because you have to be willing to read through the less lovely sides of who they are because sometimes we can be so ugly with ourselves and others.

  5. I'll keep everything what you said here in mind, thanks. I've always been curious to know more about her tragic life and these journals seem like the best way to go about it.


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