The Sad Life of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was born on October 27, 1932, in Boston to Aurelia Schober Plath and Otto Plath. Plath’s father was an entomologist and a professor of biology at Boston University who authored a book about bumblebees which gives the poet’s collection of poems on bees a much deeper meaning. Otto Plath died on November 5, 1940, a week and a half after Plath’s eighth birthday, due to complications following the amputation of a foot due to untreated diabetes. Raised as a Christian, Plath experienced a loss of faith after her father’s death and remained in this mindset about religion throughout her life. In one of her last prose pieces, Plath commented that her first nine years “sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle—beautiful inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth”. I feel that many feel this way about childhood. An untouchable memory that we hold dear; fragile and beautiful and nothing but innocent but we can never quite reach it again no matter how hard we try.

In1950, Plath attended Smith College and excelled academically. She wrote to her mother, “The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon”. The experience, however, was not what she had hoped it would be, and it began a downward spiral.She became furious at not being allowed at a meeting with Welsh poet Dylan Thomas who was a  writer whom she loved, according to one of her boyfriends, “more than life itself.” A few weeks later, she slashed her legs to see if she had enough courage to commit suicide. Many of the events that took place during that summer were later used as inspiration for her very dark semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. During this time she was refused admission to the Harvard writing seminar. Following electroconvulsive therapy for depression, Plath made her first medically documented suicide attempt in late August 1953 by crawling under her house and taking her mother’s sleeping pills. She survived this first suicide attempt after lying unfound in a crawl space for three days, later writing that she “blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion.” Anyone who has experienced depression and suicidal thoughts will know this feeling all too well. She spent the next six months in psychiatric care, receiving electric and insulin shock treatment.

Plath first met poet Ted Hughes on February 25, 1956, at a party in Cambridge and later went on to marry him. Their daughter Frieda was born on April 1, 1960, and in October of the same year, Plath published her first collection of poetry, The Colossus. In February 1961, Plath’s second pregnancy ended in miscarriage; several of her poems, including “Parliament Hill Fields”, address this event. In a letter to her therapist, Plath claimed that Hughes beat her two days before the miscarriage. In mid-1962, Hughes began to keep bees, which would be the subject of many Plath poems.

In 1961, the couple rented their flat to Assia and David Wevill. Hughes was immediately struck with the Assia’s beauty. In June 1962, Plath had had a car accident which she described as one of many suicide attempts. To worsen matters, in July 1962, Plath discovered Hughes had been having an affair with Assia Wevill and in September the couple separated.

Before her death, Plath tried several times to take her own life. On August 24, 1953, Plath overdosed on pills in the cellar of her mother’s home. In June 1962, Plath drove her car off the side of the road, into a river. When questioned about the incident by police, she admitted to trying to take her life.

While for most of the time she had been able to continue working, her depression had worsened and become severe, “marked by constant agitation, suicidal thoughts and inability to cope with daily life.” Plath struggled with insomnia, taking medication at night to induce sleep, and frequently woke up early. She lost 20 pounds. However, she continued to take care of her physical appearance and did not outwardly speak of feeling guilty or unworthy.

Plath was prescribed anti-depressants a few days before her suicide. Knowing she was at risk alone with two young children, her doctor says he visited her daily and made strenuous efforts to have her admitted to a hospital; when that failed, he arranged for a live-in nurse. Many have argued that because antidepressants may take up to three weeks to take effect, her prescription would not have taken full effect. The nurse was due to arrive at 9:00 the morning of February 11, 1963, to help Plath with the care of her children. Upon arrival, she could not get into the flat, but eventually gained access with the help of a workman. They found Plath dead of carbon monoxide poisoning with her head in the oven, having sealed the rooms between her and her sleeping children with wet towels and cloth. At approximately 4:30 am, Plath had placed her head in the oven, with the gas turned on. She was 30 years old.