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2. The ‘Edge’ of Sylvia Plath’s Critical History: A Reappraisal of Plath’s Work, 60 years after

Introduction

Nicolas Pierre BOILEAU et Carmen BONASERA

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‘The privilege of being anybody was turning
its other face – to the pressure of being everybody;
ergo, no one.’
(Johnny Panic 37)

  • 1 For major monographs about Plath published in the 1990s and early 2000s, see: Axelrod (1990); Rose (...)

160 years after she committed suicide, Sylvia Plath remains an enigmatic figure of the literary world, and her mystery is reinforced by the seemingly never-ending discovery of new biographical information and previously unpublished writings. It seems that her complete works has finally been disclosed, after years during which her writing material apparently would not stop expanding. The posthumous publication of Ariel was famously re-appraised by subsequent discoveries about the author’s own choice of structure and narrative development (Perloff 1984); the unabridged journals in the early days of the twenty-first century, following the initial publication of an abridged version, together with Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters, soon encouraged scholars to dig up other materials, including Plath’s drawings or, more recently even, unpublished letters (Letters 1 and 2). All in all, hers is an utterly fragmented publication history. This critical fact was somewhat eclipsed by the obsessive teleological approach of critics and reviewers, namely that the whole work could not be disentangled from Plath’s melancholy attitude towards life, which her suicide only confirmed. While alternative readings regularly emerged in the 1990s1, often in response to edited or newly discovered material, a decade of near silence followed the publication of the most significant critical studies (The Cambridge Companion, 2006, and The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath, 2008, both edited by Jo Gill), suggesting that the matter could have worn out.

  • 2 For instance, Euphoria (2021) by Elin Cullhed and The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. (2022) by Lee K (...)
  • 3 The latest biography is Heather Clark’s Red Comet (2020). Many others have been published over the (...)

2Sylvia Plath’s writings have yet continued to be re-edited and reconfigured through time thanks to new formats, new publications, and new readings, above all of a biographical nature. She remains a popular figure – one only needs to look at the many re-editions of The Bell Jar or its recent rewritings2 to be convinced that there is a publishing market and that her work still appeals and speaks to younger generations (Doche and Ross 2023). The unstable publishing career of her writings has contributed to the equally indeterminate image of the artist in popular culture: she is alternatively thought to be a traumatised, undeniably ‘confessional’ poet; an expressionist genius who sought to establish her work within a patriarchal canon; a feminist writer who just wanted it all – marriage, success, family; or, rather simply, a madwoman. In addition, her academic life has, so to speak, been even more chaotic. For many decades, her trailblazing career was overshadowed by the emotional response of critics and readers alike to her suicide. This gradually resulted in constructing Plath either as an iconic martyr or as a melodramatic cliché, all of that perpetuating a distorted reception of her posthumous oeuvre, as if her works mirrored her tragic life. For someone who repeatedly questions the singularity of one’s existence, as in the quote above taken from the short story “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams,” the difficult line there is between a life of conformity – such as the one Esther thinks she is cut out for at the beginning of The Bell Jar – and a life of marginality ironically came to be enhanced by the reception of her works. This has led her to be both an exceptional and archetypal figure, both a great woman writer and an over-rated teenage idol, both anybody and everybody. This collection of articles will not seek to unveil the ‘real’ Sylvia Plath behind all these masks, personas and representations, but to address what her work really is about – a goal that perhaps has often been overlooked because of the importance granted to the biographical context3.

  • 4 See the latest collections of essays: Brain (2019), Helle, Golden & O’Brien (2022).

3Although articles and books are published almost every year about aspects of Plath’s works4, there have been a disproportionately low number of critical milestones since 2012, if one were to compare Plath to other female writers of her notoriety. The questions raised in current scholarship, especially outside of Europe, tackle obsessive issues that Plath scholars will have raised already only too often: (gendered) identity and her alleged feminism (Alrasheedi 2023), the mourning of her father, usually interpreted from a psychoanalytical point of view (Gupta & Sharma 2014; Şenel 2022; Chamling & Shrestha 2023), her or her persona’s relationships with men, her melancholy, and the confessional aspects of her writing.

4As the field of literary studies and criticism is constantly renewed and remodeled by global cultural, political and social issues and challenges, fresh commentaries about the author have been flourishing in order to keep pace with the rapidly changing cultural scenario. Several scholars have recently attempted to provide new readings of Plath’s poetics in this sense, thus delving into urgent questions such as environmental concerns and ecopoetics (Knickerbocker 2009), or by bridging the gap between literary criticism and other disciplines, such as Medical Humanities (Loddo 2015).

5Yet this presentation in broad brushstrokes does not pay tribute to recent contributions that have managed to delve into the core questions about Plath’s work, with a view to complexifying them or making them more efficient. For instance, Laure de Nervaux takes a different approach to previous critical readings in her recent analysis of Plath’s letters, by showing that the self-portrait, far from being a mere reproduction of biographical facts, is a structure for Plath to interrogate the self’s fantastic images: « My life has been like the plot of a movie these past years: a psychological, romance, and travel thriller. Such a plot. » (Letters 1, 1230) This quote shows that Plath indeed was playing with various images of her self, creating a sort of haunting figure that the written works were seeking to control or anchor. For there exists one critical consensus: namely that Plath was trying to find in writing a mode of existence to counter her experience of her self as jagged, fragmented, shapeless, etc. The self is indeed that which Plath seeks to define, determine, engage with in every text and it is worth studying how this self is constructed in the texts, and how it fails to be grasped entirely.

6When we conceived this e-Rea special issue on Plath, our main objective was to raise the question of Plath’s construction of her persona in poetry, narrative and life writing, in light of her resurfaced writings and recent critical responses to her poetics. We also sought to discuss which version of Sylvia Plath critics have been constructing these past sixty years. In parallel, we intended to bring together scholars, especially early-career researchers, working on questions that had not yet made their way into the official academic story about Plath, thus fostering fresh critical views about one of the major poetic voices of the 20th century.

7Therefore, this collection begins with three articles that deal with pressing, current questions linked to the poet’s contributions about the conditions of women’s lives and creation – a theme that is not unrelated to the “women and fiction” question Woolf is supposed to try to answer in A Room of One’s Own - as well as her role in shaping a new form of relationship between poetry and nature, one that would escape traditional associations of women poets and the representation of nature and landscapes. Thus, it was important that this collection should open with Colin Bancroft’s ecocritical reading of Plath’s poetry, as this is such an urgent matter in critical theory. Colin Bancroft’s article pursues two objectives: first, he seeks to renew the evaluation of Plath’s contribution to poetry by using tools of ecocriticism, in particular the EcoGothic that Bancroft identifies in her Yorkshire poems; secondly, by choosing to comment on the Yorkshire poems, Bancroft also enables Plath to appropriate the cultural and geographical space that is so much associated to her late husband, poet laureate Ted Hughes, through whom she discovered this part of the country. In Bancroft’s reading of Plath’s poetry, the EcoGothic offers a structure to think about Plath’s contribution to the questions of oppression, repression and monstrosity that pervade her work without relegating them to mere life problems, whether or not she was facing them at the time. His suggestion that Plath uses the American sublime further shows that far from being an angry wife wishing to overturn her husband – as in the biopic that was made about Plath – Plath was indeed working on the very texture and structure of poetry to make it accommodate new, unexplored landscapes, both real and metaphorical, both geographical and textual, as yet unheard of in the language of a female poet.

8The question of Plath’s female voice is intricately linked to her becoming a wife and mother, two events that paradoxically both enhanced her creative impulse and almost forced her into complete silence. The second article thus seeks to delve into the singular take of Plath on motherhood. Alice Braun follows in the footsteps of Rozsika Parker by using her concept of “maternal ambivalence” to read Plath’s poems on the paradoxes of (pro)creation. Braun thus seeks to disentangle Plath from the conventional, œdipian narrative of a woman who had failed to mourn her father satisfactorily, and to see how she copes and grapples with the paradoxes and contradictions she encounters or faces in motherhood. The article is extremely valuable as a case study of the first generation of women writers to have had to write about motherhood in a fashion that was neither celebrated by the patriarchal institutions of marriage and morality, nor frowned upon by those who wish to see motherhood as a political act that potentially threatens the emancipation of women, or one that can only reinforce environmental anxiety. Although Braun herself leaves these questions for a further discussion, her close reading of motherhood poems by Plath reinstates the ambivalence of motherhood against the simpler narrative of frustration and capacity.

9These new readings should not however lead us to consider that a revision of Plath’s critical history in terms of gender, and feminism, is not worthwhile. Federica Doria effectively chooses to read the stories collected in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams to deconstruct and disarm Ted Hughes’s analyses of them as weak pieces in comparison with Plath’s poetry, a critical claim that has not been without much support since Plath is often hailed as a poet more than she is regarded as a prose writer. Doria chooses to re-evaluate the stories by recontextualising them within the main ideology of Plath’s times, that of sexual difference. She thus demonstrates that Plath’s politics was not grounded in assertions and convictions, but that her writings helped her form new proposals about these gender questions that she was interested in but not necessarily in the terms of the public debate of her time.

10Questions of genre, and not gender, are at the center of Angélique Thomine-Rapp’s essay, which expands on the categorical vagueness of The Bell Jar, famously and alternatively deemed as an autobiographical novel, a fictional novel and a non-fictional novel. As Thomine-Rapp shows, the blurred line between fiction and non-fiction was the central question during the 1986 lawsuit against the filmmakers of the 1979 film adaptation of The Bell Jar. This article shows how such lawsuit contributed to the infamous conflation between Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar’s narrator, which, in turn, paved the way for the popular fascination with the poet’s private vicissitudes. Instead, the article restates the literary and political value of Plath’s novel and of its critical outlook on 20th-century American society.

11The conflation between poet and persona is paramount in Gary Leising’s essay as well. The recently published edition of Plath’s letters has granted scholars the opportunity to explore the intertextual relationships between her creative writings and a large epitextual apparatus. Leising chooses to examine Plath’s letters and poems of October 1962, i.e. the period in which her peak creative force went hand in hand with her tormented separation from Hughes. By overtly avoiding formulaic and trite biographical analyses, the article focuses on the creative process through which the poet was able to transpose and transfigure her daily thoughts into art. In order to understand both the work and the life of the poet, not only does Leising return to the palpable contrast between the original Ariel manuscript, as intended by Plath herself, and the 1965 version, heavily edited by Hughes, but also to the tension between Plath’s troubled biographical vicissitudes and her writings of rebirth, by exploring the variety of personae that she crafted in each writing, either personal or creative. Through his analysis, Leising concludes that we are able to grasp Plath’s intended meanings in dialogue and mutual influence with her letters and not when we take them as merely reporting the facts of her life.

12This collection closes with two essays that seem to perfectly echo each other, in that they both focus on Plath’s relationship with Europe. An overlooked topic in Plath studies is the object of Dorka Támas’s article, i.e. her relationship with Eastern European cultures, with the aim of shifting the focus from Plath’s deep embeddedness in American culture and of showing that her European heritage, and the multicultural nature that it provides, is a significant factor in understanding her writings and personal life. By focusing especially on Plath’s relationship with Hungarian culture and with the Cold War context in which Eastern Europe was caught during Plath’s adulthood, Támas contextualises Plath’s knowledge and engagement with European cultures, thus providing an inclusive and original look at her writings and biography. The article concludes that Plath’s engagement with Hungary, and in general, Eastern Europe in the early Cold War, demonstrates the entangled and parallel history of the two sides of the Iron Curtain, as well as showing interest in her cultural heritage and sense of belonging. Támas also argues for the need of studying Plath’s afterlives across a variety of cultures within and beyond the European boundaries, to understand cross-cultural differences and influences.

13Finally, Julie Irigaray’s article employs a rich array of materials to explore Plath’s relationship with French culture and literature, spanning from her short stories to her magazine pieces, as well as by focusing on her and Hughes’s poems about France. By expanding on previous research that was limited to describing Plath’s time in Paris, Irigaray proposes that Plath had a holistic engaging with French culture, inasmuch as her travels to Brittany, Dordogne, Normandy and the Côte d’Azur inspired many poems. In addition, by looking at archival documents, Irigaray’s article explores a rather underinvestigated side in Plath’s scholarship, i.e. the influence of French literature on her writing and personal development. Through the analysis of poems, short stories, articles, private writings and personal library, Irigaray demonstrates that Plath’s attachment to and curiosity for French culture was much deeper than what research previously highlighted.

14In sum, this special issue provides an international forum of discussion that acknowledges and furthers the potential of the current research interest in the study of Sylvia Plath’s poetics. It aims to capture the multifaceted spectrum of readings and approaches that literary scholars can adopt while looking at her oeuvre, mirroring her protean approach to writing. Far from being exhaustive, this special issue strives to contribute to a more nuanced account of Sylvia Plath’s work sixty years after her untimely demise. Our hope is that new perspectives and methods will emerge in response to our suggestions, so that the study of Plath’s work may be continuously refreshed and that obsessive questions about life writing, confessional poetry, mourning and death may be looked at as decisively literary questions and structures, regardless of the biographical details of Plath’s life which may be said to account for them, or worse to explain them.

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Bibliographie

Alexander, Paul, ed. Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath. New York: Viking, 1991.

Alrasheedi, Naeemah. “Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: A Feministic Reading.” World Journal of English Language 13.3 (2023): 112-117.

Axelrod, Steven G. Sylvia Plath: The Wound and the Cure of Words. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Brain, Tracy, ed. Sylvia Plath in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Brain, Tracy. The Other Sylvia Plath. Harlow: Pearson Education, 2001.

Britzolakis, Christina. Sylvia Plath and the Theatre of Mourning. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Butscher, Edward. Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness. New York, Seabury Press, 1976.

Chamling, Rosy and Manisha Shrestha. “The Gyred Identity: Tracing Yeatsian Elements in Sylvia Plath.” The Yeats Journal of Korea 70 (2023): 71-94.

Clark, Heather. Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath. London: Jonathan Cape, 2020.

De Nervaux-Gavoty, Laure. “‘If only you could see me now’: Autoportrait et théâtralité dans les lettres de Sylvia Plath à sa mère.” E-rea 20.2 (2023). Online. https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.16486

Doche, Amélie and Andrew S. Ross. “‘Here is my shameful confession. I don’t really ‘get’ poetry’: discerning reader types in responses to Sylvia Plath’s Ariel on Goodreads.” Textual Practice 37.6 (2023): 976-996.

Gill, Jo, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Gill, Jo, ed. The Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Gupta, Tanu and Anju Bala Sharma. “Confessional poetry in the light of psychoanalytic theory with special reference to Sylvia Plath.” Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies 2.11 (2014): 112-116.

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Helle Anita, Amanda Golden and Maeve O’Brien, eds. The Bloomsbury Handbook to Sylvia Plath. New York: Bloomsbury, 2022.

Loddo, Mariarosa. “Scritture patografiche a confronto: la nascita di un nuovo genere?” Enthymema 13 (2015): 13-36.

Perloff, Marjorie. “The Two Ariels: The (Re)making of The Sylvia Plath Canon.” The American Poetry Review 13.6 (1984): 10-18.

Plath, Sylvia, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, volumes 1&2, eds. Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil. London: Faber and Faber, 2017-18.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. London: Virago, 1991.

Shamma, Hussam. “A Deconstructionist View of Sylvia Plath’s ‘Lady Lazarus’ and Robert Frost's ‘Design’, in International Journal of Management and Humanities, Volume-9 Issue-9, May 2023. https://www.ijmh.org/wp-content/uploads/papers/v9i9/I1605059923.pdf

Şenel, Neşe Görkem. “Psychoanalyzing Sylvia Plath’s ‘Little Fugue’: The suffocating gyre of a mourning daughter trapped with her Electra complex and melancholia.” Journal of Modernism and Postmodernism Studies 3.2 (2022): 248-262.

Stevenson, Anne. Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath. London: Viking, 1989.

Van Dyne, Susan R. Revising Life: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel Poems. Chapel Hill: U. of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Wagner-Martin, Linda. Sylvia Plath: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

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Notes

1 For major monographs about Plath published in the 1990s and early 2000s, see: Axelrod (1990); Rose (1991); Van Dyne (1993); Britzolakis (1999); Brain (2001).

2 For instance, Euphoria (2021) by Elin Cullhed and The Last Confessions of Sylvia P. (2022) by Lee Kravetz.

3 The latest biography is Heather Clark’s Red Comet (2020). Many others have been published over the years: Butscher (1976); Wagner-Martin (1987); Stevenson (1989); Hayman (1991); Alexander (1991).

4 See the latest collections of essays: Brain (2019), Helle, Golden & O’Brien (2022).

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Nicolas Pierre BOILEAU et Carmen BONASERA, « Introduction »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 27 février 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/16963 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/erea.16963

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Auteurs

Nicolas Pierre BOILEAU

Aix-Marseille Université, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France
nicolas.boileau@univ-amu.fr

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Carmen BONASERA

University of Bologna, Italy
carmen.bonasera12@gmail.com

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