Select your language

Suggested languages for you:
Log In Start studying!
StudySmarter - The all-in-one study app.
4.8 • +11k Ratings
More than 3 Million Downloads
Free

All-in-one learning app

  • Flashcards
  • NotesNotes
  • ExplanationsExplanations
  • Study Planner
  • Textbook solutions
Start studying

Sylvia Plath

Save Save
Print Print
Edit Edit
Sign up to use all features for free. Sign up now
X
Illustration You have already viewed an explanation Register now and access this and thousands of further explanations for free
English Literature

Known for her confession-style poetry, literary depiction of self-destruction, and tragic suicide, Sylvia Plath is one of the best-known female writers of the 20th century. Though she was well-received in literary circles in her own time, Plath's most famous work was published posthumously, and she never got to see the extent of her success. She won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982 for The Collected Poems, published in 1981, almost 20 years after her death.

Sylvia Plath: Biography

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1932. The daughter of an immigrant professor and one of his students, Plath had a complicated relationship with her father that only worsened when he died in 1940 after ignoring his diabetic health issues. Plath was 8 years old, and his death prompted a lifelong struggle with religion and mental health.

Plath's poem "Daddy" (1962) was a reflection of the betrayal she felt at her father's death. Her mother moved her, her siblings, and her grandparents to Wellesley, Massachusetts, where Plath stayed until she graduated high school.

When she was 8, Plath had her first poem published in the Boston Herald's children's section. By her teenage years, Plath had several stories and poems published in national magazines. She sold her first poem to The Christian Science Monitor and her first short story to Seventeen magazine while she was in high school.

Plath received a scholarship to attend Smith College, a private women's liberal arts college, and did well academically, artistically, and socially. In her third year, Plath won a writing contest and was given a prestigious position as guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York the following summer.

During her undergraduate years, Plath began to suffer from the symptoms of severe depression. On August 24, 1953, Plath attempted suicide by sleeping pills; she was 20 years old. She survived and was hospitalized for six months, receiving electro and insulin shock therapy. She recorded the experience in her novel The Bell Jar (1963), which fictionalizes her personal breakdown and recovery.

Plath returned to school and graduated with the highest honors in 1955. She received a Fulbright Fellowship, which allowed her to continue her education at Cambridge University in England. There she met fellow poet Ted Hughes in February 1956; the two married in June. In a 1961 interview about her relationship with Hughes, Plath said:

I'd read some of Ted's poems in this magazine and I was very impressed and I wanted to meet him. I went to this little celebration and that's actually where we met... Then we saw a great deal of each other. Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married a few months later... We kept writing poems to each other. Then it just grew out of that, I guess, a feeling that we both were writing so much and having such a fine time doing it, we decided that this should keep on."

Plath and Hughes had two children. The couple moved around between the United States, where Plath taught English for a while, and England, where Plath published The Colossus (1960), the only poetry collection she published before her death, and The Bell Jar (1963), her only novel. When Plath found out that Hughes had been having an affair with a married woman who was renting their home, she separated from Hughes and moved to London with their two children.

Beginning in October 1962, Plath had a surge of creativity and wrote most of the poems in her posthumous collection Ariel (1965). Although her depression returned, Plath was able to complete her poetry collection, which would be published in 1965 in the UK and 1966 in the US. It is this collection that most of Plath's success rests on.

Sylvia Plath, Bell jars, StudySmarterBell jars, the inspiration behind and title of Plath's only novel, freepiks.com

Sylvia Plath: Death

Plagued by depression her entire life, Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963. She had spoken to her general practitioner in January after battling her last depressive episode for 6 or 7 months. He prescribed her a new anti-depressant and attempted to visit her every day, worried that she was high risk because she lived alone with her one-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

On the morning of her death, Plath sealed the room between herself and her children with towels, cloth, and tape, leaving food out for them and making sure they were safe in their bedrooms. Then she turned her gas oven on and committed suicide by inhaling carbon monoxide. She was 30 years old.

Sylvia Plath is buried in St. Thomas' Churchyard, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England. There was controversy for years over her grave because "Hughes" was included in her name since the two poets were not legally divorced. Hughes even chose Plath's headstone's inscription:

Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted."

Sylvia Plath, Carbon monoxide, StudySmarterPlath died from inhaling carbon monoxide gas, freepiks.com

Sylvia Plath: Poems

'Daddy' (1965)

Although Plath's father died when she was 8 years old, she didn't get true closure with his death until she wrote 'Daddy' in 1962. Her father was authoritative and strict, a German immigrant who taught biology but ignored his own diabetes until it was too late. He died due to complications after a foot amputation.

Plath wrote 'Daddy' one month after her separation with Hughes and four months before she ended her own life. It is an example of confessional poetry, where readers get a glimpse into the author's psyche through their poetry. At first the speaker in the poem idolizes her father, even calling him a God and wanting to "recover him."

However, even these positive feelings towards her father are overshadowed by dark images, and the tone quickly changes to paint him as the villain. The speaker compares her relationship with her father to that of a Jew being hunted by a German, emphasizing the emotional warfare she felt with him.

Plath also references her own suicide attempts when she was young to get back at her father, but instead of dying, she replaces her father with another man. This is presumably Ted Hughes, whom she married when she was 23 and stayed with for seven years.

The poem was written a few months after she discovered that he was having an affair. At the end of the poem, her father and her husband become one vampiric figure, who she murders with a stake to the heart.

What do you think about Plath using the suffering of the Holocaust to emphasize her own pain? Do you think it's distasteful? Does knowing her father was German have any effect on your interpretation?

'Lady Lazarus' (1965)

This poem, like 'Daddy,' is a confessional piece that examines the oppression that Plath felt at the hands of the men around her and the effect that had on her mental health. 'Lady Lazarus' uses biblical allusions to compare Plath's failed suicide attempts to the resurrection of Lazarus in the Bible, as well as historical allusions to compare Plath's oppression to a Jewish person living in Nazi-occupied Germany.

Plath wants to die in this poem because she feels oppressed in the male-dominated world. However, each time she attempts to end her life, she is resurrected by outside influences who watch her resurrection with amusement like a "peanut-crunching crowd." Each time she comes back she feels less like herself, but she looks exactly the same.

At the end of the poem, she compares herself to the mythical phoenix and states that she will rise from the ashes again. This time, though, she will eat the men who are their enemies, as easily as if she were breathing air.

What effect does the last line in the poem, "I eat men like air," have on the reader? What does this line make you think of Plath as a person? What effect does it have on your interpretation as Plath the poet?

Sylvia Plath, Phoenix rising from the ashes, StudySmarterThe speaker in 'Lady Lazarus' compares herself to a phoenix rising from the ashes, pixabay.com

Sylvia Plath: Novel

The Bell Jar (1963)

In this semi-autobiographical novel, Plath fictionalizes her own descent into depression and months of hospitalization after her failed suicide attempt. Although she published this novel under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, most of the material comes directly from Plath's personal experiences, with the names changed.

The novel focuses on Esther, an intelligent writer from the suburbs of Boston that has received a scholarship from a wealthy benefactress to attend college. She has been accepted into a prestigious internship at the Ladies' Day magazine, but is disillusioned by the work and by New York City.

Upon returning home, Esther doesn't know what to do with her life because her entire identity was based on succeeding academically, and she is not interested in any of the typical female jobs (housewife, stenographer, etc).

Esther becomes increasingly depressed and goes to see a psychiatrist, who uses electroconvulsive therapy to try and cure her depression. Her mental state only worsens, and Esther attempts to commit suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.

The suicide attempt fails, and she is taken to a mental hospital where she receives more electroshock therapy and insulin shock therapy. The novel ends with doctors deciding whether she can leave the hospital and return to school or not.

In real life, Plath was able to leave the mental hospital and return to school, but she committed suicide less than 10 years later. Since The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical, does the knowledge of Plath's personal life and tragic death influence how you view the story? Does her background influence how you think about her heroine Esther?

Sylvia Plath Quotes

In much of her poetry, Plath's themes center around mental health, disillusionment, and female oppression in a male-dominated world. Since the majority of her poetry is at least partly autobiographical and confessional, her conflicts often represent what she experienced in her own life.

When reading Plath's fiction and poetry, it is important to remember that the speaker/narrator is not Plath. Because Plath's poetry is confessional, meaning it closely mirrors her life, many people assume that she is the one narrating. She is not.

Confessional-style poetry gave Plath an outlet to work through her feelings, but it is still impossible to distinguish between which of the character's feelings/actions were a reflection of Plath's, and which were dramatized for the effect.

Plath's themes of oppression, self-destruction, mental pain, and disillusionment are reflected in some of her most famous quotes.

What is my life for and what am I going to do with it? I don't know and I'm afraid. I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones, and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited."

This quote was taken from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000), which was published after her death. Plath began journaling at age 11, writing about her struggles with mental health and the world. This quote centers around her disillusionment with the world and her life. She wants to be everything and do everything, but she knows she neither has the time nor the privilege to live the kind of life she wants.

This quote also reflects how hopeless she feels. There are so many things that she, as a woman, cannot do, and many things in her life working against her simply because of who she is. The quote also reflects the despair Plath feels about her mental state: although she tried electro and insulin shock therapy, she was never able to experience any other kind of mental state, and she struggled with depression her entire life.

If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed."

The quote was included in Plath's 1963 novel The Bell Jar, published a month before she took her own life. The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel that parallels Plath's own mental deterioration and descent into depression. This quote touches on many of the themes in Plath's writing already discussed.

With respect to the above quote, which was spoken by a fictional character that Plath created, many interpretations focus on Plath's own mental health. Here is what we know for a fact: Plath never had a good support system.

She felt betrayed by her authoritarian father, who died because he didn't take care of himself. Her relationship with Ted Hughes was also volatile; not only did he cheat on her, but Plath implied he caused the miscarriage of their second child after beating her.

While the following quote could potentially reflect Plath's own disillusionment with her loved ones, it is more important as an example of one of the central themes in Plath's poetry:

It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative – whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”

Although bipolar disorder wasn't officially recognized as such until 1980, today's doctors affirm that Plath suffered from bipolar II disorder or manic depression. This quote, taken from one of Plath's journal entries in 1953, highlights Plath's mental highs and lows.

She suffered from severe depression from when she was an undergraduate student until her death. In this quote, one gets a glimpse into Plath's mental state and the reason behind a lot of her self-destructive tendencies.

In the months leading up to her death, Plath had a burst of creativity, writing at least 26 of the poems included in her posthumous collection Ariel. Today's doctors would say that was a manic period, followed by a depressive one. The quote above reinforces that assumption.

Sylvia Plath, An electric current with positive and negative ends, StudySmarterPlath used an electric current with positive and negative ends to describe her own mental state, pixabay.com

Sylvia Plath - Key takeaways

  • Sylvia Plath was born in Massachusetts in 1932. She had a complicated relationship with her father, who died when she was young. She wrote her poem "Daddy" about the betrayal and pain she felt towards him.
  • Plath began writing at a young age and had her first short story and poem published when she was still a teenager. She received a scholarship to go to college in Massachusetts and later received a grant to study in England
  • She met fellow poet Ted Hughes in England and married him within a few months. They had two children, but their marriage was volatile. He cheated on her, and the two separated in 1962.
  • She had one poetry collection, The Colossus (1960), and one novel, The Bell Jar (1963), published while she was alive. Her poetry collection, Ariel (1965), was published two years after her death.
  • She started struggling with depression when she was an undergraduate student. After multiple failed suicide attempts, Plath took her own life in January 1963 by turning on her oven and gassing herself.

Sylvia Plath

Plagued by depression her entire life, Plath committed suicide on February 11, 1963. 

Sylvia Plath is buried in St. Thomas' Churchyard, Heptonstall, West Yorkshire, England. 

Sylvia Plath was an American poet famous for her collection of poems called Ariel (1965).

Sylvia Plath's most famous poem is 'Daddy' (1965).

Sylvia Plath is an important poetic figure for her use of the Confessional style, and the themes in her poetry such as mental health and female sexuality/ oppression. 

Final Sylvia Plath Quiz

Question

Who was Sylvia Plath?

Show answer

Answer

Sylvia Plath was an American writer, famous for her poetry and one novel, The Bell Jar. She is well known for her mental health struggles as well as her feminist critique of women's place in society in much of her poetry

Show question

Question

What was important about Sylvia Plath's education? 

Show answer

Answer

Plath did very well academically and socially. She had a scholarship to go to college, where the graduated with the highest honors. She also received a grant to study in England. It was during her undergraduate years that Plath started to experience severe bouts of depression.

Show question

Question

What was Plath's relationship like with her father?

Show answer

Answer

She had a complicated relationship with her dad. He was reportedly despotic, but he died when she was 8 because he ignored his diabetes until it was too late. She wrote the poem "Daddy" about her relationship with him, comparing him to a Nazi and a vampire. She felt betrayed at his death. 

Show question

Question

Who was Plath married to? 

Show answer

Answer

Plath married English poet Ted Hughes after meeting him in England while she was studying abroad. Their relationship with volatile, with reports that he beat her while pregnant. They had two children, but separated when he cheated on her with a married woman. 

Show question

Question

What did Plath write? 

Show answer

Answer

Plath wrote confessional poetry. She published one poetry collection, The Colossus (1960), before her death and one novel, The Bell Jar (1963). Her most famous collection, Ariel, was published posthumously in 1965. 

Show question

Question

How did Plath die?

Show answer

Answer

Plath committed suicide after struggling with depression for most of her life. She sealed herself into her kitchen, turned on her gas stove, and put her head in the oven. She died of carbon monoxide poisoning.  

Show question

Question

Why was their controversy over Plath's grave? 

Show answer

Answer

Ted Hughes had his last name included on her headstone, which led to years of it being vandalized. He was also the one who chose her inscription, even though they were separated and he was with his mistress. 

Show question

Question

What are some of Plath's most famous works? 

Show answer

Answer

The poems "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus" published in her posthumous Ariel collection in 1955. Also The Bell Jar, published a month before her death in 1963.

Show question

Question

What are some of the major themes in Plath's work? 

Show answer

Answer

Mental health, self destruction, female oppression, disillusionment, and death. 

Show question

Question

Why is Sylvia Plath so important?

Show answer

Answer

She helped to popularize confessional poetry. She also was very autobiographical and attempts to share her true feelings with her readers. At a time when mental health wasn't very talked about or understood, her poetry helped to spread awareness. 

Show question

Question

What is 'Daddy'? 

Show answer

Answer

'Daddy' is a poem written by Sylvia Plath four months before her death. It was published posthumously in her 1965 Ariel collection. 

Show question

Question

What is the poem's historical background? 

Show answer

Answer

The poem was written 1 month after Plath's separation with her husband. She was suffering from severe depression for years, but had been inspired by a burst of creativity in the final months of her life. It is also important to note that Plath's father died when she was 8 and this poem reflects a lot of feelings she had towards him and his death. 

Show question

Question

What kind of poem is 'Daddy'?

Show answer

Answer

It is a confessional style poem. This means that it is closely related to Plath's life and helps readers to understand her psychological state at the time it was written. 

Show question

Question

What was Plath's father like? 

Show answer

Answer

Plath's father was a German immigrant. Plath struggled with her father's German identity, even accusing him of supporting the Nazi party in her poetry. He was cruel and authoritative. He died after complications with diabetes because he refused to go to the hospital until it was too late. 

Show question

Question

What was Plath's husband like?

Show answer

Answer

Ted Hughes was reportedly abusive to Plath. According to her diary, he beat Plath and caused her to have a miscarriage with their second child. The two were separated when Plath wrote this poem because Hughes was cheating on her with a married woman. 

Show question

Question

What is the daddy like in the poem? 

Show answer

Answer

He is oppressive and stifling. The speaker compares him to a shoe that she is stuck in, barely daring to breath for fear of upsetting him. She later compares him to a Nazi and herself to a Jew, a metaphor that extends throughout the poem and shows how afraid and oppressed she felt by him. Towards the end, but daddy and the speaker's husband become one vampiric figure that the speaker murders. 

Show question

Question

What is the husband like in 'Daddy'? 

Show answer

Answer

The speaker compares him to a vampire who sucked her blood for 7 years. She said she married him to try to reunite with her father since the two were both men with a "Meinkampf" look. In the end, the speaker drives a stake through his heart. 

Show question

Question

What is the most prominent literary device?

Show answer

Answer

Although the speaker uses a LOT of literary devices, the most prominent one is metaphor. The speaker uses this to compare herself to a Jew who is prosecuted by her Nazi father. The poem also uses a lot of allusions to Nazi ideology and terms. 

Show question

Question

What are the major themes in 'Daddy'? 

Show answer

Answer

Oppression and Freedom

Betrayal and Loss

Male and Female Relationships

Show question

Question

What happens at the end of 'Daddy'?

Show answer

Answer

The speaker drives a stake through the vampire's heart. The villagers dance and stomp on his body (although they are also symbolic and could be her friends or just her emotions). The speaker is finally free of her father's influence and oppression. 

Show question

Question

What is the Ariel collection? 

Show answer

Answer

Ariel is Sylvia Plath's second poetry collection. It was published in 1965, two years after her death. 

Show question

Question

Who wrote Ariel

Show answer

Answer

American poet Sylvia Plath wrote Ariel mostly during the final months of her life. She was deep in a depressive episode and had just separated from her husband. 

Show question

Question

What was different about the Ariel collection? 

Show answer

Answer

Ariel was published after Plath's death. It had much darker subject matter and themes than The Colossus. Ariel is mostly comprised of confessional poetry, meaning the speaker is deeply reminiscent of Plath and has to contend with much of Plath's personal issues.

Show question

Question

What are the most famous poems in the Ariel collection? 

Show answer

Answer

'Daddy' is perhaps the most famous and it discusses Plath's speaker liberating herself from her dead father's influence. 'Lady Lazarus' is about resurrection and reclaiming one's power. 'Tulips' is about the peacefulness of death. And 'Ariel' is about losing oneself to become something greater. 

Show question

Question

Why was Ariel published after Plath's death?  

Show answer

Answer

Plath committed suicide a few weeks after finishing her poetry collection. 

Show question

Question

What was the controversy over the collection? 

Show answer

Answer

Ted Hughes replaced some of the poems with other ones and edited the order after Plath's death. 

Show question

Question

What was one of the biggest criticisms of this collection? 

Show answer

Answer

Plath compares herself to a Jew during the Holocaust to express her own suffering in a few of the poems. People say it is insensitive to compare personal struggles to mass murder. 

Show question

Question

Why did Ariel make Sylvia Plath something of a cult figure? 

Show answer

Answer

Plath wrote deeply personal accounts of her mental illness at a time when depression was very taboo and not very understood. Her unflinching depiction of mental health has resonated with a lot of readers. 

Show question

Question

What are the main themes in Ariel? 

Show answer

Answer

Main themes include death and suicide, physical and mental suffering, oppression, and liberation. 

Show question

Question

What kind of relationship does Plath have with death in this collection? 

Show answer

Answer

Plath isn't afraid of death and actively tries to attain a permanent death, but is unable to. She views death as a peaceful escape from the oppression of everyday life. 

Show question

60%

of the users don't pass the Sylvia Plath quiz! Will you pass the quiz?

Start Quiz

Discover the right content for your subjects

No need to cheat if you have everything you need to succeed! Packed into one app!

Study Plan

Be perfectly prepared on time with an individual plan.

Quizzes

Test your knowledge with gamified quizzes.

Flashcards

Create and find flashcards in record time.

Notes

Create beautiful notes faster than ever before.

Study Sets

Have all your study materials in one place.

Documents

Upload unlimited documents and save them online.

Study Analytics

Identify your study strength and weaknesses.

Weekly Goals

Set individual study goals and earn points reaching them.

Smart Reminders

Stop procrastinating with our study reminders.

Rewards

Earn points, unlock badges and level up while studying.

Magic Marker

Create flashcards in notes completely automatically.

Smart Formatting

Create the most beautiful study materials using our templates.

Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.