Today is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most famous literary suicides of all time.
What is it about the life and death of Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide in her kitchen fifty years ago today, that continues to fascinate us? Why does her single novel, The Bell Jar, remain a mandatory read for intelligent, disaffected teenagers?
I think part of the reason ambitious teenagers unfailingly admire her is because they are constantly pressured by the adult world to be intelligent, gifted, well-behaved, and precocious. They are being groomed to be someone just like Sylvia Plath, who achieved so much during her short life but never seemed to be able to enjoy any of it. The higher the expectations are on a student, the more likely she is to admire Esther Greenwood, the main character of The Bell Jar, who is living out a glamorous life amongst the intelligentsia of New York City, but can only think of death.
Plath was first published at 17, graduated summa cum laude from Smith at 23, and then went to Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship. At the age of 24, she met British poet Ted Hughes at a party. They were married four months later (on Bloomsday, naturally), and began a tumultuous marriage that lasted less than five years.
The Hughes family moved to America, where he taught at the University of Massachusetts while she taught at Smith. The couple had two children, and Plath published her first collection of poems, Colossus. The family moved back to England, where she began work on The Bell Jar, and it was not long before Hughes left her for another woman.
Sylvia Plath, who had had a history of suicidal tendencies (she tried to kill herself at least once, when she was twenty-one years old) succumbed to depression after Hughes left. She wrote many of the poems from Ariel, her most famous volume of poetry, that year. Then, on February 11, 1963, at the end of two months of the coldest temperatures on record in England, which froze the Thames from one bank to another, Plath sent a note to a downstairs neighbor, asking him to call for a doctor. She returned to her kitchen and asphyxiated herself from the gas from her stove. She was 30 years old.
As a youngster, believing myself to be both intelligent and disaffected, I naturally gave into the romantic draw of Sylvia Plath. I borrowed my mother's book-club edition for The Bell Jar (hers is from 1973), and read it three times. Once, when I was about sixteen, a girl noticed my copy, and we had this exchange:
"Are you reading The Bell Jar?" she asked.
"Reading it? Well, I'm re-reading it. I've read it twice before."
"Oh, really?" she scoffed. "I've read that book thirteen times."
Rather than be impressed by this, I thought, "Thirteen is probably too many times to read The Bell Jar. You likely should stay away from that one." Which I did.