I wasn’t familiar with Sylvia Plath until college. According to my deeply Libertarian boyfriend at the time, Sylvia Plath was crazy and nonsensical and in love with her dad, and she wrote poems that made no sense. I should have known better than to listen to him because he adored Ayn Rand, but in my defense, I was young and inexperienced with People Who Like Terrible Things. The only other thing I knew about Sylvia Plath was that she baked her own head in a final “fuck you very much” to the world, killing herself in a manner akin to a pot roast.
Now, I’m aware the Sylvia Plath didn’t actually bake her own head. However, when I learned that she’d “stuck her head in an oven”, I assumed she’d turned it to 350° and settled in. The visual impressed me immediately. You had to be an absolute badass to go out like that. Can you imagine? Sitting there while the heat gathers over you – at first like a warm silk scarf, then like a sizzling car seat against your legs in the middle of August, and then it gathers, it expands, it comes at you with white knives up your nostrils and down your throat. Your face melts like cheddar cheese. Your brain bakes. You die slowly. I had all the respect in the world for Plath. Would you cross a woman like that in a dark alley?
I was vaguely, insensitively disappointed when I learned about gas ovens.
The first thing I read by Plath was The Bell Jar. Reading it was like remembering a dream of a feeling; I instantly connected with Esther Greenwood. I imagine many creative, middle-class, white young women do. She is privileged and drowning in depression, too wise for her peers and too disempowered socially to claw her way out. She lives in New York and she has opportunities many would dream of, but it’s not enough; there is a black hole inside of her and she is hungry, and when she isn’t hungry, she is a void, apathetic and inconspicuous. I never knew other people felt the same deep water as me until I read Plath. Here:
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”
I didn’t know if I wanted to be friends with Esther Greenwood or if I was Esther Greenwood. I still feel like that now – that strange sense of yearning and deadness, of being trapped in a tar pit watching the world as it jaunts merrily by. Plath gets that.
She got that.
Read Plath. Start with The Bell Jar. From there, move on to her poetry. Don’t listen to anyone who hated her in high school. If you hated her in high school, try her again. She’s amazing, I think, for that particular time in your 20s and 30s when you’ve been told who you are and you don’t know if you believe it. She’s a warrior. She will wait for you.
She didn’t need an oven to make her a legend, and woe betide me for misunderstanding that for so long.