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Sylvia Plath: A Feminist Martyr That Deserves More Than Just Pity, And So Do Her Fans

Months ago, Emily Van Duyne wrote a piece for the Literary Hub. In her piece, Duyne mentioned a “literary trope: Plath the ‘crazy girl’, and the ‘crazy girls’ who love her, all of whom are seen as young, starry eyed fools in need of scolding”.

Whenever I reveal to anybody that I admire Plath’s work, a part of me feels as though I have to explain myself.The older I seem to get, the more aware I have become of the scrutiny of Sylvia Plath. Hence why Duyne’s description of  the preconceived archetypal Plath ‘fan’ as a “young, starry eyed fool” resonates with me. Elizabeth Bachner writes for BookSlut about how most people view Plath fans to be “teenagers” that are “mired in middle-class existential woe.”. There is evidence of this condescension towards fans of Plath in a review of the film based on the poet, Sylvia (2003). According to the BBC, a writer for The Daily Mail wrote “…If you’re a teenage girl who’s painted her walls black, has a romantic view of death…” in response to the film recommended this type of person to watch it.

This constant condescension almost silences fans of Plath collectively. Which is almost chilling and ironic when one considers the fact that Plath herself was (and practically still is) silenced. Though, this merely explains the literary trope in itself. After all, according to The Poetry School, Plath’s husband Ted Hughes was reluctant to help research biographies for fear that the ‘sensational fabrications‘ would be used against him. Hughes also destroyed the final volume of her journals, which silenced her in her very last years. Not to mention the fact that many of Plath’s poems that were published after her death were edited by her husband. Duyne writes in the same piece for the Literary Hub that Plath’s “version of events” were always “dismissed” by her husband’s “powerful friends”. Duyne describes a male professor that labeled Hughes a “saint” merely because he had to “put up” with Plath.

Although this is not some conspiracy against Hughes, merely facts strung along.  However, there appears to be a trend in this silencing. As a result, one may suggest that the reluctance to enjoy the work of Sylvia Plath may be a product of the patriarchy, the silencing of women in general and the mockery of teenage girls whatever their interests may be. The fact is, even if Plath is loved by teenage girls, why does that make Plath less valid as an artist? Why are the interests of a teenage girl mocked in the first place? According to Everyday Feminism , the interests of teenage girls are dismissed as fads as young girls are faced with both ageism and sexism. According to myself, a (now) young woman, I felt this as a teenage girl. When considering the fact that both Plath and her fans are being silenced, one can truly be exposed to this silencing of women. Even after Plath’s death, young women who admire her and are seeking the truth about her life are being criticized or corrected, either that or mocked for their ‘fad’. This can be supported by Duyne’s encounter with a male professor. It can be supported by the condescension of The Daily Mail writer that the BBC quoted.  Consequently, this idea that Sylvia Plath is a feminist-martyr in a patriarchal society (as suggested by Summer Agarwal in her book Sylvia Plath) becomes all the more real.

On her birthday at least, surely it should be recognised that Plath is so much more than the romanticisation of her suicide. On her birthday, and always, we should recognize Plath for not just her suffering and her madness. We should also recognize her for her genius in craft, her voice as a woman, and her place as a confessional modernist poet. It is utterly heartbreaking that she is not still alive. She would have been 85 today. Happy Birthday, Sylvia.

Here is a very feminist poem written by Sylvia Plath:

The Applicant

First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,
Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand
To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed
To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt.
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit——
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.
Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that?
Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.

By Sylvia Plath  | Source: Poetry Foundation.

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Tayla is UK based. She also has works in KILORAN magazine.

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