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Sylvia Plath

Feminism may have played a role in Sylvia Plath’s chronic psychological difficulties. She felt oppressed by white men, especially her dead father. (Image: public domain)

In 1963, at the age of thirty, the brilliant American poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide in her London flat leaving behind two small children. She had suffered from depression since her early twenties and showed signs of considerable mental instability throughout most of her life. Some of her psychological difficulties arose from the death of her father when she was just eight, but feminism undoubtedly played a significant role in her untimely demise.

Plath’s liberal use of her sharp tongue suggests serious trouble with an inner tyrant critic. Those who lash out at others are usually just as hard – or harder – on themselves. A prolonged habit of ruthless self-criticism leads to self-alienation. This would go a long way towards explaining her eager embracing of feminism, a belief system that would allow her to project both her rejected authentic self and her inner tyrant critic onto conveniently available (specifically) white males. If being so selective sounds farfetched, it is worth noting that Plath (who was Caucasian) identified with Jews, African Americans, and Orientals. Clearly, she believed herself to be the object of some kind of discrimination.

That discrimination, she felt, came from white men. As a feminist, she overestimated the power and influence of men. Plath believed that men own language (presumably, because men are perceived to be more rational and because the printed word was dominated by male poets and writers), and that women, to use it, had to steal it from them. She regarded the famous male poets of the past as “kings” and “gods” and “colossi striding the waves,” feeling that their overbearing presence was both inspiration and obstacle for her own work.

Plath got no pleasure from her completed poems with all of her artistic gratification coming during – and only during – the composition process. One must assume the composition process was engrossing enough to deaden her pain, whereas her completed poems offered no such relief, and probably were not up to her perfectionist standards. We detect the inner tyrant critic again. To make matters worse, Plath regarded all non-composition time as barren and sad. The psychological trap she was building for herself is evident.

Where composition was concerned, Plath was a “cargo cultist” believing that she coaxed poems out of her unconscious mind. (The situation here may be complex since imagery, essential to a poet, does indeed emerge from the unconscious, while language is strictly a function of the conscious mind.) Nevertheless, her way of conceiving her compositional process amounts to creativity by proxy. In a sense, she believed someone or something else was doing the work.

Plath clearly suffered from excessive conceptualization along unproductive lines, a situation that seriously exacerbates self-alienation. That is, she had a lot of unrealistic ideology on board, ideology that probably collided with her more moderate authentic self. She saw the world from too limited a perspective and thus felt hemmed in believing she had few options and that necessity pressed her hard. This feeling of entrapment manifested itself in her suffocating sense of being perpetually under the power of her dead father. Notice how this dominating power of another person mirrors her belief that her poetry came from somewhere other than her conscious self.

Like so many in our own time, Plath eagerly embraced the notion of victimhood preferring to see herself as a hapless victim of oppressive men rather than as a capable and autonomous individual. The decision to see oneself in this way is always the result of self-pity combined with a desire for the pity of others. As an added benefit, posturing as a victim of male oppression allows a woman to blame men for her every shortcoming and failure.