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Tara Awate

The Only Silent Woman is a Dead One 

When I first came across Sylvia Plath’s journals, I was fifteen and bored, living in a small town in India. Its cover was Sylvia at a party, gleaming and beaming, not even looking at us, but at her date who stood towering on her right. Someone on her left was extending a flower to her. It was the very image of youth and vivacity, fossilized in time because it would never grow old and decrepit. 

My own adolescence was turning out to be a hollow cage— trying and persistently annoying: being made to live in a town whose ambit I didn’t fit in. Her adolescence was filled to the brim with parties, college, dates, friends, work; life: something I didn’t have yet. But I was beginning to feel a sense of what it constituted by reading the florid descriptions in her journals of seemingly prosaic encounters and familiar experiences. These were transmuted into scenes as if from a play or a movie that she starred in every day until she went to bed, with no breaks to rehearse. 

Maybe the reason why they had a strong impression on me was precisely the fact that it wasn't a memoir, but the random musings and gushings of a middle-class teenage girl that weren’t trivial in the way I found other popular movies and books on high school kids to be.  I didn’t know what being a teenage girl entailed so I read her because she seemed to know, intimately. And I wanted to know too. She had just the right amount of irony and cynicism paired with a doe-eyed rapture about everything. Her reactions and enthusiasm toward the smallest of events and people became infectious and slowly seeped into me over the years as I made my way through the vignettes. Sylvia made babysitting seem fun to me, like a whole new adventure. She showed me a sparkling vision of how one could be at eighteen: full of uncontainable unadulterated joy and exasperation at the world and all the mundane and not so mundane things it holds. After all these years, I still grope for that sense of life and vitality that she first implanted in me, that took hold and bloomed, against the laws of nature and reason, in the boring and tedious vacuum of my existence back then. She had thrown pixie dust into it and now it had become the Milky Way. Reading her journals, I aged in reverse, while she remained frozen in time. 

I was drawn to her writing by a sensationalistic, spectatorial curiosity and at times, I compared notes between The Bell Jar and her journals between which there’s a huge overlap. Though, in the end they became much more for me, more than simply the post-mortem reports of a dead woman. 

The journals were never written for the public eye and yet, her stream of consciousness reads like a finely crafted story. While reading them, one gets the sense that she was performing as she was going through everyday life, looking at herself from the outside, objectively, all the time and then transcribing it into words. 

In the end, her life itself ended up becoming the ultimate performance, something for people to pore over and watch and pick out details from for sensationalism because she had obsessively documented them through letters and journals. The story of her life overshadowed her work, which was the real performance that she had intended to leave behind. Despite that, maybe even she realized that in death, she could be something that in life, she couldn’t be so she weaned it for what it was worth, no longer a woman but a Goddess - Ariel. Sylvia Plath wouldn’t be Sylvia Plath if she hadn’t died in the way she did. At the tail end of her life, during the darkest winter in England, alone with two infants, no one understood this paradox better than herself. She lived her whole life full throttle as though she was destined for greatness. But now she believed that there was another thing she was equally destined for, had been destined for since she was a child. Death. It was a sinister omen lurking in her for a long time but only now could she see its entirety as it presented itself with a sinking clarity. So she ceded, to fulfill it. In her own words, “Dying, is an art like everything else. I do it exceptionally well, I do it so it feels like hell”. 

The recent biography, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark attempts to change the perception we have of Plath that’s been cemented through the years. She’s been painted as a depressed, high strung woman who wrote poetry as a therapeutic outlet to rid herself of her inner demons. In the public imagination, the fact of her depression and her image came before her work, which it eclipsed. Plath has been endlessly pathologized which reduced her and her work to merely the word vomit of a severely depressed, approval-seeking woman. Red Comet masterfully portrays Plath in her entirely, neither idolizing her nor fitting her into the previously established stereotype. It paints her as a brilliant writer with a clear ambition to achieve her dream of being a poet and all that she sacrificed for it along the way. The biographer speaks of being wary about falling into the Plath Trap which is using words like ‘obsessive’ to describe her. 

While reading her for the first time, I didn’t know the historical context of the times she lived in the 1950s where women led restrictive lives and were confined to being housewives. When once I had felt close to her as though she could exist here right next to me, now she was suddenly plummeted 70 years into the past and it changed the way I viewed her. The gravity of the social pressures around her that she continually budged and subverted was enormous. Clark highlights Plath’s great scholarship and poetic gifts that she had worked on all her life, through studying literature, and asserts that they must take precedence over her depression and tragic death.

Later, she was martyred by feminists during second wave feminism. Even though her poems and stories had many feminist themes, she herself couldn’t be called a feminist. The inward looking I of the confessional consumed her whole. Clark makes such subtle nuances and contradictions known throughout the biography and addresses all the aspects in which Plath and her life have been misconstrued and misunderstood. 

About the Author: Tara is a writer living in Wisconsin. Her essays and poetry have previously been recognized by Cambridge University and the UK Poetry Society.


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The image of Quasimodo is by French artist Louis Steinheil, which appeared in  the 1844 edition of Victor Hugo's "Notre-Dame de Paris" published by Perrotin of Paris.


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