Becoming Sylvia Plath : literary criticism and the self
conference contributionposted on 06.12.2017, 00:00 by Ann-Marie PriestAnn-Marie Priest
The poetry of Sylvia Plath is preoccupied with the nature of the self. Plath explicitly drew on her own experiences of breakdown, attempted suicide, electric shock therapy and psychoanalysis in her depictions of the self as both fragmented and unified, annihilated and triumphantly reborn. Since her suicide at the age of 30, many critics have become obsessed with the search for the "real" Plath among the many, often competing identities evident in her poetry, her journals, her letters, and her thinly disguised autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. In fact, Plath criticism is often extraordinarily personal. As Cynthia Sugars points out, critics seem to identify with Plath more deeply and completely than they do with other writers, projecting on to her the fragments of their own identities. As well as the many biographies of Plath, countless memoirs from those who knew her, and several speculative tomes on the relationship between Plath and her estranged husband, Ted Hughes, there have recently been a number of "novelisations" of Plath's story in which writers re-imagine Plath's life, putting themselves inside her head. This paper seeks to explore the ways in which the reader's own self is at stake in approaching Plath's life and work. It will consider both Plath's own ideas and representations of the self, and the intensely personal investment many critics make in their research into Plath's work. This exploration will be framed by my own reflections on the abiding fascination of Plath's life and work for me, and the ways in which they have become an important part of my research into twentieth-century representations of subjectivity.