Kathleen Coggshall, MD
University of California, San Francisco, United States
The image of a chain-smoking, booze-addled writer is a common one, occurring so frequently in modern culture that one begins to wonder if depressed people find solace in creative endeavors, or if the soul-searching process of crafting a sonnet or composing a musical piece puts one at higher risk for mental illness and/or substance abuse. There are, of course, plenty of creative types with no psychiatric pathology whatsoever, but the ubiquity of the “tortured artist” persona raises an interesting question about the role of clinical depression in creative endeavors.
Examining literary works often reveals a deeply troubled creator; an individual in the truest sense, utterly withdrawn from the world. However, it is also important to understand that although writing is indeed a solitary venture, its genius depends on the writer’s ability to perceive and interpret the outside world. In this way, the artist confronts a terrible conflict—the tendency to withdraw within one’s own thoughts while creating a piece of fiction that feels true to life. In some cases that conflict emerges in a scene that richly and almost pitifully exposes the writer’s tortured desire to achieve happiness, a state that requires the balance of inner contentment and outer experience. Sylvia Plath is an intriguing example of a writer who explored this dichotomy through poetry and, at times, ventured to characterize the extreme highs and lows of her life through a creative medium. Her writings provide an exquisite insight into the complex psyche of a writer who glimpsed happiness in a domesticated society that surrounded and frustrated her.
Sylvia Plath was born in 1927 to middle-class parents in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston. She excelled in school and wrote poetry from a very young age, publishing her first poem at the age of eight. However, in 1935, shortly after Plath’s eighth birthday, her father died from complications related to uncontrolled diabetes, bringing an end to this idyllic period of her life. As Plath wrote in “Ocean 1212-W” (1962), a short story in which she reflects upon her early years by the sea, “…this is how it stiffens, my vision of that seaside childhood. My father died, we moved inland.1 Whereupon those nine first years of my life sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle - beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying myth.” These marine images would recur frequently in Plath’s writings, speaking not only to a sense of isolation but also to serenity and security, which she struggled to attain in her adult life. In this sense, childhood—at least until her father’s death—offered a safe, “inaccessible” removal from the pressures of daily life, as if the sea itself could keep her demons at bay. Looking back, Plath envisioned this “sealed” existence as an ideal, but the ocean’s vastness provided a necessary counterpoint to that blissful isolation—a tenuous balance that comes through in her writings. Plath’s experience at Smith College evokes a similar dichotomy of isolation and exploration; she thrived academically despite ongoing struggles with depression during her late teens.
Plath’s psychiatric history is, as some might argue, as much a part of her legacy as her writings due in large part to the well-publicized and controversial events surrounding her suicide at the age of 30. Much has been written on Plath’s lifelong struggles with mental illness, and the differential diagnosis for Plath’s severe melancholy, impressive mood swings, and tendency to self-harm have been hotly debated for decades. Major depressive disorder (with or without psychotic symptoms), bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and depression not-otherwise-specified have all been posited as potential diagnoses.2 Plath’s family and friends provided a fuller picture of this vibrant but erratic young woman, who cultivated deep friendships only to abandon them for no apparent reason; who adored her husband but flew into a jealous, all-consuming rage that drove her to suicide; who socialized effortlessly only to retreat into states of complete, stupefying isolation, where she would pour troubled, complex thoughts onto blank pieces of paper. Her most famous writings came out of the final year of her life, when she discovered her husband’s affair with a married woman. Over a period of several months, Plath’s rage turned to bitterness, and then to a deep, terrible sadness from which she would never escape.
In the sixty years since Plath’s death, interviews from relatives, friends, doctors, colleagues, and other acquaintances have provided some insight into the poet’s complicated personality and unstable mental state. The richest lens into Plath’s troubled mind though comes from her own writings, first published when she was a child and until her death in 1963. At Smith College, she expressed most of her creative talents through poetry that she published in the school newspaper and various literary magazines. Her writing endeavors at that time came with steep ups and downs; she accepted and subsequently panned a guest editorial position at Mademoiselle because it did not meet her expectations. She applied to and was rejected from a Harvard writing seminar, which so disappointed and infuriated her that she overdosed on prescription pills, resulting in a psychiatric hospitalization at MacLean Hospital and electroconvulsive therapy. Plath nevertheless graduated with highest honors and went on to study at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship.
Plath’s earlier poems reflect a young woman in the throes of new experiences. “Circus in Three Rings” (1955) depicts the speaker “flourish[ing] my whip with a fatal flair;” “Southern Sunrise” (1956) describes a “red watermelon sun.”3 The former was Plath’s first poem to be published in a major journal (The Atlantic Monthly), which she wrote while still in college. “Southern Sunrise” reflects a similarly upbeat period of Plath’s life; she married her husband, Ted Hughes, in June of that year. Later poems delve into more personal, darker territory, echoing the tumult of Plath’s married life and newfound motherhood. “Man in Black” (1960) depicts a beach scene, but displays none of the “beautiful…white flying myth” she used to describe her childhood; instead it speaks of a “grey sea” and “snuff-colored sand cliffs”—and then, of course, the mysterious title character. Just before discovering Hughes’ infidelity in July 1962, Plath wrote in “Colossus” (May 1962): “My hours are married to shadow.” Afterward, Plath again turned to poetry to chronicle an emotional firestorm of anger, disappointment, and ultimately, defeat. In “Crossing the Water” (September 1962), she maintains this black, shadowy motif: “Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people. Where do the black trees go that drink here? Their shadows must cover Canada.” Five months later, she turned on the gas, placed her head in the oven a dozen feet from her sleeping children, and died on the morning of February 11, 1963.
As with any attempts to analyze poetry or other non-biographical writings, it is necessary to make the distinction between writer and speaker—and it is dangerous to generalize. Just because Plath wrote so eloquently and achingly about death and despair does not entitle the reader to make grand assumptions about the poet’s emotional state, nor can we just as easily presume that the “man in black” is Ted Hughes, whose infidelity affirmed Plath’s insecurities about men and her role as a housewife. But much of Plath’s popularity as a poet stems from this raw, unfiltered emotion that colors her work. The images she creates are magnificent composites of language and style, a manipulation of the collective human experience distilled into a stanza, a line, or even just a single word. Plath invites us into the darkest corners of her mind; she provides a glimpse of genius through simple words and phrases, crafted in ways that challenge the reader to think, to feel, to question. When she writes of grey seas and cliffs and shadows, it reinforces our perception of Sylvia Plath as a tortured artist, prone to emotional storms and crippling uncertainty. The poems written in the last year of Plath’s life depict a woman whose depression, like a wave building onshore, has become too powerful for her to withstand. She dies still searching for that “ship in a bottle” that eluded her for her entire adult life.
John Horder, the general practitioner who treated Plath for depression in the days leading up to her death, described her as “deeply depressed,” “ill,” and “out of her mind.” Since then, psychiatric diagnoses have been refined and reclassified, such that the DSM-IV now requires five of the following nine symptoms for a diagnosis of a major depressive episode: depressed mood, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, weight loss, insomnia, psychomotor retardation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, inability to concentrate, and recurrent thoughts of death. One of the first two symptoms must be present to meet the diagnostic criteria. In major depressive disorder, with which Plath was posthumously diagnosed, these episodes persist for longer periods of time and interfere with daily functioning. Feelings of hopelessness—which have been linked to higher rates of suicide—are often endorsed by sufferers. In her journal, Plath wrote, “With me, the present is forever, and forever is always shifting, flowing, melting. This second is life. And when it is gone it is dead. But you can't start over with each new second. You have to judge by what is dead. It's like quicksand…hopeless from the start.”
Yet Plath continued writing—and excelling. She published hundreds of essays, short stories, and poetry in her brief lifetime. She married a man she deeply loved, had two children, and found joy in New England summers and a sprawling blue sea. In 1962, she wrote The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel about her life; within it, she chronicles personal struggles, truths, haunting betrayals…but she also defines happiness.4 Sylvia Plath, known for a bout of depression so severe that she took her own life with her babies in the house, offers one of the most beautifully rendered depictions of happiness in American literature. She recognized it. She wrote about it. She gave us a glimpse of the tortured artist, existing in that perfect state of solitude and socialization, but she also gave us pure, undiluted happiness.
The Bell Jar was published in 1962 to critical indifference, though it has since evolved into a cult classic. Note, for example, Plath’s unique take on a common theme, one she has explored several times before:
I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people's eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.
Here we experience Plath’s love affair with shadow, suggesting yet another dichotomy: shadow and light. The two coexist, although Plath doesn’t allude to shadow’s counterpart; she writes about it as a single entity, existing in the most ordinary things, giving them depth and beauty. In noting the shadow at the “back of people’s eyes and smiles,” Plath seems to underscore the importance of human relationships and subtext—a critical theme in Plath’s poetry and a possible explanation for why she connects so well, so broadly, and so richly to so many people. In isolation, Plath could not achieve this “social nirvana” that not only embraces the shadows that characterize her existence, but elevates them. This duality creates a vivid picture of Plath’s interpretation of happiness: seeing shadows as a thing of beauty, whereas most people perhaps only appreciate the light. This perception of shadow through a different, brighter lens comes from Plath’s ability to connect with the people around her. This is something she achieves intermittently in life, as does her protagonist in The Bell Jar.
The most telling example of this achievement, and one that truly captures Plath’s ability to discern beauty in a dark, troublesome reality, is this line: “I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’” There is no equivocating in this simple statement, made during a free-spirited rush down a skiing hill, which ended in a broken leg (Plath broke her leg skiing as a senior in college). First, Plath describes the components of the world: air. Mountains. Trees. People. This evokes a simple scene from Plath’s life but a crucial one: she has managed to escape the claustrophobia of her pressure-filled life through a trip to the mountains, which in some sense capture the same vast, beautiful possibility of the open sea. Here, too, there are people. There must be for Plath to achieve true happiness. The last line confirms it: “This is what it is to be happy.” There is no comparison here, no softening of terms with a simile or metaphor; this is Sylvia Plath’s definition of happiness.
Just one month after The Bell Jar was published, during one of the coldest winters on record, Plath lost her tenuous grasp on happiness, hope, and a worthwhile future. Depression—not just for writers, but for the millions of people worldwide who suffer from it—often follows this course of withdrawal, isolation, and hopelessness. Plath is unique in that her poetry captures this progression so vividly. In other ways, though, Plath is like many other American women, contemplating their roles in a changing social and cultural climate, navigating professional and personal aspirations, reconciling dreams with reality. One can only wonder what might have happened had Plath rediscovered that “white, flying myth” of her childhood—if it ever existed at all. Would her poetry have withstood the test of time? Would her legacy as a troubled, beautiful young housewife with a gift for words be altered? Would her slow dissolution into old age, as Plath so feared, have rendered her “ordinary,” like the drawers and closets she described in her thinly veiled autobiography?
These questions, of course, can never be answered, but they challenge our tendency to glamorize mental illness, especially in a world saturated with extravagantly wealthy, larger-than-life writers and performers. Sylvia Plath struggled through prolonged periods of self-doubt, depression, and hopelessness, but through it all, she found beauty, meaning, and happiness—if only in glimpses, if only for the short, yet astoundingly accomplished years she lived. Sylvia Plath was a gifted, richly endowed writer. She was also troubled, depressed, and ultimately suicidal. These two identities sometimes blended, creating poetry that draws us into the psyche of a young woman who feared, respected, and embraced her fleeting time on this earth the way we all do. As she once said about life, “Live it, feel it, cling to it.”
She did it beautifully; she did it well. This is her legacy.
- 1. Plath, Sylvia. “Ocean 1212-W.” Listener. August 29, 1963: 312-13.
- Cooper, Brian. “Sylvia Plath and the Depression Continuum.” J R Soc Med 96 (2003): 296–301.
- All poems cited are taken from Ted Hughes, ed. Sylvia Plath: The Collected Poems. New York: Harper Collins, 1981.
- Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: William Heinemann Limited, 1963.
KATHLEEN COGGSHALL, MD, is a recent graduate of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine with plans to begin residency in July 2013. She graduated from Princeton University in 2005 with a degree in English and certificates in American Studies and Women and Gender Studies. Her senior thesis entitled “A Creature of Conformity: The Housewife in the Post-War American Literature of Shirley Jackson, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton” won a departmental prize. Although her thesis explored the socio-cultural nuances of Plath’s writings, this article examines Plath’s poetry through a more medically oriented lens.