In her seminal 1994 work on Plath and Ted Hughes, The Silent Woman, Janet Malcolm writes, “The history of her life … is a signature story of the fearful, double-faced fifties. Plath embodies in a vivid, almost emblematic way the schizoid character of the period. She is the divided self par excellence.” It is Plath’s ability to express these divisions—the good American girl and the unhinged poetess, the wife and mother and the mentally ill cynic—that has made her an object of fascination for the past half-century. Plath was not unaware of her central position in the zeitgeist. In 1957, she wrote in her journal about The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood, “Make her a statement of the generation. Which is you.”
Through her fictional alter ego, Plath was able to combine her light and dark selves into one uncomfortable, ungrateful, neurotic, beautiful, successful, damaged girl. It was the real Plath’s inability to construct a cohesive self out of these competing forces that, when combined with the crucible that is New York City, pushed her toward a breakdown. According to Winder, her deepening anxiety resulted from “the precarious nature of her own happiness, the instability of character, persona, identity, even affection. The instability of identity—how we are seen only one dimension at a time.”
Unfortunately for Plath, the habit of pigeonholing is a difficult one for humanity to shake. Winder, at times, pushes a touch too hard to portray a Sylvia who is missing the dark, bitter streak that always animated Plath’s journals and early writings. She insists perhaps too readily that Plath, who was fascinated by aesthetic beauty, “would have been a perfect fashion editor.” Perhaps, but one hardly longs for a world where instead of Ariel, Plath gave us 14 column inches on periwinkle. It’s doubtful the fiercely ambitious Plath would have wanted that, either.
When describing Plath’s successes, most writers cannot help but pan up, however briefly, to show the sword of Damocles dangling above her bleached blond hair. She was, in addition to her many gifts, terribly sick, suffering from depression and probably bipolar disorder in a time woefully unequipped to treat either. Since we know the ending of the story, an aura of melancholy and angst permeate, making the sad stories even sadder and lending the happy ones a bittersweet tinge. But reading The Bell Jar, one is reminded of Plath’s ironic wit and pitch-perfect appreciation for the absurd. Winder resuscitates a young woman who, while sick, is electrically alive to her first real adventure, running through Manhattan, jumping into cabs with strange men, trawling the racks at Bloomingdale’s and experimenting with cocktails. This girl is not quite as funny or fearless as Esther Greenwood, who was the more polished work of a slightly older woman, but is captivating in her own right as she struggles with her choices, anxiety, and hope for the future.
Winder wisely doesn’t end her story with Plath’s suicide attempt but tells us how, just 10 months after she left Manhattan and Mademoiselle psychically wounded in ways that would only too soon become clear, she flew back to the city. She saw friends, had lunch with her former editor, ran around the Village, and rode the Staten Island ferry. Winder’s portrait is of a resilient young woman who battled mental illness and rampant sexism in a society mired years behind her progressive vision of herself and life’s possibilities. She makes a compelling argument that in New York, while she paid a terrible cost, Plath moved closer to finding the voice that would define her writing.
It is not the classic New York success tale: There is no great romance or passionate lovemaking, there’s no dream job at the end of a grueling ordeal, and rather than the de rigueur cosmopolitan makeover, Plath ended her stay in Manhattan by throwing her clothes off the roof of her hotel, returning home in a borrowed peasant blouse. But she did learn a key New York lesson: that if you push as hard as you can, you will, for better or worse, learn things about yourself you would never have otherwise known. The proper young lady, so eager to please, who first appeared on the Upper East Side, was slowly being replaced by the powerful writer she would become. What hadn’t killed her made Plath stronger. Until, of course, it killed her.
Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder. Harper.