Sylvia Plath & The College Girl Mentality

31 October 2012

“Sylvia Plath—interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”
—Woody Allen as Alvy Singer, Annie Hall

 It was 11 February 1963 when a nurse and a workman broke into Sylvia Plath’s flat and found the poetess with her head in the oven, her babies crying upstairs. It’s a story almost everyone knows—and yet, informal research indicates that more people could tell you how Ms Plath offed herself than could name one of her poems, and more people are concerned with writing academic papers regarding her celebrity status than are writing papers deconstructing her novel The Bell Jar. Okay, I’m just making the informal research up, but I’m pretty sure I’m right. In any case, Sylvia’s posthumous cult following is a force to be reckoned with.

Ever since Sylvia Plath’s body was laid to rest in West Yorkshire, England, fans have made the pilgrimage to her gravestone to dutifully scratch the ‘Hughes’ from her surname. Still technically married to Plath at the time of her suicide, Hughes—despite the fact that he was a cheating bastard, who was separated from both Plath and his pregnant mistress —became the executor of Plath’s estate, destroying one of her journals and omitting whatever he felt like from her posthumous publications. Because he was really sad, you guys, and wouldn’t somebody please think of the children? Now, okay, I never knew Ted Hughes, and far be it from me to cast potentially libelous aspersions on his character… but let’s just stick to the facts here and say that this is a guy who slept around on his wife, slept around on his pregnant mistress and generally conducted himself pretty badly.

As I write this, I’m wearing my Bell Jar t-shirt from Out of Print and a portrait of Plath is staring blankly at me from my wall. I endured the kind of weird movie with Gwyneth Paltrow in it. There’s a copy of Selected Poems in my uni bag, and if I knew how to use a chisel and weren’t a trillion miles away from West Yorkshire you can bet your bottom dollar I’d be hacking the ‘Hughes’ off Sylvia’s gravestone too. I am, for better or worse, the quintessential Plath ‘college fangirl’ that Woody Allen refers to in Annie Hall. Would I still be as fanatical though, I wonder, if Plath had never taped up her kitchen and put an end to it all? (Interesting tidbit: in Allen’s 1978 film Interiors matriarch Eve—whose husband has left her—tapes up the kitchen, turns on the gas oven and attempts suicide in much the same manner as Plath. Two cinematic nods in two years. Perhaps Allen was a bit of the ol’ romantic college girl himself.)

When we’re more interested in a cult author than their bibliography, something is amiss. Why exactly is the human race so fascinated with the sordid lives and grim ends of our literary heroes and heroines? After all, as they say, isn’t the author dead? Oh, you know what I mean. Shouldn’t a work speak for itself? (Probably.) Should we really be more interested in biographical gossip than in critical analysis? (Probably not.) Unfortunately, I suspect this to be the underbelly of human nature. There haven’t been many standout movie adaptations of Virginia Woolf’s novels, for instance, but when Nicole Kidman put on a prosthetic nose, dressed like Woolf and flung herself into a river in The Hours, she won an Academy Award for her troubles. There are many authors whose tragic lives were larger than their work, but I would argue that this is not the case for Plath or Woolf—both brilliant in their own right. Like it or not, when something awful happens to someone we know, or someone we’ve seen in a television show, or someone whose writing made us feel a little less alone… we Google. We thirst for understanding. Oh the movies I’ve re-watched, wondering if this time it’ll all end happily. Unfortunately for me, Gwyneth Paltrow never comes out alive no matter how many times I watch Sylvia.

I don’t have any real answers, but I don’t think we should apologise for our interest in the lives of our favourite authors. I like to feel at least that the little thrill that runs up our spines when we meet Hemmingway and the Fitzgeralds in Midnight in Paris (Allen! Again!), or when we see Hogarth House in The Hours is a good thing. We’re voyeurs, sure—but at least we’re literary voyeurs. It could be worse. We could be into sports.

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