“God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of "parties" with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter - they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship - but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”
Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
As one of the most lauded poets of the 20th century, Sylvia Plath’s writing is a magnetic force that has captivated readers. This magnetism is a direct result of the unashamed, emotional honesty Plath embeds within her writing. Never one to adhere to the confines of pleasant or socially desirable depictions of life, Plath often wrote with a visceral rawness and emotional saturation that, to this day, leaves readers feeling scathed and existentially vulnerable by Plath’s tragic, but beautiful words.
Despite the power and conviction with which Plath wrote, Plath struggled with mental health issues beginning in her young adult years. As an undergraduate at Smith College, Plath experienced bouts of severe depression. In one of her journal entries from 1958, Plath wrote about this struggle, saying “it is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.” This depiction of Plath’s experiences point towards a vicious struggle with what is now known as bipolar disorder, for which at the time there was no substantial treatment. As a result of this struggle, Plath eventually took her own life at the age of 30, an act that has become immortalized in literary history.
Plath’s suicide has always been surrounded by speculation about whether it was an act of martyrdom, the highest of commitments to her personal philosophy and art as a means to validate her work for the rest of time. In response to this speculation, New York Times book critic, Denis Donoghue, wrote, “I can’t recall feeling, in 1963, that Plath’s death proved her life authentic or indeed that proof was required.” This notion of required proof of authenticity highlights how this speculation is highly problematic in nature. This speculation dissociates Sylvia Plath’s experiences as a human struggling with mental health issues from how the public viewed Sylvia Plath as an artist and icon. It is never required for one to authenticate one’s experiences in order for such experiences to be deemed valid or of artistic valuable, and this is especially so with mental health struggles. Plath’s suicide should be seen not as the ultimate commitment to the romanticization of her art within history, but as the product of a life punctuated by mental health struggles from which there was little refuge. While an artist, Plath was human first.