Where to start with: Sylvia Plath | Books

Within Sylvia Plath’s short life, she produced works that, decades ten, are still read and studied across the globe. Known for her confessional poetry, which won her a Pulitzer prize, awarded posthumously in 1982, she also wrote exceptional fiction and memoir. In honor of the 90th anniversary of her birth, Elin Cullhed, whose novel Euphoria is a fictional portrayal of Plath’s last year, has put together an insightful guide to the great American writer’s works.


the classic

Her entire writing life, Sylvia Plath scolded herself for not managing to write a novel. Yet she did write one, and it’s brilliant. The Bell Jar is an autobiographical account of being a young woman in the US of the 1950s, which transports a trojan horse up on stage when the reader least expects it and releases an entire cavalry of the taboo topics of the time. It is about depression, suicide, female sexual liberation, hatred of one’s mother and traumatic electro-shock treatment in a world that lacks the language for what a girl goes through. Esther Greenwood wants to go against the world view that aims to label her against her will; she wants out of the shop window, to expand herself, become more, undress and throw her clothes into the New York night, not as a gesture of self-annihilation but one of omnipotence: “I am, I am, I am.” Esther Greenwood’s heart beats, in a perfect image of the self’s expansion through writing. The Bell Jar is a novel that teems with the contempt and self-loathing that flourishes in an oppressed girl’s heart.


The essential reading

The Bell Jar, the short stories and the dense prose of the journals aside – Plath was at her core a poet. Poetry was where she expanded her imagery, her address, her ethos and her dramatic self. Each poems use language to drill into the deepest layers of consciousness, and occasionally makes the reader uncertain: what is the poem really about, what is really happening within its sphere? The Collected Poems offers a unique opportunity to spot the writer’s growth into a risk-taking poet who, step by step, pushed the limits of what is possible within the realms of literature.


The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 2: 1956-1963, edited by Karen V Kukil and Peter K Steinberg

Worth persevering with

Unassailable are the 14 letters Plath sent to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher during the last six months of her life, 1962 to 1963, which were uncovered in 2017 (previously having been privately owned). They were published in 2018 as The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 2: 1956-1963, edited by Karen V Kukil and Peter K Steinberg. In these dispatches, Plath is insightful about life as an abandoned mother with small children in a vulnerable situation, and she accounts for the series of events in clear, self-conscious and vivacious prose. Plath and Ted Hughes’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, has written a beautiful preface to this edition which details what it was like reading her mother’s last letters for the first time.


The one you’ll learn from

Plath wrote the essay America! America! just weeks before she killed herself, aged 30. It was first published in Punch, two months after her death, and was later included in the collection Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. In it, Plath described a conservative upbringing in the US in the 1940s and 50s, writing about the devastating conformity which came to stifle her talents. “Maybe I was just too weird to begin with,” she wrote, pointing to the inner and outer frameworks for creation that she worked her entire artistic life to upheave. America! America! is for anyone who wants to understand what it’s like to have a restrictive childhood.


The hidden gem

Heather Clark suggests in her biography Red Comet that Plath went to a cinema in London in 1961, saw the film So Close to Life by Ingmar Bergman, scripted by Ulla Isaksson, and became inspired by their depiction of the corporeality and vulnerability of the different shapes of motherhood The film pinpoints how close to death and life one comes as a mother, which probably activated every literary impulse in Plath.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on their honeymoon in Paris.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on their honeymoon in Paris in 1956. Photograph: Everett Collection Historical/Alamy

The radio play Three Women which she wrote a year later, shortly after the birth of her own son, is inspired by the film and is based on three women’s wildly differing views on miscarriage, birth and the giving up of one’s child. Here the ambivalence of motherhood is violently put into words. But a few of literature’s most tender lines are also found in this play-cum-poem. Plath was clearly influenced by the raw miracle of becoming a mother, evidenced in the way the mother speaks to her son. She decides that he cannot become an exception, because, “It is the exception that interests the devil.” She wants him to be common, for him to love, as she loves him. There is also a fascinating alienation of the masculine in this text – masculinity is described as “That flat, flat, flatness from which ideas, destructions, Bulldozers, guillotines, white chambers of shrieks proceed”. Three Women is a stunning piece of world literature that deserves to be far more widely read.


The one that will change you

“I believe that there are people who think as I do, who have thought as I do, who will think as I do.” The Journals of Sylvia Plath (edited by Karen V Kukil) is reading that changes you. In her journals, Plath allowed her literary register to appear in its full scale, which was n’t always the case in her fictional works from the same time. The journals give voice to Plath’s authentic self: in them, she dares to fail, to be contradictory and to make room for forbidden thoughts and feelings. She samples life for material – a literary method she would later expand upon in The Bell Jar and her poetry collection Ariel.


Once you’ve read everything else

The wonderful short story Mothers is worth reading solely because of Esther from The Bell Jar’s reappearance. She has become a mother and resides in the English countryside where she tries to fit in with the other female villagers. To me, it feels like the seed for another novel, a sequel to her first. It is a bittersweet glimpse of what might have been.

euphoria by Elin Cullhed, translated by Jennifer Hayashida, is published by Canongate (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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