Poetic justice

"There could be no greater tribute"

Published June 6, 2000 7:29PM (EDT)

The real Sylvia Plath
BY KATE MOSES (05/30/00)

After studying the life and work of Sylvia Plath for some time now, I feel so strongly compelled to write and let you know what an extraordinary job Kate Moses did on her recent cover article for Salon. There were several points contained within it that transcended any other piece I have yet read regarding the emotional turmoil that Plath endured, particularly during the last year of her life.

In my estimation, the theories Moses proposed regarding her probable diagnoses of both PMS and bipolar II concurrently -- in combination with the stifling cultural time frame in which she lived and worked -- have shed a whole new light on both her suffering and her genius. Much to my surprise and delight, Moses also managed to accurately and fairly represent the role that Ted Hughes played in the end of their marriage, the end of her life and the unenviable execution of her literary estate afterward. Perhaps with the publication of this piece, both camps -- those who loathingly blame him and label him "murderer," and those who realize that being married to her was obviously difficult, at best -- might finally be able to come to some sort of middle ground in their conclusions.

Also, the additional information regarding her feelings of loathing and resentment toward her mother fill out the picture of what both compelled and tormented her. I found Moses' conclusion that Plath's sudden realization and horror that after the breakup of her marriage she had, in essence, become her mother (i.e., a "widowed," single mother of limited financial means) particularly interesting. And further, Moses' astute and astounding observation that because of her mother's complete martyrdom and selflessness (in the worst sense of the word) in regards to her children, she had offered Plath no female role model but that of a woman who literally possessed no self, verily took my breath away.

After having read most everything written by and about Plath in the past nearly four decades (including all Moses' previous articles), I feel that this piece in particular will perhaps completely change the way in which she is seen and studied in the years to come -- there could be no greater tribute. She is "whole," at last.

Well done.

-- Muffy Bolding

Kate Moses' article on the newly released, unexpurgated journals of Sylvia Plath was beautifully written -- lucid, succinct, well-linked. It demonstrates the different perspectives on Plath's life and the complexities of her psyche. The piece clearly outlined many aspects of the historical, personal and cultural context in which she lived and worked -- one that today no longer binds women of her social class.

Without sensationalizing the journals' provocative material, Moses does here what so few reviewers have done. She sketches Plath as a human being -- a manic, depressed, frightened, vain, furious, powerful woman, and one deeply aware of the forces that formed and would ultimately break her. She points out Plath's emotional strength and courage. She was, after all, a woman who, in the face of a self-flaying nature perhaps too exquisitely attuned to her emotional broadcasts for her own mental health, dared to inquire further.

I have read all the Plath biographies and poetry, and many of the articles and criticisms. Still, I found Moses' piece illuminating. Thank you so much.

-- Pat Donovan

That PMS led to Sylvia Plath's suicide is historically problematic. Moses' proud announcement that "the conjectural diagnosis of manic-depression and PMS may explain almost everything" about Plath is no different than Hippocratic writers who constructed hysteria -- derived from the Greek word for "womb" -- as a disease with an organic cause in women. Not coincidentally, women with "wandering wombs" were the same ones who did not conform to traditional norms of femininity at the turn of the century.

Yes, Plath writes explicitly about her symptoms, but she pinpoints her depression over a patriarchal society in equal amounts. It is just as easy to locate Plath's depression in her environment as in her biology.

Once again, problematics of femininity are reduced to problematics of the female body.

-- Tracy McNamara

By Letters to the Editor

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