In one of her best known poems, “Lady Lazarus,” the American poet Sylvia Plath (1932–63) wrote: “Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well.” The possibility of death always lurked at the fringes of Plath’s life. She attempted suicide many times, until she finally succeeded on February 11, 1963. Critics and scholars have been trying for some time to piece together what drove this brilliant poet to end her life and leave behind two small children. In a new book, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Carl Rollyson does much to illuminate the mystery.
Rollyson is a distinguished biographer, having written lives of Sylvia Plath, Marilyn Monroe, Susan Sontag, Dana Andrews, and William Faulkner, among many others. That said, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath is not a typical biography by any means.
As the book’s title suggests, Rollyson focuses on the last part of Plath’s life—the final seven months, to be precise—and as a result he is able to examine with great precision the details that might be forgotten or glanced over in a more holistic treatment. He is clear from the beginning about his aim: “To show why Plath’s suicide is not only an individual act but also a concatenation of forces and circumstances in which concepts like free will and mental illness are factors but not determinants of what happened to her and what she did to herself.” Rollyson continues: “Sylvia Plath’s days—their shape and trajectory—were not inevitable.”
There is a consensus among many scholars that Plath’s volatile relationship with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, had little bearing on her suicide. These critics dismiss the idea that Hughes’s aggressiveness and infidelity had much influence on her psychological stability, pointing out that Plath was already fragile before she met him. According to Rollyson, this interpretation—one thinks of the “hysterical woman” trope—couldn’t be further from the truth. And he backs up his claim, presenting a large amount of evidence that will force any reader to rethink, if even partially, the accepted narrative about the enigmatic Plath’s demise.
“Sylvia Plath’s days—their shape and trajectory—were not inevitable.”
One of the important figures that emerges in Rollyson’s account, especially at the very end of Plath’s life, is Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, her therapist. As Rollyson tells it, Plath found refuge in Barnhouse, who became something of a friend. Plath’s situation was becoming more volatile. She and Hughes were separated, but he would still stop by and see their children. She called him “an apocalyptic Santa Claus.”
But even before the couple had separated, Hughes would quit the house for weeks, leaving Plath to look after their two small children and the household. We read that “Plath’s American friends supported her, and a few British women commiserated with her plight, but only Barnhouse understood the trajectory, the rise and fall, of Plath’s hopes for a new life, pinned so desperately on Hughes, her poetry, and her children.”
The specter of Hughes was always there, even when he wasn’t present. “The poet . . . lost herself in her husband,” Rollyson argues. “She described herself as wanting to emerge from the shadow of a man she had feared losing.” After Hughes left her, “she sought some kind of daily ritual to take his place, calling this time after his departure as a growing out of ‘this death.’” And yet Plath was hardly a wallflower; up to the end, she demonstrated a great deal of agency and determination. One week before she killed herself, she wrote to Barnhouse indicating that, despite her mounting fears, she felt she was gaining strength. As Rollyson writes, “she was still working on a new independent life for herself.” This is the crux of the issue. Amid the challenges presented by the overbearing Hughes, Plath managed to find a strange strength and courage, as is clear from her poetry. The stronger she became as a poet, the more distant Hughes grew. And yet, in her daily life, she was overwhelmed by the task of maintaining a sovereign self.
All this is not to say that Plath was a joy to live with. Hughes insisted that he needed poetic, and therefore personal, freedom; Plath, in turn, was incredibly demanding of his attention. She also hinted, in Rollyson’s words, that “if she felt dead as a writer . . . living for her children would not be enough.” Hard as it was to overlook Hughes’s shortcomings and infidelities, she must have felt some need to compromise. She had to “take her place in Hughes’s bifurcated, two-breasted world,” because for him to “accept Sylvia alone, as she demanded, was to submit to being devoured by the tiger who roars . . .”
Rollyson holds his subject in high esteem, but he never fudges Plath’s story.
Rollyson excels at taking us inside the mind of Plath, as much as a biographer can. We experience her interiority: her mind was both a refuge and a prison, giving her life and at the same time taking it away. We witness a woman struggling to breathe under the weight of being, plagued not only by Hughes’s infidelity (especially with Assia Wevill) but even by her environment, the elements, the weather. The cold and fog of dirty London, especially in the winter months, contributed significantly to her sorrow. The more depressed she felt, the more she feared the consequences of being committed to a mental institution.
It was difficult for Plath to understand her own power. A few days before she took her own life, she expressed both mental and physical fatigue to Barnhouse. She continued to blame herself for what would be termed bipolar disorder today, chalking it up to some kind of moral failing on her part. At the same time, Hughes’s indifference toward her, and the fact that she felt alone in England, only added more pain. According to Rollyson, Plath’s “last surviving words revealed her distracted thinking: ‘I am incapable of being myself and loving myself. Now the babies are crying, I must take them out to tea.’”
Rollyson holds his subject in high esteem, but he never fudges Plath’s story. He doesn’t make her into a hero and Hughes a villain or simplify the complexity of their relationship. At the same time, Rollyson makes it clear that a great level of culpability falls on Hughes and the little cosmos of people surrounding him. It was, after all, the intricate and bizarre structure of her life with Hughes that ultimately drove Plath to the end. But Rollyson never does anything so crude as point the finger exclusively at him. Rather, this is a complete and powerful portrait of Plath as a woman, a mother, a wife, and, most of all, a poet striving for integrity as she descends slowly into the night.