Did Feminism Kill Sylvia Plath?

In 1963, at the age of thirty, the brilliant American poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide in her London flat leaving behind two small children. She had suffered from depression since her early twenties and showed signs of considerable mental instability throughout most of her life. Some of her psychological difficulties arose from the death of her father when she was just eight, but feminism undoubtedly played a significant role in her untimely demise.

Sylvia Plath

Feminism may have played a role in Sylvia Plath’s chronic psychological difficulties. She felt oppressed by white men, especially her dead father. (Image: public domain)

Plath’s liberal use of her sharp tongue suggests serious trouble with an inner tyrant critic. Those who lash out at others are usually just as hard – or harder – on themselves. A prolonged habit of ruthless self-criticism leads to self-alienation. This would go a long way towards explaining her eager embracing of feminism, a belief system that would allow her to project both her rejected authentic self and her inner tyrant critic onto conveniently available (specifically) white males. If being so selective sounds farfetched, it is worth noting that Plath (who was Caucasian) identified with Jews, African Americans, and Orientals. Clearly, she believed herself to be the object of some kind of discrimination.

That discrimination, she felt, came from white men. As a feminist, she overestimated the power and influence of men. Plath believed that men own language (presumably, because men are perceived to be more rational and because the printed word was dominated by male poets and writers), and that women, to use it, had to steal it from them. She regarded the famous male poets of the past as “kings” and “gods” and “colossi striding the waves,” feeling that their overbearing presence was both inspiration and obstacle for her own work.

Plath got no pleasure from her completed poems with all of her artistic gratification coming during – and only during – the composition process. One must assume the composition process was engrossing enough to deaden her pain, whereas her completed poems offered no such relief, and probably were not up to her perfectionist standards. We detect the inner tyrant critic again. To make matters worse, Plath regarded all non-composition time as barren and sad. The psychological trap she was building for herself is evident.

Where composition was concerned, Plath was a “cargo cultist” believing that she coaxed poems out of her unconscious mind. (The situation here may be complex since imagery, essential to a poet, does indeed emerge from the unconscious, while language is strictly a function of the conscious mind.) Nevertheless, her way of conceiving her compositional process amounts to creativity by proxy. In a sense, she believed someone or something else was doing the work.

Plath clearly suffered from excessive conceptualization along unproductive lines, a situation that seriously exacerbates self-alienation. That is, she had a lot of unrealistic ideology on board, ideology that probably collided with her more moderate authentic self. She saw the world from too limited a perspective and thus felt hemmed in believing she had few options and that necessity pressed her hard. This feeling of entrapment manifested itself in her suffocating sense of being perpetually under the power of her dead father and blocked in her career by the success of dead white poets. Notice how this dominating power of other people mirrors her belief that her poetry came from somewhere other than her conscious self.

Like so many in our own time, Plath eagerly embraced the notion of victimhood preferring to see herself as a hapless victim of oppressive men rather than as a capable and autonomous individual. The decision to see oneself in this way is always the result of self-pity combined with a desire for the pity of others. As an added benefit, posturing as a victim of male oppression allows a woman to blame men for her every shortcoming and failure.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

7 thoughts on “Did Feminism Kill Sylvia Plath?”

  1. [Grins wickedly]. Well, Tom, you know what side of the fence I stand, breathing that play fire you see in novelty shops…

    I have to agree that some people make belonging to an oppressed group an excuse for their every failure – I’ve met ’em! It would be a simplistic view of patriarchy though, that took that attitude towards men in general.

    One can choose to see oneself as a victim or as a person who sees through the nonsense, I suppose, depending on many factors. To suspect that one belongs to an oppressed group and try not to see it would lead to problems for sure.

    For sure you don’t have to be a feminist to view men as ‘The Enemy’ – think of the ‘Cranford Ladies’ the sort of stereotypical old maids who had they heard of feminism, would have condemned it roundly as hoydenish and unwomanly.

    I must admit, it’s years since I read ‘The Bell Jar’ and I’ve only read a few of SP’s poems; if she was a feminist, then living in a rural part of the UK in the early 1960’s she must have felt very isolated, the resurgence of feminism not starting until around, I believe, 1969 or thereabouts.

    Her early history of depression overwhelmed her (a great shame; I vaguely remember wonderfully comic scenes in ‘The Bell Jar’ or anyway, I found them so)
    I may be wrong here, but hadn’t she recently had a baby? A bit of Post Natal Depression may well have made things worse, and didn’t her marriage to Ted Hughes start to fall apart with him being unfaithful or even leaving her outright? So, there seem to have been a lot of things besides a sense of outrage against men in general…

    I can’t see you agreeing with me here, but had to do the As a Matter of Moral Principle Stuff. Hey, does anyone know how to get rid of those principles so I can be a Comfortable Conformist?

  2. You present some excellent points, Lucinda, but before we get to poor Sylvia Plath, let me make my standpoint clear. I am a conservative and not a reactionary. I believe in personal responsibility and socially responsible behaviour. That is, I think people should take full responsibility for their values and the actions that derive from those values. Furthermore, I believe this is true even when people do not really understand their own values (an extension of “ignorance of the law is no excuse”). I also believe individuals should not place their own personal interests before those of society as a whole. Needless to say, what constitutes the best interests of society is open to debate.

    Your humorous remark about getting rid of your Moral Principles so you can become a Comfortable Conformist is revealing. Those who are, to one degree or another, on the left form the overwhelming majority in all Western nations except the USA (where things stand about 50-50, and even there, conservative numbers are dwindling). In Europe, the proportion of genuine conservative voters is about 25% at best. Here in Canada, conservatives number about 35% at best. What nation in the West (including America) is not a Big Nanny socialist state?

    Excluding the beleaguered business corporations, virtually all institutions in the West are leftist institutions. The left is now, and has been for quite some time, the Establishment. They are the people who run practically everything. As a leftist, Lucinda, and thus firmly on side with the majority, how do you manage to see yourself as a non-conformist? Are you out-lefting the left? Lol.

    Conservatives, as a small and diminishing minority, are now the real non-conformists. We threaten to undo the nanny state and make people responsible for their own lives again. We plan to reduce drastically the size of bureaucratic government. We dream of curtailing its enormous power. We want to stop all the profligate spending, restore fiscal responsibility, and save future generations from having to pay for all of today’s leftist goodies. Imagine how much social change all of these things would entail! Let me end this by stating (indignantly) that moral principles are not the exclusive preserve of leftists.

    As for Plath: Note that I couched the title of my post as a question rather than a statement. I believe that her feminist views finished her off, but were not the sole cause of her suicide. She had a history of prior attempts. You mention isolation and post-partum depression, yet she had moved back to London (sans husband) and her last child was more than a year old when she committed suicide. She was suffering from depression, however, and had just started with medication that some have called into question. Her American doctor had warned her off this particular drug, but I know from personal experience that anti-depressants take months to work, if they work at all, so it is unlikely her medication was a factor. The depression remains.

    Curiously, her husband’s infidelity, which you also mention, seems to have prompted her most productive period as a poet. Nevertheless, her sense of betrayal would have been deeply upsetting. He took up beekeeping at about the same time and Plath used bee imagery in a number of these late poems. Like many artists, she was using her life experiences, both bad and good, to drive her creative process. Since she felt happiest when composing, and was in the midst of a productive period, it seems unlikely her work itself was a factor.

    On the other hand, feminism seems to have played into many of her most serious psychological problems, reinforcing them, in a sense, and making them appear more formidable than they should have been. The death of her father when she was just eight preyed on her mind, but it was her feminist views that made him into a strangely oppressive and overbearing male presence. So too with the poets she once uncritically admired. Under the influence of feminism, they went beyond inspiration to become symbolic specifically-male “obstacles” to her progress as a female poet. Her understandable uncertainty that she could compete with these “greats” had acquired an ideological taint. Not just their work was intimidating, but their gender as well. She felt that, as a woman, the world of art was biased against her. The paucity of women poets among the greats was “proof.”

    A worldview based on seeing yourself as a systematically oppressed person breeds despair and hopelessness. Feminism did precisely this to an ambitious yet vulnerable, unstable, and depressed Sylvia Plath.

  3. You are a valued friend, Lucinda, and I enjoy your input to the blog. Keep right on disagreeing! Your divergent points of view make me take a second look at my own positions. You save me from complacency. As a result, I learn things and am able to sharpen up my thinking. What’s more, posts with some discussion in the comments section do much better in the long run than those without.

    I must add that it doesn’t surprise me one bit that you are out-lefting the left! LOL

  4. This is an atrocious piece of writing. For one you don’t even know the meaning of feminism. Secondly, you diminish the real oppression of women of the time period to ‘self-pity’ and a ‘desire for pity from others’. The best part is when you say that ‘men are perceived as more rational’. It makes me sick that someone so ignorant and backward is even able to publish this online. I am also annoyed I wasted my time reading this crap.

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