Fifty years after her suicide, Terry Castle reflects on the enduring controversies surrounding the life, death, and work of Sylvia Plath:
What to make of it all after half a century? From one angle Plath had only herself to blame for the rhetorical excess she provoked—and still does provoke—in readers. She was crazy, after all. Even fifty years on, the gruesome mental suffering that she wrote about continues to pierce and frighten and exasperate.
In her defense: Plath used the pain as best she could. Though attempts over the decades to see her as a protofeminist oracle fail to convince, it has to be said that Plath’s writing captured the central and most disturbing psychic component in the lives of conventional middle-class American heterosexual women of the 1950s and early 1960s: a toxic, typically unconscious longing—sadomasochistic in structure—to be both adored and degraded, cherished and abjected, by a powerful man resembling one’s father. The fantasy contaminates (and sickens) any number of now-canonical Plath poems:
“Electra on the Azalea Path,” “Two Views of a Cadaver Room,” “Medusa,” “Cut,” “Daddy,” “The Jailer,” “Lady Lazarus”—all those kitsch near-masterpieces that make the poet a sensation still (sometimes) among bulimic female undergraduates. Plath exposed, as no one had before, the quintessential “nice girl” sex-anguish of her time: a mode of female desiring as incoherent, narcissistic, passive-aggressive, and self-canceling as it was misogynistic, daddy-obsessed, and morbidly heterosexual.
But one shrinks at the ugliness and hysteria of the vision. Most off-putting, to my mind, is the way Plath made a repugnant and meticulously curated longing for death feel sexy and sublime. At least, that is, for a minute or two. Like Sylvia and Ted [Hughes] colliding at St. Botolph’s, Eros and Thanatos not only lock eyes in Plath’s poems, they’re already so far gone—so mad and humpy with crazy love—that we know they’ll end up killing each other. One doesn’t wish to remain too long in close proximity.