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On Being Intellectually Challenged and Asking the Obvious Questions – How Sylvia Plath Changed My Life

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Being the intellectually challenged 19 year old that I was in 2009, and arguably still am, I enrolled in an Access to Higher Education Course at City College Norwich. I needed knowledge and certificates to show universities around England that I was intelligent enough without A-Levels to get a £25,000 qualification that would magic into a long-term, high-flying, well-paid career and set me up for retirement. That’s what degrees are for, right?

On the first day of my Access Course, I sat amongst my fellow ‘mature students’, and Maggie, or perhaps Margaret (or neither of those names), introduced herself as our tutor, and English Literature lecturer. In addition to Literature, I had also chosen to study Politics and Cultural Studies just in case I was destined for a career in International Relations. That idea is, I realise, a massive LOL.

My first Literature lesson with Maggie or Margaret was on Sylvia Plath. Diane Middlebrook, author of Her Husband, introduces Plath’s life wonderfully, explaining that:

1366.jpg“Ted Hughes met Sylvia Plath at a wild party in 1956 and married her four months later. He was English, twenty-five years old; she was twenty-three, an American. For six years, they worked side by side at becoming artists. Then Hughes initiated an affair with another woman, and the marriage collapsed. Hughes moved out, and exactly four months later, Plath committed suicide, leaving behind their two very young children.”

We were asked to read Plath’s novel The Bell Jar in preparation for the 1st lesson, and the burning question I had was, “do you think Sylvia Plath meant for us to interpret her fictional novel as semi auto-biographical?”

the-bell-jar2.jpgThe Bell Jar is Plath’s only novel and it tells the story of 19 year old Esther Greenwood who suffers from depression and has an uncertain dissatisfaction with life. This theme around mental illness infuses the novel with a haunting tone and an air of death on every page. Her experience with electro-shock therapy radiates throughout with clinical, white-washed descriptions following her attempted suicide. “The atmosphere of hospitals and sickness, of incidents of bleeding and electrocution, set against images of confinement and liberation, unify the novel’s imagery”, says Timothy Materer in the Dictionary of Literary Biography.

As I put my hand up, excited about my intellectual question, Maggie or Margaret said, “before anyone asks the obvious question, ‘did Plath intend for us to interpret her work as auto-biographical’, how am I supposed to know. I get asked the same question every year”.

Dr Ruth Barnhouse treated Plath’s depression from her first suicide attempt in 1953 through to the day that she committed suicide in 1963. Barnhouse is the model for Dr Nolan in The Bell Jar, who is an enlightened female doctor, just like Barnhouse, who understands the realities for women living under the American patriarchy, and she frees Esther from her mental illness.

Turns out, it really was an obvious question I was going to ask given the explicit similarities between Plath’s life and her protagonist’s. I quickly thought of a new question to ask to avoid the humiliation of immediately withdrawing my raised arm.

It was in this very English Literature class that I discovered two things; Sylvia Plath and Feminism. In the space of an hour I was sold, and I would choose to work my ass off that year so I could spend the next 3 studying for a BaHons in English Literature.

My first day at University in 2010 would, coincidentally, require an on the spot critical analysis of Sylvia Plath’s poem, Morning Song.

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I remember my first seminar being a line by line discussion on our interpretation and analysis of this poem. It was, and still is, the only poem that has any real significance to me. Not because I can resonate with Morning Song on a personal level, but it’s because of this poem that I found a part of my brain I didn’t know existed. I realised I had the ability to analyse literature, which was quite a profound moment as I thought the only thing I was good at was partying hard with fellow holiday reps in Skiathos and reenacting Mamma Mia on yachts while eating all the souvlaki and tzatziki my stomach could hold.

So it’s with thanks to Sylvia Plath, my literary heroine, that I graduated in English Literature, because without her the fire for literature that was ignited in my heart that day might not have been lit had we started with Moby Dick. I needed guidance on that day, something that would offer clarity and direct me on the right path to finding out what I am good at, and Sylvia Plath did just that. In life, it turns out, I am good at reading books.

Listen to Sylvia Plath read her poem, Daddy, below. You get a sense of how brilliantly artistic and troubled she was. Her voice will probably haunt you!

If this has ignited a curiosity within you to learn more about Sylvia Plath, I recommend reading The Bell Jar followed by Mad Girls Love Song, by Andrew Wilson.

References:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/sylvia-plath

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/11/unseen-sylvia-plath-letters-claim-domestic-abuse-by-ted-hughes

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