The Ugly Within the Beautiful Words of Sylvia Plath

Amiyuh Tobias
“I didn’t know why I was going to cry, but I knew that if anybody spoke to me or looked at me too closely the tears would fly out of my eyes and the sobs would fly out of my throat and I’d cry for a week. I could feel the tears brimming and sloshing in me like water in a glass that is unsteady and too full.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

I sometimes think that I am lucky. I discovered Sylvia’s work through a wonderful novel instead of her (wonderful) poetry, and I had no idea who Sylvia was at the time—so there were no preconceived notions or problems with separating the work from the artist. When I fell in love with Sylvia, I fell in love with her words but not her words in connection to her life.

I was in the 8th grade at T.H. Harris middle school. Still considered the new kid. Previously, I was going to Bailey APAC middle school, a school I adored, when my mother pulled me out of class one day and said we were moving back to Louisiana. We packed whatever we could into our car and moved that very day. I never got to say goodbye to my friends and I left very much behind.

Despite being so young, I was going through a really tough time. By then I had had far too many close call suicide plans, I was self loathing, and completely hopeless. These problems emerged before the move, but I didn’t realize how bad they would get until my life became severely affected. I would lock myself in the band hall bathroom and sit on the toilet floor and just wait until the bell would ring; I'd spend my class time staring into space and willing myself to breathe; I could barely eat at home and I would lay in the dark all day. In my own words, “I go throughout my day on the constant verge of tears. They rest behind my eyes. They tease me on the edge, but they never fall over. They torture me with no relief. Just damp eyelashes and water at the creases, but never any drops to satisfy me. I am unable to smile. No matter how badly I wish to. My lips quiver when I lift them and then fall in spite of me. There’s a lump within my throat and a heavy weight on my chest.”

My English 1 teacher would have us choose books for a book project and I would always choose books that related to me: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Aristotle and Donte Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz for example. When my teacher told us to check out some banned books, I picked up a copy of The Bell Jar. I chose it because the main character was a writer (I wanted to be one) and Google said that the book deals with mental health. That was my introduction to Esther.

I was obsessed with the book. I ran through it easily, but not without soaking up all of its contents. I related to Esther on a personal level, paying little attention to her entitlement or subtle racism, but instead focusing on how I found someone who understood my struggles more than anyone else I’d encountered. I grew attached to Esther. I found myself laughing at her crude language as she described those around her, weeping for her sorrows and misfortunes, and leaning heavily into her thoughts. When I began to read reviews about the book being semi-autobiographical, I began to read articles about Sylvia Plath. My attachment to Esther then lent itself to Sylvia.


“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that - I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much - so very much to learn.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath reminds me of those old grandmothers you go and sit outside with and let them talk. As they’re talking, you find yourself going wow or what the hell or sooo amazingly said multiple times throughout the conversation. The kind of woman whose life is very fascinating because she’s so old and different from you, but also just a tad bit boring—it’s the way she talks about her life that’s fascinating.

She’s mixed with a ton of narcissism while not straying away from self reevaluation, and she doesn’t mind evaluating others either. She has some questionable, old-fashioned views that rub you the wrong way, but you’re unsure of how to criticize her because you enjoy her company.

That’s how I feel when I read Sylvia (we’re on a first name basis btw). I imagine us sitting on a porch, drinks in hand, and Sylvia ranting to me about her inner thoughts. I see myself, young and desperate for literary greatness, swallowing her words like cups of tea. Taking mental notes of anecdotes she spews in front of me.

My relationship with Sylvia developed in an unintentional parasocial kind of way. I love language and I love words. I think that they are powerful forms of expression, and that’s why I fell in love with literature and its powers. The Bell Jar struck a chord in me. Sylvia’s meticulous use of description, attention to details, and fully, well crafted images pulled me through the pages of the book and right beside Esther, the main character’s, side. She had what I had always wanted in my own work: power over language as it has power over me. When I read Sylvia I asked “How did she know to use that word, that image, that metaphor? How did she know?”

In addition to feeling as if Esther understood me, I felt as if I understood Sylvia. In an excerpt from my 8th grade paper on debating rather or not The Bell Jar should be banned, I wrote:

“According to the University of Virginia’s Censored Exhibit online, ‘in the late 1970s, The Bell Jar was suppressed for not only its profanity and sexuality but for its overt rejection of the woman’s role as wife and mother.’... Without many rights because of gender, books written by women were being banned and unpublished. The main character, Esther, questions her expected role as wife and mother multiple times in the book and she shows a few signs of having a feminist perspective. The people in the 1960s thought that the book … should not be read because of these reasons. Any further banning of the book because of these reasons shows to further oppress women and their freedom to speak.

Another reason the book was challenged…was because of its dark themes. Some claim the book encourages suicide and bad habits. This is not true. Though there are plenty of suicide attempts and talk of suicide, the book … is simply shedding light on the thoughts of a person dealing with often overlooked mental health struggles. No one will understand these issues if they are stopped from reading about them. The problem can never be addressed if it is never able to be known.

Overall, The Bell Jar is a great novel that should not be banned. It gives a good job at showcasing everyday issues and informing people of how important mental illnesses are.”

Ignoring my horrible middle school writing skills, I think that I made some pretty good points. I could’ve written an entire book titled In Defense of Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar because I was not having any of their slander.

I remember one of the worst days of my life. I was in the 9th grade and it was past time for me to be at school. Instead, I laid motionless in my bed, right arm hanging over the edge and head trailing behind. My breathing so slow and diminutive that it was almost painful. My mother came bounding into the room, demanding to know why I hadn’t gone off to school. With the little strength I had, I looked up to her and said, “Mommy, I can’t move. I can’t get up.”

She said, “What do you mean you can’t get up?”

“I don’t know. I just can’t. I can’t do it.”

I thought she would see my despair by my awkwardly bent, slightly trembling body or my meek voice and choice of words. I rarely called her such an endearing term such as Mommy.

Her response was, “I know what you’re doing. You don’t wanna get your ass up. You’re too damn lazy.” She shook her head, “Fine, you’re going to school tomorrow.” Then after slamming the door and walking off, she yelled, “And you better clean my house. You’re not about to sit around and do nothing.”

Afterwards, I sat for hours. My chest was so heavy that I couldn’t even properly cry. Maybe one or two tears, but nothing guttural.

Later, when I mustered the strength to move, I reflected a lot. I searched for Sylvia’s book once again, thinking to myself I wonder how Sylvia would describe that feeling and I bet Esther would understand that hopelessness.

Sylvia’s way of describing depression is great, and I still feel the text’s power even today as a much older, much better writer and reader. I also think that the courage in depicting Esther (and also Sylvia’s) thoughts on their roles as women was phenomenal, and I enjoyed reading about tough topics such as rape and suicide—especially coming from a woman in the 1960s. I thought highly of Sylvia and her work—despite The Bell Jar being the only work from her I had read at that time.


“If you expect nothing from somebody you are never disappointed.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

During my junior year of high school, I had to do an independent study on an author(s) or a subject of my choosing. Not knowing who or what to choose, I chose Sylvia Plath. I figured I could finally dive into the rest of her discography. That way, I could be honest when I say that she is one of my favorite writers (I would say that she was without even knowing that much about her or her work). But it was during this independent study that my issues with Sylvia began.

In 8th grade, I sort of brushed past The Bell Jar’s racism, homophobia, and weird notions. Like others, I chose to believe that we must look at the whole picture. I was a victim of the it’s because of the time period or the it’s just fiction narrative. Maybe I was too young at the time or too focused on my relating to Esther’s mental health issues because I held Sylvia up on an inhuman pedestal.

While reading reviews of Sylvia’s work, I hardly ever see anyone dive deep into her subtle racism and sometimes one dimensional white thinking. Her biggest (not only) plight within the world seemed to be the patriarchy holding her back from literary prowess. She had no problem with the ignorant racism that she showed in her bee poems, or the entire page dedicated to the unnecessary racism that Esther shows towards a black male nurse in The Bell Jar, nor did she expand her thoughts of the oppressive patriarchy to talk about those more disadvantaged to her.

To others, Sylvia is a feminist icon. And by others, I mainly mean white feminists. I find myself wondering if Sylvia was upset with the patriarchy being an oppressive institution or if she was upset with the patriarchy being an oppressive institution to her. With systems that did not oppress her, Sylvia didn’t have many qualms with them. Sylvia lived all of her life in the midst of racial injustice and human rights violations. She, in most ways, benefitted from these issues (even if she didn’t necessarily want to). With oppressed individuals, especially oppressed white people, it is hard to distinguish where they fall within the categories of caring about social issues in general or caring about their social issues. For example, gay men can still project misogynistic ideals and white gay men can still exhibit racism. So with writers, it is hard to understand what is acceptable as fiction and what is not.

Reading Sylvia’s work years after 8th grade made my relationship with her become complex. I found myself not wanting to praise her without pointing out her obvious faults, and I found myself wondering if I ever really related to her, or Esther, in the first place. I’d finally met my idol. Sylvia had finally become a human.


“I want to taste and glory in each day, and never be afraid to experience pain; and never shut myself up in a numb core of non-feeling, or stop questioning and criticizing life and take the easy way out. To learn and think: to think and live; to live and learn: this always, with new insight, new understanding, and new love.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

I began to read countless articles in order to dissect Sylvia Plath. I was desperate to understand who she really was as a person, so that I could understand who she really was as a writer.

Although I’d been happy to have discovered her novel without looking through the lens of her personal life, I still found myself equating her poetry to her personal self after reading up on her biography. When I read Ariel and her other work, I safely assumed that all of the speakers were essentially herself. Because of this, I was unsure if I could love her work when I came across something like racism or insensitivity to important issues such as the Holocaust. I was unsure if I could relate to a character whose “biggest obstacle was her depression—mine wasn’t. My depression comes last on my list of priorities, and that’s a similar situation with other people of color, especially black people, and specifically black women” (quote from my journal in the 11th grade). If Sylvia’s work so heavily reflected her as a person, then how was I to enjoy her?

In an excerpt from Sylvia Plath and White Ignorance: Race and Gender in “The Arrival of the Bee Box” by Ellen Miller, Miller writes:

“Taken in its entirety, Plath’s speakers question gender, spirituality, and language itself. Her poetry, like other great poetic works, exhibits hyper-reflection, a questioning of foundational assumptions and continual openness. Poetry’s structure parallels existential phenomenology’s method of continually examining one’s theoretical commitments. The two have much to offer each other. In particular, Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological method is intimately connected with perception, an important concept for literary criticism.”

Sylvia is often depicted as narcissistic and self obsessed. Through later evaluation of her work, people began to speculate on an array of possible mental illnesses and hardships: schizophrenia, manic depression, abuse, and infidelity on top of being a woman in the twentieth century thrusted into the literary elite after marrying Ted Hughes. She was also a mother struggling with her role as one and herself as a individual. So, I determined that she is a multifaceted person.

The problems I had with labeling Sylvia a feminist and literary icon was similar to my problem with labeling universally loved writers/artists such as John Lennon and William Golding as iconic or classic talents. For people like me, it is hard to enjoy these people without being reminded of their personal problems with things like racism.

John Lennon wrote “Women is the N****r of the World” alongside Yoko Ono. Do I understand what they meant? Yes. But others must understand how it feels to be an actual “n****r” (not that I like referring to myself as such) who is also born a woman. If women are the “n****rs” of the world, then are black women at the bottom of the barrel? Why do others feel so comfortable using others’ pain or misfortunes to describe theirs? Why did Sylvia find it acceptable to write Esther’s unpunished racism in The Bell Jar and about slavery in “The Arrival of the Bee Box” poem?


“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

I’ve dwindled it all down to perception and, albeit biased, benefit of the doubt. Because of one’s own life experiences, how they perceive someone’s work might differ. My classmates aren’t big Sylvia Plath fans because they find her depressing, but I revel in her work due to my relating to her issues and appreciation of her style. I find her insensitivity of certain topics like racism hard to read because of my personal struggles with it, while white readers might not quite feel the same as I do. The way I consume art is subjective and special.

Sylvia Plath died unfortunately young with much left to say and much left to do. She never got the chance to further develop as a person or an artist, so I’m left with what she left us with. She can’t answer for herself, and her image has been corrupted by misogyny, mental health stigmas, and political pop culture obsession. She tried to express herself in ways she knew how to, often reflecting her upbringing, society, and very human flaws. She deserves her criticism, and she deserves my love.

I feel as if when you truly love an artist, you’re able to understand them in multiple ways—similar to loving a family member. I criticize my mother in plenty of my poems, but I love her more than anything. The same sort of goes for Sylvia.

As I grow older, I see Sylvia remaining on my shelf. She’s an irreplaceable artist in my life whose work evolves as I evolve. As a writer, I plan to get all of my ugly out and encompass it in a beauty similar to that of Sylvia. I criticize her because I love her.