What Sylvia Plath Taught Us About Women & Mental Illness

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Manon Arundhati Fabre

Feminism is the Pinot Noir to my cigarette (I’m French).

Sylvia Plath is known for her confessional poetry, her chronic depressions, her tumultuous relationship with Ted Hughes and her head-in-the-oven suicide in 1963. Over the years, she has become a feminist figure representing women’s intellectual oppression, as her work bears witness to the impact of mental illnesses, their diagnosis, treatment and attached social stigmas on women of her generation. However, it is important to acknowledge that Plath’s experience was directly linked to her gender, class, and race. Her poetry/prose are crucial testimonies that help us deconstruct the myths of ‘feminine madness,’ but are representative of her story as a white, middle class, heterosexual, cis female in the 1950s. Nonetheless, in her novel The Bell Jar and selected poems from The Colossus, Ariel, Crossing the Water and Winter Trees, she freely examines her situation and condemns injustices that were apparent to her as a patient, which can be linked to known mechanisms and myths in the realm of women’s mental illness.

Plath’s writing identifies in many different ways the causes of her depression as patriarchal. An important theme in Plath’s work is undeniably the plurality of selves and the search for an identity. This is represented in the fact that her narrators tend to not recognize themselves in mirrors. In The Bell Jar (a semi-autobiographical novel inspired by Plath’s first depression), the protagonist Esther (based on Sylvia Plath herself) “noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me.”  This trope recurs in Plath’s poem Face Lift, where the speaker states:

“Now she’s done for, the dewlapped lady

I watched settle, line by line, in my mirror.” 

This failure to recognize her own face is a sign of the distorted view she has of herself, caused by the uncertainty of her identity. Moreover, the speakers in her poems seem to constantly depend on the exterior [male] gaze to construct their identities, as illustrated in Lady Lazarus:

“Peel off the napkin/ O my enemy.

Do I terrify?

The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?”

Sylvia Plath’s writing was never solely about mental illness in and of itself, but rather the relation between herself and society. Through the portrayal of women’s need to invent for themselves a plurality of identities because of patriarchal limitations and expectations, Plath is alluding to the idea that her depression is rooted in oppressive social mechanisms, and not simply caused by each individual patient’s unique and unusual histories (as it was believed at the time).

Sylvia PlathAnother important theme present in Plath’s writing is silence, or rather, the narrator’s inability to speak. Knowing Plath’s history with mental institutions, as well as the numerous scandals that demonstrate the use of asylums as a method of silencing, the parallel between the two can be drawn, which pushes to the conclusion that Plath is critically speaking of these medical silencing methods. In The Bell Jar, Esther’s depression affects her mental and physical state, making her unable to read, sleep, eat or write. It impacts her thought process and her skills as an aspiring writer, the identity she relies most on. She finds herself unable to write to Doreen or advance the writing of her book “At that rate, I’d be lucky if I wrote a page a day”. This inability to communicate also manifests itself through Esther’s failure to speak up – “no words came out” – when she receives shock treatment. The same sense of powerlessness is expressed by Plath in her poem Words, where the speaker is unable to communicate, but is moved by forces dissociated from herself. We can assume these forces represent sexist social mechanisms such as the domination of men’s voices over women, as she constantly depicts her life as manipulated by social constraints:

“Words dry and riderless

The indefatigable hoof-taps.

While

From the bottom of the pool, fixed stars

Govern a life.”

I would say that it is important, when studying Sylvia Plath’s work, to acknowledge the historical context and the important changes that have been made in the medical institutions that research women and mental illnesses. Contemporary writings in the form of graphic memoirs, such as Ellen Forney’s Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, & Me or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home offer alternative ways of thinking and writing on mental distress, but continue to be critical of social stigmas and medical care, suggesting some women’s mental illnesses are still highly influenced by social power relations.

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